Since its founding, the University’s relationship with freedom of expression has been unstable. Thomas Jefferson established the University on “the unlimited freedom of the human mind”, encouraging students to explore unconstrained thought. Nonetheless, the University administration found ways to undermine student speech which it deemed unacceptable. In the 1960s, for example, Dean BFD Runk strongly censorship progressive views supporting “racial equality, academic reform, and an end to the war in Vietnam” by banning the publication of articles expressing such sentiment in The Cavalier Daily. In the 2000s, the administration of former university president John Casteen set up voice codes designed to punish people who express “inappropriate” thoughts. With the abandonment of such practices and the institutionalization of freedom of expression defenders as university president Jim Ryan, the university remains today true for him – maintaining the traditional devotion to free thought. However, dissenting voices threaten to sever that link.
College campuses across America are strongly to engage in “cancel culture— the phenomenon that calls upon members of society to ostracize the individual in order to ostracize his ideas. Despite the fact that the University is currently one of the most popular free speech advocates, I would argue that the student body is beginning to accept the “cancellation” of people as a way to reduce uncomfortable and offensive speech. FIRE 2021 report on the political climate on campus showed that 68% of university students said it was permissible to ban someone from speaking for reasons based on their beliefs. The apprehension stemming from cancel culture can also be seen in this report where hundreds of university students detail their fear of expressing countercultural perspectives. This growing cancellation culture is disastrous because it disrupts the natural flow of the marketplace of ideas.
The free exchange of thought is crucial for the University because, like Jefferson declared, such is the aim of the University – “to follow the truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is free to combat it”. Clearly, the University was designed to enable people to discover, through critical thinking, which ideas are good or bad and, therefore, which to follow or reject. However, university students cannot realize this unless they can besiege all ideas without fear of ostracism. Essentially, dialogues allow people to test the validity of ideas. By constructing assertions with reason and evidence and posing counter-arguments and examples in meaningful and respectful ways, people can destroy bad ideas and realize good ones. Without the freedom to express dissent, the pursuit of virtue fails.
Of course, freedom of expression is not without flaws. Most notably, it allows hate speech. Although hate speech is hateful, I am convinced that ostracizing those who express it can incite more hate speech.
The real problem with cancel culture is its unintended consequences – in particular, it unintentionally normalizes cancelable thinking like hate speech. In my opinion, it happens in the following way. First, cancellation culture cultivates stubbornness in the hearts of canceled people. Few of those who are canceled reflect on the merit of their ideas – most simply assume that their thoughts are good only because they are unfairly silenced. People who think they’ve been wronged rarely think they’re wrong. The frequent lack of cordiality during arguments further contributes to this feeling of having been slandered. Second, it opens sympathetic viewers to fringe ideas. When people think others are being unfairly attacked, they naturally side of the victims. Considering that cancellation culture binds the individual to the idea, many well-meaning but misinformed people can fall victim to fringe ideas while defending the canceled individual, especially if those ideas embody general beliefs that those bystanders want to believe.
Despite the failures of cancellation culture, other forms of cultural intervention can still be beneficial. By condemning bad ideologies with reason, humility, and cordiality, the academic community can authoritatively promote better ideas. This is partly due to societal pressures pushing for compliance. Among the student body, the pressures against hate speech, for example, are powerful and therefore compel the most prejudiced students to believe in its horror. However, as cancel culture reveals, social sanctions alone cannot change the minds of others. People understand which ideas to uproot through productive dialogues. These occur when participants are reasonable enough to explain their beliefs logically, humble enough to acknowledge valid critiques of their argument, and cordial enough to quell animosity when ideological conflicts arise. Reason, humility and cordiality – the pillars of dialogue – must complement community-wide condemnations.
To establish this harmony and maintain the natural progression of the market towards the discovery of good and bad ideas, the culture of the University must change. Students should try to understand each other’s beliefs, remain open to criticism, and most importantly, genuinely strive for absolute truth while having an open mind and a compassionate heart. Recognizing the need for reason, humility and cordiality in dialogues is essential for this university to thrive.
Rob Clawes is a point of view writer for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at [email protected]
The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. The columns represent the opinions of the authors only.