"Freedom of speech should not be used as a justification for rampant hateful language," the group of students at University of North Carolina in Greensboro have demanded, "or opinions that further marginalize historically oppressed communities."
This clear attack on a cherished American freedom — this demand that an organ of the state use its power to control which opinions can and cannot be expressed — is a hallmark of the campus uprisings this fall. One instructor at the University of Missouri famously called for some "muscle" to quash a photojournalist's efforts. Missouri students have demanded from campus leaders "a commitment to differentiating 'hate speech' from 'freedom of speech.'"
One website, TheDemands.org, has compiled the demands made by similar groups on a few dozen campuses. As of the morning of Nov. 25, the compendium of demands included the word "speech" 21 times — always in a negative or at best wary sense.
Amherst students, for instance, demanded a statement "that states we do not tolerate the actions of student(s) who posted the "All Lives Matter" posters, and the 'Free Speech' posters that stated that 'in memoriam of the true victim of the Missouri Protests: Free Speech.'"
Freedom of speech isn't the only liberal value under fire. At TheDemands.org, "tolerance" is more likely to be used in a negative sense (Amherst students demand "revision of the Honor Code to reflect a zero-tolerance policy for racial insensitivity") than in a positive sense.
These uprisings, and their intolerant tone, have caused consternation on both the Left and the Right. Some commentators, including The Wire writer David Simon, call this radical Left behavior "fascist." Others call it "illiberal," which is perhaps a more accurate and less prejudicial description.
Progressive writer Elias Isquith gave an apt and important objection to Simon. "Social democracy is not classical liberalism," Isquith wrote on Twitter. "It does not place the individual above all. It does not value process over outcome. It does not imagine a politics w/out … raw power. It doesn't assume rules are handed on from high. I don't think that makes it fascist."
It is important that this viewpoint be considered on its own terms. The "process" which Isquith weighs against "outcomes" is in fact that which we in the U.S. often take as the first principle. Freedom of speech, majority rule paired with minority rights, free exercise of religion, due process of law, checks and balances — these are the rules of play, not ends in themselves. These ideas are, in Isquith's parlance, "process."
In the civic religion of the U.S., these rules and respect for individual liberty are almost sacrosanct. They define "fairness." It's easy for Americans to believe these rules are universal, and to see societies that reject these rules as exceptionally illiberal — or fascist. But our rules are particular — they are themselves philosophical conclusions derived from Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Jefferson, and to some extent Christianity, and they are fairly rare in human history. Communist China, the Islamic State, Saudi Arabia — these cultures don't share our rules.
What if centuries of experience tell you that our rules aren't actually optimal or fair? What if you look around and decide that the liberal West has too much inequality, too much racial tension, too much environmental degradation, too much arduous toil? Then you might want to scrap the rules.
And even if the rules apply to everyone, that doesn't necessarily make them fair. The rules of basketball don't discriminate against the short, but they certainly make the outcome — that the tall will excel — pretty inevitable. That's how many left-wing radicals in the U.S. see our rules, including free enterprise, free speech, and open political debate: supposedly fair rules that result in an unfair outcome.
So when newspaper editorials appeal to these Enlightenment principles to scold the campus protestors, they are begging the very question. When these radicals demand we change the rules, it makes no sense to tell them they're breaking the rules.
To combat the campus radicals, you can't simply appeal to Enlightenment ideas — you need to defend Enlightenment ideas. That's a more laborious argument, because in standard American political discourse liberal principles are the common ground. But it's also a crucial argument.
Teaching and explaining the principles of Western thought used to be a central aim of higher education, and of high school too. The academy and our public schools have largely rejected the idea of teaching these principles, and so we shouldn't be surprised to see the principles questioned and rejected.
The campus radicals have begun a debate over first principles. Those who cherish Western values should welcome the opportunity to defend our worldview — because beyond our shores there are far more dangerous foes of the West.
Timothy P. Carney, The Washington Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears Tuesday and Thursday nights on washingtonexaminer.com.