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Free speech undergirds democracy. I am uncompromising on this point and dislike being distracted by concocted hysteria about free speech. All the same, a guest essay in the New York Times by Emma Camp engaged me. Camp, a senior at the University of Virginia, argues that students and faculty on her campus so fear disapproval from peers that they default to self-censorship. As a result, beliefs contradicting the dominant, politically-correct ideology can only be conveyed in hushed tones and behind closed doors.

And, of course, in The New York Times.

Yet this isn’t just a story about self-imposed limits on free speech. As she presents it, Camp’s account of her four years at Virginia is one of ongoing disappointment and fear. “Each week, I seek out the office hours of a philosophy department professor willing to discuss with me complex ethical questions raised by her course on gender and sexuality. We keep our voices lowered as if someone might overhear us,” she begins, making an ordinary exchange of views in a faculty office sound like a black market deal in Pyongyang.

But it is not just a few students who are suffering from these fears:

Hushed voices and anxious looks dictate so many conversations on campus at the University of Virginia, where I’m finishing up my senior year.

A friend lowers her voice to lament the ostracization of a student who said something well-meaning but mildly offensive during a student club’s diversity training. Another friend shuts his bedroom door when I mention a lecture defending Thomas Jefferson from contemporary criticism. His roommate might hear us, he explains.

If surveillance and punishment through correction and shunning are not bad enough, Camp describes the stolen dream of what college might have been had intellectual terror not dominated the campus. “I went to college to learn from my professors and peers,” Camp continues.

I welcomed an environment that champions intellectual diversity and rigorous disagreement. Instead, my college experience has been defined by strict ideological conformity. Students of all political persuasions hold back — in class discussions, in friendly conversations, on social media — from saying what we really think. Even as a liberal who has attended abortion rights protests and written about standing up to racism, I sometimes feel afraid to fully speak my mind.

Because you can never be far enough left on a college campus to avoid being the target of groupthink, right?

I want to stipulate two things. One is that Camp is an excellent writer, and she has a future in this biz. She demonstrated that she could run with the big kids, and the fact that Camp is being dragged on social media right now is unfortunate, if only because she did something ambitious and succeeded.

However, Thing Two is that Camp does not appear to be afraid to speak her mind. A quick Google search turns up the information that she has been a columnist for the Cavalier Daily, where she speaks her mind passionately. For example, in November 2020, Camp argued that her fellow students should fight for social justice by “stand[ing] up to their racist loved ones.” In March 2021, she asked that her identity as a person with autism be honored, not erased. Other columns have argued for limiting abortion by federal policies supporting parenting, eliminating standardized testing, and ending religious exemptions for homeschool oversight. You can read her work here.

Emma Camp is a good Biden Democrat. If she were my student, I would take issue with her essay, but not because it is more Bari Weiss than Linda Greenhouse: because it misses the forest for the trees.

Like all genres, the story of self-censoring students afraid of disapproval has narrative touchstones that the author must establish. First, there is the fear that campus “backlash for unpopular opinions is so commonplace that many students have stopped voicing them.” I agree that such fears are probably commonplace. But Camp never says who instills and enforces it. All her readers know is that this fear is ubiquitous and deeply felt. We also know that the university has not only failed to address these feelings, but it has also created fertile ground for censorship through an institutional stance that nominally supports feminism, anti-racism, and respect for diverse gender and racial identities.

A second narrative touchstone is the real-life consequences of not conforming to the speech one feels is expected. Students fear “lower grades if they don’t censor themselves.” What views they are censoring is unclear, but the presumption is—because the author has chosen to highlight her liberal credentials, another touchstone—that this travesty has gone well beyond the censorship of conservative views.

A final touchstone is the traumatic class experience that changes everything forever. After an exchange about whether someone who is not Indian ever gets to comment negatively on the practice of suttee (and boy, does a natural dislike for burning someone alive ever raise the stakes here!), the door on free speech creaks slowly closed. Only an observer to the general rage exhibited by her classmates’ body language, Camp “still felt uneasy. I became a little less likely to speak up again and a little less trusting of my own thoughts.”

Does she, too, have doubts about incinerating living people, a practice viewed as so wrong that even Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government continues to ban it? Camp, presumably, fears to tell us. All we know is that this incident had a general chilling effect: “Throughout that semester, I saw similar reactions in response to other students’ ideas. I heard fewer classmates speak up. Eventually, our discussions became monotonous echo chambers. Absent rich debate and rigor, we became mired in socially safe ideas.”

There’s a word for what Camp describes, of course, and that word is conformism, a dynamic that has a rich tradition as the straw man of American higher education. The criticism that universities are churning out conformists emerged as early as the 1950s. As William F. Buckley argued in the best-selling God and Man at Yale (1951),“It is the duty of the university to establish a certain standard of convictions or creeds and to exclude from its teaching force those who hold doctrines which do not conform[.]”Journalist William Whyte’s The Organization Man (1956) writes of his fellow 1949 graduates that they emerged from Yale sure of only one thing: that a comfortable, safe berth in a corporation was the apex of the American Dream. In Growing Up Absurd: Problems of Youth in the Organized Society (1960), social critic Paul Goodman praises the “young men [who] naturally find or invent deviant objects for themselves” as waging a brave war against conformism. But nearly all fail the test, becoming “for the most part apathetic, disappointed, cynical, and wasteful.”

Growing Up Absurd became a kind of youth manifesto, and, notably, two key organizations emerged that year to interrupt campus conformism. One was Buckley’s own Young Americans for Freedom, and the other was Students for a Democratic Society, a reorganization of the Student League for Industrial Democracy.

In both cases, the organization’s founding documents stress the need to break conformity. YAF’s Sharon Statement (September 1960), while primarily an anti-communist manifesto, states as its first principle, “That foremost among the transcendent values is the individual’s use of his God-given free will, whence derives his right to be free from the restrictions of arbitrary force.” SDS’s “Port Huron Statement” also urges American youth to break with the conformity bred through comfort and economic prosperity, citing the Civil Rights movement and the Bomb unignorable facts that “compelled most of us from silence to activism.”

And yet it wasn’t just revolutionaries that came to fear the dangers of conformism. Who can forget The Graduate (1967) and Dustin Hoffman’s repeated, blank “yes, sir,” as a neighbor repeats “Plastics!” over and over again?

By the late 1980s, if one were to believe conservative commentators like Roger Kimball, it was SDS’s generation, now college professors, who were enforcing a new conformism, this time from the left. The Marxism that these faculty only thinly concealed, Kimball wrote in Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education (1990), “winds up demanding a lock-step conformism in intellectual as well as moral matters.”

In other words, for over 70 years, the idea that colleges and universities breed conformism, the natural ally of and the endgame of self-censorship, has been regurgitated and recycled, most recently as “cancel culture.” But while past conformisms featured grey flannel suits, mindless consumerism, and most recently, a thoughtless drift towards liberalism, today’s conformism features heartless universities interrupting the self-actualization that they have promised students on the campus tour. Instead, it is a conformism of the unwilling: lonely, intellectually-disempowered students, promised ideas and intellectual debate at college but rather beaten down by an unspoken institutional mandate that students may only give voice to pre-approved ideas

Instead of dragging Emma Camp for her ambition, let’s ask this question: why is the American media so addicted to stories about beleaguered young people whose free speech—and thus, a real education—is stolen by elusive, autocratic others? It is, as they say, a trope—and it is unclear to me whether or why it represents anything about American higher education except our comfort in telling the same story repeatedly.

Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020). This essay first appeared on her Substack, Political Junkie.