By Gregory Hirshman
Although nearly twenty times as many Americans identify themselves as conservative than as gay, in many ways it takes more inner strength and conviction on the Stanford campus to come out as an outspoken conservative than as a homosexual. To those unfamiliar with the liberal culture which pervades our university, this might be shocking. Yet when one considers the resources that Stanford specifically provides for the gay community–a community resources center, an academic support and advising group, and several university-supported staff positions–and the strict, if informal, unspoken rule against speaking negatively about homosexuality on campus, coming out as gay is not very hard at Stanford. Conservatism, on the other hand, especially on issues of sex and race, is often derided at Stanford as reactionary, or even as bigoted, especially when it opposes the progressive ideals of gay marriage and affirmative action promoted by the university establishment. Thus, while it may seem surprising that coming out as conservative takes more courage than coming out as gay at Stanford, political correctness gone wild creates this paradoxical result.
To appreciate the situation, consider a hypothetical student who asks one of two questions in a large lecture hall or in a dorm discussion on campus. “Professor, as a gay student, how differently would I be treated in a conservative state like Kansas, which has a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, than in a liberal state like Massachusetts, which has legalized gay marriage?” Or, “Dorm President, considering the fact that the legalization of gay marriage in many European counties has been followed by the weakening of traditional marriage, would the legalization of gay marriage in America damage traditional marriage here?” Consider two other questions. “Professor, do you consider our struggle for the legalization and acceptance of gay marriage to be analogous to the struggle during the Civil Rights Movement for the legalization and acceptance of interracial marriage?” Or, “Dorm President, do you believe cultural factors help explain why blacks with a family income of $60,000 score lower on the SAT than whites with a family income of $20,000?” For each pair, for which question would the student would be applauded for posing, and for which question would the student be met with muted stares or outright hostility? The first question in each pair would be welcomed while the latter might cause outrage. For asking questions from an openly homosexual viewpoint, the student would benefit from the sympathy of fellow students and be lauded for coming out of the closet. For asking questions from a forthright conservative viewpoint, the student might be considered insensitive, if not homophobic or racist. While all four questions are worthy of discussion, our liberal campus culture would favor the gay student–whose questions would be seen as part of the effort to free himself or herself from the shackles of traditional society’s discomfort with homosexuality–while it would condemn the conservative student for expressing an opinion which might make some members of the Stanford community uncomfortable.
This disparity is symptomatic of a larger problem. Political correctness manifests itself as policy designed to minimize offense to gender, racial, cultural, or other identity groups. The goal of defending groups such as homosexuals and blacks from bigotry and intolerance is, of course, laudable. Hate speech, especially when used to provoke conflict, is repugnant and reprehensible. Nevertheless, when political correctness leads to certain forms of censorship, it makes it impossible for students to bring up serious concerns about gay marriage or racial preferences without risking being branded as bigots. Students who wish to raise these issues are not necessarily homophobic or racist, and most, especially at Stanford, are neither. There are conservatives who have legitimate worries about the implications of gay marriage for society or who seek to understand the causes of the disparities in SAT scores between blacks and whites. A large majority of such conservatives fully support equal opportunity for homosexuals and blacks, but rampant political correctness on campus makes them genuinely nervous about raising these topics for discussion. Gays or blacks might label these questions as offensive and put the conservative student in a difficult situation. The gay student who comes out has little to worry about at Stanford since many students will be impressed by his or her courage, and the rest will not dare to be openly critical of him or her on a campus which is supportive of such a lifestyle. Thus, it takes more nerve for the conservative student to make politically incorrect remarks on sex or race than for a gay student to reveal his or her homosexuality.
This may come as a surprise to people unfamiliar with life at Stanford. It is politically incorrect even to mention this situation, but it is important for the liberal establishment to realize how much it has stifled free speech and inquiry. Stanford rightly prides itself on diversity. As an intellectual institution, however, it should foster diversity of ideas as much as other types of diversity, provided, of course, that ideas are expressed in a manner which is courteous and designed to promote rather than impede civil discourse. Fostering discussions on issues of sexuality and race would be much more progressive than maintaining the current political correctness gone wild. Giving reasonable and respectful students the ability to be heard will enrich the diversity of ideas on campus and allow us to choose the best strategies for moving America forward. As John Stuart Mill said 150 years ago, “We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.”