We’ve witnessed campus cancellation campaigns. Elder Holland deserves to be heard at Southern Utah University
By making space for a diversity of perspectives on college campuses, we are walking the talk of inclusion and belonging.
In the spring of 1844, the Latter-day Saints received a curious visitor to Nauvoo, Illinois.
Josiah Quincy, future mayor of Boston and the son of the president of Harvard, had traveled to Nauvoo with his cousin, Charles Francis Adams, son of John Quincy Adams, to tour the Mississippi River. During their stay in Nauvoo, the travelers met with Joseph Smith and toured the city. Some years later, Quincy published his observations of Smith and the Latter-day Saints for a literary magazine in New York. Among the many anecdotes he captured, one has particular salience today.
Quincy describes surveying a beautiful grove with Joseph Smith “where there were seats and a platform for speaking.” Smith explained that the Latter-day Saints held services in the grove at which point a Methodist minister traveling with the group said, “I suppose none but Mormon preachers are allowed in Nauvoo.” Joseph Smith’s response was perhaps surprising: “On the contrary,” he replied, “I shall be very happy to have you address my people next Sunday, and I will ensure you a most attentive congregation.”
“What! do you mean that I may say anything I please, and that you will make no reply?,” the minister queried, according to Quincy’s account.
“You may certainly say anything you please; but I must reserve the right of adding a word or two, if I judge best. I promise to speak of you in the most respectful manner.”
What strikes us about this story is Joseph Smith’s willingness to allow for the expression of differing opinions — even potentially hostile opinions — in an environment of respect.
In the past week a public campaign has gathered momentum, seeking to encourage Southern Utah University to rescind its invitation to Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to provide the keynote address for the Commencement ceremony in conjunction with the institution’s 125th anniversary year. And just last month, two hours before the concert was scheduled to begin, Pensacola Christian College cancelled a performance of The King’s Singers because of concerns with the sexual identity of one or more of the group’s members.
These kinds of cancellations and petitions have increased markedly in the last decade against professors and other speakers on campus, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and its work to compile episodes where somebody tries to block or prevent a speaker from being featured on a college or university campus. Their “Disinvitation Database” also confirms a pressure to cancel coming from both the left and the right, with 28% of commencement disinvitations in the last two decades coming from pressure on the right and 63% from pressure on the left (with another 9% from unspecified sources).
Among other examples, intimidation from the political right led to cancellations against Michael Moore, Jeremiah Wright, Richard Dawkins, and Chelsea Manning — while intimidation from the political left led to cancellations of Ann Coulter, Ben Carson, Ben Shapiro and Ivanka Trump.
We’ve both had our own experiences with pressure campaigns — including a recent university cancellation. New York Times Journalist Thomas Edsall quotes Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at Brookings, explaining some of the larger forces behind these growing instances of public outrage among students. Among other things, he notes: “Universities are consumeristic these days and very image-conscious, and so they have trouble withstanding pressure from their ‘customers,’ e.g., activist students.”
Rauch, a respected writer who identifies as gay, also adds that “activists have figured out that they can have disproportionate influence by claiming to be physically endangered and psychologically traumatized by speech that offends them.” In the same article, Randall Kennedy, a law professor at Harvard recounts how activists have learned to “deploy skillfully the language of ‘hurt’”— as in “I don’t care what the speaker’s intentions were, what the speaker said has hurt my feelings and ought therefore to be prohibited.”
But intention really does matter. In the case of Elder Holland, his full remarks make clear that his intent was to call for more robust efforts to “defend” his faith tradition and teachings — not to attack a particular community, and certainly not to justify physical violence. And as many know well, Elder Holland has gone out of his way over the years to cultivate friendship and build bridges across differences. Even so, some heard what he said as unsupportive of people who identify as LGBTQ. When meaningful differences in perspective like this exist, those disagreements should be an invitation for more dialogue and discussion, not less.
We know how it feels to express opinions, sometimes even controversial opinions, and be met with some version of cancellation or deplatforming, rather than further opportunities for dialogue and exchange. Tom recently had an invitation withdrawn to address a university audience. And organizations have been pressured to rescind invitations for Jacob to speak.
Identity disagreements can be especially challenging. As one professor shared with us recently, “How do we deal with the fact that many people in our campus communities think that particular (usually conservative) viewpoints shouldn’t be expressed … because another person feels they are a threat to their identity?”
Yet as we’ve learned in our own friendship, it’s possible to disagree about identity and other important questions, and still love, respect, admire and support each other. And we unitedly push back on the idea that disagreements about identity, marriage or politics means we cannot still hear each other with respect. That is simply not the case — even if growing numbers insist it must be.
Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy went on to encourage leaders on campus to “become much more skeptical and tough-minded when encountering the language of ‘hurt’” — so as to avoid incentivizing “those who deploy the specters of bigotry, privilege and trauma to further diminish vital academic, intellectual and aesthetic freedoms.” It’s also worth noting that online petitions are open to widely disparate communities far removed from the local institution in question — becoming a measure, perhaps, of a particular group’s enthusiasm rather than broadly representative of those with an immediate stake in the question.
The good news is that in more than half of documented instances of public pressure campaigns to convince a university to cancel a speaker or event, universities stood firm and refused to cancel. Analyst Zachary Greenberg told us that “once a school takes a strong stand against censorship and for free speech, it may deter attempts to persuade that school to disinvite speakers. Conversely, university acquiescence to disinvitation demands encourages more demands.”
In our view, the point of a university education is not simply the essential engagement with conflicting ideas, but also regularly practicing the life skills necessary for individual growth at any age, in any setting.
Being willing to assume a speaker’s good intentions, and even good-heartedness, does not require a listener to agree with a given speaker. But it does require that we willingly expose ourselves to the discomfort of hearing our conclusions challenged. And it requires that we extend to those with whom we disagree the grace we ourselves hope to find.
This group of SUU students, much like Elder Holland expressed to BYU employees, rightly sees convocation as a visible demonstration of the core values of an educational institution. Yet by making space for a diversity of perspectives, we are walking the talk of inclusion and belonging.
We hope all institutions — conservative or liberal, religious or secular — will be more courageous, willing to trust the ability of those in the audience to weed out what is not valuable to them. We hope that SUU and its entire student body, faculty and staff will show the courage many other institutions lack and will listen with respect, if not agreement, to the insights of wise and wonderful people like a methodist minister in an open-air grove in 1844 or a Latter-day Saint apostle in a Southern Utah University auditorium in 2023.
Tom Christofferson is the author of “That We May Be One” and “A Better Heart.” Jacob Hess is the author of “You’re Not as Crazy as I Thought (But You’re Still Wrong)” with Phil Neisser and with Carrie Skarda, Kyle Anderson and Ty Mansfield, he’s the author of “The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints.”