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Harmony or Discord? Navigating the Confluence of Woke Culture and Free Expression at Universities

By Louis Mafart

Edited by Nico Herrlett & Gigi Kordula

In the ever-evolving tapestry of higher education, the example of campus codes emerges as a poignant focal point in the ongoing discourse surrounding freedom of speech and woke culture. This is not just a matter of policies; it is a nuanced exploration of how ideals collide within the foundations of colleges. This article will showcase the intricacies of this sometimes-heated debate.

©Noah Berger/Reuters

Inclusivity and Intellectual Freedom: The Ideal

In college classrooms, prioritising knowledge and idea exchange, the implementation of speech codes is a pivotal aspect linking woke culture to freedom of speech.

On university campuses, where inclusivity and intellectual freedom should ideally coexist, the delicate dance between these two principles has raised questions about the nature of discourse and the boundaries of expression.

In 2017, at Evergreen State College, biology professor Bret Weinstein encountered a clash between woke culture and free speech. He objected to the "Day of Absence" event, where white participants were encouraged to leave campus, arguing it violated equality and free speech principles.

The dispute led to protests, class disruptions, and calls for Weinstein's resignation, illustrating the challenges in balancing safe spaces and open discourse on college campuses.

The incident sparked a broader dialogue about the limits of free expression in the context of social justice advocacy.

Defining Speech Codes and Woke Culture

Speech codes, policies designed by universities to regulate speech and maintain inclusive environments, have become emblematic of the influence of woke culture on campus life.

The essence of woke culture, rooted in the pursuit of social justice and inclusivity, seeks to rectify historical injustices and create safe spaces for marginalised communities.

Woke Culture” refers to a socio-political movement that emerged with the aim of promoting social justice and raising awareness about systemic inequalities.

Critics, however, argue that the term has evolved into a phenomenon characterised by ideological rigidity and an uncompromising stance on certain social issues.

This critical perspective suggests that, at times, woke culture may manifest as a form of moral absolutism. Where dissenting opinions are marginalised and nuanced discussions are stifled in the pursuit of ideological purity.

From this viewpoint, the term may be associated with performative activism, where individuals demonstrate their commitment to social justice primarily through virtue signalling rather than substantive systemic change.

This connection raises questions about the intersection of woke culture with the principles of free speech. Critics argue that a focus on virtue signalling may lead to a stifling of genuine dialogue and diverse perspectives. This would impact the robust exchange of ideas that free speech principles aim to protect.

While acknowledging the legitimate goals of addressing historical injustices and fostering inclusivity, a critical perspective prompts scrutiny. This scrutiny focuses on how woke culture navigates the complexities of free expression, diversity of thought, and the potential for unintended consequences within the broader social and cultural landscape.

Wokeism, known for its language policing and ‘cancel culture’, is criticised for its perceived clash with absolute freedom of speech. The enforcement of language norms and consequences for dissenting opinions can lead to self-censorship and stifle open dialogue.

The ideological rigidity and the subjectivity of what is deemed offensive can limit the exchange of ideas. The concept of intersectionality may inadvertently silence certain perspectives.

Proponents of wokism argue that its emphasis on social justice, inclusivity, and the recognition of historical injustices contributes to creating a more equitable and respectful society.

In this view, Wokeism aligns with the principles of free speech by advocating for marginalised voices to be heard and fostering an environment where individuals feel seen and respected.

Supporters contend that the movement challenges systemic inequalities and encourages critical examination of societal norms. They argue that the goal is not to stifle free speech but to ensure that it is exercised responsibly, with consideration for the impact of words on historically marginalised groups.

While aiming to rectify historical injustices, the challenge lies in balancing inclusivity and upholding free speech principles within the woke culture.

Freedom of Speech as an Educational Tenet

Traditionally, Western universities have been regarded as bastions of free speech, fostering an environment where diverse ideas can be explored and debated.

This commitment to free expression is deeply rooted in the principles of academic freedom, which recognise the importance of open inquiry, robust debate, and the pursuit of knowledge without undue constraints.

However, contemporary discussions on university campuses often involve navigating the tension between upholding these principles and addressing concerns related to inclusivity, creating safe spaces, and preventing harm.

For example, in 2017, at the University of California, Berkeley, conservative commentator Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak. Concerns about Yiannopoulos's provocative rhetoric led to protests, and the event was cancelled due to safety concerns.

This incident exemplifies universities' contemporary struggle, torn between maintaining a commitment to free speech and addressing concerns about potential harm or the marginalisation of certain groups associated with controversial speakers.

Speech Codes and the Challenge to Dissent

Nevertheless, the implementation of speech codes has not come without critique. The concern revolves around the possibility that, in their attempt to create safe spaces, these codes could silence dissenting opinions.

During a speech in December 2021, Ron DeSantis, Governor of Florida, stated “What you see now with the rise of this woke ideology is an attempt to really delegitimise our history and to delegitimise our institutions, and I view the wokeness as a form of cultural Marxism.”

Governor DeSantis’s perspective aligns with a group that is of the opinion that the condemnation of policies which disincentivise the exchange of ideas is a crucial aspect of safeguarding free speech.

Striking a Balance in Campus Policies

There are instances of success in which campuses have effectively navigated this balance through dialogue forums, diversity education initiatives, and various innovative strategies.

Through initiatives like the "Princeton Dialogues on Freedom of Expression," Princeton University has sought to create a campus climate that fosters open dialogue.

These dialogues engage the community in discussions about free speech, inclusivity, and the challenges of navigating diverse perspectives on campus.

Indeed, rather than adopting restrictive policies, successful institutions recognise the importance of creating an atmosphere where diverse perspectives can flourish.

By emphasising understanding, empathy, and open communication, they enable the harmonious coexistence of woke culture ideals and free speech principles.

Woke Culture and Freedom of Speech: A Delicate Equilibrium

Universities are addressing complexities in an effort to establish campuses that reflect the principles of social justice and inclusivity.

They aim to transform these institutions into environments that foster a sense of belonging for students, celebrate diversity, and prioritise the importance of every individual’s voice.

The overarching objective within this framework is not only limited to academic pursuits but also encompasses the promotion of personal and intellectual development among the upcoming generation within a supportive atmosphere.

It entails more than just preparing students for careers; it involves arming them with the tools to comprehend and contribute meaningfully to the world around them, thereby, preparing them for life.

The ongoing discourse on speech codes becomes emblematic of a broader societal conversation, where the harmonious coexistence of diverse perspectives remains an aspirational yet attainable goal.

Sources: Best Colleges, CNN, DUB, Forbes, IJE, Keith Proctor, Pew Research Center, Princeton University, Mission Diverse, The Atlantic, The Washington Post

Written by Louis Mafart

October 2023

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