When I started this blog, my intention was to publish this piece as my first major editorial. I also planned to post weekly (oops). At least I can say one of those two things is now occurring.
Weeks ago, I read The Atlantic’s September cover story “The Coddling of the American Mind,” a provocative piece about the overprotection of the Millennial generation and the surge of political correctness on college campuses. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt describe how students demand that their colleges be “safe spaces” that “shield [them] from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable.” They are critical of trigger warnings and microaggressions, suggesting we should teach our students to be thick-skinned and self-questioning, rather than allowing them to take offense at the smallest criticisms.
Around the time of this article’s publication, student activists were becoming more noticeable, likely inspired by the success of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. They mainly protested to focus attention on the systematic discrimination of minority students on college campuses. At the University of Missouri, one student announced he would go on a hunger strike until President Tim Wolfe resigned, and the school’s football team also went on strike. At Yale, students protested after an alleged “white girls only” fraternity party. My alma mater also experienced campus protests after a “Kanye Western” themed event spawned rumors of blackface.
I wanted to express my support of these students and their causes. But then Mizzou students and faculty tried to force the media to leave the site of a public protest in the name of preserving their safe space. Yale students became vocal about an email from Erika Christakis, associate master of Silliman College, which questioned the administration’s message about the potential offensiveness of Halloween costumes. Students demanded an apology from Christakis’s spouse and fellow Yale professor, argued that their university should be a home rather than an intellectual space, screamed expletives at him, and advised each other to “just walk away” when they failed to receive the apology they had demanded. Some also spat on attendants of a free speech conference.
It’s not just these recent protests. Last year, UC Berkeley students started a petition to remove Bill Maher as their winter commencement speaker. He is not the only commencement speaker who has triggered petitions and protests when students disagree with some aspect of the proposed guest’s opinions.
In fairness to the Concerned Student 1950 movement at Mizzou, they were quick to welcome media the next day. Yale’s administration announced their support of the Christakises, and a group of Yale professors released an open letter also affirming support of the couple. Still, both Erika and Nicholas Christakis canceled their classes for the spring semester.
To which I have to say, congrats, Yale students, you successfully forced a man with a thirty-five page curriculum vitae to take an unplanned sabbatical. How progressive of you. I hope you feel safer now.
So are Lukianoff and Haidt correct? Has my generation been irreparably coddled by our helicopter parents? Are we so oversensitive that our only response to a differing opinion is to walk away from it? Have we become a generation of cry babies, as this Cal Poly student suggests?
Many intellectuals seem to think so. Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz commented on Fox News that students only want “superficial diversity” and not a “diversity of ideas.” Dr. Everett Piper, the president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University, posted a blog entitled “This is Not a Daycare! It’s a University” that accuses student of being self-absorbed and narcissistic. Even President Obama has warned that students should not be “coddled and protected from different points of view.”
A recent Pew Research Center survey confirms that Millennials are the most likely generation to believe the government should censor offensive speech. Specifically, you are more likely to call for government censorship if you are a young, female, non-white Democrat.
While this data is compelling, it’s worth noting that the demand for censorship decreases with higher levels of educational attainment. Though only twenty-two percent of college-educated individuals want censorship, somehow they’ve become the loudest voice.
Much as how a pattern of black deaths at the hands of police indicates systematic police militarization and racism or how a pattern of campus protests indicates systematic biases in our universities, a pattern of student protestors who demand compliance with their perspectives indicates systematic intolerance, disregard for free speech, and illiberal logic at the heart of their supposedly progressive campaigns.
Some of these student activists have become so radicalized in their opinions that they refuse to contemplate a new perspective. Furthermore, rather than engage in a discussion, they will accept nothing but their own speech as the correct speech. A movement aimed at fighting intolerance circles back around to become intolerant.
This “culture of compliance” is obvious from Nikolas Christakis’s engagement with students at Yale. Unfortunately, the original video has been removed by Youtube over copyright violation. I found a transcription by a Reddit user that is close to what I remember watching.
Christakis: So who gets to decide what’s offensive? Who gets to decide, guys?
Student 1: When it hurts me!
Student 2: When it’s offensive to me!
Christakis: What if everybody says, “I’m hurt”? Does that mean everyone else has to stop speaking?
The students faltered. They could not answer his question. He was right, but they were not willing to admit they were wrong.
Colleges are a microcosm of our country as a whole, so let’s expand Mizzou and Yale to be the entire country. College students are now the American population, and campus administrators are the federal government.
Do we demand that President Obama comment every time someone says something offensive? Do we demand that Congress pass a bill outlawing certain statements? Do we protest the choice of host for the White House Correspondents Dinner because of one viewpoint that comedian expressed? Do we give up altogether and immigrate to another country?
No, we wouldn’t. You probably found those questions to be ridiculous, as I do.
We cannot believe in free speech and only protect the speech of those stating an opinion we agree with. As Americans, we all have a right to say whatever we want, yes, even if that speech causes discomfort. Freedom of speech is why the ACLU represents group like the KKK and the Westboro Baptist Church—not because the ACLU endorses their opinions but because the ACLU endorses their right to have and express those opinions. It’s also the inspiration behind a popular quote, often mistakenly attributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
We can say what we want, but we shouldn’t say certain things—It’s the “should” of it that comes from discretion, not law. Some college activists now demand that those should’s be censored. By their preferences, of course.
But deciding which speech is worthy of censorship is a slippery slope. Once one statement is deemed censorable, where do we stop? We can’t, and that’s the problem. While writing this piece, I was immediately, eerily reminded of the plot of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451: The public labels certain books to be offensive until every book has been banned. It’s not actually a novel about book-burning; it’s a novel about censorship—no less censorship stemming from the general public.
I do not believe these student activists are consciously intending to be intolerant and illiberal. On the contrary, I think they genuinely believe they are right, so much so, that they cannot see when their methods are wrong.
Let’s say I have designed a utopia that would be the best, most equal, most free, most democratic society to have ever existed. I also tend to believe that my opinions are right. No matter how equal and safe and morally solid my society would be, if I were to take over the United States and force my utopia to exist in its place, my new society would be inherently flawed by the tyranny of its creation. My rightness would not matter if I had to force everyone to comply with it.
If student activists continue to operate under a culture of compliance, they will only alienate their supporters and permanently ostracize their opponents. People will disengage from their movements and dismiss them as being crazy SJW’s. I’ll save you the trip to urbandictionary.com—It stands for social justice warrior, and it is not a compliment.
We cannot force racism to disappear. We cannot force people to stop being offensive. We cannot force people to comply with our beliefs, no matter how right we are.
We can and should criticize the failings of our society. We can and should inform someone when something they do or say is offensive. We can and should support social movements. But we must do all of these things while adhering to liberal, democratic principles, otherwise our advocacy has as much moral superiority as authoritarianism and McCarthyism.
To student activists fighting racism and every other worthy cause on your campuses, I applaud you. We need people like you who dedicate themselves to illuminating problems that we still need to fix. But do not forget that your right to label a statement as racist or offensive or triggering does not preclude that person’s right to make that statement.
The world is not one giant safe space. You will never be protected from everything. The world is a big, messy, offensive space. That’s also what makes it so interesting.
Playing by the rules will take longer. It will be frustrating. You will not win over the entire American population. But if you respect free speech and liberal principles, when you do win your fights, you will know that both your motivations and your method were right.
Jonathan Chait of New York and Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic both have long bodies of work on political correctness and free speech on campuses.
I can hear the consternation—but they’re both white men!—so here’s another thoughtful piece by Kovie Biakolo, a black woman, on the same subject matter.