Political encroachment and greater limits to free speech have turned schools and universities into battlegrounds for the hearts and minds of today’s youth and given rise to campuses that increasingly reflect the ideological polarization gripping the nation.
Despite these ongoing culture wars, Dr. Sigal R. Ben-Porath, author of Cancel Wars: How Universities Can Foster Free Speech, Promote Inclusion, and Renew Democracy, believes post-secondary institutions can bridge political divides and rekindle civic trust in order to reverse the process of democratic decline.
During a talk hosted by the Werklund School of Education on March 9, Ben-Porath will share actionable strategies that will assist educators in establishing respectful discourse across difference.
Cancel culture pitfalls
Social and political polarization, Ben-Porath says, is becoming more heated and serves to accelerate the decline in civic and social trust as well as trust in educational institutions. The resulting suspicion of those with differing views provides a perceived justification for censoring or censuring individuals.
The ramification of self-censorship, and peer-censorship, is that we will have a restricted and stifled conversation.
She says it is difficult to learn in such an environment because people are distrustful and prefer not to express their opinions. As a result, there is less knowledge and fewer views are shared.
Preserving free speech
On post-secondary campuses, struggles over the boundaries of speech often take the form of objections to contentious speakers, differences in how students and professors understand acceptable expression, or academics avoiding difficult topics in their teaching.
Conflicts surrounding which views can legitimately be shared in public and which are deemed harmful lead some to question the value of protecting free speech, but Ben-Porath considers it an essential instrument for advancing justice and equality.
“People who question the importance of these protections are often people who are disappointed by the way these protections are interpreted and applied. For instance, speech protections are commonly used today to defend and protect biased speech or to defend the right of religious individuals to discriminate against people to whom they object.
“I want to suggest that it is still an important tool, and that if it is weakened, minority communities and individuals will be further harmed.”
Why are learning institutions integral to revitalizing democracy? The answer is found in the mission of the academy – the expansion and dissemination of knowledge.
Ben-Porath explains that democratic habits and practices are seeded when members of the academic community pursue this mission and build a shared foundation of knowledge.
“A self-governing society has to rely on at least some foundation of shared knowledge. We have to relate to the same reality — the same facts, the same true understanding of context, and the same view about evidence and arbitration in cases of disagreement — if we are going to be able to make decisions in a shared manner.
“Universities are one of the main places where this shared knowledge is both developed and disseminated.”
As colleges and universities go about realizing this mission, they must also be mindful of expectations for creating inclusive spaces while also meeting legal requirements meant to safeguard diverse views. No easy task, but Ben-Porath says institutions are indeed fulfilling these obligations.
“There are cases on the margins that draw a lot of attention, so it seems that it is impossible to protect both diverse views and a sense of belonging for diverse people. But in fact, it is quite possible.”
In response to situations where students feel unhappy with or persecuted by views expressed, she advises that universities invite other speakers to share opposing views.
More important, efforts must focus on student spaces.
“Most of the dialogue cannot take place in occasional speaker events that tend to be optional. We have to find students where they are — class, clubs, groups — and create structures in these contexts that would provide opportunities to bridge divides and engage in conversation.”
K-12 learning constraints
The contributions post-secondary institutions can make are significant, but primary and secondary schools have a hand in shaping the democratic habits of students long before they enter higher education.
Here again, clashes over the boundaries of acceptable expression are found. Politically motivated efforts to limit the speech of teachers and students as well as restrictions on curriculum and access to school libraries continue to gain traction in a number of American states. Predictably, opportunities for civic growth are diminished.
“Teachers can and regularly do engage students in classroom discussions about diverse views, and they need to be trained and supported in generating and moderating classroom conversations that are inclusive and open.”
Admittedly, fostering free speech, promoting inclusion and renewing democracy is a considerable challenge, but Ben-Porath is confident the academic community is up to the task and that those who attend her discussion will come away with a better understanding of the issues at stake.
“I hope people realize through the talk and conversation that free speech and inclusion are not commonly in tension, and in fact that they enhance each other; and that higher education institutions have a responsibility as well as the power and tools to repair and strengthen democracy.”