Everyone claims that important principles are at stake. Students at Yale and many other universities contend that the need to block offensive speech trumps others’ rights to free speech, especially those who argue the point form the other side. Students at the University of Missouri and other schools contend that the need for “safe spaces” and the need to advance the cause of inclusiveness trumps others’ rights to speech, movement, and association. And recently Christian groups claim that the need to revere Christmas entitles them to embarrass, boycott, and otherwise denigrate those who might do anything they consider less than reverent.
Each group no doubt holds its principles sincerely, but their actions clearly spring less from fervent belief than from a crass desire for power. If they had sincerely wanted to advance their principles, they would have welcomed opposition. The exchange would have given them a chance to persuade and to demonstrate the superior wisdom and insight of their beliefs. It would have enabled them to advance those beliefs and perhaps add to the numbers of those who hold them dear. The power seekers have taken a different approach. They have tried to silence any opposition, to drive it out of the neighborhood, and otherwise crush it. They are less involved in furthering their principles than in leveraging them in the service of a power agenda. A look at the behavior of each group reveals much.
Look how the strict speech codes common at Yale and so many other universities and colleges show a reluctance to even hear contrary positions much less argue with them. To be sure, people sometimes say very offensive things that most people would rather not hear. Minorities might feel uncomfortable in a setting where they are, well, minorities. But sympathy for people who suffer such pain is no reason to demand that school administrations protect any and all from the slightest discomfort. It is ridiculous to insist that a university duplicate for some the comfort level they left in their less diverse and demanding small towns and neighborhoods, much less the security they felt after school in mom’s kitchen. People, after all, go to college to seek a broader world than exists in their childhood communities, or if they do not go there for that purpose, they need to expect a difference. It can only be an exercise in power to disrupt campus when this reality intrudes, to interfere with everyone else’s lives and efforts to learn, to circumscribe everyone else’s speech and freedom of action, to demand that faculty and the administration neglect their other essential tasks, all in an effort to create an impossible and entirely unrealistic world.
The power play is especially naked at the University of Missouri. It is clear from the protestors demands that they care less about equity and inclusion than about getting privileges for a particular minority to control a wide swath of campus life and a substantial portion of university funds. The power grab is even clearer in the demand that outgoing president, Tom Wolf, publicly humiliate himself. Mr. Wolf seems to have had a lot of trouble as a university president. He offended many people. But principle would simply rejoice that his interference has gone. It would then move on the improve the situation. It is a desire for vengeance, an expression of power, that demands sack cloth and ashes for the defeated.
It was especially revealing that the football team led at the University of Missouri, particularly its insistence that outgoing President Wolf publicly “acknowledge his white male privilege.” No doubt white men, purely by an accident of birth, enjoy many privileges in this society, much of it due to an historic legacy. But they are not the only ones who enjoy privileges. Those who care as much for equity as the football squad claims might also be on the lookout for those privileges, too. They might even consider the privileges that enjoy over others. They are, after all, male, if not also white. Because of this accident of birth, they share with white men a legacy of privilege over all women. It is noteworthy in this regard that black men had the right to vote some 50 years before any woman or any race had it. No one on the squad seems ready to humiliate himself over that. The men on the squad are large and have natural athletic talent. They may well have bulked up and refined their athletic skills over the years, but still their athletic scholarships and special status over small, uncoordinated men and all women are in large part simply due to a fortunate accident of birth. No one on the squad seems ready discuss these privileges either. Nor do the all students on campus want to discuss the privileges they have because an accident of birth has given them better cognitive abilities than the population at large. If their motivations were based in principle instead of power, they might at lease have considered the inequities that benefit them.
The evangelicals who have become so upset over the paper cups at Starbucks are almost too silly to connect with a power play, but that is what they are trying to do nonetheless. If they were worried over serious matters Christian, they might have devoted themselves to the dangerous job of saving their co-religionist from extinction in the Middle East. But they clearly prefer to use a small point to try to get a major corporation to change at their command. They also might be seeking revenge. Starbucks might symbolize to them the kind of trendy place that caters to people who they believe hold them in contempt. Perhaps it is because the power play is so obvious that the left has responded with some equally ridiculous and vicious attacks when it might well have ignored the effort or mocked it. The only thing one might say in defense of the evangelicals is that they have learned such behavior from all sorts of groups on the left that have used it against them and others with more traditional values — the twitter mobs, for instance, and the boycotts of Christians and traditionalists who disagree with one cause or another. But even if they are only mimicking those who have used such power plays against them and people like them, it does not change the fact that they, too, are involved in a power play more than a principled matter.