by Judith Curry
Campus unrest, viewpoint diversity, and freedom of speech are issues that have been of increasing concern to me.
heterodox academy.org is playing an important role in highlighting these issues and attempting to address them.
I’ve been collecting materials for a post on this topic, but am too swamped (for the next month) to write anything original on this topic. Fortunately Michael Shermer has written a superb article on this, What went wrong? Campus unrest, viewpoint diversity, and freedom of speech. Read the whole thing, here are some excerpts:
[F]or a talk I was invited to give at my alma mater California State University, Fullerton on the topic: “Is freedom of speech harmful for college students?” The short answer is an unflinching and unequivocal “No.”
Why is this question even being asked? When I was in college free speech was the sine qua non of the academy. It is what tenure was designed to protect!
Between the 1960s and the 2010s, what went wrong?
Trigger warnings are supposed to be issued to students before readings, classroom lectures, film screenings, or public speeches on such topics as sex, addiction, bullying, suicide, eating disorders, and the like, involving such supposed prejudices as ableism, homophobia, sizeism, slut shaming, transphobia, victim-blaming, and who-knows-what-else, thereby infantilizing students instead of preparing them for the real world where they most assuredly will not be so shielded.
This is not your parents’ protest against Victorian sexual mores, and the list of demands by Oberlin students would be unrecognizable to even the most radical 60’s hippies.
As often happens in moral movements, a reasonable idea with some evidentiary backing gets carried to extremes by engaged moralists eager for attention, sympathy, and the social standing that being a victim or victim sympathizer can bring.
Safe space, according to the organization Advocates for Youth, is “A place where anyone can relax and be fully self-expressed, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome or challenged on account of biological sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, cultural background, age, or physical or mental ability.
In addition to infantilizing adults, this practice often means protecting students from opinions that they don’t happen to agree with, or shielding them from ideas that challenge their beliefs, which has always been one of the most valuable benefits of a college education.
Microaggressions are comments or questions that slight, snub, or insult someone, intentionally or unintentionally, in anything from casual conversation to formal discourse.
Yes, language matters, and some comments that people make are cringe worthy. But do we really need a list of DOs and DON’Ts handed out to students and reviewed like they were five-year olds being taught how to play nice with the other kids in the sandbox? Can’t adults work out these issues themselves without administrators stepping in as surrogate parents? And who determines what constitutes “hate,” “racist” or “sexist” speech? Who it happens to bother or offend? Students? Faculty? Administration? And as with the problem of trigger words, the list of microaggressions grows, turning normal conversation into a cauldron of potential violations that further restricts speech, encourages divisiveness rather than inclusiveness, and forces people to censor themselves, dissemble, withhold opinion, or outright lie about what they believe.
Speaker disinvitations—cancellations of invited speakers—have been accelerating over the past decade.
What may have started out as well intentioned actions at curbing prejudices and attenuating bigotry with the goal of making people more tolerant, has now metamorphosed into thought police attempting to impose totalitarian measures that result in silencing dissent of any kind. The result is the very opposite of what free speech and a college education is all about.
1. Moral Progress. As I document in The Moral Arc, we have made so much moral progress since the Enlightenment—particularly since the civil rights and women’s rights movements that launched the modern campus protest movement in the first place—that our standards of what is tolerable have been ratcheted ever upward to the point where students are hypersensitive to things that, by comparison, didn’t even appear on the cultural radar half a century ago. In other words, most of the big moral movements have been fought and won, leaving today’s students with comparatively smaller causes to promote and evils to protest, but with moral emotions just as powerful as those of previous generations, so their outrage seems disproportionate.
2. Transition from a Culture of Honor to a Culture of Victimhood.
In a culture of honor one settles minor disputes oneself and leaves the big crimes to the criminal justice system. Over the past two decades this has been eroded and is being replaced by a culture of victimhood in which one turns to parent-like authorities (faculty and college administrators, but not the law) to settle minor disputes over insults and slights. The culture of honor leads to autonomy, independence, self-reliance, and self-esteem, whereas the culture of victimhood leads to dependence and puerile reliance on parental figures to solve ones’ problems.
3. From Anti-Fragile to Fragile Children. One response to the 1970s and 1980s crime wave was a shift toward “helicopter parenting” in which children were no longer allowed to be, well, children. The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains why through the concept of anti-fragility: “Bone is anti-fragile. If you treat it gently, it will get brittle and break. Bone actually needs to get banged around to toughen up. And so do children. Anxiety, fragility and psychological weakness have skyrocketed in the last 15–20 years.” Those kids are today’s college students, and as a consequence they have brittle bones and thin skins.
4. Puritanical Purging. Social movements tend to turn on themselves in puritanical purging of anyone who falls short of moral perfection, leading to preemptive denunciations of others before one is so denounced. The 20th century witnessed Marxist and feminist groups undergoing similar purges as members competed for who was the purist and defenestrated those who fell below the unrealizable standard. Such purification purges are among the worst things that can happen to a social movement.
