On March 7, the New York Times published the op-ed “I Came to College Eager to Debate. I Found Self-Censorship Instead.” Written by a senior at the University of Virginia, the article described contemporary American college life as a paranoid nightmare in which everybody is afraid of being ostracized for their opinions. Predictably, much of the internet rolled their eyes. Twitter users replaced the headline with things like “I Came to College Eager to Be Offensive and Start Arguments. Why Is Everyone Mad at Me?”
However, the article made an interesting point, and it inspired me to think about how this may apply to Lewis & Clark. I, too, was disappointed by the lack of open and in-depth debate that I had seen in my classes at LC, but is self-censorship present?
After a year at LC, during which I served in the Associated Student Body (ASB) Senate and participated in other student organizations, I felt like I knew the answer based on my knowledge of the LC student body. It was depressing. No, there is not much self-censorship at LC, but only because it seems like everybody here agrees on every political issue.
Whenever anybody raised any of their concerns, they seemed to be saying “I am the only true leftist at LC, while everyone else is just a performative activist,” all while parroting the exact same talking points as the next person to speak.
Lately, however, I have been reconsidering my point of view. The last week before spring break, a student spread out wooden boards on the lawn by J.R. Howard Hall and asked members of the community to write about the changes they wanted to see at LC. Among the expected calls for more BIPOC faculty, a name change and better mental health resources, which should be familiar to anyone who has listened to students’ grievances, I also saw “more conservative students,” “no mask mandates” and “more pride in Pioneers,” things I cannot imagine students saying in a non-anonymous forum.
So, there is censorship at LC, coming from both the self and from outside influences. However, I think fears of angering LC’s leftist majority are misjudged. Last year, I had a professor who, while not explicitly conservative, was certainly more moderate than the majority of the LC student body. Every now and then, he would wander off topic from discussion of a novel being read by the class and bring up politics. His positions on issues such as police abolition and capitalism versus communism were different from most students’ views, but the class never devolved into ugly mudslinging.
In a study group for the class, I often heard students comment on how much they enjoyed the professor’s willingness to speak his mind, even when they usually disagreed with the things he said.
If LC’s mostly leftist student body thought this professor was a breath of fresh air, perhaps we ought to stop being so afraid of the things that we say. Recently, a Rhetoric and Media Studies class of mine turned to a discussion over the administration’s decision to end its mask mandate. Political discussions in that class are not uncommon, but usually end quickly with everyone agreeing. In this case, I was part of a minority of students directly arguing that removing the mandate was a good choice. Emotions ran high but nobody personally attacked me, and I did not feel like my social standing took a hit.
At LC, cancel culture is by and large all in our heads. It is only our collective fear of being canceled that perpetuates cancel culture itself. Even here, where it seems like the main political rift is between democratic socialists and revolutionary socialists, there is a latent desire for alternate viewpoints.
LC students are not afraid of open debate. We are, however, afraid that everyone else is afraid of open debate. If we can cast away that fear and speak openly about what we believe, LC will truly provide the complete liberal arts education, exposing its students to a variety of views, that it claims to.
Nope. Cancel culture is not an irrational fear at LC. The vast majority of students are incredibly intolerant towards any deviation in opinion. You do not get to speak for conservative students just because you have one common-sense view on mask mandates. Try telling people you support Trump and see what happens.