I have been told, over and over and over again, that college kids these days are hypersensitive snowflakes who can’t tolerate opposing opinions and don’t believe in free speech. They are so devoted to Tolerance and Diversity that they cannot take a joke, they think everything is a microaggression, and they want to slap “trigger warnings” on anything that may offend their political sensibilities. We have, on American college campuses, a new generation of spoiled, coddled, and censorious whiners who favor stifling dissenting opinions over constructively engaging with them. (I’m presenting this line of thinking in its most extreme form, but I don’t think it’s wrong to say that this is roughly the kind of sentiment one commonly hears about college students.)
This stereotype is grossly unfair. I’ve generally been critical of efforts by activists, both off and on campus, to erode norms of free speech and open discussion, and cautioned against trying to silence offensive viewpoints rather than engage with them. But I think a serious mistake is quite often made, in using strings of anecdotes about individual incidents to come to sweeping conclusions about “college students” or “young people.” As with all stereotypes, this one wrongly imputes a tendency to the group at large based on the actions or characteristics of particular members of that group. Furthermore, it doesn’t actually take seriously the most important question in determining whether “students” have some kind of unique problem: how different are they from everyone else? When we actually examine the facts seriously, we find that young people’s views on basic questions about speech don’t really differ much from those of adults at large, and that the bad tendencies ascribed to Those Crazy Student Activists are in fact widely displayed among Americans as a whole.
First, here are the kinds of broad descriptions I am referring to:
- “The current student-teacher dynamic has been shaped by a large confluence of factors, and perhaps the most important of these is the manner in which cultural studies and social justice writers have comported themselves in popular media.” — “I’m a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me,” Vox
- “America’s college campuses look and feel a lot more like an authoritarian dictatorship than they do the academic hubs of the modern free world.” — “Colleges Have No Right To Limit Students’ Free Speech,” TIME
- “A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense… If our universities are teaching students that their emotions can be used effectively as weapons.. then they are teaching students to nurture a kind of hypersensitivity that will lead them into countless drawn-out conflicts in college and beyond. Schools may be training students in thinking styles that will damage their careers and friendships, along with their mental health.” — “The Coddling of The American Mind,” The Atlantic
- “Free speech faces many challenges at colleges and universities these days, but none greater than the growing skepticism of some students — especially those who feel particularly marginalized and disempowered in our society… Minority students and their supporters too often see free speech as the enemy. ” — “The New Censorship on Campus,” Chronicle of Higher Education
Note the generalizations: “the current student-teacher dynamic,” “America’s college campuses,” “our universities,””minority students.” It’s not, for example, “the dynamic in certain particular kinds of classes at certain elite schools,” and very little effort is made to assess with precision just how prevalent the tendencies under consideration really are. Often, it’s seen as quite foolish to question how widespread campus speech suppression is. For example, Conor Friedersdorf suggests that those who doubt that free speech is under threat are ignoring “glaring evidence” to the contrary. All we need to do, he says, it look at all the attempts to disrupt or disinvite speakers in a single year:
“In 2015 alone, Robin Steinberg was disinvited from Harvard Law School, the rapper Common was disinvited from Kean University, and Suzanne Venker was disinvited from Williams College. Asra Nomani addressed Duke University only after student attempts to cancel her speech were overturned. UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks participated in an event on his own campus that student protestors shut down. Speakers at USC needed police to intervene to continue an event. Angela Davis was subject to a petition that attempted to prevent her from speaking at Texas Tech. The rapper Big Sean faced a student effort to get him disinvited from Princeton. Bob McCulloch faced a student effort to disinvite him from speaking at St. Louis University. William Ayers was subject to an effort to disinvite him from Dickinson School of Law. Harold Koh faced a student effort to oust him as a visiting professor at New York University Law School.”
Let’s have a closer look at these incidents and see what we’ve got here:
- Public defender Robin Steinberg was disinvited from Harvard Law School after conservatives voiced outrage that her staff had appeared in an anti-police rap video. Hundreds of students protested the decision to disinvite Steinberg, calling her inspirational, and she was then invited to give the Law School Criminal Justice Initiative’s inaugural “Trailblazer Lecture.”
- The rapper Common was invited to give the commencement speech at Kean University, then was disinvited by the administration after conservatives voiced outrage at his lyrics’ supposed endorsement for cop killing.
- A college group at Williams rescinds its invitation to Suzanne Venker, a conservative critic of feminism, after leftist students criticize the choice to invite Venker.
- Asra Nomani speaks at Duke. Efforts by activists to cancel her speech do not succeed and the university apologizes for giving her the impression she was not welcome.
- Students disrupt the Chancellor of UC-Berkeley to protest the school’s pitiful minority enrollment numbers, the contrast between the financial hardships faced by students of color and Dirks’ huge salary (nearly half a million dollars even while on leave), and the school’s refusal to sign a Community Benefits Agreement.
