It’s undeniable that a crackdown on free speech is underway. Cancel culture’s body count continues to grow as more and more celebrities are crucified for not toeing the line of political correctness. Meanwhile, censorship runs rampant on college campuses as safe spaces are established and controversial speakers are shouted down.
While these public tales of censorship have rightfully garnered national attention, the impact this cultural shift toward illiberalism is having on young people is largely overlooked.
My generation, Gen Z, is suffering a less obvious and more insidious crisis of free expression. This is reflected in a recent survey by Heterodox Academy that found 62 percent of college students feel the climate on their campus prevents them from saying what they believe, up from 55 percent in 2019.
Unlike the stories making headlines, this is a quiet crisis of free speech. It’s not that young people are being shut down for airing controversial beliefs—they aren’t even daring to be provocative in the first place.
The intolerant culture on campuses is in large part to blame. Political orthodoxy espoused by students and professors alike has amounted to an ideological echo chamber. Safe spaces and trigger warnings reflect students’ demands to be protected from provocative ideas and the growing sentiment that words are tantamount to violence.
As professors and administrators enable this culture of safetyism, they create a climate in which transgressors are met with cancellation and vehement censorship. Under such intense pressure to conform, no wonder a majority of students report self-censoring. Keeping one’s head down is required for the sake of academic success, social wellbeing, and even survival.
This rise of illiberalism on campuses is also eroding the integrity of Gen Z’s education. The suppression of controversial viewpoints defies the very purpose of the college campus: to serve as a congregation point for the brightest minds to debate and exchange ideas in the pursuit of truth. Discovery and innovation requires open discourse and the freedom to push boundaries, and yet academia has abandoned its mission in favor of orthodoxy and censorship.
We are a tremendously diverse generation, and yet our diversity of thought is stifled. This hurts everyone. Every time a student feels pressured to self-censor, another student loses the opportunity to consider an opposing viewpoint. The exchange of ideas has died, and with it any chance of understanding or compromise.
But Gen Z’s free speech crisis reaches beyond college campuses. Increasingly, it’s seeping into high schools and even middle schools. Cancel culture is claiming younger and younger victims, as children emulate society’s tendency to shun those with differing opinions. An entire generation is coming up in a culture that favors castigation over forgiveness. As a result, young people are being taught to conform or self-censor, lest they jeopardize friendships, school admissions, or even future careers.
This crisis is infringing upon innocence by prematurely foisting young people into political discourse when their biggest concerns should be acne and homework, not political correctness. It’s also robbing teenagers of the ability to trip up. Adolescence is full of trial, error, and mistakes that lead to self-discovery. And yet cancel culture has disrupted this life chapter, infesting young minds and leaving behind internalized mechanisms of self-censorship.
From Piers Morgan to Ted Cruz, the coalition of celebrities and politicians pushing back against cancel culture thankfully is growing. But as the fight rages on, we must keep in mind what is truly at stake: the free thought and wellbeing of the youngest among us.
An entire generation is experiencing a crisis of free speech, of authenticity, and of honesty to oneself and one’s values. For every member of that 62 percent of young people self-censoring, for every constructive debate that never gets had, for every brilliant idea that never gets voiced, it amounts to a true tragedy.
Generation Z deserves permission to engage with controversial topics and to lean into ambiguity. The realm of discomfort is where growth and discovery occurs. As we come of age, we need the freedom to fumble, and the reasonable expectation of grace and forgiveness when we do.
Unless our society abandons its censorious tendencies, it will yield a generation unable to speak freely, to take risks, or even just to be authentic.
Rikki Schlott is a writer and student based in New York City. As a young free speech activist, her writing chronicles the rise of illiberalism from a Generation Z perspective. Schlott also works for The Megyn Kelly Show and has been published by The Daily Wire and The Conservative Review.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.