A professor from Georgetown University has written a piece for the Washington Post titled “When your next college free speech controversy erupts, don’t blame liberals.” Based on the headline, I thought this was going to be a piece blaming the right for speech suppression, but that’s not what it is at all. Professor Jacques Berlinerblau argues there are actually three separate groups on most college campuses: conservatives, liberals, and the “radical left.” It’s that last group, which he says is heavily represented in most humanities departments, that is responsible for most speech suppression on campus.
The fault lines I am describing are most evident among the faculty. The smallest of the three camps is comprised of professors whose political leanings are conservative. As researchers have demonstratedagainand again, such scholars are drastically underrepresented on college faculties, and in the humanities in particular. Consider that a mind-boggling 3 percent of sociologists and 2 percent of literature professorsidentify as Republicans. When conservatives charge that they’re outnumbered by campus liberals, they are unequivocally correct.
But does this mean that liberals rule the academy, fostering the type of oppressive environment that suppresses free expression? In my experience, liberal professors play far less of a role in these incidents than a group we might refer to as the “radical left.” This third camp is composed of a vast, and diverse array of quite serious scholars whose animus towards liberal ideas often exceeds its disdain for conservative ones…
As far as many conservatives are concerned—and even researchers who survey the political leanings of professors—liberals and leftists all look alike. But their differences are significant. Liberals didn’t exult over Iran’s 1979 Islamist revolution as did the immensely influential philosopher Michel Foucault, the patron saint of today’s academic radicals. Liberals would never wish that the United States suffer a “million more Mogadishus,” or refer to the victims of 9/11 as “little Eichmanns,” to invoke some memorable fringe-left catch phrases. Liberals don’t whip themselves up into a frenzy over the legitimacy of the state of Israel, a position associated with the esteemed literary critic Edward Said. Liberals don’t reflexively deconstruct and place shudder-quotes around concepts such as “Enlightenment,” “Democracy,” “Reason” and “Religious Freedom.”
Berlinerblau says liberals are not generally fans of trigger warnings, safe spaces, and attempts to shout down speakers on campus. Those are ideas, he says, coming from the radical left which is not a significant force in our national politics but is a significant force on many college campuses.
A couple of points about this. First, I think Berlinblau is right probably right that most of the incidents we’ve seen, such as the rioting at Berkley or the mob at Evergreen College, have involved only a subset of what we would broadly call ‘the left’ on campus. Nearly everyone at Evergreen is left of center, including professor Bret Weinstein. But the people demanding his ouster were far, far left of center. As you can see in this clip by Vice, they were actually openly dismissive of the First Amendment.
Secondly, while I would be willing to accept that “liberals” on campus are not comfortable with some of the radical left’s behavior, we don’t always hear from the more moderate left about that discomfort when the heat is on. Again, if you watch that clip by Vice, you’ll see some people who say they are uncomfortable with the tactics being used by the radical left, but they afraid to say so, for fear of becoming targets themselves.
Really what was so striking about the situation at Evergreen College, which I wrote about almost daily for several weeks, was that a progressive professor was coming right out and saying the far left had become an unruly mob, even a cult. It was striking because usually, the left does not stand up to the far left in this way. Usually, the response is more like that of President George Bridges who allowed himself to be humiliated over and over rather than stand up for himself. If the mob told him to stop waving his hands, he stopped. If they called him a racist (which they did) he didn’t fight back.
It’s worth noting that around 60 of Weinstein’s fellow professors at Evergreen demanded an investigation into his behavior. Meanwhile, only one professor was willing to publicly side with him (and he expected to become a target for doing so). So where was the “liberal” left at Evergreen? They were mostly silent. It’s a lot easier to let someone vilified as a racist than to risk having the same mob show up at your classroom for standing up to them.
Professor Berlinblau deserves credit for being the rare bird that will stand up and say what others, perhaps many others, are thinking. But the fact remains that pieces like his remain relatively rare. Most liberals, it seems, would rather not kick the hornet’s nest. So if we’re going to see improvement on campus, a lot more “liberals” are going to have to stand up to the illiberal folks on their left flank.