Earlier this week you may have heard that socialist Democrat presidential candidate Bernie Sanders traveled to Liberty University to give a speech. It was an odd fit to be sure, and the reception he received was described as featuring applause which was, largely polite rather than passionate. Some liberal outlets tried to make a big deal over the fact that a few students showed up wearing Bernie shirts and let out some loud cheers. Good for them! Never hurts to have some diversity of opinion around the campus.
But what’s truly remarkable about Sanders’ appearance at the traditionally conservative and heavily religious institution wasn’t what happened so much as what didn’t happen. Neither the faculty nor the student body sought to ban him. There was no boycott. In fact, it was business as usual for the school. (New York Magazine)
But it’s still interesting to put this event in context, given what some other university students have done when faced with controversial speakers or events. For example, Emily Yoffe, who has written about the connection between alcohol and sexual assault, had a speaking offer at a West Coast college rescinded after a student organization told her that her presence would make victims of assault “feel unsafe.” At my alma mater of the University of Michigan, for example, a showing of American Sniper was canceled (though later un-canceled) after students complained that the movie’s depiction of Iraqi Muslims would make “students feel unsafe and unwelcome.” Unsuccessful attempts to get Bill Maher and George Will canceled as speakers at the University of California – Berkeley and Michigan State, respectively, involved similar arguments about creating dangerous-feeling environments. Sometimes the tactic works, and sometimes it doesn’t, but there’s definitely a trend of students arguing that allowing certain speakers to speak poses an emotional risk to some members of the student body.
Without jumping into the broader debate about political correctness, it’s worth pointing out that, if we’re going to buy the theory that the mere presence of a certain type of speaker on campus creates an unsafe space that expands across that campus, bringing the risk of psychological harm to students, Liberty must have been an incredibly unsafe place today.
Therein lies the distinction which Sanders unwittingly provided for the nation, assuming anyone cared to pay attention. If we were living in Superman’s Bizarro World where everything is turned on its head, the devout, conservative majority of the student body would have been barring the doors and trembling at Sanders’ approach. Trigger warning signs would have littered the quad like fliers at a flea market and the safe rooms would have had to bring in oxygen tanks and fainting couches. Hearing somebody express opinions so completely antithetical to the established dogma would have been a disaster of literally biblical proportions.
And yet in this bastion of conservative orthodoxy, no such thing happened. It’s true – and worth noting – that attendance for the students was essentially mandatory and the administration is not quick to tolerate gaudy protest displays, but they also can’t crush the students under an iron fist. Nor could they have stopped them from being rude. And yet the student body was polite to a fault. There was, at a minimum, nominal clapping during the applause breaks in Bernie’s delivery and when he hit on topics where there was common ground to be found, some occasional bouts of cheering were heard. When it was over everyone somehow managed to go about their business and Sanders was treated with dignity throughout the day.
Isn’t that remarkable? And doesn’t it say something about the possibilities still extant in our higher education system? There may not be many students who left the auditorium suddenly singing the praises of socialism, but they had heard a differing opinion and had something new to discuss and debate among themselves or in class. Nobody’s eardrums erupted into flames and not a single student had their face melt off like that scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. I’m left wondering if the students who graduate from Liberty University might just be a tad bit better prepared for life in the real world than those hiding out in colleges where any departure from established liberal dogma is treated as a criminal offense.