The bad part is that very few people in our hyper-partisan world are sincere or consistent advocates of free expression, or academic freedom or bodily autonomy. Gazing out over the political landscape, you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who’s not perfectly willing to silence his opponents; you might have difficulty identifying someone not currently engaged in the attempt to do so. On the other hand, and encouragingly, it turns out that most people, no matter what side they're on, don't really want to be silenced. They get resentful. They try to pull the duct tape off their mouths. They feel oppressed qua individuals, even if their political ideology teaches them that there's no such thing.
People on each side value their own freedom enough to pay lip service to a general principle of freedom for all, even if they also hate their opponents enough to endorse a crackdown the very next day. We can thank right-wing victories like the Dobbs abortion decision and the DeSantis education bills for the left's rediscovery of human liberty, which continues now, as they endorse pro-Palestinian expression. The left's commitment is temporary, tactical, and hypocritical. Still, I appreciate the right-wing crackdowns. For each of us on either side, there's someone trying to shut us up. Someone trying to shut you up gives you a bad feeling and makes you want to speak. We're teaching one another American values, we might say, in the only way we currently can.
A large portion of the American right is committed to Israel. In service of this position, on campuses, they've wanted to ban organizations such as Students for Justice in Palestine and to prohibit specific phrases, such as "from the river to the sea" and "globalize the intifada." The claim is that these are direct endorsements of genocide, and they were the sorts of thing that Elise Stefanik (D-NY) had in mind when she asked the presidents of Harvard, Penn, and MIT whether a student could be disciplined on their campus for calling for genocide of groups that are represented among the schools' students.
“You understand," Stefanik instructed Harvard president Claudine Gay, "that the use of the term ‘intifada’ in the context of the Israeli-Arab conflict is indeed a call for violent armed resistance against the state of Israel, including violence against civilians and the genocide of Jews. Are you aware of that?... Will admissions offers be rescinded or any disciplinary action be taken against students or applicants who say, ‘From the river to the sea’ or ‘intifada,’ advocating for the murder of Jews?” Gay agreed that the word “intifada” (the Arabic word for “rebellion”) is "abhorrent." But then she said Harvard would only crack down on such matters when expression "crosses into conduct," which was surprising given what Harvard has thought it could ban over the last few years, leading them to the very bottom of FIRE's academic freedom list.
Banning “intifada” and many other terms in this proximity is the latest in a string of suggestions by conservatives for limiting expression in education, some of which have gotten very serious very quickly, going directly from rhetoric to legislation on critical race theory and a number of other matters. The backlash is understandable, and almost everyone seems finally to be admitting (what I've experienced for the last 35 years) that academia is almost purely leftist, and that essentially every dissenting voice has been purged, or never made it out of grad school. It struck conservatives at some point that American colleges are where the next generation of leaders and also voters are coming from, and that this generation was undergoing systematic indoctrination, growing ever-more intense right up until, say 2020. The identity politics and the DEI movement had, as well and evidently, become palpably absurd and directly incompatible with the educational and research missions of the institutions that generated them.
Hence, the right wants an alternative higher-education system, and are founding or annexing colleges. And they want to hold the titans of higher education up for ridicule. All of this is understandable, a quasi-rational response to an extremely destructive and irrational set of developments. I disagree with the approach of people like DeSantis and Stefanik insofar as it mirrors the leftist constructions of the last decade: that speech can itself constitute violence, that there's unconscious or concealed bigotry (anti-Semitism) everywhere, that one whole side in an emerging crisis should not be permitted to express their beliefs. Lots of rightists are doing these things almost gleefully, with an implicit "now you see how it feels."
I can understand that or even, on a bad day, endorse it. "Poor babies!" I've been known to say to leftists insisting that they have a right to frankly express their positions on campus. "I know just how you feel!" Similarly, I wanted to gloat about people endorsing mask and vaccine mandates, and then a few minutes later, after Roe v Wade was overturned, urging that bodily autonomy is a sacred individual right. But the gloating and the tit for tat and the "now you see how it feels" are exactly how everyone's getting pulled into their hypocrisy and their enthusiasm for oppression. I’d like to calmly oppose both vaccine mandates and abortion bans, both speech codes that would prohibit “from the river to the sea” and those that would prohibit a “March Against Sharia,” for example.
But I've come to realize that not many people are going to take such positions except when their own expression is under threat. I'm not really welcoming the threats, but I'm welcoming the resistance, wherever it comes from. If you’ll acknowledge that you don’t want to be silenced, we can work from there. And to my former academic colleagues (I retired this year): I tried, but I was unable to persuade you all this time that individual freedom was important, or even that it was a meaningful concept. But reactionaries like Elise Stefanik and Ron DeSantis are doing what sincere advocates of liberty never could.
—Crispin Sartwell's most recent book is Beauty: A Quick Immersion.