Sunday, March 22, 2015

A college without free speech is nothing but a kindergarten

A few years ago, before the faculty colleagues' behavior made me quit my position as director of the university's Honors Program, I required students to read Harry Frankfurt's On Bullshit.  Not only did I love it (as I continue to do so even now) quite a few students loved it as well.  Some even wrote to me about it; like this email that I dug up from my archives:
I have learned far more than I ever wished to about bullshit from your philosophic analysis, "On Bullshit". I feel like there is so much more to bullshit than I ever realized. No wonder you enjoy it so fully.
The world is full of bullshit and bullshitters, and I am one with close to zero tolerance for bullshit and bullshitters.  Which is all the more why when Vox offered a link to write up bogus job descriptions, I crafted this bogus description for myself:
But then there was one student who wrote to me that his background and values did not permit him to use the word "bullshit" and that, therefore, he would not be ok with reading On Bullshit.  I explained to him that this was a serious book, authored by an Ivy League philosopher.  The student wanted an exemption and some other book in place.  I didn't budge.  The student then wrote in an email to me:
 after careful prayer and consideration, I have decided to withdraw from the Honors program
That was ten years ago.  Thinking back about it, it seems like over the decade higher education has become increasingly worried about making sure that students do not feel offended by the discourse.  Ideas cannot be challenged, can't even be presented, because those ideas might upset students.  It is all about triggers in the syllabus and safe spaces anymore:
Once you designate some spaces as safe, you imply that the rest are unsafe. It follows that they should be made safer.
You see what a dangerous path higher education is on to now?
I’m old enough to remember a time when college students objected to providing a platform to certain speakers because they were deemed politically unacceptable. Now students worry whether acts of speech or pieces of writing may put them in emotional peril.
Whatever happened to colleges and free speech?
It shows that while keeping college-level discussions “safe” may feel good to the hypersensitive, it’s bad for them and for everyone else. People ought to go to college to sharpen their wits and broaden their field of vision. Shield them from unfamiliar ideas, and they’ll never learn the discipline of seeing the world as other people see it. They’ll be unprepared for the social and intellectual headwinds that will hit them as soon as they step off the campuses whose climates they have so carefully controlled. What will they do when they hear opinions they’ve learned to shrink from? If they want to change the world, how will they learn to persuade people to join them?
I, too, would prefer a world filled with compassion and empathy, and with no place for hate and cruelty.  But, working towards such an ideal is different from understanding the harsh reality of the world as it is.

But, colleges have only amplified their "student life bureaucracy," as I refer to them, which is what the op-ed author explains as:
Only a few of the students want stronger anti-hate-speech codes. Mostly they ask for things like mandatory training sessions and stricter enforcement of existing rules. Still, it’s disconcerting to see students clamor for a kind of intrusive supervision that would have outraged students a few generations ago. But those were hardier souls. Now students’ needs are anticipated by a small army of service professionals — mental health counselors, student-life deans and the like. This new bureaucracy may be exacerbating students’ “self-infantilization,” as Judith Shapiro, the former president of Barnard College, suggested in an essay for Inside Higher Ed.
Shapiro calls it "self-infantilization" and I use a simpler word: bullshit!

While the following might be an extreme and isolated example, the underlying issues have become all too prevalent:
A few weeks ago, Zineb El Rhazoui, a journalist at Charlie Hebdo, spoke at the University of Chicago, protected by the security guards she has traveled with since supporters of the Islamic State issued death threats against her. During the question-and-answer period, a Muslim student stood up to object to the newspaper’s apparent disrespect for Muslims and to express her dislike of the phrase “I am Charlie.”
Ms. El Rhazoui replied, somewhat irritably, “Being Charlie Hebdo means to die because of a drawing,” and not everyone has the guts to do that (although she didn’t use the word guts). She lives under constant threat, Ms. El Rhazoui said. The student answered that she felt threatened, too.
Re-read that.  A journalist whose life is under threat and, therefore, is protected by security guards even when on a college campus, versus a student feeling "threatened" because of the "I am Charlie" statement.  Who is really under threat and who really needs that safe space, you think?

Such is the state of higher education today!  Bullshit it is :(

I wonder what my favorite public intellectual would say about all these.  Wait, she already did! ;)


Ramesh said...

Well, this is a big issue on which I am not so black and white anymore.

Of course, there should be free speech in academia. If there isn't, how can there be enquiry, debate and development of thoughts and ideas. No doubt on that.

Where I have a problem is the misuse of free speech to deliberately offend. There I have a problem. To me, it is in the same bracket as shouting Fire Fire in a crowded theatre ( an idea I have expressed before and you don't agree to).

Take the Danish cartoon saga. It was done to offend, not to provoke debate or thought. Is that free speech. Of course, I agree that any violent retaliation is unacceptable either. But do we have to exercise free speech with the sole objective of offending. I am not comfortable with that.

It is one thing to discuss controversial ideas. That I totally support, even if it may irritate somebody. But the purpose behind it is not to only offend - it is to discuss an idea. Usually you discuss ideas best if you do not offend - if you carefully lay out the argument as for example you do in your blog. If you piss somebody off, you only get a shouting match, not constructive debate. Therefore exercising free speech while trying your best not to offend is a far more constructive approach I would submit.

Sriram Khé said...

Well ... free speech is free speech is free speech. And, you are correct that an offensive free speech is no where the same as yelling fire in a crowded theater. Your definition of what free speech includes and excludes will be different from another person's and, therefore, we will soon be down to banning all speech at all out of a worry that somebody might get offended for something. And this is exactly what has happened at most college campuses.

I do agree with you on the whether the free speech activity--like the cartoons you refer to--are constructive at all. Or like the flag burning here in the US. I agree that those do not help in any way to enhance any greater understanding. But, if some idiots (I have freedom to call them idiots--and more!) want to do that, I want them to have that freedom to do it. Of course, those idiots are not the kinds of people I want to be friends with and have coffee with ... In fact, I would even detest those idiots (I have the freedom to think and act that way!) but that is free speech.

Sriram Khé said...

Ah, I didn't mean this:
"And, you are correct that an offensive free speech is no where the same as yelling fire in a crowded theater."

But, I meant this:
"And, you are correct in writing that we will disagree regarding my view that an offensive free speech is no where the same as yelling fire in a crowded theater."

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