Three or four years ago, in the early days of campus protests against unwelcome speakers, the censors sometimes said in their own defense: “This isn’t about free speech.” The disclaimer served to lighten the burden of apology for crowd behavior that most Americans distrust. As the protesters saw it, the speakers who got shouted down or who canceled engagements under a threat of violence were opportunists of free speech. But this was apt to sound evasive. What honest intellectual forum ever subjected speakers to a test of motives?
In any case, the argument that “it isn’t really about free speech” has largely been dropped by the censors. They are now likelier to say that there never was freedom of speech, anywhere, and that we shouldn’t expect to find it in colleges. The primary duty of institutions of higher education is rather to create a space for qualified speech; and we should be aware that a wrongly chosen or unqualified speaker may stir up controversy and “stifle productive debate.” That phrase comes from a campus letter circulated by a group of Wellesley College professors after a speech by Laura Kipnis. By this logic, productive debate is to be understood as quite a different thing from open debate. But who, then, is qualified to speak on campus?
“Productive” is a term from the business world, specifically the business of corporate group facilitation. Corporate facilitators and human-resource managers were channeled into the academy throughout the 1990s and 2000s — having practiced first at places as foreign to the college milieu as NBC or Nabisco — and their language and mentality have made deep inroads in higher education. Impassioned disagreement, according to facilitation doctrine, causes tension in the workplace, which in turn causes anxiety, which is bad for the bottom line. A fractious workplace may be riven by internal complaints and suffer diminished profits.
Academic morale in previous generations was rooted in a “clash of ideas” that was supposed to involve just such abrasions. Conflict was said to be essential to the purpose of education, one of the things that distinguished a campus from a factory floor or a public-relations office. That understanding, however, has been displaced to a significant degree. A campus is regarded today as a friendly “community,” a “home” away from home, to cite words that appear with some regularity in college brochures. It is a place ruled by a spirit of comity and cordiality. Any word or gesture that implies disharmony is frowned on. The corporate-university presentation draws much of its incidental effectiveness from appearing to go hand-in-hand with democracy. No one in the campus community, it suggests, should ever be made to feel less comfortable than anyone else.
What’s Fueling the Campus-Speech Wars?
David Bromwich argues that students are leading an assault on free speech, and that faculty members and administrators are enabling them. Agree? Disagree? We wanted to know what Chronicle readers think. Here is a selection of responses we received to a brief survey.
Comfort is a good thing, generally speaking, even if it tends to sedate rather than promote thinking. But there are other reasons for the emphasis on making students feel comfortable or at home or “safe.” At a crossroads of disintegration and chaos in American politics, when our national leaders offer little semblance of reasoned debate, it may seem plausible to establish on campus a well-understood regime governing the manners of speech — a regime that should be as free as possible. Of course, the freedom to speak is not experienced equally by all persons, any more than the freedom to breathe or the freedom to live. But the right to speak your mind may come as close as we can get to a touchstone of equality. And in the past, the use of free speech by dissenters and oppressed minorities has yielded their surest opening to other rights.
The puzzle, for administrators who think along roughly those lines, is how to reconcile such freedom with the growing determination by universities to divide students into racial, religious, and cultural groups and encourage students to feel especially at home in those groups. There are visible and invisible constraints that come into play as soon as I say to myself (and am asked to indicate to others) that I speak as a Jew, a gay man, a Latina woman, or some other classified social specimen. I must take into account the “subject-position” I occupy and that of the person I address. Universities have lately promoted this form of group consciousness by subsidizing of what are euphemistically called “affinity groups.” But here, the forms of membership and self-respect fostered by the university run up against an older American pattern of feeling. In ordinary encounters with another person at an airport, a pub, or a town meeting, one speaks as a person. Students are asked instead to care minutely for the way their speech will be taken in view of their membership in a group.
Universities have traveled a different path from American society at large in other ways besides the discipline of speech. The dominant politics in the academy since the mid-’60s has been liberal, welfare-statist, dedicated to the expansion of the rights of minorities and to remedies of social injustice. Those emphases are by no means alien to the rest of the society, but America is also a country that elected Ronald Reagan for two terms, George W. Bush for two terms, and now Donald Trump. Before the campus troubles of 2015 at the University of Missouri, Yale, Princeton, Amherst, Dartmouth, Oberlin, and a dozen other colleges, one would have been justified in saying that political discourse was freer on campus than anywhere else. “Disinvitation” appeared in retreat as a tactic. Right-wing speakers might be skeptically received, but there was no thought of silencing them, no pre-emptive threats or violent reaction. Left-wing speakers were heard more frequently and were more indulgently received, but it was not forbidden to ask them a sharp question without a prefatory assurance of solidarity.
