Debate Denied at Stanford: How Liberal Hegemony Keeps Conservatives Quiet

By Gregory Hirshman

As an elite university home to some of the best and brightest young minds in the country, Stanford should be an ideal place to foster intellectual and political discourse and should encourage students to challenge one another’s views on a wide range of issues. Unfortunately, its atmosphere is often hostile to the free expression of conservative views and restricts debate on many issues.

Although conservative views on issues like taxation may be expressed without fear of intimidation, conservative students will often not speak out on other topics, especially those dealing with race or sexual orientation. Students who are against affirmative action risk being labeled “racists.” Students who oppose gay marriage may be called “bigots.” Students who argue in favor of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” may be branded “homophobes.” As a result, even conservatives who are normally outspoken and enjoy debate fear speaking openly about issues such as race and sexual orientation. Most conservatives prefer to remain silent rather than risk being ostracized. When a conservative chooses to say something that is “politically incorrect,” he lowers his voice, so that no one can overhear the conversation. He also makes certain that the person to whom he is speaking is a conservative, or at least a liberal who is tolerant of opposing viewpoints whom he trusts will not expose his ideas to more narrow-minded colleagues.

Even after four years at Stanford, I continue to be amazed to see how self-conscious conservatives are when making politically unpopular remarks. They confront a politically stifling conformity of opinion, and they feel that they risk social isolation, or, in some cases, even discrimination in grading if their true opinions become widely known. At a university which prides itself on tolerance and diversity, this is highly ironic. Like liberals, conservatives deserve to be regarded as people of good will who hold political opinions worthy of discussion and analysis, and not to be dismissed immediately as bigots who wish to reestablish racism, homophobia, or other forms of intolerance. Instead of suppressing the expression of conservative viewpoints, liberals should adhere to the traditional definition of a liberal individual, someone who is “not limited to or by established, traditional, orthodox, or authoritarian attitudes, views, or dogmas; free from bigotry.” They should welcome the opportunity to discuss issues with conservative students. As the great “liberal” social theorist John Stuart Mill once said, “We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and even if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.”

One major reason why conservative students feel intimidated at Stanford is that the faculty and administration are so overwhelmingly left of center. According to an article by Daniel Klein and Andrew Western published in Academic Questions in 2005, the ratio of Democrats to Republicans among the Stanford faculty is 7.6 to 1. Among the faculty in the humanities and social sciences, where political orientation of the professors is particularly relevant, this ratio is 14.4 to 1. Many faculty members bring their political and social views directly into the classroom. In the environment they create, conservatism is not regarded as an ideology which proposes an alternative view of the ideal society and of the proper means to achieve it, but rather as a bigoted dogma whose purpose is to frustrate the goals of the enlightened.

As a freshman in an IHUM course at Stanford, I witnessed the way in which the leftward tilt of the professorship can affect academic debates on campus. While, for example, the winter issue of this newspaper presented a debate containing one article praising IHUM and another contending that Stanford should eliminate it, the debate I witnessed in my class presented only a clash between two liberal viewpoints. Debating the issue of whether gays should be allowed to marry, one professor presented the standard liberal defense of gay marriage, arguing that true equality demands that each citizen has the right to marry whomever he or she chooses regardless of sexual orientation. The second merely responded by saying that activists should not advocate gay marriage because doing so would stimulate the conservative Republican base and impede broader social progress. This professor did not advance any conservative argument against gay marriage. Having listened to this kind of debate, conservative students might conclude that they should be reluctant to argue vigorously against legalizing gay marriage for religious reasons or because they believe that legalizing gay marriage would damage the traditional family. Many conservatives suspected that their grades could suffer if they openly advocated such opinions. My subsequent experience at Stanford has demonstrated such situations are not uncommon.

Perhaps the clearest and most dramatic indication of the way that conservatives are intimidated on this campus is the fact that five conservative writers for this newspaper, The Cardinal Principle, have chosen to publish only under pseudonym. This is more than 20% of the conservative staff. No liberal author has ever made such a request. The conservative writers told me they did not want to have their names attached to their articles for two reasons. First, they feared that their professors and/or TAs would learn of their conservative leanings and that this would negatively affect their grades, although their articles had no direct relation to their class material. Second, some did not want the broader Stanford community to know that they had conservative views for fear of social isolation and ostracism. This is completely contrary to the motto of Stanford University, “Die Luft der Freiheit weht,” which is German for “The wind of freedom blows.” Sadly, the winds of freedom have ceased to blow for those student authors. This should not be tolerated. Students should have the opportunity to express their political and intellectual viewpoints freely and openly, regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum, unless they seek to harass, insult, or harm others.

In a small way, I have sought to counteract this stifling atmosphere by founding and editing The Cardinal Principle, a paper whose mission is to print well-written and respectful articles from any political viewpoint in order to stimulate debate on campus. Being a firm believer in John Stuart Mill’s statement that “he who only knows his side of the case knows little of that,” I believe that the best way to promote education, tolerance, and understanding is to create an environment in which everyone can feel comfortable making his or her voice heard. Until Stanford ceases to create an atmosphere which limits the expression of conservative views on campus, it will restrict debate and deprive its students’ access to a “liberal education” in the noblest sense of that phrase.

This entry was posted in Articles for Volume 4, Issue 3, Spring 2011. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Debate Denied at Stanford: How Liberal Hegemony Keeps Conservatives Quiet

  1. George says:

    It’s not easy being a minority, now is it?

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