Tag Archives: microaggression

Progressive Policing of Speech Moves Off Campus

“Hate speech is excluded from protection,” CNN anchor Chris Cuomo tweeted last year, echoing a dangerously common misconception. “Hate speech isn’t free speech,” people say, assuming they have a right not to hear whatever they consider hateful language and ideas. Government officials sometimes share this view: The Mayor of West Hollywood confirmed to Eugene Volokh that she would not issue a special events permit for a Donald Trump rally so long as he trafficked in hate, contrary to the “values and ideals” of the West Hollywood community

Related: A Champion of Free Speech Takes on the Muzzled Campus

But you don’t have to indulge in allegedly hateful speech to violate questionable local laws: In Washington D.C., an employer who fails to call a transgender employee by the employee’s preferred pronouns, including “ze,” “zir,” or “they,” may be liable for harassment, as Hans Bader explains. The New York City Commission on Human Rights has issued similar mandates, applying broadly to employers, landlords and businesses, meaning that customers and tenants, as well as employees, have a “human right” to regulate ordinary speech used in ordinary commercial transactions.

“(P)eople can basically force us — on pain of massive legal liability — to say what they want us to say, whether or not we want to endorse the political message associated with that term, and whether or not we think it’s a lie,” Volokh laments. “We have to use the person’s ‘preferred … pronoun and title,’ whatever those preferences might be. Some people could say they prefer ‘glugga’ just as well as saying ‘ze’.”

Progressive speech policing has moved off campus, in a trend as alarming as it is unsurprising. College and university speech codes conflating allegedly offensive speech and discriminatory conduct date back a quarter century. They partly reflect hostility toward unwelcome speech spawned by popular therapies of the 1980’s that equated verbal and physical abuse and by the feminist anti-porn movement, which equated pornography with rape and declared misogynist speech a civil rights violation.

Related: Title IX Tramples Free Speech and Fairness, So Now What?

By now, generations of students have been taught that unwelcome speech isn’t speech but discriminatory “verbal conduct;” these days, it’s even condemned as violence. (When I quoted the word “nigger” instead of referencing it by an initial during a panel on free speech while discussing Huck Finn, I was accused of committing an act of racial violence.) Who decides when speech is not speech but abusive or violent conduct? The offended listeners — if the listeners belong to disadvantaged groups. Their subjective reactions are the standard by which the right to speak is judged.

Again, this ideology dates back decades. So, the first wave of students to imbibe its lessons is entering middle age. Some have remained in academia, as faculty and administrators, partners in campus censorship. Others have assumed influential positions in the wider world, including the federal bureaucracy.

Under the direction of Catherine Llhamon, Amherst, ‘93, Yale Law, ‘96, the federal Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights has continued conflating sexual harassment (including speech) and sexual misconduct, while depriving accused students of due process rights in campus disciplinary proceedings.

Related: Feminist Censored from Censorship Panel

The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, led by Vanita Gutpa, Yale, ‘96, NYU Law, 2001, recently issued a remarkable order to the University of New Mexico (a public institution) requiring it to violate the First Amendment by investigating instances of “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature,” including the proverbial, “verbal conduct,” as harassment whether or not they “cause a hostile environment or are quid pro quo.” As the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) observes, the university is required to investigate “all speech of a sexual nature that someone subjectively finds unwelcome, even if that speech is protected by the First Amendment.”

Censors Coming from ACLU Staff

It’s worth noting that both Llhamon and Gupta are former ACLU staff attorneys. (Gupta, who has an impressive record on criminal justice reform, was Deputy Legal Director in the national office.) Whatever values they absorbed at the ACLU did not, it seems, include a firm commitment to free speech (or, in Llhamon’s case, due process). Indeed, one measure of censorship’s embrace by progressives outside academia is the national ACLU’s relative silence in the face of the free speech crisis on and off campus.

Some state affiliates remain pockets of free speech advocacy, and (following early missteps) the national office has mounted strong challenges to security state abuses. But as Harvey Silverglate sadly observes, “The national ACLU Board and Staff are nowhere to be seen in the increasingly difficult battle to protect First Amendment freedom of expression rights. This is especially so in areas where the ACLU, more and more, pursues a political or social agenda.”

That agenda, and the equation of allegedly hateful speech — as defined by aggrieved listeners — with discriminatory conduct practically sanctifies the heckler’s veto. And it too is gaining acceptance off campus. In a thoughtful exchange at reason.com, Black Lives Matter organizer DeRay McKesson argues that the heckler’s veto is an exercise in free speech, worthy of protection. In this

view, the loudest voices win, I guess. “They always do,” hecklers might respond.

The Limits of Heckling

I don’t share this vision of free speech, although I understand it. If you believe the dominant discourse in your community systematically ignores your values and concerns, you may consider shouting it down your only option. But free speech can’t merely mean the right to say what people don’t mind hearing. And heckling doesn’t always, or often, stop at shouting, especially when metaphors about the “violence of the word” are taken literally, thus rationalizing violence in response to words.

Right-wing provocateur Milos Yiannopoulos was not just shouted down but assaulted during an appearance at DePaul University. As reason.com observed, students justified their violent actions by declaring that Yiannoloupos “spreads hate and violence.”

In its most extreme and virulent form, the heckler’s veto devolves into an assassin’s veto, and even that has evoked some measure of understanding from grown-up elites, who should surely know better. When PEN bestowed its 2015 Freedom of Expression Courage Award on the surviving staff at Charlie Hedbo, hundreds of PEN members protested. After issuing relatively perfunctory condemnations of murder, over 200 eminent writers sharply criticized Charlie Hedbo for satirizing disadvantaged, vulnerable groups of people.

“To the section of the French population that is already marginalized, embattled, and victimized, a population that is shaped by the legacy of France’s various colonial enterprises, and that contains a large percentage of devout Muslims, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the Prophet must be seen as being intended to cause further humiliation and suffering.”

