Jeff Sessions just jumped into the free speech on campus debate, shortly after the conservative organized Free Speech Week at Berkeley was canceled. Sessions claims that “the American university was once the center of academic freedom — a place of robust debate, a forum for the competition of ideas … is transforming into an echo chamber of political correctness and homogenous thought, a shelter for fragile egos.” However, as the debate around the Berkeley events demonstrates, the debate is much more complicated. Some conservatives are less interested in robust debate than in trolling liberals, while other are simply looking for ‘safe spaces’ of their own.
The speech that was being ‘freed’ was likely intended to provoke outrage from left-leaning students and faculty, with a lineup of controversial right-wing speakers. It didn’t happen. After days of uncertainty about whether invited speakers would show up, or if the university would even allow the event to take place, everything fell apart, perhaps intentionally. In the end, though, speakers such as Ann Coulter and former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon did not attend, and the four-day event turned into a single brief address on Sunday by right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos.
These events have caused great glee among liberal media commentators — but they don’t understand particularly well what has happened, or how the event has set the stage for a different kind of narrative. To understand this, you need to understand the underlying sociology of the conservative movement on campus.
Campus conservatives want to undermine liberal ‘safe spaces’
Free Speech Week was the brainchild of Milo (as Yiannopoulos is known). He billed it as a showcase for taboo ideas and topics. The conservative Berkeley Patriot, a newly founded student publication, was the campus sponsor. However, even though the Berkeley College Republicans (BCRs) were not official sponsors of Free Speech Week, they were a driving force behind it. They booked Milo for a presentation back in February, but a riot ensued instead. They secured an appearance from Coulter for April. Fears of escalating student unrest, though, prompted another cancellation. The BCRs have filed a lawsuit over this debacle. This month, the equally controversial, conservative commentator Ben Shapiro did manage to deliver his scheduled speech amid mostly peaceful protests.
In short, Free Speech Week is linked to conservative organizing on campus. Republican college groups on campuses like Berkeley are provocative for a reason. In “Becoming Right,” sociologists Amy J. Binder and Kate Wood argue that university environments can produce different styles of political engagement. Smaller, more tightknit schools foster a sense of community that encourages civil dialogue on campus. Conversely, at large institutions, students are apt to feel disconnected from their classmates and professors. Provocative styles of discourse make more sense to students when they do not share a bond with others on their surrounding campus.
This kind of collegiate alienation has been on vivid display at California’s flagship university over the last year. Events like Free Speech Week have been explicitly designed to unsettle progressive “safe spaces” at their school. Right-leaning student groups like the Berkeley Patriot and BCRs — funded by a variety of outside organizations — depict themselves as taking a heroic stand against the liberal echo chamber of academia.
What campus conservatives really want are their own safe spaces
These provocations have two unintended — and ironic — consequences. First, the medium overshadows the message. Most on the right care less about the content of the speech than the power that it has to provoke anger in others. This is because provocation is one method for establishing a conservative social identity.
Doubling down on a controversy leaves no doubt about one’s position on an issue. Political scientist Katherine J. Cramer argues that identity is one of the primary means in which people interpret pertinent information. This is probably even more true for the emerging self-identities of young adults.
Thus, instead of focusing on policy debates or electoral outcomes, right-leaning students can find a sense of purpose in offending (or outright attacking) those they come to see as the opposition. Of course, it should be noted that such incivility goes both ways.
Second, conservatives want safe spaces, too. Of course, they do not use this term. But right-leaning students seek out places in which they can avoid feeling marginalized. This is one of the surprising findings from my ethnography of College Republicans. My research was not at the University of California at Berkeley, but the group I studied was on a campus that had many of the features that Binder and Wood think are more likely to lead to a provocative form of discourse.
As one student explained to me about being a conservative on a college campus, “Everybody seems in agreement [with liberal ideals]. It makes you feel stupid almost.” In contrast, groups like the College Republicans offer conservative students a reprieve from their left-wing detractors. They create a social space in which a rightist viewpoint is taken for granted. In one member’s words, “I can make a joke and look over and see [a fellow College Republican] and know he knows exactly what I mean.”
Conservatives read the drama of Free Speech Week very differently
This means that conservative students read the drama of Free Speech Week in a very different way than liberals. Sociologist Randall Collins notes that most fistfights are structured so that both parties can walk away believing they won. Confrontations that actually come to blows are almost always lopsided. One side has more numbers or better fighters. This means that even those that get pummeled can tell themselves how they fought valiantly against the odds.
The University of California at Berkeley confrontation is just this kind of two-sided drama. Liberals can take smug satisfaction in the fact that the curtain fell on the event before the first speaker even made it to the podium. But the frenzy of media attention is itself a victory. Especially for a personality like Milo, the only bad news is no news.
The 200-plus faculty and graduate students who petitioned the university to shut down for the entirety of Free Speech Week have given another win for the event’s organizers and supporters. They confirm that the conservatives succeeded in their underlying purpose of provoking liberal outrage.
The point here is that affirming a conservative social identity does not require you to beat liberals on their home turf. It merely requires a narrative that allows you to cast your actions favorably in light of valued conservative symbols. To this end, Milo and his proxies at the Berkeley Patriot have painted school administrators as the real villains of the plot. The BCRs have followed this same script as well.
The story that they tell is not one of defeat but of bureaucratic hurdles and looming threats. In it, conservative students and their allies (Milo, Coulter, Shapiro, etc.) are fighters for justice — tiny Davids heroically taking their shot at Goliath.
The hoopla over the preempted Free Speech Week will probably be forgotten rather quickly. Recent history suggests that a different contentious political drama will soon arise in its place. Heated debates about the bounds of civil discourse in a multicultural society will undoubtedly continue.
Thinking sociologically — and not just politically or ideologically — about such controversies will help clarify what is at stake for the individuals and organizations involved. We must not lose sight of the narratives supporting social identities. Despite claims to the contrary, conservative groups are equally working to maintain their own safe spaces. These are largely battles over which identities get to be privileged in the public sphere, in which actors on both the left and right interpret history so as to cast their actions and causes in the most favorable possible light.
Jeffrey L. Kidder is an associate professor of sociology at Northern Illinois University.