The progressive ideas behind the lack of free speech on campus
Is an academic discussion of free speech potentially traumatic? A recent panel for Smith College alumnae aimed at “challenging the ideological echo chamber” elicited this ominous “trigger/content warning” when a transcript appeared in the campus newspaper: “Racism/racial slurs, ableist slurs, antisemitic language, anti-Muslim/Islamophobic language, anti-immigrant language, sexist/misogynistic slurs, references to race-based violence, references to antisemitic violence.”
No one on this panel, in which I participated, trafficked in slurs. So what prompted the warning?
Smith President Kathleen McCartney had joked, “We’re just wild and crazy, aren’t we?” In the transcript, “crazy” was replaced by the notation: “[ableist slur].”
One of my fellow panelists mentioned that the State Department had for a time banned the words “jihad,” “Islamist” and “caliphate” — which the transcript flagged as “anti-Muslim/Islamophobic language.”
I described the case of a Brandeis professor disciplined for saying “wetback” while explaining its use as a pejorative. The word was replaced in the transcript by “[anti-Latin@/anti-immigrant slur].” Discussing the teaching of “Huckleberry Finn,” I questioned the use of euphemisms such as “the n-word” and, in doing so, uttered that forbidden word. I described what I thought was the obvious difference between quoting a word in the context of discussing language, literature or prejudice and hurling it as an epithet.
Two of the panelists challenged me. The audience of 300 to 400 people listened to our spirited, friendly debate — and didn’t appear angry or shocked. But back on campus, I was quickly branded a racist, and I was charged in the Huffington Post with committing “an explicit act of racial violence.” McCartney subsequently apologized that “some students and faculty were hurt” and made to “feel unsafe” by my remarks.
Unsafe? These days, when students talk about threats to their safety and demand access to “safe spaces,” they’re often talking about the threat of unwelcome speech and demanding protection from the emotional disturbances sparked by unsettling ideas. It’s not just rape that some women on campus fear: It’s discussions of rape. At Brown University, a scheduled debate between two feminists about rape culture was criticized for, as the Brown Daily Herald put it, undermining “the University’s mission to create a safe and supportive environment for survivors.” In a school-wide e-mail, Brown President Christina Paxon emphasized her belief in the existence of rape culture and invited students to an alternative lecture, to be given at the same time as the debate. And the Daily Herald reported that students who feared being “attacked by the viewpoints” offered at the debate could instead “find a safe space” among “sexual assault peer educators, women peer counselors and staff” during the same time slot. Presumably they all shared the same viewpoints and could be trusted not to “attack” anyone with their ideas.