Cartoonist Gary Trudeau joined in this excoriation of Charlie Hedbo’s murdered satirists: “By punching downward, by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, Charlie wandered into the realm of hate speech, which in France is only illegal if it directly incites violence. Well, voila—the 7 million copies that were published following the killings did exactly that, triggering violent protests across the Muslim world, including one in Niger, in which ten people died.”

These statements accusing Charlie Hedbo of verbal abuse and blaming it for the violent acts of an offended audience, read like excerpts from a college newspaper column justifying shout downs or assaults on a presumptively hateful speaker. They make clear that outside academia, some accomplished adults will join undergraduates in framing free speech as a potential source of oppression — a privilege or weapon used by the powerful to “silence” the relatively powerless.

Not surprisingly, corporate speech rights, on the increase, generate increasing concern. The political speech and associational rights of non-profit as well as business corporations are primary targets of progressive wrath (despite the fact that incorporated advocacy groups give voice to millions of ordinary people.) So are the rights of corporate “climate deniers” and associates. But, as the Charlie Hedbo protests showed, any individual or publication that speaks “offensively” from a perceived position of power is suspect.

Words are weapons, progressive censors argue, and they’re right, however inadvertently. Words are weapons; that’s why we protect them. Speech is the ideal weapon of non-violent political combat, most essential to the relatively powerless. Virtually every movement for social change has relied on politically weaponized speech, including today’s student protest and civil rights movements. Progressives might agree, if only elites would engage in some unilateral disarmament. “Power and prestige are elements that must be recognized in considering almost any form of discourse, including satire,” PEN’s Charlie Hedbo protesters insisted. “The inequities between the person holding the pen and the subject fixed on paper by that pen cannot, and must not, be ignored.”

Of course, progressives are not alone in supporting censorship. It is a non-partisan vice, evident today in across the aisle support for security state speech surveillance. The nation has also endured authoritarian assaults on dissent emanating primarily from the right, notably during 20th century red scares, which had particularly chilling effects in academia. Current conservative governors in Wisconsin and North Carolina have mounted controversial political attacks on state university systems, while the emerging Republican platform condemns pornography (whatever that is) as a “public menace” and calls for theocratic alignment of law with “God-given, natural rights” (as defined, I suppose, by Republicans.) I’ve focused on contemporary left wing censorship partly because it’s increasingly influential and partly because censorship is now embedded in the progressive ethos, as an essential weapon against inequality.

PEN’s protesters called for self-censorship, but demonizing speakers who fail to censor themselves effectively excuses and encourages their censorship by the state. (Gary Trudeau, for one, apparently approves of French laws criminalizing whatever authorities deem hate speech.) Students who protest offensive or presumptively traumatizing “verbal conduct” are indeed exercising their own speech rights, as they claim.

But in insisting that those rights require administrators to censor other people’s speech, they’re not exercising rights so much as seeking anti-democratic power. Progressive policymakers pledge allegiance to constitutional values and rights, while defining harassment broadly, according to the unpredictable, subjective reactions of any listeners labeled disadvantaged.

Old-fashioned liberals and civil libertarians do strongly contest this view of censorship as a civil right, but they seem a dwindling, aging minority — unlikely architects of the future. In providing constitutional protection to allegedly hateful speech, the U.S. is an outlier among Western nations. You have to wonder how long it will remain one.

The New Age of Orthodoxy Overtakes the Campus

The great threat to academic freedom today arises not from plutocrats determined to weed from the campus garden any sprouts of pro-unionism; nor from censorious divines on the hunt for misinterpretations of the Sermon on the Mount; nor yet from defenders of the flag who suspect disloyal thoughts among the cosmopolitan professoriate.  Those were demons of another age.  Perhaps in honor of the great liberal scholar who dedicated much of his life to fighting those demons, we can call it the Age of Hofstadter.  Columbia University historian Richard Hofstadter published Academic Freedom in the Age of the College in 1955—a masterly work on the sectarian squabbles that bedeviled American colleges through the 19th century.

Related: The slippery Use of Social Justice

Hofstadter famously championed progressive causes and idealized university education right up until the point in spring 1968 when student thugs occupied and trashed the president’s office at Columbia and made a point of defecating on his desk.  In Hofstadter’s 1968 Columbia commencement address he enunciated once again his vision of the university as “committed to certain basic values of freedom, rationality, inquiry, [and] discussion.”  He insisted that the university is “a citadel of intellectual individualism” and stands for “the most benign side of our society.”

Professor Hofstadter, meet Melissa Click.

The Age of Hofstadter has clearly passed. What we have now is the age of cry bullies, trigger warnings, safe spaces, Black Lives Matter, dis-invitations, and all the other cogs and gears that make up the tyrannical machinery of “social justice” on campus.  Professor Melissa Click’s call last year at a University of Missouri Black Lives Matter protest for “some muscle” to eject a student reporter from the event was no worse than some of the other things that radicalized professors and students did on campuses across the country, but it was caught perfectly on video and can stand as metonym for the moment.  The Age of Click.

Related: Liberals Who Drifted Toward the New Illiberalism

In the Age of Click, academic freedom is mainly at risk from academicians.  This is hardly news.  It has been amply documented at Minding the Campus.  But how do we explain how Hofstadter’s beloved university, founded on freedom and rationality and “a citadel of intellectual individualism,” flipped into a bastion of proud ignorance and our society’s greatest engine of aggressive intolerance?  What caused our most “benign institution” to become its opposite?

British education writer Joanna Williams is the latest to attempt an explanation.

Her new book, Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity, joins a handful of others, including Kim Holmes’ The Closing of the Liberal Mind (2016), Michael Walsh’s The Devil’s Pleasure Palace (2015), and Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind (2012), as an autopsy of the old liberal university. It’s an indictment of the new progressive campus and a call for some kind of resurrection.  Holmes, Walsh, and Haidt are American observers.

