The past few weeks (and/or months, and/or years) have witnessed a heated, intra-left debate over “political correctness” on America’s college campuses. Some liberals contend that the campus left’s embrace of illiberal tactics like “no-platforming” right-wing speakers — or attempting to shut down conservative college newspapers — poses a threat to progressive values. Such commentators argue that this “illiberal left” is undermining vital norms of free speech and toleration that ultimately protect marginalized people and viewpoints against suppression, and promote critical thinking and rational discourse.
Other progressives counter that it’s perfectly legitimate for left-wing activists to contest how universities allocate the limited resources available for bringing public intellectuals to campus; a paid speaking gig is not a constitutional right, and protest is its own form of speech. Further, some would continue, almost no one believes that no speech is so vile as to merit the heckler’s veto — few would complain if students tried to shut down the speech of an Islamist cleric who defended the legitimacy of the September 11 attacks. There are always boundaries to what kind of speech we, as a society, are willing to tolerate in the public square — and progressives are well within their rights to try and move those boundaries.
Recently, though, the most vigorous iteration of this back-and-forth has been a meta one: How significant a phenomenon is the anti–free speech left, anyway? On this point, the “anti-anti-PC left” argues that “no-platforming” protests are a tactic popular with a small number of students on a small number of elite college campuses: In the aggregate, millennials are actually more tolerant of freedom of expression than their predecessors. And even if one stipulates that the illiberal campus left is a problem of some kind, isn’t it possible that the media’s excessive focus on that marginal phenomenon might have even more deleterious effects? At a time when the U.S. Justice Department is attempting to imprison protesters en masse, ICE agents are targeting immigration activists for deportation, and states are passing blatantly unconstitutional “anti-BDS laws” — and the reactionary coalition behind such illiberal efforts is itself working to exaggerate the prevalence of extremism on the American left — is it not a dereliction of duty for the nation’s largest newspapers and magazines to run more columns bemoaning the heckling of Christina Hoff Sommers, than ones condemning the prosecution of the J20 protesters?
Liberals who are less sanguine about developments on campus, like New York’s Jonathan Chait, counter that such meta-complaints are self-refuting (“If the real problem with anti-PC columns is that they ignore more important issues off campus, then doesn’t that criticism apply with equal force to anti-anti-PC columns?”), and that it is important for those on the left to police illiberalism within their own tribe, because doing so fortifies the left’s intellectual dexterity, and undermines the right’s attempts to discredit progressivism.
All of which is to say: This is a very complicated debate, you know, a lotta ins, a lotta outs, a lotta what have yous. And given all the compelling points on both sides, it can be difficult for some open-minded progressives to know what to think.
Fortunately, the one public intellectual with enough authority on the American left to settle this dispute, once and for all, just put his thumb on the scales:
So there you have it: The illiberal left is officially a marginal force that’s enjoyed an amount of media attention grossly disproportionate to its significance; conservatives are not being oppressed at America’s colleges; and beyond “one campus or two campuses,” support for Donald Trump among American college students is overwhelming!
Now, America’s pundits can finally move on, and turn their attentions to other, more important intra-left disputes.