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The Kids Are Alright
Scratch beneath the surface and it’s clear Gen Z are often conscientious and tolerant.
“Cancel culture.” A hypervigilance over words that harm. Safetyism. An identitarian essentialism reminiscent of the 19th century. These are supposedly the inherent flaws of Gen Z. This generation is hard at work dismantling Western Civilization with its authoritarian political correctness and pathological fragility—or so say conservative, moderate, and old-school leftist commentators alike. We’re here to report, however tentatively, that all is not yet lost. Collective effort, of the sort we instituted at our college, offers hope.
One of us—Matt—is a very recent college graduate; the other—Jake—was his professor. To be clear, we recognize that there really is a problem on college campuses. Our campus—Occidental College in Los Angeles, which Obama famously attended for two years—is no exception. It’s not among the most deranged institutions, but neither is it free of the ills that inspire hopelessness about Gen Z and higher education among commentators. This combination of mild pathology and genuine salvageability is precisely what led us to think we should, and could, stage an intervention.
In 2021, we opened a student chapter of Persuasion at Occidental—a club where students could discuss ideas openly and honestly, in a spirit of charity and good faith. “Free and fair discourse” is the core principle of the club. The principle sounds attractive. Who, after all, doesn’t want to be heard? But it quickly becomes less attractive when we have to apply it to those whose ideas we abhor. It risks devolving into “free speech for me, but not for thee.” Therefore, the club follows Frederick Douglass’s dictum: “Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist.” Truly open conversation, and indeed individual autonomy, is impeded if the right for everyone to speak freely is not protected and upheld.
A forum like ours requires two kinds of freedom, one negative and one positive. First, students have to be free from the hierarchies of the classroom and the pressures of social life. Entering a meeting, one is affirmed to be no more and no less than a fully formed human being, legitimate and worthy in one’s own right, and possessed of a voice no less valuable than that of any other. This does wonders for one’s willingness to share opinions. Secondly, students have to feel empowered to dig fearlessly into the difficulties, inconsistencies, contradictions, and tensions inherent in any issue. This requires not only the first, negative freedom, but also a positive commitment and empowerment to relentlessly question beliefs—one’s own and those of others.
Meetings follow a minimalist format, and conversations are determined entirely by members’ preferences. Topics have varied widely over the last year and a half and have included race, cultural appropriation, immigration, the term “POC,” and many others. Discussion starts from the generally accepted perspective(s) on the issue, and evolves into a more nuanced and critical analysis of received truths. There are always at least a few people in the group who push back against prevailing opinion and steer the conversation into places few of us have gone before.
Discussing concrete instances of racist ravings close to home was one such instance of venturing into uncharted territory. In February of this year, our campus was rocked by the circulation of a private exchange between two students containing hateful sentiments towards Asians, including one text message that read “all Asian people need to die.” The club’s response was twofold. First, we held a dedicated meeting to talk about what happened, allowing those students most affected by their peer’s hateful words to speak their minds—as well as allowing students of Asian descent who did not believe the text message posed a real threat to voice their own beliefs. Throughout the discussion, which remains one of our most profound to date, we were able to bridge vastly different perspectives, regardless of ethnic or racial affiliation. The productivity of our conversation was thanks to—you guessed it—giving each individual complete liberty to speak, rather than attempting to extract an essentialized account from him or her. No one was expected to speak on behalf of their “group,” however defined.
Another meeting we held, moderated by Braver Angels/ACTA, discussed the question, “Is restorative justice a viable model to address grievances?” Again, opinions diverged and emotions ran high during the debate. All of us felt a vested interest in arguing for our beliefs. Some of us personally carried the weight of questions of justice and forgiveness, originating as we do from places (Latin America, Eastern Europe, etc.) where these questions are palpably present in everyday life, in light of the various atrocities with which our histories are peppered.
And yet, none of the participating students hesitated to answer the proposed question honestly, no one got “canceled,” and no one demeaned anyone else as a bad person for the views they expressed, however contentious. Instead, students appeared to learn from those whose views differed from their own, and they evinced not merely mutual respect but mutual affection. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that open and well-argued disagreement over pressing issues engenders deeper insight and understanding. Moreover, the exercise, when carried out in good faith, seems to strengthen affective bonds of community.
A success story is nice, but what lessons can we learn?
First, students are an inherently ideologically diverse group. As Musa al-Gharbi has put it, “students are actually much more politically heterogeneous than the faculty or (especially) university admin.” And yet, whatever their inherent diversity, students are good at reading signals from faculty and administrators—and from a few vocal peers—as to what views they may acceptably express. If those of us in higher education want to make our campuses places where all students can feel free to be themselves, in all their viewpoint diversity, we should strive to create a college culture in which they are empowered to express themselves.
Such a culture can help students feel a greater sense of community and belonging. It is commonplace that students who are not white, especially first-generation Black and Hispanic students, feel out of place on college campuses. The standard explanation attributes this to racism. However, at least part of the explanation must lie in the fact that these students tend, as al-Gharbi writes, “to be more socially conservative and religious on average than whites,” which “helps explain the frequently-identified ‘cultural mismatch’ first-generation and minority students often face when they enter universities.” As such, it can prove alienating to students who are first-generation, not white, not American, not from coastal urban centers, who did not go to elite private high schools, and so on. (Here, Jake thinks of the Black student who, in his first semester, took him aside to confide, “I have never met people so liberal in all my life!”)
The second lesson is that many professors and students want not merely to create knowledge through research and to transmit it and learn it in classrooms, but also to leave the world a better place than they found it by resolving inequities, mitigating oppression, and so on. To have any hope of accomplishing such ambitious goals, we as individuals and institutions must strive to be seen by the broadest possible swath of stakeholders—colleagues, students, our neighbors in our communities, our fellow Americans—as intellectually legitimate. Colleges and universities must be perceived as providing fair and unbiased forums for the generation, exchange, and assessment of a wide variety of ideas that are representative of the many viewpoints to be found in our diverse democracy. Otherwise, they risk self-marginalizing as conservatories for the incubation and inculcation of abstruse theories that are not widely subscribed to off campus.
Finally, a campus climate of openness to free and fair exchange of ideas can help heal the pathologies of campus life. If students felt “seen,” honored, and respected for who they truly are in their deepest beliefs and values, beneath the level of superficial characteristics, then some of the heat might go out of “cancel culture,” intolerance for speech, safetyism, and overwrought identitarianism.
Ultimately, there is nothing to be gained in lamentation but much to be gained in identifying the like-minded among professors, staff, and students, and working together on solutions. That will allow us to have the committed, respectful, and incisive discussions for which many young people long deeply.
Jacob L. Mackey is Assistant Professor of Classics at Occidental College and author of Belief and Cult: Rethinking Roman Religion (Princeton University Press, 2022).
Matt Major is a recent graduate of Occidental College’s Comparative Studies in Literature and Culture program.