So the whispers ripple across Grounds. Friends and comrades argue in hushed voices; sister- and brotherhoods are at war. My philosophy class spends a day debating the Cavalier Daily editorial. Liberals and leftists and outnumbered conservatives entangle in heated exchanges about free speech. The libertarians certainly have a lot to say about this. A specter is haunting UVA: the specter of Mike Pence.
Does this sound like silence to you? Life on Grounds is abuzz with the news: Pence is coming to town! Though the University administration, usually full of timely centrist remarks, does remain oddly quiet except for several commentaries from President Ryan and Dean Baucom that dance around the main issue with the foxtrot of free speech; it is almost as though the administration has nothing to say about speakers invited by student organizations. Heaven forbid!
Let’s be real here. The issue on principle doesn’t concern hypothetical harm to our community. To argue that the mere presence of the Bogeyman causes direct harm presumes extraordinary gullibility and fragility among our students and neighbors. To conjecture that Pence’s speech might offend members of our community is no sound argument to bar him from speaking. The Cavalier Daily disparages the University’s deafening silence; the real issue centers on the rights of student organizations.
Young Americans for Freedom at UVA (YAF) invited Pence here. Who else? But the “who” barely matters in this case. All Contracted Independent Organizations (CIOs) at the University receive the same rights (in name, at least). Cav Daily may “refuse to condone platforming Pence,” but the plea to the University to “do better” falls, rightly, on deaf ears. The University’s lack of control over CIOs is in the name — “Contracted Independent Organizations.” Even the University website declares that “these organizations act independently of the University.” The administration has no say in the choice of guest speakers for student groups — no wonder President Ryan and Dean Baucom praise the lively debates on grounds instead of addressing Pence’s invitation.
And rightly so, I say. I demand the right to bring politics into college life and I demand the right to do so without administrative interference. Not since the 1960s have universities simply been close-knit scholarly communities, and even then there was a great deal of student self-activity. Nowadays the sprawling college administrations try their best to curtail student autonomy that was once taken for granted, but back in the days campuses were microcosms of larger political trends. Vietnam War protests swarmed college campuses. Students at UC Berkeley championed the Free Speech Movement. Even contemporary free speech debates find their epicenters on campuses such as Middlebury College, Evergreen State College, and our very own University of Virginia. The University is flush with organizations of all political persuasions, from the YAF, a conservative-leaning student group, to the Platypus Affiliated Society at UVA, a Marxist academic student group. Each of these groups offer a point of view that the standard classroom education cannot. In the end, students conduct their own education on Grounds; we pick our clubs, our sports, our classes, our guest lectures; we decide who we vote for. Our education is only facilitated by professors, libraries, wi-fi, study rooms, and the rest of it. Student life is a specific form of social-institutional life dedicated to education, not a business that confers credentials. The University cannot shove prepackaged and unchallenged ideologies down our throats and dump us out at the end of a pipeline. The administration cannot infringe on the education offered by our diverse student organizations and conducted by ourselves.
What is crucial is that silencing Pence deprives us of the opportunity of learning from him — which, for many of us, may only mean learning how to refute him or how to better understand our own convictions. All the same, no-platforming Pence hurts his opponents as much as it hurts his supporters. With that said, might I remind the Editorial Board that former Vice President of the United States Mike Pence is not a political extremist. His views may be extreme for a liberal-leaning college campus, but 32.18% of voters in Albemarle County — our county — voted for the Trump-Pence ticket in 2020; 33.95% voted for them in 2016. These are rookie numbers compared to the rest of the state; these are rookie numbers compared to the rest of the country. Pence, like every other mainstream politician, represents a good portion of the political spectrum in our community, however distorted and fractured that spectrum may be. There is much to learn from him and from roughly 30% of our community who voted for him. To no-platform him because his ideas fail to conform to popular opinion is to silence the will of one-third of our “fellow students and community members,” which the Cav Daily so patronizingly claims to stand with. The University has no right to silence them. Neither do we. We find ourselves in good company, as Voltaire declares that “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Every opinion gets a voice. You can bring your liberal Democrat. You can bring your Marxist revolutionary. You can bring Mike Pence.
As I have said, harm doesn’t come into it. Pence is a decent speaker and a capable politician; his arguments already proliferate throughout our society. If you disagree with him, April 12th would be a good day to compile a long, long list of faults in his arguments. If you agree with him, I ask you to refrain from slinging slurs or committing acts of violence against marginalized communities. If you are offended by him, I advise you to stay home. None of these should be hard. My only objections to the event are that no student moderator will accost Pence with hard questions and no substantial question-and-answer session will represent the will of the people in Charlottesville. The politicians of this country should have to answer the questions of educated young students in forums and discussions, not half-heartedly rally for the next election cycle with a lecture tour or a canned statement on TV. All the same, I still have a right to hear what the conservative minority of UVA has to say; I still have a right to hear what Pence has to say.
To understand society is to understand the viewpoints of all of its members. To be educated is to learn from all viewpoints, even if only to refute them. Kumbaya and all of that.
The opinions expressed within this piece represent the views of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jefferson Independent.
Cici Liu is a third year majoring in History and Poetry Writing. She is the president of the Platypus Affiliated Society at UVA, an academic student group that studies and discusses the history and ideas of the Left.