American Decline

Campus Activism: From Sproul Hall to Safe Spaces

By Aleksey Bashtavenko

Academic Composition

The evolution of campus activism in American universities has witnessed a shift from fervent support for freedom of speech during the Free Speech Movement to staunch opposition among Millennials. This transformation is influenced by generational differences, cultural shifts, and the significant impact of complacency, as discussed in Tyler Cowen’s thought-provoking book “The Complacent Class.” The Baby Boomers, who emerged as an Idealist generation, embraced free speech as a means to challenge authority and societal norms during the 1960s. In contrast, the Millennial generation, classified as a Civic generation, places greater emphasis on collectivism and harmony, leading them to oppose free expression out of fear that it might disrupt stability and unity. To understand this evolution of campus activism, we must delve into Cowen’s insightful discussion of complacency and explore its influence on Millennials’ attitudes toward free speech.

The Free Speech Movement that took place during the 1960s was a turning point in campus activism. The Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, led this movement and embodied the characteristics of an Idealist generation. They valued spiritual individuality and believed that free speech was a powerful tool to question authority, challenge societal norms, and embrace diverse ideas. The Sprout Hall speech delivered by Mario Savio at the University of California, Berkeley, exemplified their fervent support for the right to express diverse viewpoints and promote open intellectual exploration.

Mario Savio’s “bodies upon the gears” speech was delivered on December 2, 1964, during the height of the Free Speech Movement at the University of California, Berkeley. In the speech, Savio passionately addressed the protesters and urged them to continue their activism despite the university administration’s attempts to suppress their right to free speech and peaceful assembly.

“There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious—makes you so sick at heart—that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop.”

The significance of Savio’s “bodies upon the gears” speech lies in its powerful call to action and its embodiment of the spirit of free speech activism. Savio used vivid imagery of students physically intervening to halt the university’s administrative machinery as a metaphor for the necessity of active resistance against oppressive systems. By invoking this imagery, Savio highlighted the urgency of defending the fundamental right to free speech and civil liberties, even if it meant confronting authority and facing potential consequences.

The speech resonated with students and activists across the nation, as it symbolized the broader struggle for free speech during a time of growing social and political movements. Savio’s eloquence and passion galvanized the Free Speech Movement, and it became a rallying cry for those seeking to challenge the status quo and advocate for greater openness and academic freedom.

Savio’s “bodies upon the gears” speech not only inspired the Free Speech Movement but also had a lasting impact on the trajectory of free speech activism in the United States. It became emblematic of the civil rights movements of the 1960s, igniting discussions about the importance of free expression, individual rights, and social justice. The speech served as a reminder that free speech is not just an abstract concept but a vital tool for challenging injustices and promoting meaningful change.

Furthermore, Savio’s speech underscored the vital role of student activism in protecting and advancing free speech rights. Students have historically played a critical part in shaping social and political movements, using their voices and actions to challenge established norms and push for greater inclusivity and justice. Savio’s call to put “bodies upon the gears” emphasized the power of collective action and civil disobedience in asserting these rights and holding institutions accountable.

Mario Savio’s “bodies upon the gears” speech is a profound and enduring moment in free speech activism. It encapsulates the spirit of resistance against oppressive systems and serves as a powerful reminder of the essential role free speech plays in fostering social change and upholding democratic principles. The speech’s impact resonates to this day, inspiring generations of activists to defend and cherish the right to free expression as a cornerstone of a just and equitable society.

Fast-forward to the Millennial generation, born between 1981 and 1996, which is now a prominent force on college campuses. As a Civic generation, Millennials place greater emphasis on social cohesion and maintaining harmony within society. Their value system makes them cautious about unrestricted free expression, fearing that it might lead to disruptions in stability and unity. This inclination aligns with historical patterns seen in previous Civic generations, such as the GI generation’s opposition to free speech during the 1960s. The GI generation was also characterized by its emphasis on social order and collective cohesion.

Tyler Cowen’s book “The Complacent Class” examines the growing complacency among Americans, including Millennials. Complacency is characterized by a reluctance to engage in challenging debates or actions, as individuals prioritize security and stability over taking risks or pushing for change. Cowen’s discussion of complacency is an essential lens to understand the impact on Millennials’ attitudes towards free speech.

Complacency might play a pivotal role in shaping Millennials’ opposition to free expression. As complacent individuals, they tend to seek comfort and avoid situations that could cause discomfort or disrupt the status quo. In the context of free speech, complacency may manifest as a preference for conformity, leading them to shy away from engaging with controversial or challenging ideas. Rather than embracing open debates and intellectual exploration, Millennials may gravitate towards insulated environments like safe spaces and trigger warnings, which protect them from potentially distressing ideas. The Millennials’ opposition to freedom of expression is a distinctive generational trait, and it has been documented in various books about the nature of student activism on university campuses.

In “The Coddling of the American Mind,” Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff discuss various examples of safe spaces and how they illustrate the extent to which some American university students are willing to go to combat freedom of expression on campus. One of the most outrageous examples they mentioned is the incident at Brown University in 2016. At Brown University, during an event featuring former New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, a group of students protested and disrupted the speech. The students not only shouted down the speaker, but they also blocked entrances and exits, preventing other attendees from entering or leaving the venue. The situation escalated to the point where Ray Kelly was unable to deliver his speech due to the significant disruptions caused by the protesters.