Williams, the Education Editor of the UK journal Spiked, brings an off-shore perspective to a shared problem.  This difference alone makes her book of serious interest to American readers, who will be struck by the divergent forms of protest and controversy surrounding what look like the same set of underlying principles.  What does the debate on academic freedom look like in a social order that has no equivalent of America’s First Amendment?

Williams commences where no American writer would: with legislation pushed by the government to “prevent students from being ‘radicalized’ into joining extremist groups.” The UK “Prevent” strategy has no exact equivalent in the U.S., although the Patriot Act opened up some minor pathways to government monitoring of American colleges and universities.  Does anyone recall the hubbub among librarians in 2006 when the reauthorization of the Patriot Act allowed that the federal government might want to know which books potential terrorists were borrowing? They went into a frenzy about something far more mild than what had become standard practice in Britannia.  In any case, American campuses have not become significant conduits of recruitment for Muslim terrorists.  Thus, the basic framing of the debate over academic freedom in the U.K. and the U.S. differs.

Inappropriate Sighing

But in other respects, our countries act in parallel ways, even down to the level of bureaucrats magnifying petty sleights to take down people they disagree with.  We learn, for example, of Warwick University English professor Thomas Docherty, famous for criticizing British higher education policy, who was suspended from his position for nine months.  The official reason for his punishment, of course, was not the substance of his criticisms.  Rather, he was “insubordinate” as evidenced by his use of sarcasm and “inappropriate sighing in job interviews.”

“Inappropriate sighing” seems like something from a Monty Python skit, but there must be a cultural equivalent somewhere in America.  One possibility:  Marquette University professor John McAdams.  He faces an effort by his institution to strip him of tenure because he published the name of a graduate student who had peremptorily refused to let a student in her ethics class bring up his criticisms of gay marriage.  As in England, the pretext is process, but the real cause is dissent from progressive orthodoxy.

British activists took the lead in developing the practice of “no-platforming.”  We know that practice mainly in the form of dis-invitations, based on the idea that proponents of certain views should be prevented from speaking on campus.  Williams cites feminist “critical” lawyers as among the pioneers of this stratagem.  A group of such lawyers at the University of Kent, for example, published in 2013 a petition calling on the London School of Economics to no-platform two writers, Helen Reece and Barbara Hewson, who had expressed doubts about the prevalence of “rape myths.”  Reece and Hewson had been invited by LSE to be part of a public “debate.”  Excluding people from a debate because you disagree with their views is an odd conceit, but odder still is that the practice has rapidly gained credibility on both sides of the Atlantic as morally valid.

Justice Only for the Left

Williams holds that academic freedom lies at “the heart of the university” and is “integral to the collective enterprise to critique and advance knowledge.”  She is, in other words, a time traveler from the Age of Hofstadter. Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity sets out to dismantle the now pervasive left-wing conceit that academic freedom is “an elitist principle” that deserves either to be re-defined in the name of “justice” as a right to be reserved exclusively to the left itself, or banished altogether.  Williams counters these political claims with the argument that “knowledge should be evaluated solely on the basis of intellectual merit.” In this light, censorship of controversial ideas is never justified.

Williams is not engaged in an idealization of the academic past.  For her, there was no “Golden Age,” but she is alert to the particular dangers right now.  In a chapter on “Conformity in the Academy,” she takes up the implications of treating students as consumers to be “flattered and appeased rather than challenged.”  This is surely a key element in the emergence of “snowflake” students, who demand that the university cater to their psychological fragility.  Williams also nails the sorry feedback loop between self-censorship by scholars and the peer-review system that rewards those who “merely confirm that which has gone before.”  The chapter is of particular value, however, in Williams’ lucid account of what happens when “knowledge” is severed from the pursuit of truth.

The effort to make knowledge into a construct of its own apart from whether it is true is not just a giddy conceit of the post-modernists.  It is also the stock-in-trade of supposedly practical people interested in data, information, skills, and “human capital.”  Utilitarianism has limited interest in what is true; what matters is whether something works. As Williams notes, this blurs knowledge with skill to the disadvantage of knowledge.  Knowledge is reduced to instrumental knowledge.  The post-modern left, the social justice crowd, and the utilitarian right find common ground in pushing the pursuit of truth to the margins.  The result is a university where “many academics feel more comfortable concerning themselves with nurturing students’ employability skills or personal values,” than they do in helping students come to a true knowledge of the subjects they study.

The Trap of Global Citizenship

Williams’ strictures on this provide a new way to look at higher education’s strange new emphasis on the imaginary category of “global citizenship.”  As she points out, the term doesn’t stand for “any particular knowledge about the world,” but rather “changes in students’ attitudes” mostly in the form of rejection of “national identity.” Global citizenship “connects private feeling and qualities such as care, empathy and awareness, with the global issues of the day.”  It thus “places whole areas of knowledge beyond debate.”  The “homogeneity of political views” on campus is thus driven as much by efforts to manipulate the psychological vulnerabilities of students as it is by the effort of faculty members to steer away from the hard task of attempting to sort truth from opinion.

Williams herself doesn’t flinch in that effort.  Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity is a short (198 page) book written in lively English and rich with examples, but it is thick with thought-provoking arguments on exactly how the “benign institution” of the university somersaulted to the frequently malign institution we have today.  She finds some of impetus in what happened in the academic disciplines, and more of it in the pernicious influence of academic feminism.  These are compellingly presented, but American readers will note that Williams has next to nothing to say about “diversity,” race, and multiculturalism as the anvils on which academic freedom in our universities has frequently been crushed.


The absence of these topics from a book about enforced conformity on campus is arresting, and serves perhaps as testimony to the “exceptional” character of America’s descent into leftist intolerance.  Our campuses share with Britain and the rest of the English-speaking world an invasive new hatred of intellectual freedom.  But we have added to it our own homebrew of racial grievance and identity politics.  Britain certainly has experienced the woeful side of multiculturalism as well, but Williams treats it as secondary thread.  For us, in the Age of Click, it is primary.

