GAMBIER, Ohio — Walking into the only dining hall on Kenyon College’s campus last year, students passed a cardboard sign reading: “No more respectful differences.”
The message in paint was clear — different opinions are not welcome at this small liberal arts campus, no matter if they are hateful or respectful.
Kenyon, like many liberal arts colleges in America, is a bubble of like-minded progressives. For the sake of maintaining that liberal bubble, conservative opinions are stifled. There is an expectation of conformity or silence.
That’s a mistake. We may enjoy the comfort that comes with living in a community of ideological homogeneity, but the “real world” isn’t like Kenyon’s campus.
There are opinions we might find mistaken or even offensive, but ignoring them won’t eliminate them. The point of a liberal arts education is to learn how to think critically and creatively. We will never learn how to do that if our beliefs aren’t challenged.
Kenyon’s liberal bubble affects general student discourse and even class discussions. For example, the political science department at Kenyon is full of neo-conservatives. Yet political class discussions are still dominated by liberal ideology.
If a conservative student were to voice an opinion in class, I imagine other students would work together to attack that student for being racist, sexist or even anti-poor, depending on the discussion.
I can only imagine though, because I have never actually heard a conservative student voice a political opinion in a class discussion.
That’s why it was particularly interesting to attend a two-day conference on free speech last month hosted by Kenyon’s Center for the Study of American Democracy (CSAD). The conference invited academics, politicians and journalists from across the ideological spectrum.
In the days leading up to the conference at Kenyon, CSAD put up signs asking questions about free speech, inviting students to respond by putting up notecards with their answers. Some were a simple “yes” or “no” with the occasional profanity.
Most cards said something along these lines: “No, I absolutely will not tolerate intolerance.”
Students at other colleges have also made that message clear. Last week, a student group at the University of California, Berkeley cancelled a “Free Speech Week” event that had invited far-right speakers. Dozens of faculty members had already cancelled class to boycott.
At Middlebury College in Vermont last spring, violence erupted after students protested a speech by conservative author Charles Murray, whose book claims that I.Q. score differences among races are in part a result of genetics.
These events have sparked a new discussion about free speech on campuses. I welcome the debate and wish students here felt more comfortable discussing their differing viewpoints.
At Kenyon, the sign in the dining hall last year followed an opinion piece that appeared in our campus newspaper, entitled “SJP [Students for Justice in Palestine] Brings Extremism to Campus.” The article claimed that a group of predominantly Middle Eastern students bring “extremism” to campus, and it did not resonate well.
One student wrote a response criticizing the author. Members of several campus organizations condemned the original article and expressed support for SJP. The “No more respectful differences” sign in the dining hall was put up anonymously.
The sign has since been removed, but its message is still relevant. Intolerance of hate speech is one thing, but intolerance of respectful differences is another. I can understand why a college would ban hate speech. No one should have to question whether they belong based on who they are or what they believe. But that shouldn’t just include marginalized groups like students of color and LGBTQ students — it should also include students with different ideologies. Conservative students should also feel comfortable enough on campus to voice their opinions.
Kenyon’s administration recently updated its position on free speech, noting “Freedom of expression applies to views and ideas that most members of the college may consider mistaken, dangerous, or even despicable.”
However, I don’t think Kenyon students feel any more comfortable voicing unpopular opinions.
One reason is a new hypersensitivity to language. Political correctness and trigger warnings are expected and microaggressions are punished. Trigger warnings are included in graphic social media posts and class syllabi.
Students at Rutgers University requested a trigger warning for violence and misogyny for reading The Great Gatsby. On this campus, students are careful make sure what they say doesn’t come off as offensive or insensitive
In 2016, a Kenyon student sent a party invitation to the entire campus: “Sombreros, tequila, and/or tacos are extremely welcome.” Afterwards, students attacked the sender for “promoting or normalizing bastardizations of culture,” “perpetuating racist stereotypes” and being “highly offensive and hurtful.”
The student apologized several times and finally cancelled the party.
We have gone too far. I am glad Kenyon students try their best not to offend one another, but it has begun to undermine our education. As much as colleges should provide a safe space for students, we cannot be afraid of talking about controversial issues or hearing different opinions. Civil discourse is an important part of a liberal arts education.
Sophie Alexander is a senior at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio.