The Struggle of Being a Conservative Person in Tennessee

Last spring the University of Tennessee in Knoxville was briefly in the national news because of an action by the Tennessee legislature. Republican lawmakers had voted to defund the University’s diversity office. That office had committed a variety of flagrant thoughtcrimes, such as promulgating a pamphlet about transgender pronouns, and issuing “recommendations on how to make holiday parties inclusive for people who may not celebrate Christmas.” The horror. The office also cost $436,000, and Republicans are the ever watchful budget hawks who must make tough choices.

This spring, the Tennessee Legislature is again fine tuning the University’s budget. This time the Senate Education Committee has passed an amendment to fund an “intellectual diversity” office — to the tune of $450,000.* So if you were wondering how much more “intellectual diversity” costs than regular “diversity,” the answer is $14,000. If instead you were wondering whether open discussion about use of transgender pronouns constitutes “intellectual diversity,” allow these Senators to explain, via the fine reporting of the Tennessean:

“Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, the chairwoman of the committee, voiced her support of the new amendment during a quick round of debate. She said her office had fielded several complaints from UT students who felt pressured not to voice conservative views in class.

Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, praised the amendment, saying it would allow for professors and students with conservative views to speak more freely. Kelsey said that, in the current campus climate, ‘traditional American values (are) a black mark against you.’ ”

In short: No. This is not the intellectual diversity you are looking for. You should not need a pithily written blog post to discern some of the hypocrisy afoot, but in case you do, please read on.

At the outset, I would like to make an admission that in fact bolsters somewhat a popular conceit on the right regarding the climate of college campuses. It probably is somewhat uncomfortable, at times, on many if not most college campuses to be politically conservative. While the victimization of conservatives generally is overstated, there are surely times where students feel uncomfortable voicing particular views on college campuses for fear of backlash or shaming. It has happened to me. Come to think of it, it has happened to everyone I know, in any setting, on or off college campuses, everywhere in America, or actually in any diverse society where people think different things than each other, anywhere on Earth. I have heard reports that black people occasionally do not speak their mind out of fear of reprisal. I may be going out on a limb, but I bet it’s a little uncomfortable for someone to ask their professor in a class of 100 plus students to refer to them as “Zhe” at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Somehow I have a hard time believing that people who support “traditional American values” have the hardest time raising their hand in class.

But I promised hypocrisy. There are a colorful variety of ways in which politically conservative support for this type of measure is hypocritical, and two stand out.

The first has to do with Affirmative Action. There are a plethora of reasons that people oppose Affirmative Action, ranging from outright racism to understandable concerns about line drawing and administration. But I would suggest that a predominant reason among modern conservatives has to do with the conception that, essentially, racism is not a problem anymore and this is a blunt tool to fix an intangible problem. The argument is as follows: discrete racism** is virtually nonexistent, structural racism was never a thing, and therefore whatever disadvantages people of color face in college admissions are the same disadvantages white people face. Sure, a black kid from a broken home in Detroit who went to a failing highschool is going to have a hard time getting into Yale. But so is a white kid from a broken home in the rust belt who went to a failing highschool. This message is seductive to many white Americans. I have written before that Donald Trump’s campaign was “an en masse exorcism of white guilt through the rhetoric of PC-bashing.” He closed his first speech to Congress with these lines, “From now on, America will be empowered by our aspirations, not burdened by our fears. Inspired by the future, not bound by the failures of the past.” Bad things have happened to black people. But the bad things happening today are just natural aspects of normal, free, American society.

What does this have to do with the hypocrisy of installing an “Intellectual Diversity” office to promote conservative values on college campuses? The answer is that these conservatives believe there is a boogeyman for me and not for thee. Conservative speech and “traditional American values” are being targeted by discrete acts and a concerted effort to suppress these ideas and their adherents, not because these ideas just happen to be less popular among 18–24 year olds and other amorphous cultural reasons. But people of color are not being targeted by discrete acts and a concerted effort to keep them out of institutions, rather those disparities result because more people of color come from lower income families and other amorphous cultural reasons.

This concept scares some people more than ISIS

The second hypocrisy is a little easier to understand. YOU ARE TRYING TO CREATE A SAFE SPACE (warning: that is a link to a Breitbart article about safe spaces). I’ll say it again: the conceit that Conservatives are really tolerant of different viewpoints and Liberals are anti free speech Nazis is the most frustrating Conservative hypocrisy. It is also fairly obvious and not worth explaining in detail.

One last thing: maybe Senators Gresham and Kelsey do not see the hypocrisy in their actions. But then again, maybe they do and this is another unfortunate example of policy by trolling, where the real point is to use legislation as a rhetorical trick to expose a problem with your opponent’s position. Take, for instance, Kentucky Democratic State Representative Mary Lou Marian’s efforts to restrict male access to erectile dysfunction medication. The bills, which have included a requirement that men get an enema before a Viagra prescription, are a sort of legislative performance art, highlighting the inanity of certain medical restrictions on a woman’s right to choose. This is all fun and games, until troll policy actually starts getting implemented.^ This budget amendment may give legislators plenty of opportunity to “call out” democratic opponents for supporting one kind of “intellectual diversity” but not another, and that may be great fodder for a call in radio show. It is not a good reason to spend taxpayer dollars.


Endnotes

*To be clear, this has passed committee but has not been voted on by the entire senate, nor has it passed the legislature, nor has it been signed by the Governor. Call your appropriate representatives if you live in Tennessee (and agree with the substance of this blog post).

**Here meaning Person A discriminates against Person B because (and consciously because) Person B has dark skin.

^And there is a greater risk of that occurring (and more frequently) than perhaps at any time in our nation’s history. Trump’s brand of Republicanism, as well as whatever the Alt Right is, can be cynically summed up as “whatever pisses off liberals works for me.” Many security experts were flummoxed by the Immigration Executive Order, but it probably made some guy in a turtleneck in NYC spit out his latte. That is troll policy, and is not a good reason to pass an Executive Order.