Opinion: As college liberals, we know we can’t echo-chamber ourselves to victory

Editor’s Note: Siddhu Pachipala is a community organizer studying political science at MIT. Zoe Yu is a writer studying government at Harvard University. The views expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion on CNN.

Earlier this year, MIT’s nonprofit Free Speech Alliance and the Sloan School of Management’s chapter of the Adam Smith Society organized a debate: “Is sex binary?

It’s hot-button and timely — exactly the kind of thing that should unfold at an elite university like MIT. Here, students have historically wrestled with third-rail issues that have defined cultural conversations of their time, such as systemic racismpsychedelic drug therapy and ethics in engineering.

Siddhu Pachipala - Regeneron Science Talent Search
Siddhu Pachipala - Regeneron Science Talent Search
Zoe Yu - Julie McLemore
Zoe Yu - Julie McLemore

But the organizers of the debate struggled to find a speaker for the negative. Not because those arguing that “sex is not binary” were in short supply — plenty of students and faculty at MIT hold that stance — but because, in the debate moderator’s own words, there is a commonly held belief on campus that gender and sexuality issues “should not be subject to debate at all, even in an academic setting.”

Many elite universities pride themselves on “intellectual vitality” in their admissions criteria, making a show of their dedication in an ever-growing list of bureaucratic initiatives and summits. To have intellectual vitality is to think critically, creatively and curiously; engage in robust scholarly debate; and approach conversation from a place of humility and skepticism. For what end? MIT’s neighbor, Harvard University, sums it all up in its motto, veritas: truth.

But proclamations of intellectual vitality ring hollow when students at these same universities routinely call for their schools to retract speaker invitations — and, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), see their efforts rewarded. It happened at Brown. At Stanford. And at Princeton.

Even when dissenting speakers do make it onto campus, they’re often greeted with a “heckler’s veto,” shouted down with megaphones before anyone can hear what they have to say. FIRE’s 2023 report also revealed that many students go so far as to say that “using violence to stop a campus speech” is somewhat acceptable. Faculty and administration play a part, too: MIT higher-ups disinvited geophysicist Dorian Abbot from speaking on climate science because he took issue with the university’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion policies.

As college campuses morph into the latest battlegrounds — not for honest debates, but for arguments on whether debates should be taking place at all — students are feeling the effects. According to the Harvard Kennedy School’s Youth Poll, a third of college students are “uncomfortable sharing their political views on campus,” a figure that has more than doubled since 2015. And many students say it’s hard to have frank conversations about abortion, gun control, race relations and transgender rights, according to FIRE’s 2023 report.

Elite universities have been branded as ivory towers that indoctrinate impressionable students into diehard leftists who refuse to engage with the “other side.” For conservatives, what was once the place to expose yourself to the widest possible latitude of ideas and perspectives is now an echo chamber shut off from the rest of the world.

Both on and off campus, many Americans are starting to believe that “free speech” is in name only. Confidence in higher education has fallen precipitously over the last few years, especially among Republicans, and experts are citing the perception of colleges’ “activist liberal agenda” as a key contributor. But it’s not a uniquely conservative phenomenon: Trust in colleges among Democrats has dipped as well.

As young college liberals ourselves, we understand that many of our peers who sanction, censor and cancel are usually moved by good intentions. Oftentimes, they don’t want their fellow students to feel offended or unsafe. They don’t want to platform people they see as problematic. They don’t want to cede ground in the most personal of arguments about race, gender and sexuality that, in their view, shouldn’t be the subject of intellectual exercise in the first place.

This strategy is one that recognizes that speech is more than just speech — it’s the potential for action. If liberals felt that platforming contrary opinions wasn’t doing anything, they’d have no hesitations about allowing it. But when we allow conservative thinkers like Candace Owens on campus to bash DEI policy, or Vinay Prasad to complain about Covid-19 school closures or Charlie Kirk to praise the pro-life movement, we know they aren’t just speaking into a vacuum. We are handing them another stage to pull people from our ranks; we run the risk that, in the constant clash of ideas, our ideological opponents might seem reasonable.

But we impede ourselves when we believe we’re advancing our calls for racial equity and social justice by imposing our rigid ideological orthodoxy on everyone else. Censoring opponents sends a message: We’re threatened, our reasoning isn’t strong enough to face off in a debate and we’re sealing ourselves off from good-faith engagement.

Why not allow opponents their soapbox and engage with them head-on? We have good arguments. We have strong cases. Let’s use them.

We must put in the work to settle unsettled political topics — to talk it out even when the consensus we think should be there, isn’t. This is how it has been done throughout American history.

It’s true that conservatives are profiting big time off of our illiberalism, or what they’ve labeled as the new “thought police.” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is seeing much support for his attacks on critical race theory and DEI offices — both vaguely defined bogeymen whose precise definitions always shift to suit the conservative story — and former President Donald Trump has rallied voters around college student “totalitarianism” and “far-left fascism.”

But contending with speech, even at its most unsavory, is essential for a free democracy — and having open debate as a civil norm is simply the right thing to do. The word “liberal” comes from just that: the freedom to think and act independently, the unrelenting belief that when the arguments are heard, and when people are free to engage in spirited debate about them, justice can make more sense than injustice. That the most important issues of our day are worth talking about openly and without fear. That in our marketplace of ideas, the most sensible positions can and will win out. The promises of democracy demand as much.

John Stuart Mill’s words in “On Liberty” endure: The “tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling”— and its associated tendency to impose “its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct” — is just as dangerous as any government tyranny our founders envisioned.

Let’s be clear: What we’re asking for is not the most natural or intuitive practice. For most of human history, we didn’t use our words to sort out our differences; we used our fists. But America and its liberal progenitors decided that reason, and not raw manpower, would chart the path forward. By being faithful stewards of liberal norms, we might not make progress as quickly as we’d like, but at least we preserve the potential for democratic progress. And once lost, it’s almost impossible to retrieve.

If you’re unconvinced on principle, look at what happens in practice when we remove basic civil guardrails: We inevitably give power to forces we’ll disagree with. Already, the censorious climate we’ve created is backfiring against us. X, formerly Twitter, is taking platforms from left-wing users at the behest of the alt-right; firms are firing actresses, editors and journalists for expressing pro-Palestine views; and conservatives are banning books about racism, gender and sexuality.

We have little room to criticize. How can we argue for our free speech moments after arguing against that of others, out of political expediency and personal comfort? When we deride free speech, it can no longer be a higher good we appeal to.

As young college progressives, we want our good ideas today to become good policy tomorrow. But before they can even stand a fighting chance out in the real world, they have to be able to survive a classroom, dining hall or dorm room conversation. That’s true liberalism on campus.

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