One of the astonishingly depressing aspects of American life is that the public sphere often seems to be simultaneously too forgiving and too judgmental. We live in a culture that deems Henry Kissinger a wise man, and Oliver North an appropriate host of television shows. The sorry history of Donald Sterling was known before his disgusting private comments were captured on tape, and yet no one seemed to find him worthy of social stigma until now. Public figures beat their wives or girlfriends and suffer only temporary setbacks in fame and fortune.
And yet, just take a look at what is occurring on our college campuses. First, Condoleezza Rice backed out of speaking at Rutgers because of student protests. Then, Christine Lagarde, the head of the I.M.F., decided not to speak at Smith College for similar reasons. And now Robert J. Birgeneau, the former chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, has withdrawn from Haverford College, where he was scheduled to both give a talk and pick up an honorary degree. The protests over the three non-speakers, and one earlier this year over the cancelled decision to grant an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, are distinct. But all of them emanate from anger among left-wing students who see their administrations as too willing to honor establishment figures.
The problem with the protests has nothing precisely to do with free speech; no one has a "right" to speak at a graduation ceremony or receive an honor from a college. But they do suggest rising levels of liberal intolerance, which is good for neither university campuses or the truly shun-worthy people in our midst.
Some of the ideas that have been in circulation during the various speaker controversies this year arose several months ago with a notorious Harvard Crimson op-ed which stated rather bluntly that academic freedom was less important than social justice. (Lefties who are found of pointing out that cracking down on liberty in the name of security often delivers neither liberty nor security might pause to consider whether limiting academic freedom will also end up harming social justice.) But underlying the op-ed was the unappealing thought that ideas deemed reactionary or conservative were unworthy of discussion or even consideration.
And this same idea is popping up again in the more recent protests. As I said, there are all sorts of reasons that could be used to justify the various objections that are greeting the different invitees, and not all of them are inane. Hirsi Ali, for starters, was being offered an honorary degree, and it can certainly be argued that some of her more extreme (and stupid) views meant that she didn't deserve one. But the current crop? Rice was one of the people who oversaw the Iraq war, and thus the anger is understandable. Lagarde works for an institution that used to be famous for imposing stringent and cruel policies on poor countries, but plays a mostly honorable role today.
Birgeneau, in the view of many students and faculty, erred by initially supporting an attempt by the police to break up and Occupy demonstration on his campus in 2011. Birgeneau's case is the most interesting because he isn't a famous figure, and he quickly condemned the police actions after they occurred. This didn't prevent Haverford students from sending him an open letter demanding several apologies, and saying that unless he offered them, they would continue to protest his presence at the graduation. As with Hirsi Ali, Birgeneau was not simply being invited to give his opinion; he was being honored, presumably for upholding the values that students and universities hold dear. So in this sense the students are well within their rights to protest the university's choice. (See this interesting interview with Michelle Goldberg for a discussion of these issues.)
Still, while I think we can all imagine figures who would cross some sort of red line in our minds, colleges are supposed to be places of open engagement. They are supposed to be places where opposing viewpoints clash. They are supposed to be places where people hear from those who may offend their deepest beliefs. Everyone has a red line, but it sure seems like people are drawing them hastily.
There will be several consequences. For starters, if Birgeneau is not only unworthy of a degree, but worthy of being heartily protested, it somehow makes the Henry Kissingers of this world seem less toxic. (If nearly everyone can be deemed toxic...) Secondly, the reaction this is going to elicit from everyone not on the far left is worrisome. Colleges already have reputations as bastions of political correctness and closed minds; protesting Christine Lagarde is not going to improve this picture. And thirdly, the value of open debate is not being mentioned much, let alone upheld. Students and objectors should explain why the people they are protesting are not only bad, but also beyond the pale. These should be, in academic settings, different standards.
One little-remarked-upon aspect of these brouhahas is that all the speakers in question eventually declined to speak, either because they didn't want to be booed or because they really didn't want to detract from what would otherwise be a peaceful (and no doubt boring) event. It's hard to blame them, but it would also be nice to see the Lagardes of the world show up. If they are booed, or shouted down, my hunch is that they will arouse sympathy, and might end up making (or rather embodying) a crucial point about the value of hearing different and even contrasting voices.