- Conservative students from an “American Patriots” group shout down Democratic Representative Luis Gutierrez at USC to protest illegal immigration, requiring campus security to intervene.
- Campus Republicans try to get black activist Angela Davis disinvited from Texas Tech. They fail.
- Princeton students try to get a concert by rapper Big Sean canceled, because he frequently uses the word “bitch” and has a history of sexual violence. The students do not succeed; Big Sean’s concert goes ahead as scheduled, everyone dances, and there are no protests on the day.
- Some student activists protest a lecture by Ferguson prosecutor Bob McCullough. The event proceeds as planned.
- Conservative students try to get Bill Ayers kept off a panel discussion. They fail.
- Students try to keep Harold Koh from being a visiting professor at NYU, due to his involvement in the Obama Administration’s drone program. The students fail.
Perhaps you have noticed the two common themes here: (1) it’s not just leftists that try to keep speakers from coming to campus; controversial speakers of all stripes have been met with opposition. (I remember that right before I got to Brandeis as an undergrad there had been a huge controversy over inviting, of all people, Jimmy Carter, due to his criticism of Israel.) (2) Most of these efforts seem to fail, and the speakers come anyway. Furthermore, it seems like sometimes the “censors” may have something of a point, even if we disagree with them: should large amounts of university funds be spent on a misogynistic performer or a professor involved in an inhumane political policy, when they could just as easily be spent on a performer or professor who didn’t have these kinds of questionable histories? I don’t have a position on these two cases specifically, but it hardly seems evidence of creeping Stalinism in the student body.
More importantly, though, we can see here why reaching broad conclusions from sets of anecdotes is inadvisable. There are around 2,600 four-year universities in the United States. Friedersdorf tried to compile all of the most outrageous instances from a single year, and found about 10 of them. Those 10 were probably roughly evenly distributed according to the political affiliation of the students; i.e. there are more shutdown attempts by liberal students than conservative students, but students are also more liberal. And among those high-profile incidents, a bunch of the speakers ended up coming and speaking and the petitions went nowhere.
What’s more, nearly 40% of college students in the U.S. don’t even attend four-year schools, meaning that they’re not anywhere near the institutions where all of these incidents take place. Partly thanks to the endless commentary about The American Campus, there is a consistently skewed perception as to what we’re actually talking about when we make generalizations about “college.” In all of the debates over Campus Free Speech, observers act as if places like Oberlin and Williams are representative of higher education in the United States, and as if what’s going on at those campuses can be used to draw conclusions as to whether there is a Generation Of The Coddled. But these schools have about 2-3,000 students, around 1/20 the size of one of the large state schools. And somewhere like the University of Phoenix has 140,000 students!
It’s important, then to adjust our conceptions of what College Students look like, and to adopt an approach that is serious about figuring out just how common particular tendencies are. It’s easy to do what Allan Bloom did in The Closing of the American Mind: extrapolate from the experience of your university (in Bloom’s case, Cornell in the ’60s and ’70s) to diagnose what’s going on with America. But if your method is: scan the newspapers for incidents of censorship at universities, then weave them together into a narrative, without paying attention to which kinds of universities you’re talking about and how many universities there are overall, you’re going to be producing a highly persuasive story (“You don’t believe me? Here’s 20 incidents!”) that has no relationship to the lived reality of most college students.
The funny thing is that when you survey college students generally, they actually have fairly predictable and ordinary stances on free speech. There was a study that made waves a while back purporting to find that students want to clamp down on offensive speech, but its statistical methodology was horrendous. A more rigorous survey by Gallup found that nearly 80% of college students preferred an “open” learning environment that encourages differing points of view and tolerates offensive speech to a “positive” learning environment designed to make people comfortable that bans offensive speech. It did find that the numbers of people who wanted a “positive” environment were higher among women and minorities (fairly predictable, since they’re the ones whom the “offensive” speech we’re talking about is being directed at) and that the majority of students believed that schools should be able to punish the use of racial slurs. But here’s the thing: when compared with U.S. adults as a whole, college students were actually more in favor of free speech and more likely to believe that different viewpoints, even offensive or controversial ones, should be tolerated.
Actually, it turns out that when you get down to it, the censorship instinct is fairly strong in human beings generally. A Cato survey on free speech and tolerance found that:
- 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
- 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people’s preferred gender pronouns.
- 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.
- 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
- 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the national anthem.
This isn’t students, this is just people. And so we’re not just dealing with a Coddled Generation, we’re dealing with the common human instinct toward using authority to transform the world so that it is closer to how we’d like it to be.
