Since the creation of the United States and the permanent guarantee of its citizens’ right to free speech and assembly, many have exercised these rights to bring about change on the national stage on a variety of issues. The 1800s saw a plethora of manifestations of this desire to improve society, ranging from abolitionism to the temperance movement. In the 1960s, the importance of college campuses in the fight against the status quo became very clear. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which had its roots in schools such as Shaw University and South Carolina State University, took a lead role in the Civil Rights Movement, with its leaders standing side by side with Martin Luther King, Jr. The second-wave feminism, which sprung from protests again institutional bias against women on college campuses. The antiwar movement, against the expensive, interminable, and poorly thought-out Vietnam War, also started largely in universities. The right to free speech, and specifically the open nature of discourse on college campuses, has allowed for change that has transformed the American way of life to better serve millions across the nation.
In this light, it is shocking that so many students would turn on the fundamental values of this country for the sake of creating entirely safe and, frankly, ideologically homogeneous spaces. The rub between viewpoints is what has historically made it possible to advance as a society, and this conflict is only possible in an inclusive environment in which differences are embraced and debated, not morphed into reasons for stigmatization. What started decades ago as the fight against pervasive bias and bigotry has become the movement to sanitize college campuses in the name of political correctness, and therein lies the danger of such causes. Without proper friction against the movements occurring right now, it becomes quite easy to ignore the core messages of the groups pushing for change, and the struggle devolves into one over means rather than ends. Therefore, both logically and historically, real change is far easier to achieve through reasonable discourse and the acceptance of our flawed past than through a campaign to cleanse campuses of “offensive” dissent.
For example, on September 14, Bernie Sanders traveled to Liberty University, a school known for its evangelical roots, to give a speech. It was truly a case study in opposing viewpoints, but instead of preaching at the student body, Sanders chose to try to find common ground by appealing to the students’ Christian values, saying, “I believe from the bottom of my heart that it is vitally important for those of us who hold different views to be able to engage in a civil discourse.” He was initially met with skepticism, but his audience eventually warmed up to his attempts to achieve a happy medium, showing that people can be more receptive to disagreement than many give them credit for. College campuses, if used properly, can be the sources of social change; if they continue to be heavily regulated, however, there can be no such impact. Sanders was able to impart his message on the group perhaps most squarely at odds with him; it is crucial to give conservative thinkers and students the chance to do the same.
Now, this is not to diminish the need to address the ever-present, pervasive issues that continue to plague schools today. Microaggressions and institutional racism are realities, and it is well within people’s constitutional rights to peacefully protest the problems which they face on a day-to-day basis. However, when the matter shifts from addressing ingrained issues to policing people’s personal choices such as their Halloween costumes, when it becomes insulting to acknowledge Woodrow Wilson’s profound impact on public policy because of his racist legacy, when reporters on the campus of the University of Missouri are driven out of protesters’ bases, and when students at Yale (arguably the birthplace of modern conservatism) protest the invitations of luminaries such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali because of protesters’ willingness to overlook these speakers’ impressive bodies of work, political correctness has gone too far. Our progress has been dictated by the exercise of our First Amendment rights; who are we to abandon them in our universal pursuit of harmony?