by Judith Curry
The aim of education is to make people think, not spare them from discomfort. – Robert Zimmer
In case you haven’t been following this issue, there have been some disturbing events and trends in the ivory tower. For an overview, see:
- In College and hiding from scary ideas
- Campuses are breaking apart into safe spaces
- Safe spaces on college campuses are creating intolerant students
- Campus free speech crisis deepens
- Campus chaos: Daily shout-downs for a week
Two particular articles motivated this post:
Class struggle: how identity politics divided a campus. At Reed College, a freshman named Hunter Dillman who had been branded a racist after asking the organiser of a Latina student group an innocent question. He was ultimately hounded off campus.
Take Back the Ivory Tower. Alice Dreger, author of Galileo’s Middle Finger, describes her travails as a researcher and public speaker with a non-‘politically correct’ perspective on intersex and transgendered persons. She resigned her faculty position at Northwestern University over censorship issues. Unfortunately the article is behind paywall, you can read the intro here.
My concern is that without viewpoint diversity where everyone is heard, research and scholarship suffers. Further, students cocooning in safe spaces will be ill-prepared for dealing with the moral and political controversies and ambiguities that they will face throughout their lives.
Views from University administrators
A summary is provided by an Inside Higher Ed article: Presidents and Provosts Gather to Consider Free Speech Issues. Some perspectives on these issues from individual University administrators:
Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro stresses the importance of safe spaces [link], which he defined as places on campus where students can find friends and build the confidence to have difficult conversations.
10 miles across town at the University of Chicago, President Robert Zimmer stated [link] “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” “Concerns about civility and mutual respect,” the committee wrote, “can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.”
If you can’t speak freely, you’ll quickly lose the ability to think clearly. Your ideas will be built on a pile of assumptions you’ve never examined for yourself and may thus be unable to defend from radical challenges. You will be unable to test an original thought for fear that it might be labeled an offensive one. You will succumb to a form of Orwellian double-think without even having the excuse of living in physical terror of doing otherwise.
That is the real crux of Zimmer’s case for free speech: Not that it’s necessary for democracy (strictly speaking, it isn’t), but because it’s our salvation from intellectual mediocrity and social ossification. In a speech in July, he addressed the notion that unfettered free speech could set back the cause of “inclusion” because it risked upsetting members of a community.
“Inclusion into what?” Zimmer wondered. “An inferior and less challenging education? One that fails to prepare students for the challenge of different ideas and the evaluation of their own assumptions? A world in which their feelings take precedence over other matters that need to be confronted?”
Princeton University‘s President on pluralism and the art of disagreement:
This University, like any great university, encourages, and indeed demands, independence of mind. We expect you to develop the ability to articulate your views clearly and cogently, to contend with and learn from competing viewpoints, and to modify your opinions in light of new knowledge and understanding.
This emphasis on independent thinking is at the heart of liberal arts education. It is a profoundly valuable form of education, and it can be exhilarating. It can also at times be uncomfortable or upsetting because it requires careful and respectful engagement with views very different from your own. I have already emphasized that we value pluralism at Princeton; we value it partly because of the vigorous disagreements that it generates. You will meet people here who think differently than you do about politics, history, justice, race, religion, and a host of other sensitive topics. To take full advantage of a Princeton education, you must learn and benefit from these disagreements, and to do that you must cultivate and practice the art of constructive disagreement.
Speaking up is not always easy. As a student on this campus and, indeed, throughout your life—at work, in social settings, and in civic organizations—you will encounter moments when saying what you believe requires you to say something uncomfortable or unpopular. Learning the art of disagreement can help you to choose the moments when it makes sense to speak, and to do so in ways that are effective, constructive, and respectful of the other voices around you. But no matter how good you become at the art of disagreement, you will also need the personal courage to say what you believe—even if it is unpopular.
The UK is tackling this issue also [link].
It will not surprise you to hear that I am staunchly in Robert Zimmer’s corner on this.
Identity politics and the culture of victimhood
At the heart of this debate is identity politics and the culture of victimhood. From an article in Spiked: Fear, Loathing and Victimhood. Excerpts:
Some not limited by circumstance sometimes choose victimhood, adopting fashionable assumptions about their fragility and subordinate status.
There are, after all, substantial advantages to declaring yourself disadvantaged. Victims never have to say they’re sorry. Apologies – and accountability – are for victimisers. Victims are creditors, owed not just compassion but practical relief, like the power to censor whatever they consider offensive speech. The expression of unwelcome images or ideas in the presence of self-identified victims is labelled another form of victimisation, as student demands for trigger warnings and ‘safe spaces’ suggest.
Free inquiry is unnecessary to people convinced they have absolute truth on their side. It’s considered unfair or abusive to people presumed to require the suppression of contrary ideas in order to be ‘free’ to express their own. In this perverse and nonsensical view, freedom lies not in de-regulating speech but in re-regulating it, to protect a growing list of victim groups.
By now, successive generations of students have been taught to regard free speech as the enemy of equality and simple human decency.
Who may qualify as a victim – subordinate or even oppressed and, therefore, entitled to restrict other people’s liberties? On many campuses virtually anyone except a narrow category of white, heterosexual (or cisgender) Christian or Jewish men who aren’t obese, physically or mentally disabled and haven’t been sexually abused can claim membership in a disadvantaged group. In some circles, off campus, the opposite is true: virtually no one except white heterosexual Christians can lay claim to being victimised – by a ‘war’ on Christmas, secularism, gay marriage and the ‘homosexual agenda’, affirmative action’s ‘reverse discrimination’, and immigration, whether involving Mexicans, Muslims or others from whom members of a dwindling white majority aim to ‘take our country back’. Visit a progressive campus immediately before attending a Donald Trump rally or browse a right-wing Christian website and your head will be spun by polarised versions of reality and victimisation.
