This commentary originally appeared on Forbes on October 29, 2016.
Over the last few weeks, the First Amendment has gotten schooled at the flagship public university of Wisconsin. The Orwellian lesson being taught its students is this: All have equal First Amendment rights. But some have rights that are more equal than others.
It has been reported that a student on the Madison campus is engaged in producing and selling hoodies that carry the assertion, “All White People Are Racist,” in capital letters.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary reminds us that racism is this: “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”
Acting on this everyday understanding of racism, the UW-Madison administration recently suspended the activities of a campus fraternity that was found to have engaged in racially discriminatory words and actions.
On this basis, one would have expected the school administration to likewise crack down on the racist sentiments contained on the hoodies. However, the UW-Madison administration has said nothing.
Wondering what was up, a media outlet sought comment on the matter from Chancellor Rebecca Blank, Dean of Students Lori Berquam, and Vice Provost for Diversity and Climate Patrick Sims, all of whom, we learn “have beenvocal supporters of Black Lives Matter and . . . have worked closely with Black Lives Matter in campus programming.”
All three senior administrators refused this request for an interview on what would appear to be a matter urgently requiring that the school take a stand on behalf of nondiscrimination.
The media outlet therefore made a second attempt to secure an interview. Again, there was only silence from the UW-Madison leadership.
Another hoodie being sold by the student promises: “If I encounter another cop with a GOD COMPLEX, I’m going to have to SHOW THE WORLD that they are HUMAN” (capitalization in original). Surely this message, with its less-than-subtle justification of and appeal for violence, would bring an official rebuke from the UW-Madison, yes?
No. All the school would utter—through an email—in response to press inquiries was, ““In this case, the individuals involved are exercising their rights to free speech and engaging in a private activity unrelated to their status as students.”
With this defense of both racism and appeals to violence against the police, we learn that, at UW-Madison, some free-speech rights are more equal than others, for the campus administration has shown itself to be focused on and adept at depriving the freedom of other students to speak and think.
As Peter Hasson reports, earlier this year, UW-Madison “hosted a special workshop . . . for the purpose of getting white students to acknowledge and confront their own white privilege.” “The Privilege of Whiteness” workshop aims to get whites to “reflect on and name the ways their privilege impacts their beliefs and behaviors by gaining the skills to identify the historical roots of White privilege and how it manifests today.”
The “Privilege of Whiteness” workshop is one of a number “education sessions” offered by the university, attendance at which is mandatory for students desiring to participate in UW’s “Badger Volunteers Program.”
To be fair to UW-Madison, and as Hasson goes on to point out, such “education sessions” are far from unique to Madison. Instead, they are becoming all the rage on American campuses. This year, similar projects have been sponsored by Oregon State University, the University of Vermont, and Northwestern University.
Why this double standard? Why are racism and calls to violence acceptable exercises of campus free speech in some instances but not in others?
As someone who was both a college professor and university administrator for nearly three decades, I am afraid I know the answer: The hoodie-hawking undergraduate is simply proof that students actually learn something in college these days. But what they learn is a formula for separatism, hostility, and further suppression of individual liberty.
Thus, far be it from the average college administrator to condemn what he or she not only believes but also teaches. What colleges teach today serves hemlock to the color-blind principles of the Declaration of Independence, as hearkened to and celebrated by Abraham Lincoln and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
In King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, he called on the nation to live up to the color-blind promise contained in the Declaration’s creedal assertion that all human beings “are created equal.” As Lincoln explained, the Declaration’s doctrine of equality does not mean to assert that all are equal in every respect, but rather, that what unites us—our shared humanity—far outweighs in importance what separates us.
But the doctrine of equality has been usurped, at least so far as our universities are concerned, by their proposition that “race, class, and gender”—traits that separate us from each other—are the fundamental facts of humanity. Added to the New Trinity of race/class/gender is the assertion by our postmodern universities that power, not the desire for justice, is the irreducible foundation of politics.
Animated by these premises, there is a growing intellectual movement on campuses to deride “free speech,” “individuality,” “limited government,” and even reason and science themselves as merely sham rationalizations seized on by “Dead White European Males” to justify and perpetuate their “hegemony” over “marginalized groups.”
Given this emphasis on conflict (Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”), as well as on power, it follows for today’s academics that nonwhites and females cannot be racist, because they are said to lack the support of institutionalized power.
This is the worldview that explains UW-Madison’s striking silence over the hoodies: UW’s leaders agree, and have been teaching for some time, that all whites are racist. Moreover, on their view of the primacy of power, nonwhites and women are incapable of racism, my opening quote from Merriam-Webster notwithstanding. As the website, www.everydayfeminism, would instruct us, “The language in dictionaries tends to reflect the opinions of white, straight, academic men on what is acceptable English language.”
UW’s official Mission Statement attests, “The primary purpose of the University of Wisconsin-Madison is to provide a learning environment in which faculty, staff, and students can discover, examine critically, preserve, and transmit the knowledge, wisdom, and values that will help ensure the survival of this and future generations and improve the quality of life for all.”
Apparently, UW-Madison’s intention to “improve the quality of life for all” requires the eradication of “the opinions of white, straight, academic men.”
If such be the school’s goal, it appears frighteningly far on its way to fulfillment.