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Perfect Fear Casts Out Love

When people flatly contradict themselves, it’s worth a moment to try to understand why.

Not long ago, “Intelligent” (a site unfamiliar to me) reported on a poll of a thousand university students regarding freedom of speech. The results showed that the vast majority affirmed free speech (98%) while a majority also wanted it curbed on campus.

Left and right, Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative: Free speech is terrific—and we also support restraints on views contrary to our own.

It is easy to chide these students for a clueless hypocrisy. But let’s consider why they might have offered such transparently contradictory views in a single poll.

Not many of us enjoy confronting opinions directly contrary to our own. Not about sports teams, not about restaurants, not about music styles, let alone about matters of greater moment. No wonder these students affirmed free speech in theory—who wants constraints on one’s own speech?—but also wanted censorship of ideas they judged to be wrong and harmful.

That’s a natural enough reaction. Most people don’t seem to enjoy, or even easily endure, significant differences of opinion. Not at Thanksgiving dinner, not in the bar, and not in the workplace.

And not on campus—no matter how many lofty speeches are given there about the noble contest of ideas in the bracing freedom of the intellectual marketplace. Wrong ideas about important things such as politics (or religion, for that matter) are not just wrong—like getting a mathematical calculation wrong—but evil and damaging. Harm becomes the great threat to be avoided, and bad views articulated in bad ways harm people.

As I have written elsewhere, we live in the age of The New Moralism, an era of finger-pointing and finger-wagging, with condemnations and silencing left and right. Our societies are rapidly polarizing as binary, intolerant polemics push us further and further apart.

With the fading of moderate views and moderate voices, we are more likely than ever to hear something outrageous, not just different. With the rise of moralistic fury on all sides, we are more likely than ever to be faced with shouty denunciations, not mild articulations of alternative opinion.

The likelihood of someone’s feelings being hurt is high. Lest we disparage hurt feelings as trivial (“Oh, the poor snowflakes!”), let’s recall the shame and anger of the woman enduring catcalls from men, the poor man enduring the snickers of the wealthy, the person of colour enduring the insults of the racist. It’s one thing to sit down to a calm, orderly, rational, and respectful debate about this or that philosophical concept or political theory. It’s another to welcome a charismatic bigot and give him or her a microphone to inflame impressionable young minds against you and your kind.

Fear makes us do things. It drives us to avoid pain. It drives us to attack our enemies as sources of that pain. It drives us to do what it takes to defend ourselves against the threat of any more pain.

It takes a certain amount of confidence to deal squarely with people of sharply different views, and a certain amount of poise to deal civilly with uncivil proponents of such views. We have to be confident in ourselves and our ideas, yes, but also confident in our institutions and in each other: that neither will succumb readily to falsehoods and be moved easily to bad actions.

Alas, that confidence is in short supply today. Young people are right to worry that university leaders, like more and more political leaders and even many of our courts, will hammer down one-sided policies—on the left or the right—rather than sustain a lively, respectful, safe conversation that protects a diversity of opinion.

Students see universities curtailing diversity of opinion, courts curtailing freedom of religion, and legislatures curtailing liberty of all sorts. No wonder they like the idea of freedom of speech and yet are afraid of what might happen if the next campus speaker starts throwing rhetorical firebombs.

I don’t blame the students. I blame professors, and deans, and presidents, and boards. I blame politicians, and legislatures, and courts. I blame the media, both mass and social.

The adults have failed—and we are energetically failing again today. No wonder students worry. No wonder they can’t imagine extending hospitality to extremists clearly bent on harming them.

Here’s the kicker. The poll also showed that the majority of students wanted all political speech curtailed, and even removed, from campus. Not just the other guy’s. Even their own. The students basically said that current political discourse has become intolerable.

That fear has to be dealt with before we can expect much love.

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