Sunday, July 7, 2019 | 2 a.m.
My daughter and I were tossing a football back and forth while also flinging around arguments about free speech, sexual assault, youthful intolerance and paternal insensitivity.
We were discussing a Harvard law professor, Ronald Sullivan. He had been pushed out of his secondary job as head of Harvard College’s Winthrop House after he helped give Harvey Weinstein, accused of sexual assault, the legal representation every defendant is entitled to.
To me, as a progressive baby boomer, this was a violation of hard-won liberal values, a troubling example of a university monoculture nurturing liberal intolerance. Of course no professor should be penalized for accepting an unpopular client.
To my daughter, of course a house dean should not defend a notorious alleged rapist. As she saw it, any professor is welcome to represent any felon, but not while caring for undergraduates: How can a house leader support students traumatized by sexual assault when he is also defending someone accused of rape?
Our football face-off reflects a broader generation gap in America. Progressives of my era often revere the adage misattributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” For young progressives, the priority is more about standing up to perceived racism, misogyny, Islamophobia and bigotry.
The rise of President Donald Trump has amplified this generational clash and raised the fundamental question of how to live liberal values in an illiberal age.
It’s a difficult balance, requiring intellectual humility. Don’t tell my daughter, but she has a point: The well-being of sexual assault victims is clearly a value to embrace, even as we weigh it against the right of a law professor to take on a despised client.
Yet while I admire campus activism for its commitment to social justice, I also worry that it sometimes becomes infused with a prickly intolerance, embracing every kind of diversity except one: ideological diversity. Too often, we liberals embrace people who don’t look like us, but only if they think like us.
George Yancey, a black evangelical who is a sociology professor, once told me: “Outside of academia I faced more problems as a black. But inside academia I face more problems as a Christian, and it is not even close.”
For those of us who believe that liberalism should model inclusivity and tolerance, even in intolerant times, even to the exclusive and the intolerant, it was disappointing to see Cambridge University this year rescind a fellowship for Jordan Peterson, the Canadian best-selling author who says he will not use people’s preferred pronouns. Debate him — that’s how to win the argument — rather than trying to squelch him.
This column will appall many of my regular readers, and I recognize that all of this is easy for me to say as a straight white man. But the road to progress comes from winning the public debate — and if you want to win an argument, you have to allow the argument.
I fear that Trump has made it easy for liberal activists to demonize conservatives and evangelicals. People are complicated at every end of the spectrum, and it’s as wrong to stereotype conservatives or evangelicals as it is to stereotype someone on the basis of race, immigration status or sex.
Campus activists at their best are the nation’s conscience. But sometimes their passion, particularly in a liberal cocoon, becomes blinding.
That’s what happened at Oberlin College, long a center of activism, where students once protested the dining hall for cultural appropriation for offering poor sushi. Now Oberlin is in the news again because of a development in an episode that began the day after Trump was elected.
A black student shoplifted wine from a store called Gibson’s Bakery, and a white store clerk ran after him and attempted to grab him. The police report shows that when officers arrived, the clerk was on the ground getting punched and kicked by several students.
Seeing this incident through the lens of racial oppression, students denounced Gibson’s and distributed flyers claiming, “This is a RACIST establishment.” A university dean attended the protest, and the university responded to student fervor by suspending purchases from the bakery.
I understand that militancy emerges from deep frustration at inequities. But it turned out that the operative narrative here was not oppression but simply shoplifting. The student who stole the wine pleaded guilty to theft and acknowledged that there was no racial profiling involved.
Gibson’s won $44 million in actual and punitive damages from Oberlin, apparently reflecting the jury’s exasperation with the university for enabling a student mob.
At a time when there is so much actual injustice around us — third-rate schools, mass incarceration, immigrants dehumanized — it’s bizarre to see student activists inflamed by sushi or valorizing a shoplifter. This is knee-jerk liberalism that backfires and damages its own cause.
As a liberal, I mostly write about conservative blind spots. But on the left as well as the right, we can get so caught up in our narratives that we lose perspective; nobody has a monopoly on truth. If Trump turns progressives into intolerant agents of incivility, then we have lost our souls.
As we head toward elections with monumental consequences, polarization will increase and mutual fear will surge. The challenge will be to stand up for our values — without betraying them.
Nicholas Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times.