Colleges and universities, while primarily intended to be sites of intellectual growth, are often sites of social conflict and activist movements.
A prime example is that of Matthew 24 repeatedly showing up to the quad, ruining what should be great weather, frisbees and so many dogs with accusations of sinful behavior, use of children as legal loopholes and public safety barricades. The student response to Matthew 24’s presence has been popular and vocal, with masses of students surrounding the hateful preachers, waving signs or rainbow flags, sometimes engaging in debate against or mocking their socially conservative ideas.
This conflict on our campus is an essential part of a liberal institution. By the term liberal, I mean the philosophy of liberalism which arose from the Enlightenment era, not the misnomer of progressives in American politics.
Liberalism is a modern philosophy which espouses the ideas of free speech, civil rights and the search for truth, among other ideas commonly discussed in a civics course. To the liberal, this activity on campus, while disheartening for those offended by Matthew 24, is necessary for us to collectively approach the truth through debate and discussion, and without the opportunity to change hearts and minds through free speech, we limit our capacity to grow as a society.
As we can see today, this idea of liberalism leads to obvious conflict with traditionalist conservatism, a pre-modern philosophy which actually more closely mirrors its use in American politics. The conservative wishes for society to follow a transcendent moral order and universal truth which comes from something above humanity, usually a religious or philosophical doctrine of natural law.
Matthew 24 followers, who hold such views, may not even see themselves as hateful towards the LGBT community, but rather see themselves as defenders of divine law given by God and the LGBT community as deviants from the code which society must follow. In contrast with liberalism, conservatism does not think our debate and critical thinking will lead to the truth, but our supplication to a higher power which gives us the truth.
Interestingly, as part of the core tenets of liberalism, the college must allow the traditionalists to speak, even though their values explicitly undermine liberal values which the college rests upon. Due to its very nature, a liberal institution like a university opens itself to the possibility of its own dismemberment by those who may abuse the rights it entails through simple capture of the majority.
Of course, due to the demographics and beliefs of West Chester’s residents and university students, it’s unlikely we will see authoritarian religious policy passed any time soon, but this threat does exist in liberal institutions within conservative populations, most notably southern and midwestern state and local governments.
A key difference in the way these two groups think is their view of natural rights versus natural law. The liberal wants the LGBT student to live their life the way they wish, expressing their gender however they do, loving whoever they do, etc., and will defend their freedom to do so because it is their right. The conservative, however, will not acknowledge this right since it conflicts with natural law handed down by a higher being, and will use what power they have to violate rights to ensure the social order is conserved, hence the name.
This realization may be disconcerting to those under threat of oppression and violence from traditionalist groups, and so some reject liberal values of free speech in certain circumstances like Matthew 24 and call for censorship or other illiberal action against such groups. However, the discussion of why traditionalists should be ousted often seems to circle back to liberal foundations, that targeted individuals have a natural right to exist the way they wish so long as they don’t harm anyone, and it’s hard to argue that LGBT people do so in any way by their very existence.
Is it possible this way of thinking is flawed? The conservative mode of thinking will not acknowledge a right claimed by people which conflict with the natural law. Such oppressed groups and liberal institutions can claim these rights exist and defend them with force if they can, but the conservative will not be convinced by these claims.
This leads to the question: Do we have rights? If our rights could hypothetically be revoked should a majority of people embrace conservatism and undermine liberal values, they are hardly as “inalienable” as Thomas Jefferson claimed.
This is an important conflict between conservatism and liberalism, and on a larger scale pre-modern and modern philosophy, which seemingly cannot be resolved within these two paradigms. However, the 20th century introduced a new form of thinking which provides some valuable insight to this question: postmodernism.
The postmodernist rejects both the natural law claimed by pre-modernists and the natural rights claimed by modernists. Postmodernists are skeptical of supernatural entities which prescribe our way of life, and will likely not believe that religious texts are the literal word of such an entity and reject such codes as a universal truth.
Likewise, postmodernists will question how it is that our rights exist and are inalienable, and how adherence to liberal values will guide us to a universal truth. In addition, postmodernists are skeptical that any universal truth exists at all! Instead, the postmodernist only sees such conflicts as questions of power. How much power does an institution have to enforce social norms on people? How much power does an institution have to protect someone’s speech, property, or wellbeing?
To the postmodernist, it all comes down to power and what you are capable of enforcing. There is no natural law or natural right, only what you can force others to do or prevent others from doing something to you. So, if bigotry becomes more widely accepted by the general populace, the “rights” our institutions claim to protect will become pretty “alienable.”
This is certainly a less cheerful view than the claim of liberalism and natural rights, at least on its surface. However, this perspective provides an important lesson on how to combat such bigotry for the wellbeing of oppressed individuals.
Trying to convince people that the right to be gay or trans exists when they don’t even acknowledge such ideas is a dead end, although there are counterexamples in which such attempts are successful. However, showing active resistance to those who would enforce social norms on you avoids tedious attempts at changing hearts and minds while increasing the relative power of those under threat of oppression.
The resistance to pre-modern ideas of natural law, hierarchy and rigid social order have historically been led by modernist ideas of natural rights, democracy, and social freedom within liberal institutions. If these institutions stay true to their values and maintain power, then the oppression of the LGBT community, racial minorities, immigrants, etc., may very well not be threatened at all. However, this may not be the case, and those who wish to enforce the religious social order may have the power to do so.
Should this occur, an institutional defense of rights may not be possible. In a more traditionalist-conservative society, we would have to result to a more visceral form of resistance, one that is focused on our own selfish desires but a collective notion of mutually beneficial power gains, one which will not rely on moral truths or rights or free debate to protect us from aggressors, but the strength of our numbers and will to live authentically in spite of those who would do us harm.
What we would need is a postmodern revolution.
Alexander Habbert is a second-year student majoring in economics, math and finance. He can be reached at AH855541@wcupa.edu.