Hate Speech and Academic Freedom: The Limits of Tolerance at Amherst College

(Ethan Corey)– Is ideological diversity a crucial part of a liberal arts education? Most Amherst professors lean left (at least in the context of mainstream American political discourse), and the few conservative professors are widely known for their views (here’s looking at you Arkes). Yet, as far as I can tell, most students don’t find this problematic—I know I don’t. In fact, a number of students (myself included) find the presence of the few conservative professors at the College more problematic than the “liberal bias” of most professors. Academic freedom does not mean accepting all viewpoints from our professors; professors that hold political positions and philosophies that marginalize members of the College community should not be teaching at the College.

About a week ago, the conservative “academic freedom” organization, the National Association of Scholars, released a “scathing” report criticizing Bowdoin College for “politicizing” education and focusing too much on “race, class, gender, and the environment” instead of Plato’s Republic and other artifacts of white male hegemony. . It’s an interesting read to say the least: they attack the “promiscuity” and “rampant drug use” of Bowdoin students and call the school racist because it promotes diversity, which, despite what you may think, is in fact “liberal racism”!! But one interesting point that they raise, regardless of your political leanings, is the fact that 100 percent of faculty donations from Bowdoin College in 2012 went to President Obama, and Bowdoin’s president has advocated for liberal causes like same-sex marriage in Bowdoin’s newpaper, The Orient. If we are truly committed to giving all viewpoints equal consideration, such a state of affairs should be deeply disturbing. Bowdoin (like Amherst) has an undeniable liberal bias in its faculty, administration, and student body. Don’t conservatives have somewhat of a point when they call Bowdoin an indoctrination camp or something similar?

Yet, I don’t think such a state of affairs is necessarily a bad thing. Even the most zealous defenders of academic freedom and academic pluralism would shrink at the idea of allowing avowedly white supremacist or sexist professors to teach at a college like Amherst or Bowdoin—and rightly so. Professors who held such beliefs would be attacking the identity of a large number of their students and implicitly (or maybe even explicitly) questioning their presence at the college. A racist professor would be a horrible resource for a student of color. Nevertheless, when professors who hold ideological positions that are equally hateful (e.g. homophobia) are attacked for their offensive beliefs, students rush to their defense in the name of academic freedom and tolerance of dissent. What can explain this contradiction? Surely the popularity of an offensive belief does not change the fact that it is still offensive. If students believe that racist professors should not teach at the College, then logical consistency demands that they treat homophobic professors the same way.

The fact of the matter is that not all beliefs serve to “broaden horizons” or “challenge preconceived notions.” Ideological positions that attack the full humanity and equality of members of our community don’t foster debate or academic growth; they only serve to marginalize and silence the students that they attack. Such beliefs offer nothing but hatred for our community. Academic freedom requires respect for the identity and worth of all persons; without such respect, “academic freedom” is no more than oppression masked as intellectualism.

At this point, I’ve probably pissed off many of my readers. How do I propose to enact this scheme? Ideological purity tests? Hate speech witch-hunts? Gulags? And why am I equating conservatives with racists and misogynists? Am I actually Josef Stalin? Such fears are completely misplaced. The College has a policy already in place that, if enforced, would be completely sufficient to achieve my goals without any book burnings, re-education camps, or grand inquisitions. The College Honor Code states:

Respect for the rights, dignity and integrity of others is essential for the well-being of a community.  Actions by any person which do not reflect such respect for others are damaging to each member of the community and hence damaging to Amherst College.  Each member of the community should be free from interference, intimidation or disparagement in the work place, the classroom and the social, recreational and residential environment.

Thus professors that compare LGBTQ students to people who enjoy “sex with animals, pedophilia, even necrophilia” or call women who choose to abort their pregnancies murderers of innocents should not be tolerated by the College. They should be hustled into early retirement or outright fired and repudiated. Academic freedom does not include the freedom to hate.

As for whether all conservatives engage in hate speech, I certainly would not make such an overgeneralization, especially when the definition of the term “conservative” is nebulous and itself up for debate. Nevertheless, many positions commonly held by self-described conservatives fit under the rubric of hate speech: opposition to equal rights for LGBTQ individuals, the idea that “abortion is murder” (which implies that women who receive abortions are murderers), distinguishing between ‘legitimate’ and illegitimate rapes, disparagement of people who receive government assistance as “welfare queens” and “moochers,” and supporting the deportation of undocumented immigrants. Such beliefs attack the humanity and identity of many individuals at the College and implicitly or explicitly challenge the legitimacy of those individuals’ presence at the College. Individuals who hold such beliefs are promoting ideas that are antithetical to the kind of community that we wish to promote at the College. Why are they teaching at this College?