Much has been written about the low voter turnout of those aged 18-30 and especially the 18-24 subgroup, the age category that takes in college students. Although youth turnout has been historically low, the trends are getting worse. Some have hypothesized that they are a group disengaged from society because they feel they have no stake in it. Others note that many of today’s young voters have a general distrust of politicians in general.
However, one needs only look at trends on college campuses these days and, to a lesser degree, high schools. Specifically, I refer to speech and conduct codes. Greater than 95% of colleges surveyed have such codes in some form with some being very ambiguous and onerous. The most disturbing trend among these young people is that they have come to expect and accept them. The new mindset is that it is perfectly acceptable to hinder free expression.
As a result, the vast majority of today’s youth is unwilling to discuss unpopular opinions on campus or even in a classroom. That is not the purpose of higher learning where one should be exposed to a variety of ideas and viewpoints and one where one’s own personal opinions and beliefs are challenged and defended. There is a general fear of expressing one’s opinion and beliefs out of a fear of attack by college professors, administration and fellow students. A 2010 poll of over 24,000 college students revealed that only 30% strongly agreed it was fine to hold and express unpopular opinions. The fear of attack for holding a particular viewpoint is not without foundation. A high school student won a two-year legal battle for a posting on her personal Facebook account describing a teacher as “one of the worst ever.” For this she was suspended. Schools are too quick to stifle speech that may be insulting, but in no way is offensive, hateful, or incite violence. On college campuses we have “safe zones” and protests against speakers before the speaker even utters a word.
Besides the fear of attack and perhaps more disturbing is student unfamiliarity with how to express a potentially unpopular opinion. Taken together, this has created a culture where speech is suppressed. Why suffer the consequences of expressing one’s opinion unless that opinion conforms with what is politically correct at the time? Is it any wonder that the major parties drift towards the moderates, or wafflers as I call them- those driven more by the latest poll than by principle?
This begins in our schools where an attitude is developed. Students have developed a mindset over time where they believe there exists a right not to be offended. That may be fine when it comes to anti-bullying programs and tactics in grade school, but that is hardly a recipe for higher education where critical thinking is of highest value. This chilling of speech effect is not necessarily driven by a fear of administrative action. Students in colleges know these policies and speech codes exist. What is disturbing is how accepting they are of them. And this stems from this irrational belief that one has the right not to be offended. Thus, a “shut it down” mentality has swept across our college campuses lest something offend someone. There are too many “someones” and the “somethings” are ambiguous. This creates a “play it safe” atmosphere that serves no one any good. “Safe places” and “trigger warnings” are the norm.
Instead what we get is an echo chamber of thought where there is no debate and no challenging or defense of one’s opinions, beliefs and prejudices. There is no attempt to “convince” the other side, just play to the choir. Dialogue with someone with who you disagree is avoided lest the “wrong” thing be said. Instead of the free flow of ideas in a controlled setting- something colleges used to be- students segregate into groups of political similarity. Then they rail against political polarization and Congressional gridlock?
Some writers have noted that many college graduates are seeking alternative ways to become engaged through joining civic non-profits. This is a falsity. It is just another vehicle to self-segregate politically. I venture you will not find too many conservatives joining Greenpeace or too many liberals joining the Club for Growth. Instead, in this setting like all others, people ignore those with whom they disagree.
The alleged suppressed have become the oppressors on college campuses. The generation that fought for campus free speech are now writing the campus speech and conduct codes. The generation that fought for the right of young people to vote has created a culture of malaise among young voters. The generation that challenged cultural, political and sexual norms now proscribes the new norms and woe to they who violate those norms. Instead, we have a generation of politically correct automatons leaving the insulated bubble of the college campus.