The attitude toward free discussion on the campus left began to change with the mass protests in Ferguson, Mo., and events in their aftermath: the church massacre in Charleston, S.C., the videotaped killings of black men by police officers, and the successive protests in Baton Rouge, St. Paul, New York City, Dallas, and elsewhere. Students went out to demonstrate and brought back to campus the spirit of resistance. With the election of Trump, the pace of the change accelerated. Any doubtful name or monument, any verbal or gestural or symbolic entity associated with the injustices of American society, past or present, came to be looked on with emotions of raw suspicion and horror, as if it embodied a kind of sepsis or pollution.Though students took the lead, activist professors, too, were part of the momentum — a fact well documented in the shutdown at Middlebury College of an invited talk by Charles Murray. The nativist messaging of President Trump’s adviser Stephen Bannon, and the broad adoption of the catch-all term “alt right,” led by traceable steps to a suddenly expanded application of the term “white supremacist.” Once confined to the Ku Klux Klan and their direct or doctrinal offspring, the epithet could now be leveled at a conservative sociologist like Murray or at the undergraduate who questioned the tactics of Black Lives Matter in a student-newspaper column at Wesleyan University.
Probably the largest influence in the move toward repression has been the rise of social media as a facilitator of protest. In the era of the landline telephone, it could take days or weeks to organize a march. Now Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the rest can work up a sudden consensus and a plan of action that gets relayed to thousands between breakfast and dinner. The virtual sight of the crowd in online hashtag swarms inevitably adds to the impression that “we” represent a unanimous and inclusive community, entirely composed of persons of decency and goodwill.
Yet the widely publicized incidents of racist violence, the rise of social media, and the election of Trump, taken together, cannot explain the moral authority that has lately been conferred on the reports of tears and traumas on campus. These quasi-medical confessions are also an emanation of the therapeutic culture, which has tactical value in the academic setting. An argument is refutable. A symptom is not.
At Claremont-McKenna College and Reed College, among others, student protesters at public events have jeered to disrupt an appointed speaker, or they have read in unison from prepared scripts and held up phones to record their collective experience. On September 27, an ACLU lawyer at the College of William & Mary had her talk disrupted and finally shut down by students who credited the rumor that the ACLU, because it had defended the constitutional right of assembly of far-right demonstrators in Charlottesville, Va., was a white-supremacist organization.
Against the mob politics they associate with Trump, the students at those places had organized to act as a mob. Administrators have been reluctant to enforce rules of conduct. And yet, as recently as a decade ago, such disruptions would have been considered an infraction on a par with vandalism and plagiarism. Given the educational aim of a university, participation in a vigilante attack on an unwelcome speaker is the worst of all these offenses. The plagiarist betrays his inability to perform intellectual work; the vandal shows a criminal contempt for property. The person who joins a crowd in the deployment of coercive force declares his membership in a mob. To cede one’s will to a mob is among the most indelible human experiences, and among the most hostile to the spirit of education. A mob removes all responsibility from the thinking self. It lets me say: “I did it because we did it.”
In defense of the coercive protests, it has been pleaded that the participants have noble intentions. But all we know for sure is that people who have bossed other people against their will have had a taste of power; and if they are like most human beings, their first success will give them an appetite for future attempts. There must be pleasure of some sort in the denial of rights to an opponent, just as there is in other exercises of power. The wish to repeat the experience carries a germ of tyranny. What, then, can administrators be thinking when they pander to this mood by telling the students who have shown a disposition to bully that an irreproachable idealism shines through all their actions? The students are young — many as young as 18. This wheedling reassurance can only confirm a delusive self-image. Even as they rely on force instead of persuasion, they think of themselves as the vanguard of true progress, bearers of an achieved innocence, well equipped to reform a corrupt society and to judge its guilty past.
