Editor’s Note: John Avlon is a CNN senior political analyst and anchor. He is the author of “Lincoln and the Fight for Peace.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.
America’s “woke wars” can feel endless and exhausting. It’s a feedback loop of self-righteous fury, as activists demonize the other side as a fundamental threat to the American experiment. Their denunciations crowd out common sense and basic kindness, leading to frustration, alienation and even more polarization.
The good news is that we’re starting to see a principled pushback against these extremes. It’s coming from campus leaders – most recently at Cornell and Stanford – who are making a case for viewpoint diversity and civility, rooted in liberal values. They offer a welcome way to de-escalate the woke wars.
Yes, the far-right has pumped up “woke panic” into a cottage industry, perfect for fear-mongering, fundraising and playing to the base. But it’s a mistake to dismiss this all as a phantom menace.
Harvard Profs. Steven Pinker and Bertha Madras noted in a recent Boston Globe op-ed that, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, from 2014 to 2022 there were 877 attempts to punish scholars “for expression that is, or in public contexts would be, protected by the First Amendment.” Of these, 60% resulted in actual sanctions, “including 114 incidents of censorship and 156 firings (44 of them tenured professors) — more than during the McCarthy era.”
The American public also thinks the problem is real. Eighty-four percent of Americans say that being afraid to exercise freedom of speech is a serious problem in our country, according to a 2022 Siena College/New York Times poll. Over half (55%) of the respondents said they held back from expressing opinions because they were afraid of retaliation, harsh criticism or conflict. Most concerning, 30% of Americans believe that “sometimes you have to shut down speech that is anti-democratic, bigoted or simply untrue.” Intolerance in the name of inclusion is a contradiction, and a very slippery slope.
But there are signs that the sensible center is taking a stand. Take two recent actions at Cornell and Stanford, where campus administrators applied liberal principles to student-led culture clashes. The results were refreshing.
In the case of Cornell, the moment of clarity came when the school’s student government voted unanimously in March to put trigger warnings on the school’s syllabus for any course containing content that might be viewed as “traumatic.” This would have codified the coddling of young minds.
But Cornell President Martha Pollock swiftly vetoed it – and then published an open letter with the school provost explaining why. She said the warnings would functionally freeze academic freedom for professors by preventing them from teaching “any content that any student might find upsetting” – an untenable and totally subjective standard. “Learning to engage with difficult and challenging ideas is a core part of a university education,” she wrote.
Exactly. Real life doesn’t come with trigger warnings. And a true commitment to diversity and inclusion means learning to be comfortable with different ideas.
A few weeks earlier, Stanford University came under fire for the shouting down of a Trump-appointed judge who spoke at the law school’s Federalist Society. What made the raucous protest really cross the line was that the school’s own associate dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion also criticized the judge from the podium.
Stanford Law School Dean Jenny Martinez stepped in to calm down the overheated passions with a 10-page analysis of why this was inconsistent with liberal principles as well as a legal education, noting that she believes “our commitment to diversity and inclusion means that we must protect the expression of all views.”
“The cycle of degenerating discourse won’t stop if we insist that people we disagree with must first behave the way we want them to. Nor will it stop if we try to shame each other into submission,” she continued. “It stops when we choose to replace condemnation with curiosity, invective with inquiry.”
That’s the playbook for how to stop the woke wars. Consistent application of liberal values provides the off-ramp from escalation that we need right now. It is a challenge to be met less by politicians and more in the cultural arena where it lives. The University of Chicago started this principled pushback with a definitive commitment to freedom of expression in 2014, since signed on to by nearly 100 leading colleges and universities.
In Cambridge, Mass., Pinker, Madras and 90 of their colleagues in March founded the Academic Freedom Council at Harvard, dedicated to “intellectual diversity, and civil discourse.” In a press release last week, the group said it plans to “organize workshops, invite lecturers, and teach courses. When necessary, we will also hold the university accountable so that it lives up to its stated principles.”
But it’s not only academic institutions that are stepping up. The controversial “Harpers’ Letter” in 2020 cosigned by more than 150 prominent journalists and authors was another milestone in the effort to break the fever. It attracted an intensely negative response from figures on the far left despite defending previously uncontroversial principles of liberal values, such as the statement, “The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.”
Also key was Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos’ decision in 2021 to stand by comedian Dave Chappelle and his controversial jokes when some Netflix employees demanded that he be canceled – literally – from the platform.
And this past weekend, Bill Maher closed out his HBO show with the first annual Cojones Awards, dedicated to individuals who stand up to illiberal demands from supposedly progressive groups.
While the right’s response to woke panic is often to fan the flames, the center-left has a special responsibility to step up when progressive groupthink rears its head. It must establish durable standards by applying liberal values consistently – including tolerance for different opinions and respect for reasoned debate rooted in the Golden Rule.
Imposing identity politics on every human interaction, or elevating groupthink over individual freedom of conscience, is the opposite of Enlightenment-era liberalism. And let’s not forget that some of history’s greatest evils occurred when people were viewed primarily as members of groups rather than as individuals.
Defending liberal democracy has many fronts, at home and abroad, but the urgency in de-escalating the woke wars cuts to the heart of how we can reason together while restoring trust in a diverse democracy.