When I was a student at Queen’s University in the late 1970s, I attended precisely one meeting of the student government there–the Alma Mater Society. I went there to protest the AMS decision to de-fund religious student groups (there was only one non-Christian group, Hillel House) because, well, religion was controversial, like politics, and the AMS didn’t like controversy.
We tried to respond that the AMS somehow had a high enough tolerance for controversy to fund the newspaper of the Engineering Society, a sometimes-amusing publication that trafficked mostly in blasphemy, scatology, and sexual outrage.
Too bad, the AMS president said. Plus, we didn’t have standing at the meeting anyhow, since we weren’t elected representatives, but mere students. And that was that.
No big deal. We didn’t need their funding anyway. But as a 19-year-old leader at the time, I thought: “I don’t think this should happen. We’re university citizens, too, engaged in a socially-acceptable–some would even say socially-helpful–activity. The state provides financial help to churches. Why shouldn’t a state university provide help to student religious groups?”
Fast forward twenty-five years, through all the debates over “political correctness,” and move west to the University of British Columbia. Since I have come to Regent College (1998), I continue to see instances of official intolerance of cultural diversity (read: “views we don’t like”).
The student government has openly and repeatedly persecuted (not too strong a word) pro-life groups. Officers of a recent student government physically trashed posters of such groups who had received permission to set up a booth during orientation time.
Other student leaders have forbidden lectures on religion in the dorms, and even refused to allow Christian groups to serve refreshments to new students–even if the groups promised not to give out any literature or even identify themselves as a Christian group.
Small potatoes yet. But in the US, UK, and Canada, Christian student groups on campuses are under threat of outright expulsion from student governments. The most common issues are abortion/reproductive freedom and homosexuality: some groups have views that are not held by those in power, so they are not entitled to function.
As I prepare to teach a seminar on Dietrich Bonhoeffer this week, and with memories of visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., last November and Yad Vashem in Israel a couple of years ago, I feel like many of Bonhoeffer’s peers would have felt about the Nazis. Surely these ideological thugs, and especially the well educated ones (Josef Goebbels had a Ph.D. in history), cannot possibly mean what they say, cannot possibly speak for the majority, and therefore cannot possibly maintain power. Surely good sense will prevail, and those who shriek about “culture wars” and “liberal imperialism” are overreacting.
Read lawyer Iain Benson’s trans-Atlantic view here, and see how you feel then.
So who is to blame?
Well, as G. K. Chesterton once replied to a London newspaper asking, “What’s Wrong with the World?”–I am.
University students cannot be blamed for not knowing, and practicing, what their parents, professors, and public figures do not teach or practice. As a parent and professor, if not a public figure, I myself share the blame for the confusion on campus, and in society at large.
My sense is that we do not know as Canadians, Americans, or Brits what “multiculturalism” really means, let alone how to practice it. We do not know how to truly tolerate opinions we dislike–whether we’re on the left, right, or centre. We want things our way, whatever way that is, and we’ll use power make it so–and the Bill of Rights or the Constitution or the western political tradition or the UN Declaration of Human Rights be damned.
The silver lining in all this heavy-handedness is that many (most?) young people are not nearly as relativistic as many pundits say they all are. Most do believe in good and evil, often passionately.
The key issue here, then, is the perennial challenge of raising a generation of young people–and building a society–that simultaneously stands for core values while preserving among those core values a commitment to a genuine, if limited, freedom and thus diversity.
Trying to do so has taxed the best minds of our culture for several centuries. So it mustn’t shock us when jurists or politicians, let alone undergraduates, sometimes do it badly. Bad things are indeed happening–but bad things have always happened–right where people pride themselves most on intellectual openness and acuity: in universities, courts, and legislatures.
So what to do? I’ll opine later about that, but let’s see what you think–and do–about it.