A Maroon article published October 19 reported on the “Conference on Freedom of Expression” recently hosted by the University of Chicago. “Those principles apply irrespective of the ideological perspective of the speakers,” stated Daniel Diermeier, provost of the University and former dean of the Harris School of Public Policy. He stated all in attendance were in “strong agreement” with the importance of upholding the ideals of free speech. This statement is consistent with recent propaganda from the University, cementing its position as a leader among elite colleges regarding issues of freedom of expression. Nearly everyone with any kind of connection to the University, whether that be student, parent, or professor, is aware of the school’s supposedly endless commitment to free speech, and to the arousal of rich, conservative, and corporate donors everywhere. But is this stance actual practice, or just preaching? My own experience calls this into question.
This issue first became apparent to me during an O-Week campus life meeting on sexual assault, at which, ironically, Provost Diermeier was speaking. There, standing before the entire bright-eyed first-year class, the provost cracked a joke about the Trump administration—the terrible, chaotic, completely childish and incompetent presidency; the “Republican” administration, which controls the Senate and the House but has yet to pass any comprehensive party platform; the White House defined more by Twitter than legislation. The crowd loved it. Devoured it. One could almost see a collective validation in those joyous faces, many of whom had come from areas where they had to deal with people who actually supported Trump. “Ah,” those faces said, “a place where I belong, where I will never have to deal with grandparents who watch Fox News or worry about being called a ‘libtard’ by Jimmy during an election ever again!” Or perhaps people who did not come from places with Trump voters thought to themselves: “Those degenerates! How could they vote for change when they lost all of their well-paid jobs to robots and Mexico? Maybe all the rust from those abandoned manufacturing plants is getting to their head.” There was a real sense of complacency in the air: Nothing needs to be argued because of course we are right. It comes from statements like Provost Diermeier’s, which had essentially denied the validity of an entire conservative political stance. In fact, the vast majority of students probably agreed with, laughed at, and even supported Provost Diermeier’s joke, but somewhere in the crowd—somebody who at the very least is conservative, and at the very most voted for Trump—likely would have felt uncomfortable expressing their beliefs.
This kind of sweeping assumption leads to “closet conservatives” who proceed with unchallenged ideas that may be fundamentally wrong but later gain a platform with the general public (i.e. Richard Spencer, M.A. ’03), or the “silent majority” of the 2016 election, who were too afraid to explicitly express their Trump support until the day of the election. Not to mention the fact that this de facto gag order encourages an elitist and distant culture among liberals, who then ask how something such as the 2016 election came to pass. Is this passive, seemingly innocent form of silencing different opinions really what the University is aiming for?
If there were a debate, I would definitely not be on the side of Trump and company, but I do believe that there should be a debate. I believe this for many of the same reasons the University cites in its free speech pamphlets, but comments like Provost Diermeier’s suppress, rather than stimulate, open discussion. Considering the University “has always been committed to creating an environment of open discussion and debate,” administrators should take more caution if “intellectual diversity” is to be truly valued in the campus community.
Aaron Katsimpalis is a first-year in the College.