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Tuesday, Apr 16, 2024

Free Expression over Cancel Culture

“At Middlebury, we are committed to educating students in the tradition of the liberal arts, which embodies a method of discourse…[emphasizing] reflection, discussion, and intensive interactions between students and faculty members,” the “About Middlebury” page on the college website states. 

Or so we claim. In practice, Middlebury is committed to upholding free expression and civil discourse insofar as it aligns with the dominant political beliefs of the institution, which leads to an experience that resembles indoctrination rather than education. In response to the discussion on the shortfalls of our intellectual culture brought up in the Editorial Board’s piece, “Education over erasure,” I offer a criticism against the illiberal academic culture found throughout Middlebury College that systemically denies us the promised tradition of discourse.

On the surface, Middlebury College, and elite higher education in general, stands as a bastion for our pluralist democracy, nurturing informed, free-thinking citizens who will one day offer positive contributions to civic life. As purported by Middlebury’s mission statement, the ideal university creates an environment for student growth by guaranteeing open expression, encouraging the free exchange of ideas and accepting diverse viewpoints from across the ideological spectrum. Does this sound like the Middlebury experience to you?

I don’t think so. At Middlebury, I see a toxic cancel culture that suppresses free expression to enforce an orthodox dogma through shout-downs, disinvitations and even physical violence, earning us the honor of ranking as the 15th worst college for free speech according to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. The current cancel culture appropriates the logic from anti-racist arguments advocating for respectful speech to avoid questioning the status of marginalized groups. Thanks to students brave enough to bring change through public discourse, this line of reasoning produced admirable statements on inclusion and tangible policy gains we enjoy at Middlebury today. However, the argument for cancel culture on campus is inherently antithetical to the principles of diversity, equity and inclusion. Rather than working to uplift all voices in productive discourse, proponents of cancel culture exclude those with different beliefs, broadly claim their opponent's viewpoints are dangerous and pressure the school to support their ideology through censorship or endorsement.

The pressures of cancel culture can be felt throughout higher education. At Middlebury, administrators have expressed to me a lack of confidence in our collective ability to foster productive discourse and frustration with the difficulty of providing moral leadership in a partisan climate; it is no surprise that they choose to chart the most politically safe path forward even if it means stifling conversation. In the classroom and at public forums, professors avoid contentious discussion for fear of being doxxed by their students or sanctioned by the institution. Among students, we self-censor, avoid challenging discourse and conform to the dominant culture through politically ‘safe’ speech rather than take intellectual risks. In a community that claims to go to such great lengths to promote diversity, equity and inclusion, is it not ironic to find such vehement intolerance for and fear of open discourse? How can we claim to be “deeply committed to creating a diverse and welcoming community with full and equal participation for all individuals and groups” when so many of us are scared to express themselves? Are we to accept that membership in the Middlebury community is conditional on ideological conformity?

I don’t think so. With the interest of our civic education in mind, I propose we as a community adamantly reject the logic of cancel culture and uphold the tenets of free discourse in all theaters of our lives, academic, professional and personal. To do so, we must recognize cancel culture as unproductive, intellectually weak and unjust. First, rather than producing meaningful contributions to important conversations, cancel culture degrades the university into a zero-sum ideological battle where the winner asserts their belief as orthodoxy. Second, resorting to personal attacks and censorship to silence viewpoints denies us the opportunity to develop the rhetorical skills necessary to challenge immoral or faulty arguments, leaving us woefully unprepared for civic life; certainly the ignorance cancel culture creates is more dangerous to our well-being than the discomfort of disagreement. And third, cancel culture undermines the purpose of a liberal arts education by holding us back from exploring the frontiers of knowledge and justice.

The role of the American higher education institution is to be an environment for respectful free discourse in the pursuit of knowledge and understanding, and all of us have a role to play in aspiring to this ideal. Administrators should set the tone for the campus, uphold free expression as a function of diversity, equity and inclusion and empower all members of the community to engage in open discourse in a politically neutral environment. Faculty are responsible for guiding thoughtful deliberation, introducing diverse viewpoints and helping students build the civic skills crucial for participation in a pluralistic democracy. And most importantly, students must be brave enough to think for and express ourselves, find spaces for discourse and take intellectual risks.

At Middlebury and many other universities across the nation, the threat of cancel culture enforces intellectual conformity and control of campus discourse. By appropriating the moral foundations of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion to justify exclusion and censorship, a vocal minority establishes their beliefs as the official political pedagogy of the institution. This process demeans the purpose of higher education and sets a dangerous precedent of debating through force, not deliberation. I am saddened to be part of an academic community that’s received national scrutiny for hostility to speech, where the majority of students and faculty are constrained by orthodox beliefs, and contentious discussion of our history is only allowed in a Vermont Superior Court. But, I am hopeful that compassion, reason and curiosity will prevail and Middlebury will uphold free expression as a component of diversity, equity and inclusion. Regardless of our political ideology, we should all reject the darkness of cancel culture and uphold the illuminating principles of free expression.