Academic freedom, free thought and free speech are under assault on our nation’s college campuses. And it’s not just conservative white men, or the Federalist Society at Ivy League schools such as Yale University, that are under attack. It is also women, including women of color, who are caught up in this new “cancel”-meets-“consequence” culture.

We are college professors/scholars who have experienced cancel culture’s swift and ugly rage, and we both suffered professional damage as a result. One of us is white. The other black. It doesn’t matter if you teach at a private Christian university like Baylor in Texas, where Dr. Crenshaw taught, or at a public university like Christopher Newport (pictured) in Virginia, where Professor Nelson taught and is currently a scholar in residence (the first black woman to hold such a vaunted title in the school’s 60-year history). 

Both of us share a common Christian faith and more socially conservative viewpoints, but we are also champions for women’s rights, we believe in the necessity of discussing gender and race as it intersects for us as women, and we have been respectful and engaged for years in dialogue with other marginalized groups including the LGBTQ+ community, even when our respective values or opinions are in conflict. Yet, both of us were attacked by that very community for asking a simple question on Twitter (Nelson) and making a statement of biological and genetic fact (Crenshaw). We will address our stories further down in this piece. 

The important point here, however, is that we are in the middle of a seriously flawed sociological and generational shift that has redefined the way we have courageous conversations (or not) on our college campuses. Free speech no longer exists if you do not lock, stock, and barrel embrace diversity and inclusion statements or the LGBTQ+ community.  We both have been told that we may have “free speech” but that there will be “consequences” to us professionally and personally for said speech. With all due respect, if those are the new rules of free speech in America, we don’t want to play the game. 

This has been a decade-long slide as our nation bows to the power of the PC police and “wokeism.” In 2018 and 2019, we had the #metoo and #timesup movements, which highlighted the kinds of sexual assault and harassment contemporary women still combat in patriarchal systems like Hollywood, Fortune 500 companies and yes, in academia. In 2020, after the horrific George Floyd murder, we collectively recognized a need for increased national conversations on racial injustice, policing and racial reconciliation. But 2021 just might be the year that cancel culture defined the future of diversity of thought and opinion in academia. A brand new report by FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) spotlights “speech codes” on over 500 college campuses across the country. And the findings are troubling and chilling, to say the least.

Many American universities and some in the U.K. (see Sussex University) have embraced a culture of compulsory groupthink regarding certain “marginalized” groups and points of views; if we differ we can be publicly protested, threatened, harassed, slandered and demeaned by the very groups who loudly demand respect and acceptance from the rest of us. It’s hypocritical, and it must be challenged openly. 

Let’s break down how campus cancel culture works because both of us are intimately familiar with the toxic experience. It usually starts with a professor or scholar who has a very visible social media presence or public profile. They innocently ask a question on said platform, as Scholar Nelson did on Twitter about a bisexual comic book character, or offer commentary on something controversial, as Dr. Crenshaw did by talking about transgender bathroom policies. Both of us were respectful and reasonable by all standards. But then a small but vicious mob retaliates first on social media with outraged responses, doxxing, and threats. And then they take it out of the public square and into the workplace at the university where none of what was said originated or has anything to do whatsoever with our students, the faculty or staff. 

The aggrieved use words like “unsafe,” “violence,” “triggered,” and it matters not if the accused offender apologizes, welcomes dialogue or the like. The apology is attacked as insufficient. Then they destroy the professor’s professional reputation on campus, on the Internet, and to the media. They create damning online petitions, or actual campus petitions to have the “offender” fired and worse (they threaten your physical safety and that of your family, as was the case with Dr. Crenshaw). The mob eventually moves on to another target of their wrath but not before wreaking havoc on their canceled victims’ professional and personal lives. It is a very effective way to silence dissent. 

If we are going to preserve “diversity” along with free speech and free thought, here are some recommendations for America’s college campuses: 

  1. Redefine the language of inclusivity to be for all, not just so-called marginalized groups. The LGBTQ+ narrative demands inclusivity and espouses tolerance, but it does not reciprocate. That must change and all faculty and students must be protected and defended by university officials.
  2. We need to stop conflating the race and sex conversations; they are not the same. Segregating people on the basis of skin color is racist. Separating people on the basis of their biological sex is safe and honors our immutable differences apparent at birth.
  3. Work on free speech policies: Speech is not violence. Colleges have elevated micro-aggressions over macro-aggressions. There is a difference between speech that expresses an opinion and speech that levels a threat, and we have to discern the difference and respond accordingly. Not everyone can affirm or capitulate to every facet of the LGBTQ+ narrative or that of other groups. For many people of faith, for example, narratives around sexuality and gender identity infringe upon their religious interpretation and expression (as well as common sense and science).
  4. Develop campus dialogues that include all voices. Professor Nelson was silenced for weeks as a half-dozen forums were held without her being present and faculty/students publicly ranted and labeled her a racist, homophobic bigot. Dr. Crenshaw was called transphobic over sound comments she made as a parent about basic biology. The trans identity movement contradicts biology, but it has been protected by institutions such as the CDC, which now refers to pregnant mothers as “birthing people” who “chest feed.” Additionally, the ACLU had to apologize for revising the words of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to eliminate female pronouns and make them gender inclusive. This is how far we have shifted to protect groupthink.
  5. We need to practice correction versus coddling. Irate students and faculty have changed the culture on campus to one of compliance or consequences — faculty are now terrified, particularly conservative faculty, to speak out, get on social media or otherwise express opinions when they can be ruined for not holding fast to diversity, equity and inclusion policies. It’s thought control at its worst. What are we teaching students? Not how to dialogue and argue, but how to destroy other people’s reputations for disagreeing or sharing a faith position.

In the final analysis, we are teaching a new generation of students to attack good people rather than bad arguments. We are teaching them to destroy professional reputations and careers when their feelings get hurt. That is not a formula for success once they leave the college campus. Instead, we need to teach them how to make good counter-arguments, state their case beyond emotion, and make room for good people to disagree on the basis of freedom of religion and free thought.

Sophia A. Nelson is scholar in residence at Christopher Newport University.

Christina Crenshaw is an associate researcher at Dallas Theological Seminary and a fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.