Britain’s example shows that the intolerance endangering academic freedom is not tied to a particular grievance, but has become a force in its own right.

Feds Fund Search for Microaggressions

Earlier this month, The Washington Free Beacon, the conservative online newspaper, reported that the National Science Foundation was spending over half a million federal dollars “to videotape male engineering students while they work in labs” to see if they are committing “microaggressions” against women. The Daily Caller was more openly sarcastic, with a headline that read, “Feds Blow $548,459 To Study ‘MICROAGGRESSIONS’ Toward Female Engineering Students.”

But was the derision deserved? The description on the NSF site made me wonder if the University of Michigan-based study might have some potential merit, despite being titled “Microaggressions in Engineering Student Teams.” Granted, the term “microaggressions”—coined in the 1970s to denote subtle unintentional slights based on race, gender, and other group characteristics—often refers to absurd “offenses” such as calling America a melting pot or getting ethnic names mixed up. But the University of Michigan study ostensibly focused on real biases, conscious or not—such as female engineering students in coed teams being relegated to less important tasks or having their input ignored. Is this worth studying? Certainly, if there is evidence that such a pattern exists. Without further details, dismissing the study as a waste of tax dollars seemed somewhat harsh.

After an email exchange with the principal investigator, University of Michigan psychology professor Denise Sekaquaptewa, I found out that the press reports had some inaccuracies: for one, the study does not focus solely on men’s microaggressions toward women but also tracks offenses by women, toward other women and sometimes toward men. Yet, in a more basic sense, the critics were on point.  Whatever valuable data this study may yield, it is primarily an exercise in trivial pursuit coupled with speech policing—directed at a problem that may not exist.

What sorts of behaviors will count as “microaggressions” in the study, which will observe mixed-gender teams of students working on group projects for an engineering class? (Each team of four or five students agreeing to participate in the study will have three video-recorded work sessions.) Sekaquaptewa told me that it would be “a variety of negative behaviors including those that are considered microaggressions in the psychology literature”:

We code for the use of sexist or racist language, such as the use of gendered pronouns, making fun of an individual’s name (e.g., because it is hard to pronounce), or demeaning jokes; assumptions of inferiority, which includes ignoring or interrupting a team member such that an individual’s contributions are not heard, or expressions of surprise at an individual’s level of accomplishment; sexual objectification, such as general comments that objectify men or women, or unreciprocated advances; general rude behaviors, such as sarcasm, unwarranted criticism, condescension, or disengagement.

In other words, a student’s casual reference to a generic engineer as “he” is enough to the women on the team to be victims of a microaggression-riddled hostile climate. So is a single unreciprocated flirtation, or, presumably, a comment about the sex appeal of an absent student or an entertainer. (At least “objectification” is treated as a two-way street!).  And who decides when enthusiastic praise for someone’s accomplishment becomes an “expression of surprise,” or which criticism is unwarranted—or, for that matter, what jokes are demeaning?

At this point, no preliminary findings from the teamwork observations are available. But Sekaquaptewa did share some data from another portion of the study: interviews with 43 engineering students in ten focus groups, conducted in the fall of 2014. One in four had “experienced or observed microaggressions” during teamwork on a group project, and 72 percent “reported witnessing microaggressions” as part of their general experience at the College of Engineering.  (Of those, about half reported microaggressions based on race or ethnicity; a similar proportion reported gender-based microaggressions.)

Did some of these microaggressed-against students face genuine sexism or racism? Possibly so. But, in a fundamental way, the study is based on a faulty premise.

The study’s stated goal is to test whether microaggressions make the climate in engineering less friendly for women, “leading to a gender gap favoring men in the important engineering outcomes of learning, performance, and persistence” and contributing to women’s underrepresentation in the profession. Yet, while engineering remains a male-dominated profession, one thing that is not a factor in this is greater attrition among women in engineering programs. Earlier NSF-funded research, completed in 2005 and published in 2008-2009, disproved the notion that women drop out of engineering programs at a higher rate than men did. As tech blogger Stephen Mraz put it:

Women are a minority in engineering schools, making up only 20% of engineering grads. In contrast, women earn over half of the bachelor degrees in agricultural, biological, chemical, and social sciences. But women aren’t bailing out of engineering once they get a taste of it in college. In fact, the studies found that a female freshman in engineering is just as likely as a male freshman is to complete the course of study.

One can debate whether women’s much lesser likelihood of choosing the field is due to innate sex differences in personality traits and interests or to cultural forces including the “masculine” image of engineering—or to some mix of both. But microaggressions in college engineering programs are clearly not responsible for keeping women out.

This is confirmed by earlier and recent data. A study published in The International Journal of Mechanical Engineering Education in 2014 found that, among mechanical engineering majors tracked from 1987 to 2010, women were more likely than men to complete their degree within six years — the gap was very small for whites but fairly sizable for black students. The authors also noted that, across all engineering majors, “women do nearly as well or better than men in all racial groups, and Black males and Hispanic males stand out as having low graduation rates in the starting major.”

(Interestingly, another recent study found that male students who leave science, engineering and technology programs are more likely than their female counterparts to drop out of college altogether rather than switch to another major—a fact that seems to support widespread concerns about males lagging behind in higher education. But don’t look for federal grants to investigate whether microaggressions are driving them out.)

What does Sekaquaptewa have to say about this? In her email, she insisted, “Although achievement gaps have recently decreased, there remains a gap in persistence for women,” (a claim contradicted by all available evidence). She added, “Women are much less likely than men are to stay in the engineering profession post-graduation.” The second assertion is true, but this gap seems to be related primarily to childbearing and childrearing. Again, one could argue that more should be done to help female engineers balance career and motherhood—but eradicating sexually objectifying comments and gendered pronouns in college engineering teams will do nothing to address this problem.

