Sessions takes on microaggressions. He’s right.

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Attorney General Jeff Sessions listens to President Trump speak during a roundtable on immigration policy, May 16, 2018, in the White House. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)

This may have escaped your notice, but while President Trump was circling the globe, standing up to those menacing Canadians at the G-7 before jetting off to Singapore for the premiere of “Strongman Apprentice,” the attorney general with whom he can’t stand to be in the same room was actually making some consequential policy choices on his behalf.

Jeff Sessions’s Justice Department has been busy lately. Last week, the department announced in court that it would no longer defend the unconstitutional conspiracy known as America’s health care law. Then, as Trump was arriving for his big summit with the North Koreans, Sessions ruled that foreigners fleeing domestic abuse or gang violence would no longer be given sanctuary in the United States.

Both of those decisions broke with considerable precedent, and I’d argue that they departed from American ideals in some fundamental way, too.

But on the same day that Sessions issued his sanctuary decision, his department also announced a filing that garnered less attention. Administration lawyers filed a motion in support of conservative activists who are suing the University of Michigan, claiming that its policies against bullying and harassment violate protections on free speech.

According to the New York Times, it’s the fourth time that Trump’s Justice Department has weighed in against policies on public campuses that seek to curb hateful or divisive rhetoric. Which you could see, I guess, as an assault on tolerance and civility, in keeping with so much of the Trump ethos.

Here’s where I depart from the administration’s reflexive critics, however.

As I’ve written before, the illiberalism of liberal academia has reached its irrational apex. And on this issue, Sessions and the administration are dead right to make a stand.

Having not suffered through law school, I can’t speak with authority to the legal maneuverings in the Michigan case. For its part, the university responded to the federal filing by saying that it had already changed some of the provisions in its anti-bullying policy, like the one that said “the most important indication of bias is your own feelings.” (Seriously. Think about that for a minute.)

The university also said that the administration was wrong to assert that its “bias response teams,” which are apparently all the rage at universities now, had the power to discipline students. Well, OK.

When it comes to the broader principle at issue here, though, we should acknowledge that the Justice Department exists, theoretically anyway, to enforce the nation’s constitutional protections — none more than the right to free expression. And too many college presidents seem to have forgotten that they exist to teach students the value (and sometimes the cost) of those protections.

On a basic level, the argument being played out on campus today is about what kind of experience a college owes its students. Increasingly, administrators seem to believe that it’s their responsibility to provide a safe and nurturing place for study, free of “microaggressions” and all the rest.

A lot of us would argue, on the other hand, that real erudition demands discomfort, rather than its opposite. Being able to hear and process the points of view that contradict our own worldviews — even when they’re odious or hateful — is an essential prerequisite of knowledge.

But on a much deeper level, the question we’re struggling with here is how a society evolves. One group of people, ascendant on the cultural left, seems to believe that a country becomes more enlightened chiefly by establishing rules and boundaries. In other words, if you issue edicts about the kinds of social views that are broadly acceptable now and those that are not, it will condition people to value tolerance.

I imagine this group looked at the landmark legislation and case law of the 1960s, when government justly got involved in eradicating bias when it came to accessing public institutions, and came away with the idea that the same tactic could be used to wipe away more subtle biases inside the institutions themselves.

Another group might argue, though, that societal attitudes evolve and become more tolerant with successive generations — or, as Martin Luther King Jr. so brilliantly put it, the arc of the moral universe is long but bends toward justice. You can help coax the country along on that continuum, certainly, but ultimately the cost of individual liberty is that you can’t just decide what’s protected speech and what isn’t.

Take, for instance, the recent case involving Jack Phillips, a Colorado baker, who refused to provide a cake for a gay wedding. He wasn’t saying he wouldn’t serve gay people (which would be analogous to the 1960s lunch counters) — only that he wasn’t comfortable taking part in their weddings.

The couple sued him, and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled earlier this month that a state commission had mishandled Phillips’s case and shown a bias when it ruled against him.

Now, I happen to think it’s self-evident that anyone of legal age who wants to get married should have that right and shouldn’t be ostracized for it. But I can’t summon much outrage over this ruling, mainly because I don’t think the forces of tolerance needed to challenge this guy’s First Amendment rights in order to win the day.

I wouldn’t go to a baker who took that position, and neither will a lot of other customers, in Colorado or anywhere else. As social attitudes change, businesses have to adapt or die, which is why one of the most progressive forces in America right now is the local Walmart or Target, where gay pride displays are front and center.

So it is on campus. The reactionary forces of social conservatism may well create some hurt and fury for everyone else, but that’s their right, and they represent a fading vision of America. You won’t hasten their demise by dispatching bias response teams to the scene of the crime.

And in fact, what we should have learned from the unlikely ascent of President Trump is that trying to marginalize outdated worldviews creates a backlash all its own. Unreasonable vigilance in the name of tolerance actually empowers the very opposite impulse in the society.

To be clear, Sessions’s Justice Department doesn’t give a whit about any of that — the attorney general is primarily interested in coming to the aid of campus rightists and conservative speakers, many of whom mimic Trump’s brand of cultural contempt. That’s all right. The government can be on the right side of the issue anyway.

One form of bullying doesn’t justify another.


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