The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When your next college free speech controversy erupts, don’t blame liberals

Jacques Berlinerblau, center with hand raised, shown in 2016 in a class at Georgetown University. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Recent controversies at American colleges and universities follow a predictable script whose final act culminates in cries of “liberal bias!” The saga begins when a coalition on campus concludes that a person’s ideas are wrong, demeaning to a certain group or lacking in scholarly rigor. The holder of aforesaid ideas might have a lecture invitation rescinded (as occurred when the comedian Bill Maher was briefly disinvited from delivering a commencement address at the University of California at Berkeley in 2014). Or this person will be shouted down and verbally abused (as transpired recently with Evergreen State College professor Bret Weinstein, who declined to participate in a diversity initiative). Or maybe the offender will be shouted down, verbally abused and physically assaulted (as happened to lecturer Charles Murray and Professor Allison Stanger at Middlebury College).

Once the incident goes viral, our drama lurches to its spectacular conclusion: a backlash emerges, and commentators decry liberalism run amok. The scandal at Middlebury impelled right-wing critics to speak of “liberal intolerance” and “liberal groupthink.” After the Evergreen episode, conservative media fingered “liberal terrorists” as responsible for Professor Weinstein’s ordeal. Even a progressive liberal like Bill Maher attributed his rebuff to the wishy-washiness of liberals.

Having spent a quarter century teaching college, and having chronicled some of its mega-controversies along the way, I think it’s highly unlikely that liberals are to blame. Their off-campus accusers make a common error in that they conflate American academic culture with American political culture. In the latter, liberals and conservatives are the key belligerents and engage in pitched battles on every conceivable issue. Yet the liberal/conservative divide at a typical college—and especially at an elite college—is fairly irrelevant to free speech dust-ups. That’s because in American academic culture there exist not two, but three, broad ideological camps and neither liberals nor conservatives are center stage.

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 demonstrated again and 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 professors identify 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.

If you want to conceptualize the differences between liberal and leftist professors in political terms—which, I repeat, is always hazardous—think of it this way. Liberal professors are the types that probably voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential elections. Radical left professors likely wrote her off as a dreaded “neo-liberal.” Their primary votes might have been cast for Bernie Sanders—as irritatingly “mainstream” as the social-democratic candidate might have been to them. In the general election they might have opted for Jill Stein, or sat it out altogether in protest of American capitalism, imperialism, hegemony, etc.

Yet whereas Stein received 1 percent of the popular vote, one recent national study of professors in all disciplines demonstrated that roughly 15.6 percent at non-sectarian schools self-identify as “far left.” That finding calls attention to a pronounced difference between the politics of American voters and American professors. But even this number strikes me as way too low. Although the data has never been parsed in this way, if we were to look solely at professors in the humanities and interpretive social sciences, my guess is that the 15 percent figure would be two or three times higher—and more so at elite institutions. In other words, at a nationally ranked school a department of English, Women’s Studies, Art History, French, African-American Studies, Spanish, Philosophy, Anthropology, Film Studies or Sociology is likely to have more far-left faculty than liberals and conservatives combined.

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.”

Which brings us back to the free speech issues that we noted above. Liberals are generally made highly uncomfortable by censorship, speaker boycotts, trigger warnings, safe spaces, and the like. Stanger, the aforementioned Middlebury professor who tried to interview Charles Murray, disagreed with his ideas, but engaged with them because her students wanted to know more. (She identifies, incidentally, as a Democrat.) It is hard to know who precisely the protesters were at Middlebury and Evergreen, but no report I can find indicates they were liberals. (One source, for example, reports the College Democrats at Middlebury were not part of the protest.) Before one accepts Bill Maher’s charge that liberals were responsible for his snub, please recall that UC-Berkeley fields one of the deepest and most robust rosters of radical left scholars in the country.

There’s a lot to be gained by contemplating the tripartite distinction identified above. College administrations and scholarly societies need to ask themselves why these ideological imbalances are so pronounced. They might also wonder why it’s so hard to identify a fourth camp, comprised of professors whose politics are inscrutable or unpredictable. (I would hope that my teaching and research places me in that camp.) The radical left might ponder why the academy is the sole American institution where its ideas hold any sway. Conservatives have every right to complain about ideological imbalance. But they need to stop blaming liberals for their misfortune, politically expedient as such a charge might be.

As for liberals, whose core values on issues like freedom of speech are everywhere under assault, they need to define what they actually stand for. And if it causes tension with their “allies” on the radical left, so be it.

Jacques Berlinerblau is Professor of Jewish Civilization at the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He tweets via @berlinerblau. His new book, “Campus Confidential: How College Works, Or Doesn’t, For Professors, Parents, and Students,” is published by Melville House.

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