So yes, it’s fair to say that the NSF is wasting more than half a million dollars—pocket change by federal standards, but your tax dollars nonetheless—on a study that is likely to do little more than encourage petty grievances. Then again, I have learned one valuable thing: if a study has the word “microaggression” in its title, you absolutely can judge the book by its cover.

Invited Racist Banned at Williams– Was That Right?

When President Adam Falk of Williams College wrote to the campus community on February 18, to say that he was disinviting John Derbyshire, he didn’t offer much explanation.  Derbyshire, who had been invited by students as part of a program called “Uncomfortable Conversations,” was supposed to talk about immigration. Falk said that Derbyshire had “crossed the line” and was guilty of “hate speech.”

The line was apparently written in magic ink that only President Falk could see. The “hate speech” was presumably there to be found if one went looking.  Of course, Derbyshire is semi-famous for having written an essay that advises the children of white parents to avoid black people.  The essay got him fired from the National Review in 2012.  He went on to publish other ill-judged racial provocations in out-of-the-way places.

Related: ‘Uncomfortable Talk’ Censored at Williams

“Hate speech” is one of those phrases that often says more about the person using it than the person who is accused of uttering it.  It might bring to mind crude epithets; perhaps it conjures bullying or incitements to violence; or again, it might bring to mind slander or libel aimed at destroying someone’s reputation. For some, the term is also a way of deprecating opinions they strongly disagree with or even statements of fact that, however much they rest on good evidence, contradict the beliefs of the speaker.  For example, pointing out the 18-year absence of global warming as measured by satellite readings is, in some eyes, “hate speech.”  So is noticing the dramatic disparities between blacks and whites in commission of violent crimes.

To label what someone says as “hate speech” is, of course, to judge that person’s motives.  It is also an attempt to put the content of what the person says outside the bounds of further consideration.  It is a tool, as social psychologist Jonathan Haidt might put it, that helps a moral community police its boundaries.  To label someone a purveyor of hate speech is to write him out the deliberations of all right-thinking people.

Is Derbyshire a purveyor of “hate speech”?  That depends on what President Falk meant by it. I wanted to know, so I asked him.  He wrote back and told me, and with his permission, I quote his answer.  He stipulated that I quote it in its entirety, so I will in deference to the spirit of the times, offer a trigger warning:

Related: Princeton Takes a Stand on Free Speech

Are we narrowed down the audience to the insensitive louts who can bear up? Good.  Here goes:

Dear Mr. Wood,

While I am not interested in an extended dialog with the National Association of Scholars regarding matters at Williams College, I am prepared to give a brief response to your question about John Derbyshire’s canceled appearance here. To that end, please see his opinion piece “The Talk: Non-Black Version.” This article was considered so racist by the National Review (no bastion of left-wing orthodoxy, I assure you) that upon its publication the editors severed their association with Derbyshire and refused him further access to their pages. Typical of its content is the following excerpt, in the form of advice to “nonblack” children:/

(10a) Avoid concentrations of blacks not all known to you personally.
(10b) Stay out of heavily black neighborhoods.
(10c) If planning a trip to a beach or amusement park at some date, find out whether it is likely to be swamped with blacks on that date (neglect of that one got me the closest I have ever gotten to death by gunshot).
(10d) Do not attend events likely to draw a lot of blacks.
(10e) If you are at some public event at which the number of blacks suddenly swells, leave as quickly as possible.
(10f) Do not settle in a district or municipality run by black politicians.
(10g) Before voting for a black politician, scrutinize his/her character much more carefully than you would a white.
(10h) Do not act the Good Samaritan to blacks in apparent distress, e.g., on the highway.
(10i) If accosted by a strange black in the street, smile and say something polite but keep moving.

As for Derbyshire’s views on white supremacy, I would point you to the following passage that appeared on the website VDare:

Leaving aside the intended malice, I actually think ‘White Supremacist’ is not bad semantically. White supremacy, in the sense of a society in which key decisions are made by white Europeans, is one of the better arrangements History has come up with. There have of course been some blots on the record, but I don’t see how it can be denied that net-net, white Europeans have made a better job of running fair and stable societies than has any other group.

Frankly, this is the kind of material I would expect to see distributed by organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan.

Related: What Universities Can Do for Free Speech in 2015

Derbyshire’s rhetoric, as typified in these passages, isn’t the explication of provocative, challenging or contrary ideas. To speak to what I’m sure is a particular concern of the National Association of Scholars, his work on race isn’t remotely scholarly. Derbyshire simply provokes. His racist bile would have added nothing to the complicated and challenging conversations occurring every day on our campus, across a wide range of ideologies and experiences. No educational purpose of any kind would have been served by his appearance at Williams.

I hope this clarifies matters.

Adam F. Falk

President and Professor
Williams College

Full disclosure: I met Derbyshire once in a social setting, but I don’t know him well and have not read any of his books on mathematics or other subjects.  What I do know of him is that he is a man who seems almost to have courted opprobrium.  Those of his writings about race that I have seen make me think of someone absorbed in the pleasure of seeing how close to the edge of the cliff he can stand without falling over.  But he seems to have no real animus towards blacks.  I would describe his writings as misanthropic and heedless.  They are objectively racist, as he clearly believes that races are biologically real and that the differences matter in all sorts of ways.  But if a distinction can be drawn between racist writing and “hate speech,” Derbyshire’s writing might provide the occasion to draw it.  It seems motivated by fear, not hate, and it counsels withdrawal rather than aggression.

I can well imagine that those distinctions wouldn’t satisfy President Falk, but they are important if we want to understand why students invited Derbyshire in the first place.  He is plainly not someone who hurls epithets; bullies people; torments opponents; incites violence; or libels individuals. He just says awful things and tries to defend them as reasonable judgments.

Yik Yak– Latest Target of Anti-Free-Speech Left

And many people understand that.  In 2010 the Black Law Students’ Association (BLSA) of the University of Pennsylvania Law School invited Derbyshire to speak on the question, “Should the government play a role in eliminating racial disparities in education and employment?” In his speech Derbyshire stated explicitly his belief “that racial disparities in education and employment have their origin in biological differences between the human races.” The BLSA did not think a line had been crossed: they gave Derbyshire a respectful hearing.

