Nearly 2,500 years ago, Aristotle theorized humans are inherently social beings. For thousands of years, society progressed more or less continuously, built on one main form of interaction between individuals: conversation. People use conversation to show their support for some ideas and their disapproval of others. And for thousands of years, conversation helped set people apart.
Nowadays, conversation can look — and sometimes smell — a little different . . .
Students at the University of California, Davis recently took a decidedly less conversational approach to their disagreement with fellow students. On Nov. 29, several Sacramento area chapters of the student organization Turning Point USA met on the public university’s campus to watch a screening of the controversial documentary “What is a Woman?” The film, which delves into conservative commentator Matt Walsh’s challenges to “gender ideology,” has sparked outrage on a number of university campuses. But nowhere have people lost their shit over this movie quite like a few detractors at UC Davis.
Roughly 30 minutes into the screening, the door to the meeting room swung open, revealing two black-clad masked figures.
Wielding a large garbage bag of manure.
One of those figures launched the excrement through the door. It landed harmlessly on the classroom floor, without striking any of the gathered students. However, two TPUSA members chased after the would-be assailants, who then pepper-sprayed the students. One TPUSA member was injured.
This incident is upsettingly similar to one that occurred just one month prior on the same campus, when protests and counter-protests of the Turning Point USA group’s decision to bring in comedian Stephen Davis led to protesters pepper-spraying TPUSA members there as well.
These protestors have abandoned conversation as the tool to convey disagreement. They have dropped the pen, and found the poo (or the pepper spray) mightier. But at a public school like UC Davis, bound by the Constitution to protect free expression, these tactics are an affront to the First Amendment, which was conceptualized as an antidote to violence.
Unfortunately, this incident only serves to reinforce what FIRE has increasingly seen across college and university campuses nationwide in recent months. From Ilya Shapiro’s interrupted speech at UC Hastings; to Uncensored America’s comedy show at Penn State canceled on the threat of “escalating violence,” to Ann Coulter’s shout-down by students at her alma mater, Cornell; to University of Florida students interrupting, and eventually forcing online, incoming-president Ben Sasse’s remarks to the campus, students are increasingly skipping right over attempts at at engaging with views they dislike, and going straight for more illiberal ways or silencing dissent.
College students, once the prime demographic for supporting the free expression of ideas, have become some of the sharpest recent critics of free expression. Rather than meaningfully engaging with divergent beliefs, many students trend toward rejection of discourse entirely. Instead, we’ve seen many students look to have their views exclusively validated and affirmed. And too often, universities capitulate to their demands, giving in to the heckler’s veto, canceling the event, and effectively rewarding the small number of students engaging in shitty behavior.
Ideally, students would engage with views, even those with which they disagree. An examination of history demonstrates that the most effective way to beat an idea is to prove it wrong, rather than banish it from discourse. And step one of engaging with an idea is to face it, rather than throw muck at it until it goes away.
After all, as author Frank Sonnenberg wrote in “Listen to Your Conscience: That’s Why You Have One”: “You win a debate with a better argument, not by force.”
Or by feces.
Writer and academic Yascha Mounk argues that a new set of ideas about race, gender, and sexual orientation have overtaken society, giving rise to a rigid focus on identity in our national debate. In his new book, "," Yascha seeks to take these...