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When basic respect disappears

The intolerance of the liberal campus

Stanford University campus iStock

When basic respect disappears
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Last week, Stanford Law School managed to secure an unenviable position in the rapidly growing cancel culture Hall of Shame when the school’s conservative Federalist Society chapter had the temerity to invite Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Kyle Duncan to speak on campus.

For daring to expose the school community to the dangerous opinions of a sitting federal judge, the Federalist Society members were subjected to harassment and abuse, but that was nothing compared to the response that awaited Judge Duncan himself. Angry protesters shouted obscenities at him so relentlessly that he soon abandoned any attempt to deliver his prepared lecture on recent issues in constitutional law. Worse still, the school’s DEI Dean, Trisha Steinbach, tasked with restoring order, instead sought to affirm and comfort the already coddled students in the “pain” and “harm” they felt from Judge Duncan’s presence.

Although Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne later apologized for what happened, this incident was clearly no anomaly. Instead, it displayed the extraordinary culture that has taken root at one of America’s top-ranked law schools. Until now, many of the worst displays of “cancel culture” have been confined to college campuses, leading skeptics to wonder whether all the worry on the cultural right was overblown. After all, college students have always been prone to fits of rowdiness and rebellion, from fourteenth-century Oxford to 1960s America.

Back then, more often than not, college students grew up, graduated, and settled down into increasingly conservative habits, as the Baby Boomers did. Except this time, that’s not happening. Law school students aren’t merely adults; they are adults training for a profession built firmly on the ideals of reason, argument, and persuasion. Behavior that five years ago was normal on college campuses is now normal at law schools, and five years from now may start to appear in courtrooms. Where is this coming from?

While many will rightly point to the influence of ideas and institutions and the “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” bureaucracy that helps weaponize it against any expression of conservative ideas, technology has also played a role. Consider: The average first-year law student was nine years old when Facebook opened to the general public and ten when the iPhone was invented. The Stanford students who could not bear to hear Judge Duncan speak for more than ten seconds are among the first to grow up in a world in which the majority of their relationships and social interactions were mediated through a screen.

One cannot entirely blame these students for their fragility, their instinctive search for “safe spaces.”

Judge Duncan and other legal scholars expressed shock that these aspiring lawyers had no idea of how to engage in patient rational disagreement, but why would they? They’ve been formed by algorithms designed to feed them material they already like and agree with, and trained to respond to obnoxious ideas by scrolling past, tapping “Mute” or “Block,” or else ranting cathartically at a faceless opponent whose feelings could be ignored. They’ve been habituated to consume information through feeds of 15-second videos, not the 1,500-word rational arguments that are the attorney’s daily fare.

At the same time, there is plenty of blame to go around. One cannot entirely blame these students for their fragility, their instinctive search for “safe spaces.” After all, they have grown up in a world without boundaries, a world in which public and private, work and leisure, home and school have blurred together into one cacophonous cloud of ever-flowing information, opinion, and “self-expression.”

We may mock them for being thin-skinned, but most were never given the chance to develop coping mechanisms and respect. From the perspective of many students shouting obscenities during Judge Duncan’s lecture at Stanford, they were not shutting down free speech, but engaging in it. This bizarre approach was apparently ratified by the DEI Dean Steinbach, who said afterward that the disruption was “exactly what the freedom of speech was meant to look like—messy.”

James Madison certainly would have been taken aback to hear that this is what he had in mind with the First Amendment. After all, as legal analyst David Lat, writing last year about a similar incident at Yale, pointed out: “The entire point of free speech is undermined if we can’t listen to one another, even if technically we all get to ‘speak.’” A cacophony of everybody yelling everything everywhere all at once may mean that everybody is enjoying their freedom to speak, but it also means that no one is. Speech—like everything else in this finite world—can only exist within boundaries.

As we’ve rushed headlong into an unbounded world in recent decades, and raised an entire generation within it, we can hardly be surprised that they no longer possess the basic skills of waiting, listening, reasoning, and indeed co-existing that a free society could once take for granted.

Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is a fellow in the Evangelicals and Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He founded and served for ten years as president of The Davenant Institute, and has taught for several institutions, including Moody Bible Institute–Spokane, Bethlehem College and Seminary, and Patrick Henry College. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Landrum, S.C., with his wife, Rachel, and four children.

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