Bradley Metlin: The Campus Social Justice Purity Test

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There have been countless editorials and think-pieces written about the changing ideological landscape of universities. Many writers bemoan the explosion of safe spaces, the omnipresence of trigger warnings, and the collapse of free speech on campus. For the past four years, I’ve had a front row seat to all of this while working at The Gazette, the student newspaper at Western University in London, Ontario. During my time at the paper, I tackled some of these issues from a conservative perspective as a columnist, never hesitating to highlight the absurdity of this increasingly sensitive campus climate.

The reception to my writing was interesting. I often encountered angry opposition to my ideas. People were angry that I even had the audacity to question generally accepted practices like trigger warnings. This was expected. When I wrote op-eds ripping apart Liberal policies in Canada’s federal government, I always anticipated a response from the left-wing defence corps.

What I didn’t predict was the undertone of the criticism; some would question the sincerity of my views because of my sexuality. “Isn’t being gay and conservative mutually exclusive?” one person asked. It seemed to befuddle people that I could believe in fiscal restraint, self-reliance, a strong foreign policy, and equipping everyone with the same opportunity to get ahead, all while being gay.

Others were harsher in their critiques. Some would label me something of a “sellout” for holding conservative opinions. They thought I was failing LGBT people by supporting a “regressive” party.

This would always confuse me. In 2016, Conservatives voted overwhelmingly to end opposition to gay marriage; many federal leadership candidates walked in Toronto Pride; and many Conservatives, including interim leader Rona Ambrose, supported bill C-279 on transgender rights. Certainly, the Conservative Party isn’t closed off to LGBT rights; on the contrary, there is increasing support for these issues from party members and politicians alike.

However, what I began to discover is that for many socially progressive activists, particularly those on university campuses, being supportive of certain issues is not enough. Now, if you’re not in agreement on every single stance these groups take, you’re branded a “phony ally” and told your support isn’t needed or welcome.

For example, being a feminist is not enough anymore. You must be an “intersectional” feminist who prioritizes not just gender equality, but class, religion, ethnicity, and sexual orientation as they all interact with one another. While these factors all impact how different people exist in the world, to insist that you must champion all these issues or be turfed from your advocacy is nonsense. The inclusion of class in this list makes it clear that this ideological framework, and the groups that use it, are merely concerned with advancing a left-wing agenda overall, not necessarily with helping disadvantaged groups prosper.

The Atlantic recently published a story about Mahad Olad, a Kenyan-American from Minnesota who began to advocate for LGBT rights, reproductive health, and anti-racism as a teenager. His enthusiasm for these issues waned, however, when he began to encounter social justice groups on university campuses. “I never voiced my personal disagreements because having dissenting views is strictly forbidden in the activist circles I was a part of,” he told the magazine.

“If you’re white, you will be charged with being a ‘bad ally.’ (There are also certain gatherings you cannot come to because your mere presence might be threatening.) If you’re a person of color, your disagreements will usually be dismissed as some form of ‘internalized racism,’ ‘internalized sexism,’ or ‘respectability politics,’ among many other activist jargon’s thrown at individuals who do not conform the groups views.”

Olad’s story is not uncommon. Whenever I wrote something advocating for a socially progressive cause, some would immediately dismiss my opinion for lacking conviction. When opposition arose in response to these columns, the normal social justice defenders were silent.

This retreat by people who would normally rally around these causes happened because I didn’t fit the requirements for their support. As someone who supported the issues I was passionate about, not all of which were from the left-wing canon, I was dismissed because of this pseudo-purity test. It’s easy to feel defeated and frustrated when repeatedly encountering this attitude. It’s easy to wonder if supporting progressive issues like LGBT rights or gender equality are even worthwhile. It’s easy to believe you’ll never be effective.

But these issues are incredibly important. Supporting them is crucial, not just for Conservatives but for everyone. Building an inclusive party where anyone get move forward regardless of their circumstances or identity is a necessary characteristic of any modern political party.

While this radical leftist echo chamber may be prominent on university campuses, the real world does not demand such outlandish ideological purity. Most Canadians support progressive social issues, but they’re not predicated on an absolutist attitude. Being a feminist does not demand that you must also support income equality. Being a supporter of LGBT rights does not mean you must be pro-choice. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, and as long as they are expressed respectfully, most Canadians value a diversity of thought.

Demanding an ideologically monolithic population, where everyone has the same opinions or else they face exclusion from civic dialogue, is a serious concern. A society where everyone is compelled to agree is not a free society.

My writing at The Gazette was never really affected by the criticism, rude comments, or dismissiveness I encountered. I would write about my opinions, and if some of them were outside the consensus at my university, I told myself that it was evidence of being a nuanced person.

Young Conservatives shouldn’t silence these voices on campuses, but rather, they should listen respectfully and calmly engage. While it may not sway many opinions at first, if more people were open about their dissent from the prevailing attitudes, perhaps the dialogue would change. Maybe we would even begin to see less think-pieces about free speech at universities as the consensus shifted.

If not, don’t fret, of all the tests you take at university, the social justice purity test isn’t one you need to pass.

 

Bradley Metlin

London, Ontario

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