Last week, a young woman took to twitter as young (and not so young) people often do, to share her feelings. Michelle Shampton wrote that “As a Republican in college, I am genuinely afraid to speak about my conservative views in fear of being stereotyped or labeled negatively.”
Her tweet comes amidst an apparently endless, ongoing narrative from some that American universities are dens of socialist inequity whereby instructors fill students’ head with leftist dogma, resulting directly in mob rule that asserts various left-wing ideas as unquestionable orthodoxy. I would argue that such a view has genuine merit but moves very quickly towards the less interesting and not as laudable goal of throwing some red meat to a hungry audience, filled with incorrect assumptions about professor salaries and how we use our time. I repeat: the view has genuine merit. The compulsion to correct another, to enforce the correctness of an idea, is directly proportional to one’s conviction s/he is “in the right” and this rule applies to either side of the political spectrum, not to mention the various fragments contained within our increasingly outdated binary view of left and right. Unfortunately in the case of Shampton’s tweet, the Internet soon obliged in offering further evidence of this problem (just see the replies to her tweet). She was widely mocked, and many tweets quoted her comments in horror while pointing out that being murdered because of one’s sexual orientation, for example, is far worse than being worried about being stereotyped in college.
Well… yeah. I would agree with that, though I have trouble understanding why one would immediately jump to such a comparison unless it was an accepted truth that it is perfectly okay for conservatives or people holding conservative views to feel they are in the minority while in college. I do not think this should be an accepted truth.
It also strikes me as unfair that this statement was immediately met with replies that implied she supported crimes against LGBTQ people, amid other horrifying acts. She never said any such thing. I imagine no small amount of these responses were inspired by Tim Allen’s recent colourful description of being a conservative in Hollywood “is like ‘30s Germany”, a comparison that is both grossly disrespectful and borderline anti-Semitic in its carelessness and insulting to anyone interested in making genuine historical comparisons (don’t get me started on Trump’s election and 1933, by the way…).
However, Allen made these comments not in a thoughtful op-ed for the LA Times but while shooting back and forth with Jimmy Kimmel on the set of a talk show. He was trying to be funny, and silly. My argument here is not that one can say whatever one wants if it is couched in humour, but to point out that Allen’s comments drew disproportionate attention, which in turn surrounded some entirely valid criticism. I may be wrong, but I find it hard to believe this context did not help shape reaction to Shampton’s tweet.
I’m not interested in policing reactions to the tweet, nor am I qualified to do so. I do, however, want to point out that the reactions to her tweet were extremely unpleasant, and frustrating in how carelessly and often unwittingly they perpetrated a simple act of bullying. If one was to take Shampton’s tweet as a beleaguered cry from beneath chains of oppression, I can see how that would be extremely frustrating. It would also perpetuate a rather unfair critique of academia that, frankly, ascribes almost supernatural powers to the common college instructor in our supposed abilities to bend young minds to our frantic, insidious Socialist will.
I do not believe that American campuses are instruments of indoctrination by a liberal cabal, though I do acknowledge, readily, that conversations on college campuses skew towards liberal biases much more quickly than conservative ones, and sometimes with regrettable results. I also do not believe Shampton was seeking to make this point, though I could be wrong. I do not think this tweet, a short comment of 140 characters or less, don’t forget, made a compelling case. It was a succinct declaration of something this woman felt at that moment, which is what twitter is designed to help share with the world.
However, if she does feel that academia is anti-conservative not just in terms of public conversation but down to its bones, she has every right to think that whether I agree or not. If she was flippantly comparing the plight of being a young conservative in 2017 to that of a gay person in fear of her life because of her sexuality, I would have a problem with that, but I do not see how putting her down or mocking her moves any conversation forward in any way. Speaking as a college instructor, I find the idea that a young person has not yet figured out how to declare her political ideas in a thoroughly convincing way unsurprising, particularly given the reams of evidence much more experienced people, including myself, can often do no better. Furthermore, I welcome this idea. Is not merely understandable, but desirable that undergraduates are still finding their way towards a world view? This should be celebrated and protected. So much of this, I suppose, becomes subsumed into wider conversations about how we use the Internet, but I see no reason why we cannot work towards imposing a moratorium of our own on immediately leaping in to virtually eviscerate a named but essentially still anonymous stranger. The costs would seem less potentially harmful to me than those of benevolent harassment.