Freedom of Screech

Today, the New York Times ran an op-ed from a young woman at the University of Virginia that has attracted wide-ranging scorn from folks on the left, and sympathetic nods from folks on the right. The piece largely evades the substance and context of her actual feelings (she is a young conservative in a land of radicalized liberalism), but addresses how she feels she cannot share her opinions freely and how she and others with more conservative mindsets have felt squelched by their classmates.

I have a little bit of insight into where this woman and her friends are coming from, because when I was in college, I had a very unpopular opinion–that it was ok for me to train to be an officer in the US Navy at a school that was famous for its anti-war protests and terrorism.

I was at the University of Wisconsin at the birth of “political correctness”. I came to the school 1) somewhat moderate in my politics, 2) on a Navy ROTC scholarship so occasionally in uniform, and 3) very interested and semi-knowledgeable regarding politics and policy. I had attended a workshop in DC in my junior year of high school, and had done all the policy geek things: Model Congress, Model UN, enrolling in college-level Poli Sci classes in my senior year of high school, working with a public interest research group… you know, stuff.

Madison was largely populated by others in the middle of the road to apolitical range. But wearing a uniform made me a target for the left on campus. I was spit on, called a baby killer, and various other things. This was the Reagan era, for context.

The school paper, the Daily Cardinal, was leftist establishment. There were active leftist “performance” groups on campus: the Nu Parable Dancers did anti-nuclear die-ins, including an attempt to pull down the NROTC color guard’s flag during a football game national anthem (during a nationally televised game, though the network cut away before the entertainment).

There were also groups that actively abused speakers from every other viewpoint other than those that met their tests (including a leftist group that billed themselves as “Macho Nerds for Reagan”). Ideology was put before any fact-based discussion by these folks, because it interrupted their schtick. (You know, like MAGAs but leftist.) People who went to schools with very active right/conservative groups during the same time (like at any of the other UW campuses–UW Whitewater, for example, a fertile College Republican breeding ground) may have experienced the same groupmind from the opposite direction (I know it happened).

So the natural response for me after being actively vilified and categorized because of my military affiliation was to rebel against it and gravitate toward the people who seemed at least welcoming enough that I could have policy discussions with them…and play D&D, Risk and Diplomacy with them. And that was how I became the most liberal College Republican in the state of Wisconsin.

Half of the group were really libertarians, one was a paleocon, and the rest were relatively moderate…at least for the 80s. But while they were welcoming and pretty supportive of my pending (brief) Navy career, as I was able to look beyond the campus political play, I realized how much we differed and that I probably had more in common with some of the people who spit on me.

I supported divestment of state pension funds from South Africa, which was the BDS of the 80s. I was against so much of what the Reagan administration was doing in Latin America and at home. The CR leadership tagged me as a “gypsy moth.”

But I could still talk with them. I had a different experience than them (coming from a family of teachers and growing up in a racially diverse world), and it was clear there were things I could say to them that they could never process fully, that escaped their experience and ability to comprehend. Still, I think that talking with them regularly sharpened my ability to call bullshit on some conservative ideas of the time that were ideology based on a very white, affluent set of assumptions about the world–and do so in a way that could sometimes get them to acknowledge it and broker compromise.

I eventually found that I could talk with the Campus Dems, too, who by my senior year were no longer spitting on me. In all of this, I never self-censored, but used conversations to evolve my own thinking and explore things.

Of course, by the time I left the Navy, I had seen enough to know that I did not fit in either party neatly and was perhaps more radical than I had realized–more in the Saul Alinsky and Noam Chomsky section of the spectrum that fell well outside the visible range of the campus politics imaginary. Time has made me pragmatic by necessity; I understand the rules of the game, but I can follow them while simultaneously pointing out how fucked up they are. And I can have that conversation with anyone about these things over a beverage or two and find at least a small slice of common ground.

The young woman who wrote the op-ed in question clearly has not found a way to talk to people not of her experiential subset. Railing about a right to express an opinion without having to support your opinion in conversation and have a rational debate that addresses mutual gaps in perception is not something anyone can expect on a college campus, or in life–unless you go to Liberty U.

All free speech has consequences, and it is only in listening to the response that one can really claim freedom–the freedom to move beyond assumptions based on limited life experience and to incorporate an expanded world view into points of view and thought.

If you say you’re self-censoring, it means you’re just afraid to defend what you have to say and/or are so set in a calcified ideology that your speech wasn’t worth sharing in the first place. This cuts in all directions, left and right, up and down.

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