This incident exemplifies how some students are willing to go to extreme lengths to create safe spaces and prevent ideas they disagree with from being heard on campus. The protesters’ actions not only violated the principles of free speech but also hindered the open exchange of ideas and intellectual discourse, which are essential components of a thriving academic environment. Haidt and Lukianoff use this example to illustrate the dangerous consequences of a campus culture that overly prioritizes emotional safety at the expense of free expression and open dialogue. They argue that the willingness to silence opposing viewpoints and create safe spaces can lead to a chilling effect on free speech, ultimately hindering the pursuit of knowledge and understanding on college campuses.

In “Unlearning Liberty,” Greg Lukianoff presents various cases of threats to free speech on college campuses, but one of the most outrageous examples he discusses involves the case of Keith John Sampson at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) in 2007. Keith John Sampson, an African-American student and university employee, faced severe consequences for reading a book during his work breaks. The book in question was titled “Notre Dame Vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan,” which was about the historical clash between the University of Notre Dame students and the Ku Klux Klan. Sampson’s supervisor lodged a complaint, alleging that the book’s cover featuring a hooded Klansman made her and other employees uncomfortable.

In response to the complaint, the university’s Affirmative Action Office conducted an investigation. Despite Sampson explaining that he was reading the book during his breaks and that it was a part of his assigned coursework, he was found guilty of racial harassment. As a result, Sampson was forced to undergo disciplinary re-education sessions, and his job was jeopardized. This case is an outrageous example of how far some universities can go to suppress free speech and expression. Sampson’s simple act of reading a book on his own time during work breaks led to severe consequences, all due to an unfounded and misguided claim of racial harassment. The incident not only violated Sampson’s right to free speech but also exposed the university’s overreach in policing and censoring individuals’ actions and ideas.

Incidents of this sort would have been unthinkable in the 1960s, but they are all too common today.  The generational differences between the Baby Boomers and Millennials reflect broader historical patterns observed in Idealist and Civic generations. Idealists tend to drive cultural revolutions based on moral values and societal transformation. Past Idealist generations, such as the Missionaries in the late 19th century and the Transcendentals in the 1830s and 1840s, brought about significant societal changes, culminating in the onset of the Civil War. These historical patterns provide insights into the progressive nature of Idealist generations and how their values may shape their attitudes towards free speech.

The Civic generation, to which Millennials belong, places great importance on social cohesion and maintaining order. They prioritize stability and unity within society, seeking to avoid discord or conflicts that could arise from open and unrestricted debates. Cowen’s discussion of complacency helps explain how this preference for stability and harmony aligns with Millennials’ opposition to free expression. The discussion of complacency emerges as a significant factor influencing Millennials’ attitudes towards free speech, leading to their shift from the fervent support seen during the Free Speech Movement. Their complacent nature may deter them from engaging in open intellectual exploration, fostering a preference for harmony and conformity over robust debates. This aversion to unrestricted free expression aligns with their prioritization of maintaining order and emotional well-being.

Millennials and Gen Z, as two distinct generational cohorts, exhibit differences in their attitudes and behaviors. Gen Z, born between the mid-1990s and early 2010s, follows the Millennial generation, born between the early 1980s and mid-1990s. Gen Z has been characterized by higher rates of depression and anxiety compared to Millennials. They also tend to postpone traditional markers of independence, such as driving, working, drinking alcohol, and moving out of their parents’ house, more than Millennials and younger generations did.  Gen Z’s higher incidence of depression and anxiety may contribute to their increased sympathy towards the concept of safe spaces. They seek spaces where they feel emotionally protected and insulated from distressing ideas or interactions that may exacerbate their mental health challenges. As a result, they may be more inclined to advocate for the creation of safe spaces on college campuses, where they can avoid potential conflicts and maintain emotional well-being.

According to the generational theory proposed by Strauss and Howe, Gen Z is classified as an Adaptive Generation, which sets them apart from the Civic generation typified by Millennials. Adaptive generations tend to be more withdrawn, passive, and meeker, which aligns with the observed behaviors of Gen Z. This adaptiveness may contribute to their preference for seeking safety and avoiding confrontations or disagreements, leading them to oppose free speech out of a sense of fragility and an inability to engage in civil exchanges of differing ideas.

On the other hand, Millennials may oppose free speech due to their desire for unity, cohesion, and order in society. They value social harmony and may view unrestricted free expression as a potential threat to stability and collective well-being. This difference in the motivations behind their opposition to free speech highlights the contrasting generational attitudes towards free expression. The differences between Millennials and Gen Z in terms of mental health challenges, independence markers, and generational characteristics shape their attitudes towards free speech and the concept of safe spaces. Gen Z’s higher rates of depression and anxiety may lead them to seek safety and emotional protection, resulting in greater sympathy towards safe spaces. Meanwhile, Millennials may oppose free speech due to their emphasis on unity and social cohesion. Understanding these generational distinctions provides valuable insights into the evolving landscape of free speech and the factors influencing young adults’ perspectives on expression and discourse.

The evolution of campus activism from advocating for free speech during the Free Speech Movement to opposing it among Millennials is a multi-layered process influenced by generational traits, historical patterns, and cultural values. Tyler Cowen’s discussion of complacency provides valuable insights into understanding Millennials’ attitudes towards free speech. As a Civic generation, they prioritize harmony and stability, which may influence their opposition to unrestrained expression. By comprehending these dynamics, we gain a deeper understanding of how generational differences and complacency contribute to shaping the future of free speech on college campuses. As society continues to evolve, it is essential to reflect on how the values and characteristics of each generation impact our collective perspective on the vital issue of freedom of expression. Gen Z’s higher incidence of depression and anxiety may contribute to their increased sympathy toward the concept of safe spaces. They seek spaces where they feel emotionally protected and insulated from distressing ideas or interactions that may exacerbate their mental health challenges. As a result, they may be more inclined to advocate for the creation

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