I am not denying that there is a new type of rhetoric on the left that is critical of free speech as a social value, and I am certainly not denying that it is particularly prevalent among student activists. I happen to think that the instinct to shut down rather than persuade is politically ineffective and I’m very concerned by the damage that this instinct has been doing to the left’s cause. But I also know that “the most extreme examples you can find on Twitter” are not representative of “young people generally,” and that nobody who is searching for the cases that confirm their thesis (while ignoring the tens of thousands that don’t) is producing a reliable account of the world.
I am also, frankly, skeptical about just how many people even in the elite college campuses subscribe to the kind of caricatured “social justice” ideology that conservatives seem to think they do. First, much of what the “social justice” activists are saying is less extreme than people think it is. Microaggressions, for example, are quite real and deeply pernicious and it’s important to talk about and try to get rid of them. I don’t like the phrase “trigger warning,” but putting content warnings on potentially traumatic material seems wholly unobjectionable to me. If you’re going to show a film in class featuring brutal violence, why shouldn’t you tell your students beforehand so that anyone who is particularly disturbed by violence can prepare themselves? Much of the mockery of “campus culture” comes from people who have not made any effort to understand what is actually being said. Yes, we can all pick our favorite extreme example of some 19-year-old who said something ludicrous-sounding about how white people aren’t allowed to eat burritos. But there are, for instance, very good reasons why people think that Charles Murray shouldn’t be rewarded for his racist pseudoscience by being given invitations to deliver prestigious campus lectures. I understand why people felt that Milo Yiannopoulos, a man who enjoyed calling women cunts and telling Muslim audience members they didn’t belong in America, didn’t deserve the honor of being treated as a serious contributor to campus discourse.
But frankly, I don’t even know how common these zany Social Justice Notions are at the places, like Yale, where they supposedly proliferate. Last year I was a teaching assistant at Harvard and taught a few sections for undergraduate sociology courses. These should, to believe the common stereotype, have been absolutely filled with the kind of “SJWs” we hear about so frequently: my students were racially diverse, academically elite, sociology concentrators. And since I am a white man, I should have been scared: after all, they would be “out to get me” since, as we know, they hate white men and will construe anything as a microaggression. That’s what I’ve been told at least.
What nonsense all of that was. My students were great. We discussed really challenging topics: policing, violence in the media, religion and cults. There were widely divergent viewpoints. I got students to defend their positions against criticism, to think about what people who would disagree with them would say and respond accordingly. Nobody was offended by having to think. I came to suspect that a lot of this stuff about how students are “offended by everything” and “can’t take a joke” comes from people who say things that are genuinely hurtful or offensive, and who tell stupid and appalling jokes. Jerry Seinfeld said that he won’t play college campuses anymore because students are too uptight to laugh. But what are the jokes he wanted to tell and couldn’t? In the world I live in, students do still enjoy laughter and engage in it frequently.
Again, this is not to say that there aren’t extreme incidents, like the canceling of the Vagina Monologues for transphobia. But generally, free speech on campus seems to be doing pretty well. Charles Murray’s schedule is packed, and he went to both Harvard and Yale last year. At Harvard, he was invited by a group that seeks to deliberately bring provocative and controversial speakers in order to make a point about free speech. And what happens? Well, they bring the speakers, and the speakers speak. The Great Campus Free Speech Threat seems to be relatively toothless, and conservative groups usually get to rub whichever racist they like in the faces of minority students, whose objections are disregarded. (By the way, one sad reason that these controversies come out of campuses is that these kinds of speaking events disproportionately occur on campus. Once you leave college and enter the world of employment, there are no big fights over who can come to speak, because you don’t spend your life reading books in cafes and going to talks, you spend your life producing value for your employer. If public speeches were a bigger part of adult life generally, rather than just academic life, then we’d probably see more controversies about them.)
I’m sure there are some threats to speech on campus. I am far more worried about the actions of administrations than students; the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a group that makes a hell of a lot of noise about every incident they can find, says university-enforced campus speech codes are widespread, and it’s true that the more power you give to administrators, the more likely they are to use it against dissident student groups (e.g. Students for Justice in Palestine). But even the “speech codes” fear may be overblown, if these are generally just generic statements about how students are supposed to show a basic level of respect to one another and not bandy about ethnic slurs. That doesn’t seem too much different from, for example, asking someone to leave the local public library if they start screaming the n-word while people are trying to read. Whether or not these codes are an issue worth worrying about depends entirely on what they mean in practice rather than on paper.
It’s time then, to stop talking in stereotypes. Students are, for the most part, just like everybody else: they believe in free speech, but they also have an instinct for censorship. The tendencies that critics describe do exist, but their mistake is in taking the tendencies as the rule rather than the exception. Controversial speakers do, for the most part, get to come to speak, and images of millennials as uniquely sensitive and authoritarian are a misleading and unfair slight against a perfectly decent generation.
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