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Conservative Reactions to Professor’s Autism Comments Are Hypocritical

Conservative students display the very immaturity they accuse liberal students of. Duke University conservatives, the same people frequently advocating on behalf of “free speech,” demand a professor be punished for using language they find offensive.

A controversial academic whose work has faced serious criticism from peers is giving a talk on a book tour that’s been mired in controversy. The speaker answers a question from the audience, calling the other side of the aisle feeble-minded. Outraged, a student group calls for punishment.

For some on the right, it might seem easy to fill in the roles in a story like this: the antagonized conservative thinker, fighting for intellectual freedom, the hypersensitive SJW college kids, incapable of interacting with the opposing point of view. But what would the response be if those roles were reversed?

That hypothetical was a reality this week, as Duke University history and sociology professor Nancy MacLean fueled outrage after making an absurd claim at a New York book talk linking autism, antisocial behavior and libertarian political leanings. She was posed a question about James Buchanan, an economist and Nobel prize winner who exerted a strong influence on the beginnings of the modern American libertarian movement.

“It’s striking to me how many of the architects of [the libertarian movement] seem to be on the autism spectrum,” Dr. MacLean said. “You know, people who don’t feel solidarity or empathy with others, and who have difficult human relationships sometimes.”

Putting aside the bizarre, totally unscientific comparison between autism and libertarianism, it’s difficult to imagine how Dr. MacLean could have worded her response any more poorly. In essence, she cast every person with autism as a sociopath — a claim anyone should be able to see is dangerous and irresponsible.

Into the fray jumped the leaders of Duke’s libertarian student group. Duke Young Americans for Liberty President Hunter Michielson first asked Duke administrators to discipline Dr. MacLean for her comments at the off-campus event. Later, he toned down demands to simply request that the university issue a statement officially condemning the professor’s remarks.

Duke’s libertarians and the right-wing blogosphere at large were correct to call Dr. MacLean’s comments abhorrent — they are. Yet there remains something truly puzzling about the robust conservative response to MacLean: where was it when speakers on their side of the aisle were making such irresponsible, inflammatory public statements?

When Milo Yiannopoulos spoke at the University of Pittsburgh in March 2016, announcing he didn’t “want women to get drawn into lesbianism” and casting same-sex attraction as a disease, conservative leaders refused to engage with his repulsive views beyond recognizing his right to free speech. When Ben Shapiro spoke at the University of California, Berkeley in September 2017, his comments — which ranged from calling liberals “communist pieces of garbage” to calling them “hard-left morons” — won him the distinction of “Higher Ed Hero” from conservative outlet Campus Reform.

Speech that is abhorrent or just plain stupid is not the exclusive domain of either side of the aisle. Libertarians and the right jumped on Dr. MacLean’s comments because they were the butt of criticism this time. But what’s frustrating for someone on the political left is how many of the same conservatives seem bent on ignoring harmful public speech when it comes from their own side.

Does their taking offense at the comparison between autism and libertarianism mean that libertarians are “snowflakes?” Maybe — or maybe they are right to find Dr. MacLean’s comments unacceptable. But in the era of conservative defenses of pointless provocateurs on campus like Mr. Yiannopoulos and Mr. Shapiro, it does mean that they’re something else — hypocrites.

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