Identity politics and the victimism it fuels are non-partisan, inter-generational phenomena.
Who’s doing what to whom? That is the question posed by identity politics and our debased legal and political discourse. Framing ideological opponents as either victims or oppressors exacerbates the rigidity of identity groups and invites authoritarianism, right and left. By reflexively declaring yourself a victim, you doubt or diminish your own agency and encourage appeals by demagogues who confirm your angry sense of impotence and promise to take charge – to be strong where you are weak. That is one ominous lesson of the Trump campaign, an exemplary and often overlooked exercise in victimism and identity politics.
Some articles on the ‘oppressors’ as ‘victims’:
- In the safe spaces on campus: no Jews allowed
- Silencing religious students on campus
- Angry white men as victims
And what about ‘climate deniers’ who are ‘victims’ of, among other things, lawsuits by Michael Mann (who feels ‘victimized’ by climate deniers). Ha ha. It never ends. Mann’s recent lecture on academic freedom is not to be missed, it made my irony meter explode.
The pernicious aspects of victimization are many, but of relevance here is that it is stifling freedom of speech and university scholarship. Further, victimization sanctions teach students that an easy way to gain political power is through identification with victimized groups and shouting down your opponents, rather than through accomplishments and arguments.
Freedom of speech
Which leads us to some fundamental reflections on freedom of speech, in context of universities and scholarship.
The Brookings Institution has published results from a survey of college students regarding freedom of speech. Excerpts:
Does the First Amendment protect “hate speech”? 39% Yes, 44% No, 16% Don’t Know.
Do you agree with those shouting down speaker who “is known for making offensive and hurtful statements”? 51% Yes, 49% No.
Do you agree with those who use violence to prevent speech by someone who ”is known for making offensive and hurtful statements”? 19% Yes, 81% No.
An article from Forbes: Students aren’t the only ones who don’t understand free speech. Excerpts:
The author of the Brooking’s study, John Villasenor, speculates that “if college faculty and administrators were asked the questions in this survey, the results would, at least in broad terms, be similar to the student results.”
Sadly, even though we don’t have polling of university faculty on the question, observance of everyday practice would seem to support Villasenor’s speculation. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, 33.9% of public universities have policies that severely restrict freedom of speech. Another 52.8% have policies that narrowly restrict speech or policies that could be applied in an unconstitutional way. Only 6% of universities do not seriously threaten free speech.
This implicates another finding of the Brookings study that showed 53% of college students believe that the universities mission is to “create a positive learning environment for all students by prohibiting certain speech or expression of viewpoints that are offensive or biased against certain groups of people” rather than expose students to different viewpoints.
This last finding perhaps gets at the root of the problem. Yes, it’s true students don’t understand free speech. But perhaps that is because no one is teaching them.
Contrary to the view of these protesters, individuals do not have a right to prevent others from speaking. It has long been recognized in constitutional law that the “heckler’s veto” — defined as the suppression of speech in order to appease disruptive, hostile, or threatening members of the audience — can be as much a threat to rights of free expression as government censorship.
The idea that private individuals cannot censor what the government is required to protect played a vitally important role during the civil-rights movement, when courts prevented officials in the South from stopping speeches and marches based on the threat of hostile audiences.
A thoughtful scholarly analysis of the free speech issue: The US safe space campus controversy and the paradox of freedom of speech. The paper discusses the moral foundations of freedom of expression.
And finally, an excellent article from the New York Times on how to respond to situations such as white nationalist Richard Spencer who gave a talk at University of Florida.
Universities play a hugely important role in scientific and public debate; this is where ideas are tested and scrutinized. Students learn to make effective arguments, and learn from considering the arguments of those that disagree with them. Its a place where students grow into critically thinking, rational adults, ready to grapple with the moral and political issues they will encounter in adult life.
Well that’s the way it is supposed to work. For the past decade, universities have become increasingly dysfunctional with political correctness and identity politics, to the exclusion of alternative perspectives. In my essay JC in transition, I didn’t see any hope for personally effecting any change, so I resigned my faculty position and went on to other things.
While a faculty member and Department Chair, I went out of my way to interact and support individual students that needed help, were conflicted, etc. Often this related financial issues, family issues, health issues, conflicts with other students or staff members, harassment, concerns about grades and career prospects, death of a faculty member. I also instituted a series of informal panel discussion on topic related to a broad range of student concerns. Universities should have a good support system in place to help individual students that need it.
With regards to any feelings of group victimization, I have to say I have never had time for this. Students will seek out other students who share common interests and concerns, and develop informal support groups. Wasting their energy on group identity issues, in the absence of specific, concrete concerns of their own, is a distraction from dealing with a student’s own challenges and overcoming their own obstacles. It teaches them some really bad habits for dealing with the challenges in adult life..
There is a more pernicious aspect to all this — students (and activist faculty members) are using group victimization as a method to gain political power and to ostracize people with different perspectives.
There are inevitably injustices in any organization; the challenge is to identify them and work together to formulate constructive and equitable solutions. It is not a solution to institutionalize marginalization of anyone with a different perspective. This sends the whole system down a slippery slope of political polarization, demagoguery and intellectual mediocrity.
I applaud the work of heterodoxacademy.org to educate and and work to implement changes at universities to support viewpoint diversity.
In closing, a recent statement by former Vice President Joe Biden:
I taught constitutional law at Widener law school for 22 years. The First Amendment is one of the defining features of who we are in the Bill of Rights. And to shut it down in the name of what is appropriate is simply wrong. It’s wrong.