Western outrage and the free speech crisis

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  • Paul Holden
    Paul Holden

Paul Holden

The controversy at Western Colorado University regarding an email written by President Salsbury condemning the Capitol Occupation has occupied the editorial pages and letters to the editor in the Gunnison Country Times and the Crested Butte News over the past few weeks. The most recent of these was a letter by a supposed environmental student at the university. After containing several unfounded allegations, the letter ends by saying that “racism” will no longer be tolerated at the university. How he came to assume the mantle of representing the views of the university, he fails to mention.

Imputing meaning and intentions that were not in President Salsbury’s email is another example of the Cancel Culture that pervades current discourse on campuses across the country. It stifles alternative opinions, cuts off debate and infers meaning and intent when they are not there.

We are living in a time when freedom of speech is under attack as never before. We are told that “safety and inclusivity” are more important than allowing views that are in conflict with the current political correctness paradigm. Large private corporations which control access to the information that we receive are censoring material as they see fit, without explanation and without any right of appeal. Mainstream media on both sides of the political divide seem to have abandoned objectivity and have embraced advocacy over reporting. The staff of publishing houses urge their companies not to publish books that contain views with which they do not agree. Hollywood fires actors who hold views that differ from its own. We are regressing towards McCarthyism under another guise.

There is a fundamental problem with demands that particular viewpoints be stifled; they are never symmetric. My view is the correct one and if you disagree with me you are wrong and should be censored or silenced. The last year has demonstrated the hypocrisy of both public and private elites at both ends of the political spectrum over this issue. But this increasing polarization is dangerous; lives, or at least careers have been destroyed because of inopportune emails, tweets, or Facebook posts evidencing something a person did decades ago. Compassion and tolerance have been thrown out of the window.

I am not sure to what extent this is at least partly a fallout from the COVID epidemic. Many people have been isolated, cut off from social contacts and separated from many of the friendships and rituals that are so much part of life. My personal observation is that this has led to a buildup of tensions, an obsessive focus on the latest news and a loss of objectivity. Often, this tension manifests itself in shouting down others, and a plethora of abuse. Anger runs deep, which has been exacerbated by the political divide in the country, that shows no sign of going away.

The situation at Western regarding President Salsbury’s email contains inescapable similarities to what I have described above in terms of imputing opinions where none exist. Before demanding yet another head on the plate of political correctness and Woke views, the benefits to the university of President Salsbury’s tenure should be recognized. These include the securing of one of largest private grants ever donated to a Colorado university that has resulted in the state of the art computer science and engineering building; the association with the University of Colorado; the expansion of the graduate program; dramatically increasing minority enrollment; and the changing of the name of the university from its unpronounceable former mouthful.

President Salsbury inherited an institution that has an enormous debt at a time when universities around the country are in crisis. The university’s debt service alone is several million dollars per year. The number of universities closing around the country should give the faculty pause and persuade them to redouble their recruiting efforts. All this has been compounded by the Covid crisis and its impact on enrollment.

The outrage over President Salsbury’s email seems out of all proportion to its content. The reaction of some of the faculty at Western, the editorials in the local papers and other letters in a similar vein are out of all proportion to the imagined transgression. They remind me of something the great African American economist Thomas Sowell said: “Racism is not dead but is on life support — kept alive by politicians, race hustlers and people who get a sense of superiority by denouncing others as ‘racists”:

(Paul Holden Ph.D. is an adjunct professor of economics at Western Colorado University. He is an international economist who works with the World Bank, the IME the Asian Development Bank, and other institutions on issues of economic growth, poverty alleviation and prosperity. The views expressed here are entirely his own.)