The winter’s cold hasn’t quite set in, yet there seems to be a chill hanging over the campus courtyards and winding through the streets of Yale.
For so long, liberal arts universities in America, the Ivy League in particular, have been avowed bastions of democracy, of progress and, vitally, of freedom. Freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of inquiry — these have been vaunted hallmarks of a liberal arts education at the best institutions on the planet.
As an international student, I am an outside observer, yet one with a strong connection to Yale. Last year, my brother watched as the head of his college, Silliman, which he had called home for three years, was belittled and berated on the college steps. Scorn was heaped upon him by hundreds for daring to suggest that the politics of comfort are complex and nuanced. I will not rehash the larger debate surrounding the incident, yet I cannot help but wonder what my brother felt that day, what students all over Yale felt when a video of the incident went viral. Perhaps they asked themselves, “Is this the price of speaking out?” Perhaps a seed was planted that day of fear: fear of expressing unpopular opinions and fear of going against the words of the authoritarians, lest one be labeled “racist” or “insensitive.” O tempora, o mores!
Liberal arts universities are a unique phenomenon. Unlike the subject-focused intellectualism of Oxbridge, they are grounded on the traversal of disciplines, the consideration of complicated and multifaceted questions and, most crucially to me, the investigation of perspectives and ideas however radical, however unpopular. These schools are, in this, unlike anywhere else in the world. To encourage a culture of fear would mean the death of what makes these institutions unique.
To put it curtly: I am worried.
In India, where I come from, people have been arrested, imprisoned and even killed for everything from speeches to mild Facebook posts against certain religious and political beliefs. The rationalist Narendra Dabholkar was shot dead in a crowded street three years ago for his work on laws banning superstitious torture; the student-leader Kanhaiya Kumar was charged with sedition for speaking out against government brutality in the state of Kashmir; two women were attacked and arrested for Facebook comments about a political leader — the list goes on. Despite the metropolitan and fairly liberal nature of Mumbai, a global financial hub, my classmates and I were genuinely worried that a stray Facebook post could get us imprisoned, or worse. Every new incident heightened my fear of expression, a fear I hoped never to see mar liberal arts universities like Yale.
I am worried that, in the United States, I will have to face an intellectual oppression more subtle, more concealed, yet all the more poisonous. My apprehensions are in no way assuaged by the current behavior of the right or left.
For the first time in my family’s cultural memory, it is not clear that at liberal arts universities, a reasonable, vocal majority — notwithstanding all considerations of politics — places the preservation and exercise of core civil liberties as a top priority. The regressive left, under the banner of cultural-relativist liberalism, voices an increasingly illiberal agenda wherein total freedom of intellectual exploration plays understudy to the politics of comfort and identity. In the process, they achieve nothing more than sharper ethno-cultural rifts and a less vibrant intelligentsia. The right, meanwhile, has descended into a dogged xenophobia founded upon relentless nationalism, with rhetoric that, at times, borders on quasi-fascist.
To paraphrase the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, “Authoritarians to the left of us, authoritarians to the right of us, authoritarians in front of us volley and thunder!”
If I have ever had a creed, a set of sacrosanct imperatives, it has been this: Speech should be free and unconstrained by considerations of nicety and convention; ideas should be explored, inquired into and mapped to every possible extent; and, most importantly, never shy away from following the facts and sound logic wherever they lead, no matter how frightening, uncomfortable or radical they might be. These values drew me to the United States, and it is these values I hope to exercise and strengthen at Yale.
And so, my future peers, I am worried. Yale and institutions like it are renowned as bastions of freedom — I am worried the walls are crumbling, the battlements and parapets sinking into the mire, the ballistae unmanned and the mighty gates unbarred from inside. I am worried that the values I’ve always held inviolable are critically wounded; their mourning bells toll across the fields, classrooms and minds of Yale and I categorically refuse to let them go unanswered.
Philosopher Karl Popper’s words have never seemed so fitting: “We should claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.”
Sahaj Sankaran is a freshman in Silliman College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org