Campus PCness and the Price of Free Speech

Nov 11, 2015 | Civil Liberties, Education, Internet Culture

Published: The Huffington Post (November 11, 2015), The Good Men Project (November 10, 2015)

This is an editorial for my fellow liberals.

Because progressive ideas on political and social issues often challenge conventional assumptions, liberalism as an ideology depends on freedom of speech for survival. It isn’t enough that the state be prohibited from suppressing dissenting political opinions; on a cultural level, left-wingers need the public sphere to accept dialogue on every conceivable subject. Survey the landscape of history and you will see that major civil rights movements – fighting for racial, gender, religious, economic, and other forms of social justice – moved forward because controversial ideas were allowed to flourish. People may have been angered by these concepts, but because they had logical and moral merit, the fact that they had a free space meant they could take root.

Free speech, however, does come at a price. If you want it to be secure for yourself, you must respect it for others.

A recent poll found that, while 93 percent of college students believe it is “very” or “somewhat” important to “protect free speech on campus,” only 74 percent believe that “diversity of opinion, including hearing the conservative perspective, enhances undergraduate education” (these numbers plummet when it comes to issues like flying the Confederate flag). The underlying theme seems to be that if words and symbols can be connected to the collective trauma experienced by a historically oppressed or marginalized group of people, they “constitute an act of violence” (an opinion shared by 53 percent of the surveyed college students). This logic was evident in the rhetoric used during the recent protests at Yale, Wesleyan, and the University of Missouri, each of which involved the airing of un-politically correct views in formats ranging from newspaper editorials and offensive slurs to Halloween costumes.

In terms of why this is happening right now, I think the explanation is rather simple. As Daniel W. Drezner put it in a recent Washington Post editorial, “As a professor with 20 years of experience, I can assure you that college students have been saying stupid things since the invention of college students. The difference today is that because of social media, it is easy for college students to have their opinions go viral when that was not the original intent.”  Not only have they shaped our history (just remember the Sixties), but I personally recall experiences from my own undergraduate years at Bard College (2003-2006) that would have made national headlines if they had happened today – Michael Bloomberg being asked to serve as a commencement speaker and the subsequent brouhaha, an ugly altercation with police in Red Hook, NY after George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004, a protest in the cafeteria with chants of “Free Speech, Not Hate Speech” (whose origins frankly elude me at the moment). If these incidents had occurred in 2015, the ensuing social media – and thus, eventually, regular media – circus would have ramped everything up even further and empowered the student body through its capacity to embarrass the school.

In short, students have always done these things, but as social media continues to connect the world in unprecedented ways, the emotions – and consequences – are getting magnified. The main way this seems to be done is through catastrophizing, in which offensive but somewhat common events are blown out of proportion. In that psychological climate, it becomes easier to justify various forms of culturally or even institutionally imposed censorship. All you have to do is draw a connection (however tenuous) between a certain type of speech and serious potential harm that could (or in some abstract way has) been inflicted, and by virtue of the fact that the harm being caused is inherently intolerable,  the perpetrator must either publicly retract and atone or face some form of punishment.

This is what we saw at Wesleyan, in which a student newspaper lost funding due to its decision (for which it later apologized) to run an article criticizing the #BlackLivesMatter protests. It’s evident in the fact that administrators and faculty members have resigned or had their resignations demanded for criticizing or permitting criticisms of the basic assumptions of contemporary political correctness – namely, that the mere act of having a conversation on certain subjects is off limits. It is hear it all the time in arguments that the term “political correctness” itself ought to be banned or that media coverage of student protests violates their “safe space,” both of which weaponize allegations of catastrophization as a way of stifling real or potential criticism.

The tragedy here is that the cause of political correctness is valid. As America becomes more diverse, it’s cultural and social attitudes by necessity will need to be more pluralistic. It is not only healthy but encouraging that so many young people are passionately invested in spreading sensitivity toward traditionally marginalized groups, even if doing so challenges orthodox thinking and makes people uncomfortable. This is why this trend of catastrophization is so dangerous – instead of spreading awareness of racial, gender, and economic inequality, it shifts the focus toward policing speech and shaming perceived transgressors.

What we, as liberals, need to remember is that this behavior violates two fundamental assumptions of our ideology — namely, that we should exhibit compassion as well as reason in how we function as a society, and that we must permit others to speak their minds so that we may be granted the right to speak our own. The former is a moral imperative, the latter a moral and strategic one, but both are inviolable. If social media has been used to light this fire, it can be used to pour water on it too. All that’s needed is a lot of principle and a little bit of common sense.