Students are supposed to read books, not burn them

A leading US defender of free speech on campus says things are so bad that some students are now destroying words that offend them.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Free Speech

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This week, spiked editor Brendan O’Neill is filing reports from New York City. His fourth is published below.

If you thought it was only uneducated Muslims in dusty towns ‘over there’ who burnt things that upset them, think again.

In 2006, The Dartmouth, the student newspaper of Dartmouth College, a liberal arts college in New Hampshire, published a cartoon showing Nietzsche conversing with a male student. The student was with a very drunk girl after a night of boozing and schmoozing and was wondering whether or not he should have sex with her. ‘Will to power’, Nietzsche tells him. The cartoonist said it was intended as a pisstake of Nietzsche, and more broadly of his rehabilitation in liberal academic circles, but some Dartmouth students saw things differently – in their eyes the cartoon was effectively okaying date rape. So they did what any well-educated, privileged students at a liberal arts college would do – gathered outside the offices of The Dartmouth and publicly burned copies of the offending newspaper. Like fascists.

Greg Lukianoff’s mouth is agape as he recounts the incident four years on, clearly still shocked by the demented censoriousness and humourlessness of the Dartmouth book-burners. Lukianoff is president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE, ironically), which was founded in 1999 to defend ‘freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty and sanctity of conscience’ on American campuses, those ‘essential qualities of liberty and dignity’. ‘There was a time when people believed free speech on campus should be as wild and freewheeling as possible’, he tells me in his garden in the Italian part of Brooklyn, New York City. ‘Not anymore. Today students are apparently too sensitive to be able to deal with hard ideas or outrageous humour.’

Freedom of thought and speech on campus, he says, which are so essential to the free exchange of ideas and wrestling with knowledge that take place in any university worth its name, are under assault. They’re being beaten up by the massed ranks of self-righteous students allergic to being offended, speech-policing university administrators who see it as their job to remould young people’s belief systems, and even some professors who now monitor what their students say in class and the tone in which they say it. (He tells me of one tutor whose classroom code involved not saying anything offensive about anyone, which ‘pretty much brought to an end any kind of serious academic debate’.)

And in taking on this outbreak of speech-policing on campus – in going around America defending the right of student newspapers to offend students, of students to offend each other, and of teachers to offend (or what used to be known as ‘teach’) their students as they see fit – FIRE is fast emerging as one of the most important free speech outfits in the US.

Some of the stories about how American students have (over)reacted to being offended are enough to make grumpy old men of the best of us, wondering out loud: what the hell is wrong with the young these days? Alongside the Dartmouth flames of shame in response to a cartoon some students didn’t get or like, other students have taken to stealing or destroying student newspapers that dare to publish something that they – little gods of super-sensitivity that they are – feel offended by.

At Brown University in Rhode Island a mob of students stormed the offices of the student newspaper, The Brown Daily Herald, and seized and ran off with its entire print run. Why? Because the Herald ran an advert paid for by a right-wing politician who denounced the idea of reparations for slavery. At the University of Massachusetts Amherst a group of students stole copies of the conservative campus newspaper The Minuteman after it published an article mocking one of Amherst’s student union officials. The student union demanded that the The Minuteman publicly apologise to the student official or else face ‘loss of recognition’, which would have meant the Minuteman group being shut down and its newspaper being consigned to Torquemada’s dustbin of history. The Minutemen refused and called FIRE instead, the Ghostbusters of campus free-speech controversies.

FIRE’s president, Greg Lukianoff,
in his garden in Brooklyn

FIRE, made up of First Amendment lawyers and properly liberal activists, calls this kind of thing ‘mob censorship’, where gangs of students steal or destroy or burn written materials that in some way hurt their feelings. How have some students ended up like this? Once seen as being the most radical and freethinking section of society, why are some students, those supposed debaters of ideas and contemplators of knowledge, turning into policers of dissent who would rather see something that they find offensive destroyed rather than discussed?

Lukianoff says it is a consequence of the broader academic culture that students find themselves in today – an academic culture which instead of highly prizing combative debate and the unfettered freedom to scuffle over ideas and knowledge increasingly demonises such things as potentially hurtful and damaging. An academic culture, in short, which is destroying its own raison d’être – to foster thought, discussion, enlightenment – through its acceptance of the idea that actually, after all, words and ideas can be quite dangerous and thus should be subject to policing.

Lukianoff says that ‘something turned’ in the 1980s. ‘In the 1980s, there was this weird consensus that something dubbed “hate speech” could be banned’, he says. ‘There was this idea that in order to be really tolerant, to be really multicultural, you had to suppress hateful, mean, cruel, discriminatory thoughts and speech. To ensure civility you had to suppress harsh or hurtful speech. And out of that arose the genesis of campus speech codes, which were completely antithetical to what people had argued in the past – that free speech on campus was a necessary condition for academic life to flourish.’

