What’s going on with all these campus ideological battles?

A note: I am aware that freedom of speech as described under the First Amendment only applies to the government. I’m talking more in this post about norms of academic freedom and campuses as a place where ideas are exchanged. Though sometimes, at public colleges and universities, the latter overlaps with the former.

I’ve been puzzling for some time now over the people – especially the ones who are not generally conservatives – who style themselves as some sort of modern guard against political correctness and the suppression of free speech in academia. They lump a lot of issues together, sometimes in the same sentence, that appear to me to have very little to do with each other except that they are advanced by people on the left. They don’t like trigger warnings, voluntary student-run safe spaces, discussion of microaggressions (or the word “microaggressions,” for that matter), or student protests of commencement speakers. The arguments that I usually hear against these things are:

1) These are frivolous and a symptom of how youth are coddled today. Well, frivolous is in the eye of the beholder, but clearly a lot of people disagree on that, or these concepts wouldn’t be getting any traction in the first place. And they weren’t invented by Kids These Days either. Microaggression theory came from academia in the first place, on the faculty side of things, and has been studied since 1970. Trigger warnings have existed in blogs and fandom for at least 8 years (as indicated by that question about them at that link having been posted 8 years ago). College students have been protesting commencement speakers since at least the 1960s, as you can see on page 6 here.

2) This is censorship. Even the best tools can be used destructively, but none of these concepts require censoring anything or advocating censoring anything, and in many cases they are themselves speech acts. Even protests of commencement speaker choices are not calls for censorship, unless you think a culture of free speech includes the right to be honored by a community, and that community members who weren’t allowed in on the decision about that honor shouldn’t have a say in who gets honored by their community.

Lately, I’ve been hearing people say that the Duke student who wouldn’t read Fun Home is an example of this from the right, but a student not reading a book from an optional reading list, and producing speech in a student forum explaining why he didn’t read it, is also not censorship.

So what’s going on here? Why are people, including people with a stated mission to promote free speech, ardently taking up the banner against all of these things, and why are they lumping them together? I think I get it now…and I think these people, in addition to being mostly wrong, are focusing on the wrong things.

All of these things are sending the message that speech has power. Which I would hope that people who disagree with me would still agree with – I certainly hope that my speech has some power, and I bet they hope that their speech has power too, or why would they bother with it? And, they’re sending the message that power includes the ability to cause harm. It can negatively affect someone’s psychological state. It can do that so much that the person wishes to carve out a space they can go to to avoid that kind of speech. It can have cumulative effects, and drive people away. I think Corey Robin was uncharacteristically off-base when he wrote about this and characterized student activists as censors, but he got this aspect of what was going on, that there’s an underlying thread here about the power of speech.

This recognition of speech’s power isn’t censorship. There is no contradiction, in my opinion, between being a free-speech activist (as I would say that I am) and supporting, in some form, everything that I’ve listed (as I do). But free-speech activists are aware that censors build their case by talking about speech’s power to harm. There’s plenty of history around that, as with the Dworkin-MacKinnon Ordinances (which I would strongly oppose if they were, you know, still an issue in 2015), and besides, on what other grounds could one convincingly argue for censorship? So they make a leap. They figure that activism that centers speech’s power to harm means you’re an aspiring censor, that you, the activist, intend to make that leap. I think they’re wrong in most cases, and they’re certainly wrong that embracing the concepts is indicative of an intention to make the leap.

There’s another thing that I think many of them are wrong about. Not only do they present these social justice concepts as a threat to freedom in the exchange of ideas on campus, they think they’re THE threat. Jon Chait provided a highly illustrative example of this the other day. He thinks that Liberty University is “more open to dissenting views than many liberal campuses now” because Bernie Sanders spoke there. Angus Johnston explains why this is wrong at some length at that link. Liberty University restricts student and faculty speech in ways that would be unheard of at liberal campuses. He also makes the points that 1) booing and picketing speakers is speech, not suppression of speech, 2) conservatives actually speak on liberal campuses all the time, and 3) there was never an option for students to boo and picket Bernie Sanders the way that liberal students might do to a conservative speaker at a liberal college, because Liberty students aren’t allowed to protest at all.

There are, in fact, plenty of threats to academic freedom and its norms around the exchange of ideas on campus. Threats to massacre people who show up to hear a speaker. Physical assault by some community members against demonstrators (and yes, people on the left have done this too. The cutting of student groups’ funding if they engage in political advocacy. Campus police brutality against demonstrating students. The suspension of student groups for political speech. Siccing police and deans on faculty for their off-campus political speech. I could go on. Most of these links are about liberals and leftists being targeted, because I think it’s useful to counter the stereotype that such things only happen to right-wingers and because I knew where to find the links, but a couple are examples of conservatives, or both the left and the right, being targeted. None of these are cases where, if someone does a bad job implementing a concept or invokes it in bad faith in the right way, it could lead to suppression of ideas on college campuses – they’re all cases where it actually happened.

I’m not generally one to tell people that they’re focused on trivialities and should focus their activism on more important things (especially because the supposed trivialities, when you look at them, often aren’t trivial at all). But I don’t quite understand why fears that something could lead to repression if handled sufficiently badly are getting so much more traction than existing repression. At least FIRE, for all the problems that I have with them – and I have many, including their tendency to equate these two phenomena – cares about the existing repression. Same for Ken White at Popehat. But many of these people who are so worried about potential consequences of acknowledging that speech can cause harm, are people that I’ve rarely if ever seen show interest in the types of stories that I’ve linked above.

As a street medic, I consider myself, among many other things, a free speech activist, working to keep people safe from attack by the government (or counterprotesters) as they express their political views. And my own speech in that context is highly likely to be targeted for suppression. That doesn’t mean that I can’t related issues wrong. But I do get a little tired of hearing that I’m a coddled baby who’s killing free speech by supporting short heads-up notes on syllabi or student-run voluntary hangouts with soothing things in them.

So:

1) I see what people believe is the link between a certain set of issues now. I think their concerns are mostly misplaced.

2) Even though I think their concerns are misplaced, the principles that they’re aspiring to uphold are important. Why are those principles more of a hot thinkpiece topic for pundits when social justice activists bring in ideas from activist spaces, than when those principles are under attack by police, politicians, and institutional authorities?

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