5. Virtue Signaling. Related to puritanical purging is virtue signaling, in which members of a movement compete to signal who is the most righteous by (A) recounting all the moral acts one has performed and (B) identifying all the immoral acts others have committed. This leads to an arms-race to signal moral outrage over increasingly diminishing transgressions.
An Ultimate Cause. A deeper reason behind the campus problem is a lack of diversity. Not ethnic, race, or gender diversity, but viewpoint diversity, specifically, political viewpoint. What goes around comes around. Today’s liberal college professors were radical college students in the 1960s and 1970s, protesting “the man” and bucking authority. One reason faculty and administrators are failing to stand up to student demands today is that they once wore those shoes. Raising children and students to be dismissive of law and order and mores and manners leads to a crisis in consciousness and the rejection of the very freedoms so hard won by their parents and teachers. A generation in rebellion gave birth to a generation in crisis. Thus it is that the revolution devours its children.
There is no magic bullet solution to the problems the academy faces today, but as liberals have known for some time it takes decades—even generations—to right the wrongs of the past, so solutions are likely to be incremental and gradual, which is almost always a good thing when it comes to social change, as it leads to less violent and more peaceful actions on the part of both activists and their opponents.
In the meantime, viewpoint diversity can be increased almost overnight by inviting speakers from a wide range of perspectives—political, economic, and ideological—even if (or especially) if they are offensive to faculty and students. And no more disinvitations! If you invite someone to speak, honor your word, own your decision, and stand up to the cry bullies (as they’re called in this neologism). The assignment of books and papers for students to read—especially for courses in history, English literature, the humanities, and the social sciences—can and should include authors whose positions are at odds with those of most academicians and student bodies.
Viewpoint diversity, however, is subservient to the deeper principle of free speech, which should be applied indiscriminately across the academy, as it should across society and, ideally, the world.
The freedom of speech has been one of the driving forces behind moral progress because it enables the search for truth. How? There are at least five reasons:
- We might be completely right but still learn something new.
- We might be partially wrong and by listening to other viewpoints we might stand corrected and refine and improve our beliefs. No one is omniscient.
- We might be completely wrong, so hearing criticism or counterpoint gives us the opportunity to change our minds and improve our thinking.
- Whether right or wrong, by listening to the opinions of others we have the opportunity to develop stronger arguments and build better facts for our positions.
- My freedom to speak and dissent is inextricably tied to your freedom to speak and dissent.
I’ve spent my entire adult life in universities. The appeal of universities to me was a sense of freedom — t0 explore ideas and to engage with a broad spectrum of intelligent and interesting people. I now find the blogosphere and the private sector as more conducive than universities to exploring ideas and engaging with a broad spectrum of intelligent and interesting people.
With regards to the current problems at universities, which seem to have emerged mostly in the last decade, I find Michael Shermer’s essay to be very insightful.
Here are a few thoughts based on my own experiences.
My own institution, Georgia Tech, has changed dramatically over the past decade, in my opinion these changes have not been for the better. I have blamed this change on a new administration (President, Provost), but it seems these changes have been consistent with larger trends in universities.
That said, Georgia Tech remains a place that is relatively diverse in terms of political perspectives (that said, the upper administration does not seem to appreciate the viewpoint diversity that I bring to the climate change issue). Georgia Tech’s Sam Nunn School of International Affairs addresses topics in global international affairs that does not even mention the word ‘environment’ or ‘climate change’, and there are many military types on the faculty.
In engineering, which dominates at GT, I don’t see any particularly political bias. The School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences shares a building with the School of Chemical Engineering. In the main atrium, each school has a little TV screen, highlighting the respective Schools. Occasionally, our TV screen tunes to the Weather Channel. The Chemical Engineering TV frequently tuned to Fox News. I recall an incident when one of my faculty members made a snarky comment in the hallway to the Chair of Chemical Engineering regarding the irresponsibility of showing Fox News. Can anyone cite an example of Fox News being streamed at another university? This has to be pretty unique.
That said, Georgia Tech has a number of problematic policies, that have made it into the news:
- Georgia Tech charged with indoctrination
- Gay rights versus religious rights
- A Georgia Tech fraternity fight spills into the state capitol
I am having enormous cognitive dissidence regarding the ‘safe space’ issue in context of the recent vote by Georgia Legislature to allow guns on campus [link]. The governor has not yet signed this. The juxtaposition of heightened sensitivity to microagressions, combined with guns on campus, is causing many heads to explode.
Beyond Georgia Tech, I have visited many campuses over the past several years, and I was invited to talk in most instances to present an alternative perspective on climate change. One of the universities was Oberlin, which featured prominently in Shermer’s article. There is a club of young republicans and libertarians, which receives contributions from a donor to invite speakers on a range of topics to add diversity. Apparently I was sufficiently tame or insufficiently known to have instigated much of a backlash.
Apart from the social issues that are of primary concern in Shermer’s article, I am particularly concerned about all this promoting groupthink in terms of actual research in the social and natural sciences. I don’t see a near term solution, but I think that heterodox academy.org and the blogosphere are making a difference.