The same could and should have occurred at Williams College.  It didn’t because President Falk was too eager to draw his line.  In the end, he didn’t draw it well.  All we know at this point is that when a speaker appears to President Falk to have engaged in “hannnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnte speech,” he is unwelcome at the college.

In “A Guide to Disinvitation,” I’ve tried to disentangle the justifications for free expression from the exceptions.  The essential points: Intellectual freedom is part of the foundation of higher education because it is a precondition of the pursuit of knowledge.  Unless we are willing to hear and consider views contrary to our own, we are on the path to settled orthodoxies and mere doctrines, not the path to intellectual growth, increased understanding, or critical thought.  Free speech is not the be-all and end-all of higher education.  It exists for a purpose:  to enable learning.

And President Falk is right that there is “a line” or a whole set of lines.  He just didn’t find any of them.  Freedom of speech requires civility; commitment to seeking the truth; and recognition of the differences between the course syllabus (which is not ordinarily open for debate) and the speaker on a public platform (who is). Exceptional circumstances might indeed arise where a speaker should be disinvited.  Think of the emissary of a foreign power that is at war with the United States; a terrorist; a wanted criminal; someone about to expose national secrets.  But there no legitimate exceptions based on dislike of the speaker’s opinions no matter how wrong-headed we think those opinions are.

Colleges should lean over backwards to accommodate invited speakers.  Such individuals have a special and limited relation to the college community, which has an obligation to protect them and foster their opportunity to present their views.  We have known this for a very long time, though it seems every generation has to learn it anew.  It isn’t too late, President Falk.  You could be among those to illuminate this principle for today’s generation.  Just re-invite that man and explain why.

A Conversation with Jonathan Haidt

On January 11, John Leo, editor of “Minding the Campus,” interviewed social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, one of the editors of the five-month-old site, “Heterodox Academy,” and perhaps the most prominent academic pushing hard for more intellectual diversity on our campuses. Haidt, 52, who specializes in the psychology of morality and the moral emotions, is Professor of Ethical Leadership at NYU’s Stern School of Business and author, most recently, of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012).  

JOHN LEO: You set off a national conversation in San Antonio five years ago by asking psychologists at an academic convention to raise their hands to show whether they self-identified as conservatives or liberals.

JONATHAN HAIDT: I was invited by the president of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology to give a talk on the future of Social Psychology. As I was finishing writing The Righteous Mind, I was getting more and more concerned about how moral communities bind themselves together in ways that block open-minded thinking. I began to see the social sciences as tribal moral communities, becoming ever more committed to social justice, and ever less hospitable to dissenting views. I wanted to know if there was any political diversity in social psychology. So I asked for a show of hands. I knew it would be very lopsided. But I had no idea how much so. Roughly 80% of the thousand or so in the room self-identified as “liberal or left of center,” 2% (I counted exactly 20 hands) identified as “centrist or moderate,” 1% (12 hands) identified as libertarian, and, rounding to the nearest integer, zero percent (3 hands) identified as “conservative.”

JOHN LEO: You and your colleagues at your new site, Heterodox Academy, have made a lot of progress in alerting people to the problem that the campuses are pretty much bastions of the left. What kind of research did that prompt?

JONATHAN HAIDT: There have been a few studies since my talk to measure the degree of ideological diversity. My request for a show of hands was partly a rhetorical trick. We know that there were people in the audience who didn’t dare or didn’t want to raise their hands. Two social psychologists – Yoel Inbar and Joris Lammers short did a more formal survey. And they found that while there is some diversity if you look at economic conservatism, there’s none if you look at views on social issues. But all that matters is the social. That’s where all the persecution happens. They found just 3-5 percent said they were right of center on social issues. .

JOHN LEO: Have you gone into the reasons why?

JONATHAN HAIDT: Oh, yes. After the talk, I was contacted by a few social psychologists who were interested in the topic. None of them is actually conservative.  We looked into a bunch of the reasons. And the biggest single reason is probably self-selection. We know that liberals and conservatives have slightly different personalities on average. We know that people with a left-leaning brain are attracted to the arts, to foreign travel, to variety and diversity. So we acknowledge that if there was no discrimination at all, the field would still lean left. And that’s perfectly fine with us.  We don’t give a damn about exact proportional representation. What we care about is institutionalized disconfirmation – that is, when someone says something, other people should be out there saying, “Is that really true? Let me try to disprove it.” That is now much less likely to happen if the thing said is politically pleasing to the left.

JOHN LEO: But what about the argument that things are really tough for conservatives in academe now? After they get through college, they have to find a mentor in graduate school, keep swimming upstream and try to get hired somewhere by a department head who’s looking for another leftist. And conservatives can run into cruel and aggressive people in academe.

JONATHAN HAIDT: Yes. That’s correct.

JOHN LEO: To many of us, it looks like a monoculture.

JONATHAN HAIDT: Yes. It is certainly a monoculture. The academic world in the humanities is a monoculture. The academic world in the social sciences is a monoculture – except in economics, which is the only social science that has some real diversity. Anthropology and sociology are the worst — those fields seem to be really hostile and rejecting toward people who aren’t devoted to social justice.

JOHN LEO: And why would they be hostile?

JONATHAN HAIDT: You have to look at the degree to which a field has a culture of activism.  Anthropology is a very activist field. They fight for the rights of oppressed people, as they see it. My field, social psychology, has some activism in it, but it’s not the dominant strain. Most of us, we really are thinking all day long about what control condition wasn’t run. My field really is oriented towards research. Now a lot of us are doing research on racism and prejudice. It’s the biggest single area of the field. But I’ve never felt that social psychology is first and foremost about changing the world, rather than understanding it. So my field is certainly still fixable. I think that if we can just get some more viewpoint diversity in it, it will solve the bias problem.

