It is often said that as one grows older, one grows more politically conservative. This is often conveyed in a quote generally misattributed to Winston Churchill, paraphrased: “If you’re not a liberal at twenty, you have no heart; and if you’re not a conservative at forty, you have no head.” That liberalism belongs to the young and idealistic, and conservatism to the mature and experienced, remains a regular debate among partisans and ideologues of all ages. But it seems seldom questioned whether ideological change has less to do with the shift in ideals within an individual, and more to do with the world that is changing around them.
Consider the emergence of the new political left. Once the ideological wing of populism, class struggle and egalitarianism, the “new left” in America and the U.K. is largely centered around matters of personal identity, perceptions of privilege and oppression, and in the cases of many younger progressives, personal insulation from views or speech deemed “triggering” or “problematic.”
Not even as long as a decade ago, anti-war and free speech advocates from the political left were fighting tooth and nail to oppose the “free speech zones” into which they were forced – by law enforcement and conservatives more broadly – that curtailed free expression ostensibly in the name of national security. But strangely, today’s progressive activist is increasingly becoming one who fights for free speech restrictions, not against.
Take the most visible recent example: university campuses. Whether you focus on the University of Missouri protests of last fall – where Media Studies professor Melissa Click became an icon of the anti-speech regressivist movement when she called for “muscle” to expel a member of the press from the students’ “safe space” – or the banning of conservative columnist Milo Yiannopolous and radical feminist Julie Bindel by the University of Manchester Student Union, the modern face of progressive activism is increasingly resembling one of authoritarian design. Notice the twin ironies here: one protest seeks to ban media coverage while attempting to raise public awareness around race issues, while the other bans speakers who are set to debate one another in a forum on the state of free expression.
Both of these cases, of course, contradict the intellectual legacy to which these young protestors otherwise lay claim. The history of progressive student activism – whether fighting for civil rights, opposing foreign wars or drawing attention to gross injustice like apartheid in South Africa – consistently held as a core conviction the belief that free expression and open dialogue were essential to advancing progressive causes. The Free Speech Movement of the 1960s is still seen by many as the high water mark for U.S. progressive student activism.
Yet looking now to students’ changing demands – for “safe spaces,” which have come to replace the defense of free expression – it would appear that much of the progressive legacy is being undone with each passing hashtag and protest.
Another insidious, if more banal aspect of modern progressivism is the over-sensitivity and outrage culture overtaking U.S. university campuses. In early 2015, students at Columbia University held forums to discuss how many within their ranks felt “triggered” and “unsafe” in a recent Literature Humanities class in which Ovid’s Metamorphoses was being read and discussed. Deeming the work a “transgression” against “identity,” the student Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board wrote an article in the Columbia Spectator that decried the classic for its “triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom.”