The pressure for campus censorship has much to do with the confidence of students that they will not be held to account. They are in the position of customers, and they have rightly guessed that educational institutions act on the assumption that the customer is always right. Administrators know how bad it looks when a mob shouts down a speaker, and if they are helpless in the face of serious infractions, the reason is that they respect the customer more than the customer respects them. An institution that conceives of education as its central purpose — education, and not the experience of a homelike community where learning is one of the things on offer — might clarify the issue with a simple explanation: “Allowing the expression of opinions you disagree with is part of education. If you stop someone from speaking, we will take it to mean that you aren’t ready for college, and we’ll send you away to cool off for a year, at which point we will re-evaluate your maturity.” As for the right-wing students who stir the pot by inviting a showman-provocateur like Milo Yiannopoulos: “You are supposed to be thinking persons. Is that really the best you can do?”
College administrators — with rare exceptions, such as Carol Christ, the new chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley — are reluctant to back the principle of free speech without a supplementary clause that gives equal weight to feelings of community. They often go further and signify, to those who cite altruistic motives for breaking campus rules, that deep down they sympathize with the rule-breakers. And, sentimentally speaking, they do. At elite colleges, anyway, administrators are apt to share the general views of activist students; elsewhere, they may hope to inculcate such views. So when students testify to an emotional bruise as if it were a physical injury, or complain that they find it “hard to focus” and suffer “panic attacks” from the visits of obnoxious speakers, it seems the path of least resistance to agree. John Stuart Mill’s warning about the posture of orthodoxy toward alien ideas has somehow been forgotten: “Every opponent who pushes them hard, and whom they find it difficult to answer, appears to them, if he shows any strong feeling on the subject, an intemperate opponent.”
The practice of free speech has been through hard times before. The prudent strategy for college authorities, it could be argued, is just to ride out the storm. Take one event at a time; act with expedience and a show of concern; do not invoke principles that may seem abstract and vaguely disagreeable.
The loss incurred by such a prudent policy can be measured in the arts and habits the students of this generation may fail to acquire. A 19th-century schoolmaster, William Cory, once made a list of such arts and habits: “the habit of attention,” “the art of expression,” “the art of entering quickly into another person’s thoughts,” “the habit of submitting to censure and refutation,” “the art of indicating assent or dissent in graduated terms.” We have begun to teach, instead, the habit of minimal attention; the art of expressing oneself in slogans; the art of excluding thoughts that don’t resemble our own; the habit of issuing censure in place of refutation; the art of indicating assent by “likes” and dissent by slander and accusation.
Students, to say it again, have been the leading actors in the pressure for campus censorship, but they take some of their cues from activist scholars; and the censorship of opposing views is an always dangerous professional deformation in every walk of scholarship. An egregious recent example is the coerced withdrawal of an unwelcome article, “The Case for Colonialism,” by Bruce Gilley, published in the journal Third World Quarterly. When the article appeared, two petitions were rapidly circulated online, one demanding its withdrawal and an apology, the second also demanding retraction and apology but adding a demand that the journal remove anyone who approved the article for publication.
The facts here turned out to be as spurious as the rumor at William & Mary that the ACLU was racist. The accusers had initially charged that the article was accepted by editorial circumvention of the normal process of approval. The publisher, Taylor & Francis, checked and found that the normal vetting procedure of approval by scholar-referees had, in fact, been followed. Nevertheless, 15 of the 34 members of the editorial board resigned in protest, the two petitions together collected more than 17,000 signatures, and eventually the article was withdrawn, owing to “serious and credible threats of personal violence.”
The crisis of free speech thus extends to academic publishing as well as the toleration of speakers on campus. It may also cross the boundary separating publication and teaching. When two law professors, Larry Alexander and Amy Wax, published in The Philadelphia Inquirer an op-ed in praise of the discipline of bourgeois manners and morals — which contained a provocative paragraph beginning, “All cultures are not equal” — 33 of Wax’s colleagues signed a statement formally dissociating themselves from her views, and the students at their respective law schools, the University of San Diego and the University of Pennsylvania, demanded that a restriction be placed on the range of courses Wax and Alexander are permitted to teach.
Articulate dissent from the censorship agenda has been left to scholars with the courage not to live a quiet life. Noam Chomsky, a member of the editorial board of Third World Quarterly, took a principled stand against the push for withdrawal of the Gilley article, saying that refutation and not retraction serves the cause of truth in open debate. A curious logic, however, has evolved to extenuate the clamor for retractions and restrictions. One of Gilley’s accusers, Farhana Sultana, an associate professor of geography at Syracuse University, explained the reasoning as follows: “The petition was about upholding rigorous academic scholarly standards, integrity, and ethics by the journal; it had nothing to do with curtailing the author’s right to free speech.”Yet Professor Sultana had solicited signatures for a petition whose text ran in part:
We do not call for the curtailing of the writer’s freedom of speech. We instead hold ourselves and our colleagues in academia to higher standards than this. … We thereby call on the editorial team to retract the article and also to apologize for further brutalizing those who have suffered under colonialism [italics added].