JOHN LEO: Oh, that shows up on your site, “Heterodox Academy.” It’s had a big impact in the small time you’ve been open. Why is that, and how did you do it?

JONATHAN HAIDT: We started the site back when we knew that our big review paper would be coming out. Five of my colleagues and I worked to write this review paper, beginning after my talk in 2011. It took us a while to get it published. Paul Bloom at Yale was the editor at Behavioral and Brain Sciences. He thought that it was an important paper. So we knew that it was coming out in September. And we thought, we don’t just want a little bit of attention and then it’ll go away. We want to keep up the pressure.  And, along the way, we were contacted by people in other fields — a grad student in Sociology, Chris Martin, who now runs the blog, a professor of law at Georgetown, Nick Rosenkranz – both these guys had written about the absence of diversity in their own fields. And one day last summer, I was having lunch with Nick here in New York. And we thought why don’t we get people together who are concerned about this and make a site? And Nick thought of the name, “Heterodox Academy.”  I loved it. I thought it was just perfect

JOHN LEO:  It says what it stands for.

JONATHAN HAIDT: Yes. We had no idea that the universities were about to commit suicide. We had no idea that they were going to blow up just a few weeks after we launched the site. So we launched in September. I wrote a post about our big review paper in social psychology. And we got a lot of attention the first week or two. Then it died down. And then we get the Missouri fiasco, the Yale fiasco, the Amherst fiasco, the Brown fiasco. You get place after place where protesters are making demands of college presidents, and college presidents roll over and give in.

JOHN LEO: So you got a lot of attention.

JONATHAN HAIDT: Since Halloween, especially. Look, I graduated from Yale in ’85.  Yale is very devoted to social justice. It’s very devoted to affirmative action.  Now no place is perfect. But it’s probably among the best places in the country. And to have protesters saying it’s such a thoroughly racist place that it needs a total reformation – they call the protest group ”Next Yale”– they demand “Next Yale”!

JOHN LEO:  Everybody saw that.

JONATHAN HAIDT: And these were not requests. This was not a discussion. This was framed as an ultimatum given to the president – and they gave him I think six days to respond, or else. And I am just so horrified that the president of Yale, Peter Salovey, responded by the deadline.  And when he responded, he did not say, on the one hand, the protesters have good points; on the other hand, we also need to guarantee free speech; and, by the way, it’s not appropriate to scream obscenities at professors.

JOHN LEO: Or the threat to one professor: “We know where you live”?

JONATHAN HAIDT: I didn’t even know about that. The president was supposed to be the grown-up in the room. He was supposed to show some wisdom, some balance, and some strength. And so we’ve seen, basically what can really only be called Maoist moral bullying – am we saw it very clearly at Claremont McKenna. The video is really chilling–the students surrounding this nice woman who was trying to help them, and reducing her to tears.  As we’ve seen more and more of this, I’ve begun calling it, “the Yale problem,” referring to the way that left-leaning institutions are now cut off from any moral vocabulary that they could use to resist the forces of illiberalism. As far as I’m concerned, “Next Yale” can go find its own “Next Alumni.” I don’t plan to give to Yale ever again, unless it reverses course.

JOHN LEO; How did they cut themselves off?

JONATHAN HAIDT: They’re so devoted to social justice, and they have accepted the rule that you can never, ever blame victims, so if a group of victims makes demands, you cannot argue back. You must accept the demands.

JOHN LEO: Michael Kinsley once referred sardonically to one unhappy student as “another oppressed black from Harvard.”

JONATHAN HAIDT: Did you see that website, The Demands.org? Lots of people know how ill-conceived the demands are and what would happen if our universities all set out at the same time to reach 10 or 15 percent black faculty.

JOHN LEO: Are you a Democrat?

JONATHAN HAIDT: No, not anymore. Now I’m non-partisan. I was a Democrat my whole life, and I got into political psychology because I really disliked George W. Bush.  And I thought the Democrats kept blowing it. I mean, in 2000, 2004, they blew it. And I really wanted to help the Democrats.

JOHN LEO: So you voted for Obama.

JONATHAN HAIDT: Twice. I no longer consider myself a Democrat today. But let me be clear that I am absolutely horrified by today’s Republican Party – both in the presidential primaries and in Congress. If they nominate Trump or Cruz, I’ll vote for the Democrat, whoever it is.

JOHN LEO: To get back to the lopsided faculties – -what are the chances of cracking anthropology or sociology?

JONATHAN HAIDT: Anthro is completely lost. I mean, it’s really militant activists. They’ve taken the first step towards censoring Israel. They’re not going to have anything to do with Israeli scholars any more. So it’s now – it’s the seventh victim group. For many years now, there have been six sacred groups. You know, the big three are African-Americans, women and LGBT. That’s where most of the action is. Then there are three other groups: Latinos, Native Americans….

JOHN LEO: You have to say Latinx now.

JONATHAN HAIDT: I do not intend to say that. Latinos, Native Americans, and people with disabilities. So those are the six that have been there for a while. But now we have a seventh–Muslims. Something like 70 or 75 percent of America is now in a protected group. This is a disaster for social science because social science is really hard to begin with. And now you have to try to explain social problems without saying anything that casts any blame on any member of a protected group. And not just moral blame, but causal blame. None of these groups can have done anything that led to their victimization or marginalization.

JOHN LEO: No. Never.

JONATHAN HAIDT: There used to be this old game show when I was a kid, called “Beat the Clock.”  And you had to throw three oranges through a basketball hoop.  Okay, that doesn’t look so hard. But now you have to do it blindfolded. Oh, now you have to do it on a skateboard.  And with your right hand behind your back. Okay. Now go ahead and do it. And that’s what social science is becoming.

JOHN LEO: Well, but there’s always a possibility of truth and accuracy. I mean, why is the professoriate so…

JONATHAN HAIDT: Spineless? Nowadays, a mob can coalesce out of nowhere. And so we’re more afraid of our students than we are of our peers. It is still possible for professors to say what they think over lunch; in private conversations they can talk. But the list of things we can say in the classroom is growing shorter and shorter.