Lukianoff points out that the idea of ‘hate speech’ – the notion that thoughts and words are too potentially toxic and harmful to others to be allowed to exist independently of official monitoring – was supported as much by so-called liberals, ‘by feminists like Catharine MacKinnon’, as it was by traditionally censorious Victorian-style prudes. The end result is that 71 per cent of American universities now have speech codes governing what their students can say and even what they can think. Lukianoff says the culture of word-watching and thought-monitoring has two depressing consequences: first, it makes students more likely to play the ‘offence card’ if anyone upsets them; and second, it ‘really has a hobbling effect on the rigour of the academy, affecting what people learn and what people teach’.

In being inculcated into the speech-code ethos, American students are increasingly having their thoughts controlled rather than their minds expanded. Far from being laboratories of learning, many campuses have become laboratories for new forms of censorship and conformism. Governing everything from political hotheadedness to sexist speech (one American university outlawed any speech which judged someone on the basis of their sex alone, until FIRE pointed out that this meant the university was effectively banning men’s and women’s toilets), colleges now communicate to students the message that they are not entering an institution of open-mindedness and free, sometimes robust debate, but rather one made up of fragile individuals who must be addressed in a polite, PC manner at all times.

Lukianoff tells me about one of the more extreme examples of the speech-code ethos, ‘probably the best and most nightmarish example of what we call “thought reform”’. The University of Delaware had a mandatory programme for all 7,000 of its students who lived in dorms, which it actually explicitly referred to as a ‘treatment’. The students were expected to attend floor meetings so that they could be told what was acceptable speech on campus and what was not, where the idea, says Lukianoff, ‘was effectively to cure them of any obvious racist, sexist or homophobic beliefs’.

In an exercise at one of these institutionalised meetings, students were told to stand by a certain wall depending on where they stood on matters such as gay marriage, affirmative action, welfare and other hot-button issues in the US. And if they had the ‘wrong’ views on these issues, then they were seen as potentially intolerant and in need of being reminded about the university’s speech and ethics codes. ‘It was flatly political’, says Lukianoff. ‘It was actually a public shaming, really going back to our Puritan roots. This kind of thing treats young people as socially unenlightened and in need of a kind of indoctrination.’

In such an academic climate, or fundamentally anti-academic climate, it is not surprising, says Lukianoff, that some students feel empowered to demand the squishing and even burning of words and images they don’t like – after all, they have been educated from day one to believe that their self-esteem is sacrosanct and must be defended from other people’s brute thoughts and speech. ‘There’s a very predictable result, which is that if you allow the ultimate trump card against free speech to be a claim that “I’m offended”, then people learn very quickly to say they are offended.’

Even worse, in telling students that feeling offended is the very worst thing in the world, that someone offending them is effectively a crime against their personhood and their identity, the academy reneges on perhaps its greatest responsibility of all: to create a space in which young adults can be tested and challenged and argued with, and in the process transformed into better thinkers, more robust individuals, potential philosophes. The policing of students’ brains takes the place of creating an institution in which their minds can run free.

‘I always like to put the Buddhist argument for freedom of speech’, says Lukianoff. ‘Buddhists believe life is pain and they have a point. You do someone a tremendous disservice if you teach them that pain in life is a distortion of life. Because as soon as you start seeing hurtful things as being aberrations rather than part of normal human existence, then you start to see robust debate and disagreement as a distortion of the human experience rather than a part of the human experience. When you have students graduating from college believing that it is really, really bad if they have their feelings hurt, you are crippling them, you are preventing them from being able to deal with everyday life and debate.’

In short, you’re creating shrinking violets rather than thinking individuals, a generation of young adults going out into the world with their offensiveness antennae permanently switched on – more likely to say ‘You can’t say that’ than ‘Why do you say that? Let’s have a debate…’. Lukianoff says we have to move away from the idea that ‘words are like bullets’, that speech is a form of physical assault, and recognise that being argued with, even vociferously, is not the same as being beaten up. However, he says, ‘maybe words should wound. What’s so bad about that? The fact that words can hurt feelings, the fact that they carry emotional charges, is all the more reason for protecting them from censorship. Because the whole point of free speech is to have deep, meaningful, robust debates. We have to have deadly serious discussions about deadly serious things – and we can’t do that if everyone is listening out for potentially offensive words rather than thinking about and responding to the ideas being expressed.’

The new censoriousness on campus – which, for the record, is as profound a problem in Britain as it is in the US – highlights some worrying new trends in today’s war on freedom of thought and speech. It shows that it is not only the state or even sections of the authorities that demand censorship today – all sorts of advocacy groups, educators and youthful organisations now crusade like modern-day Torquemadas for the silencing of their opponents. And it demonstrates the extent to which censorship today both springs from and reinforces a new degraded view of human subjectivity, a view of individuals as fundamentally psychologically fragile and thus in need of protection from allegedly dangerous ideas. In such circumstances, censorship can even be re-presented as a public good, designed not necessarily to police morality in any old-fashioned way but rather to manage relations between the various fragile sections of society. Perversely, censorship is repackaged as a way of protecting the powerless. That idea, more than any other, needs to be challenged, and the authoritarian, patronising, divisive, knowledge-hampering consequences of modern-day censorship exposed. We could really do with starting a FIRE in British universities, too.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Read his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Free Speech


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