Doublethink is the technique, explained by Orwell in 1984, by which one can hold in mind simultaneously two propositions, “A” and “Not-A,” and stop the mind from noticing the contradiction. The italicized sentences above illustrate the propositions “A” and “Not-A” in the cause of intellectual cleansing.
The bursts of slander that mark a controversy like this might be described as a remote but predictable consequence of the invention of social media. The transition from groundless rumor to conventional wisdom can happen now in a matter of days. Given a lively intellectual setting, questions or jokes or experimental challenges will punctuate the process, through the give and take of conversation. But today, in the coffee shops around any campus, it is commonplace to find several tables occupied by students who are wadded in by the triple seal against the physical world: laptop open, iPhone on, earbuds in ears.
Students raised from a young age in the total surround of the digital world are susceptible to unprecedented anxieties when faced with spontaneous conversation or argument. Sherry Turkle, in Reclaiming Conversation (Penguin Press, 2015), brought forward impressive evidence to show that a great many people under 30 are morbidly afraid of such encounters. In the circumstances, speech lessons may be more in order than speech codes.
The censorship movement has picked up its share of admirers in the polite left-wing media — a disturbing fresh ingredient in the mix. For in every previous generation of liberals, the defense of free speech was an article of faith; men and women of the left carried a vivid memory of the persecution of opinions like theirs. But students and young professors in college have no such memory. They cannot recall a time when most of the people they meet did not think as they think, or when opinions like theirs were vulnerable to persecution.
A recent column in The Guardian by David Shariatmadari, “No Crisis of Free Speech,” epitomizes the new attitude. It was published on September 19, when threats of disorder seemed on the point of closing down scheduled speeches at Berkeley by Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter. Shariatmadari was not impressed by the outcry against censorship. This concern, he said, “should be taken with a pinch of salt” when speakers themselves choose to cancel the engagements. Conceding that some classes, too, were canceled because of the threat, he asks: “Is this censorship, or opposition?”
The answer is that there are forms of opposition that permit an opponent to speak. Censorship wins out most tellingly, after all, not by the exclusion or the prohibitive harassment of a set of speakers or the confiscation of thousands of forbidden books. Its triumph comes with its success in discouraging writers or speakers from testing their thoughts by speaking their mind.
The First Amendment is under attack from both extremes in American politics today, each of which firmly believes it can rally the necessary forces to take control of the country and scour the public culture of undesirable elements. “Network news,” tweeted President Trump in October, “has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked.” Professional de-licensing was, coincidentally, the solution proposed by a number of the anti-Gilley petitioners, for whom the retraction of the article was not enough. They wanted him sacked by his employer, Portland State University, and stripped of the degrees that qualified him to teach anywhere.
A response favored by constitutional liberals has been to argue that the new wave of academic censorship will ultimately fail because the Constitution forbids it. This tactical line is followed, up to a point, by Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gillman in Free Speech on Campus (Yale University Press, 2017), but they also believe it would be wrong, even if it were possible, to enforce a regime of campus censorship. Their argument is moral as well as tactical, and it calls attention to the fact that constitutional law allows more freedom of speech than is likely to be experienced in universities today.
Might colleges think of aiming even higher? If they care about education as the first of their concerns, they should aspire to be not just as free as the First Amendment permits, but the widest-open of all environments for political and cultural debate. Such a renewal would have practical value. Though a vein of anti-intellectualism may be part of the national character, Americans like to think of universities as places where good minds are at liberty. They are willing to believe there is such a thing as intellectual virtue, and the stature they accord to higher education is connected with that belief.
The fortunes of free speech and the fate of the universities have been intertwined for most of a century. If, by a series of expedient adjustments, the universities now weaken their claim on intellectual prestige — a prestige associated with the idea of free inquiry — they will give up the authority they can still command in arguments about justice, peace, and human survival that have an impact far outside education.
David Bromwich is a professor of English at Yale University. He is the author of Politics by Other Means: Higher Education and Group Thinking (Yale University Press, 1992).