With the current state of politics in the world, debates about intolerance are suddenly in vogue again – and for good reason. Religious freedom, freedom of expression, freedom to love – all kinds of rights and freedoms are under attack. And with the rise of right-wing governments all around the globe, such intolerance is being institutionalised even more openly. Needless to say, the pushback against this has been strong – but arguably not strong enough, given that political power is still wielded by conservative forces. And while there have been mass protests and movements, whether at Standing Rock or Una, a sustained, cohesive, and unified mass political movement against this new, global rise of fascism is yet to be seen.
One of the more widely noted tendencies of these oppressive governments across various nations is an attack on campus freedoms, specifically the right to dissent and the right to organise. Given their lack of political power in more directly influential spaces, Leftists have attempted to hold on to power in campuses and stand against government intervention. One way they have tried to do this is by ‘no-platforming’ or refusing to give discursive space to right-wing politicians or ideologues – in the case of America, figures like Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of Education Betsy Devos, and infamous media personality Milo Yiannopoulos. In the case of the latter, his scheduled appearance at UC Berkeley earlier this year even led to violence from alleged Antifa forces, who were attempting to prevent him from turning up.
As Indian-American journalist Fareed Zakaria states in this video, this can be seen as a rising intolerance within liberal spaces themselves – intolerance towards differing opinions, towards contrarian views, and towards honest debate with said views and opinions. Citing examples of students walking out during graduation speeches given by VP Pence and Devos, Zakaria states that while liberals might like to think of themselves as tolerant, this shows that they are as close-minded as they assume conservatives to be. In order to be truly liberal, Zakaria says, space must be given to these speakers and their ideas, and these ideas should be listened to by liberals in order to sharpen their own views.
Zakaria may not be far off the mark in pointing out the fragility of bubbles and echo chambers, and how a complete refusal to engage with contrarian views can backfire immensely. While safe spaces ostensibly exist as spaces for oppressed minorities and marginalised groups outside of the influence of their oppressors, if a safe space extends into a bubble that cuts off its denizens from ground realities, it can contribute to the creation of a dangerous, elite ivory tower. And elitism is, whether we like it or not, a rampant problem among left and liberal spaces. Moreover, if freedom of speech is to be defended as a principle – in particular, freedom of speech and dissent against the ruling class – then we cannot condone the ruling class cracking down on right wing speech, even if we express dissent against it ourselves.
However, it is difficult to agree with the rest of what he says – and one might say it displays the political inanity and blindness that has become inherent in liberal and centrist discourses like Zakaria’s. Zakaria’s statement that “conservative voices and views, already a besieged minority, are being silenced entirely” shows a distinct lack of political insight for such a distinguished journalist. Conservative voices and views happen to hold actual political power in several influential countries across the world – including the most powerful one. Conservative voices and views therefore hold the power to enact real decisions that can affect people’s lives, especially minorities, workers, and the poor. The left, for all its discursive bluster, has for years been politically insignificant, and outside of university spaces, left voices have often been brutally silenced. A symbolic walkout staged by students does not equate to a refusal to engage with contrarian views – it is, rather, an acknowledgement that figures like DeVos and Pence – incidentally, the Secretary of Education and the Vice-President, respectively – hold tremendous power and should not be ceded any more ground. That what they represent should constantly be opposed and actively fought against. Zakaria treats these walkouts as serious, grievous harm being committed against ‘besieged minority’ voices, whereas they are merely symbolic – at best. They do, however, display much keener political acumen on the part of these students over an experienced commentator like Zakaria. For intellectuals and commentators like him, apparently the only correct way to protest against open racists, sexists, and queerphobes who possess the ability to affect people’s lives with their beliefs is to engage them in ‘reasoned’, ‘honest intellectual debate’.
Of course, it is perhaps in the interests of centrists and neoliberals to preserve a skewed world order that keeps actual power in the hands of the elites – because this did not start with the rise of the global right wing. Centrist and liberal democratic governments have, historically, also worked to preserve this imbalance of power, and it is not merely in the interests of fairness that Zakaria speaks of ‘anti-intellectualism’. In dismissing the various forms of protest and rebellion that have been built up across generations of movements, as well as in ignoring the material realities of people that makes it necessary for them to adopt certain means of resistance, what Zakaria displays is, ironically enough, an immense sense of privilege and superiority that can only be called elitism – except the repercussions of such an attitude are far more dangerous than that word implies.