JOHN LEO: This sounds like the Good Germans.

JONATHAN HAIDT: Yes. Exactly. It is. It’s really scary that values other than truth have become sacred.  And what I keep trying to say – this comes right out of my book The Righteous Mind – is that you can’t have two sacred values.  Because what do you do when they conflict?  And in the academy now, if truth conflicts with social justice, truth gets thrown under the bus.

JOHN LEO: Talk about The Righteous Mind a bit.  How did you develop this system of three moral foundations among liberals, versus six or eight for conservatives?

JONATHAN HAIDT In graduate school, I was very interested both in evolutionary psychology, which seemed obviously true, that we evolved and our brains evolved; and in cultural psychology, which seemed obviously true – that morality varies across cultures. One of my advisors was Alan Fiske, an anthropologist. And my post-doc advisor was Richard Shweder, another anthropologist. And they both had developed accounts of exactly how morality varies. And they were both brilliant accounts, but they didn’t quite square with each other. And so I, I tried to step back and build up a case from evolutionary thinking – what are likely to be the taste buds of the moral sense?  Things like reciprocity, hierarchy, group loyalty. So the theory grew out of ideas from Richard Shweder, in particular, and then it’s been developed with my colleagues at YourMorals.org.

JOHN LEO: When conservatives read this, they’re going to say, gee, we have more moral foundations than they do. Is there an advantage in having more?

JONATHAN HAIDT: Well, it certainly isn’t a game where more is necessarily better.  One of my conservative friends argues that having one moral foundation is dangerous, because you’re much more likely to develop a kind of a mania about it. And, since the Halloween eruption at Yale, I now think much more that he’s right. That if you make anything sacred and, in this case, if you make care for the vulnerable your sacred value, and that becomes more important than anything else, you’re liable to trample all the other values.  So I do think there’s a danger to having a one-foundation morality

JOHN LEO: So how did you assemble the team you have at “Heterodox Academy”?

JONATHAN HAIDT: It started with lunch—myself and Nick Rosenkranz. And then I right away emailed an introduction of Nick to the various other people I’d come across, especially my five co-authors on the BBS paper. And that was the core. And then we just talked about, like, okay; who’s in political science? Well, there’s, you know, some guys who were just writing a book about the experience of conservatives in the academy. Let’s invite them. So we just used our network of people we know. We’re up to about 25 people now. We don’t actually know how many conservatives are in the group. We know it’s less than half.

JOHN LEO: What about libertarians?

JONATHAN HAIDT: I think we’ll have more libertarians. When you find diversity in the academy, it tends to be libertarians. You rarely find social conservatives. And so I’m thinking of doing a survey of our members. Because I think we ought to know. Paul Krugman recently referred to our site and described us as “outraged conservatives.” I looked back through all the essays we published and failed to find outrage. Krugman just assumed outrage because we think there should be more diversity in the academy.

JOHN LEO: What happens to the academy now? You used the word ”die.” Is it dead or dying? Most academics think it’s just aflutter. They seem to have no idea that something important happened at Yale.

JONATHAN HAIDT: The big thing that really worries me – the reason why I think things are going to get much, much worse – is that one of the causal factors here is the change in child-rearing that happened in America in the 1980s. With the rise in crime, amplified by the rise of cable TV, we saw much more protective, fearful parenting. Children since the 1980s have been raised very differently–protected as fragile. The key psychological idea, which should be mentioned in everything written about this, is Nassim Taleb’s concept of anti-fragility.

JOHN LEO: What’s the theory?

JONATHAN HAIDT: That children are anti-fragile. Bone is anti-fragile. If you treat it gently, it will get brittle and break. Bone actually needs to get banged around to toughen up. And so do children. I’m not saying they need to be spanked or beaten, but they need to have a lot of unsupervised time, to get in over their heads and get themselves out. And that greatly decreased in the 1980s. Anxiety, fragility and psychological weakness have skyrocketed in the last 15-20 years. So, I think millennials come to college with much thinner skins. And therefore, until that changes, I think we’re going to keep seeing these demands to never hear anything offensive.

JOHN LEO Like micro-aggression, trigger warnings, safe spaces and different forms of censorship for anything that bothers them?

JONATHAN HAIDT: Yes, that’s right. Even much of the gender gap in STEM fields appears to result from differences of enjoyment-–boys and girls are not very different on ability, but they’re hugely different in what they enjoy doing. Anyone who has a son and a daughter knows that. But if you even just try to say this, it will be regarded as so hurtful, so offensive. You can get in big trouble for it. And that’s what actually showed up in the article I have online where I gave a talk at a school on the West Coast, and a student was insisting that there’s such massive institutional sexism, and she pointed to the STEM fields as evidence of sexism….

JOHN LEO:  Is this the talk you gave at a high school you called “Centerville”?

JONATHAN HAIDT: Yes, “Centerville High.” That’s right. That’s exactly what this was about.

JOHN LEO: Where the girl stood up after your talk and said, “So you think rape is OK?”

JONATHAN HAIDT: Yes, that’s right. It’s this Marcusian rhetorical trick. You don’t engage the person’s arguments. You say things that discredit them as a racist or a sexist.

JOHN LEO: How do they learn that? The young don’t read Herbert Marcuse.

JONATHAN HAIDT: I don’t know whether they get it from one another in junior high school or whether they’re learning it in diversity training classes. I don’t know whether they’re modeling it from their professors. I do believe it’s in place by the time they arrive in college. And colleges are teaching this. Now, some colleges are much, much worse than others. We know from various things we’ve read and posted on our site, that liberal arts colleges – especially the women’s schools – are by far the worst.

JOHN LEO: Women’s schools are worse?

JONATHAN HAIDT: Nobody should send their child to a women’s school any more.  And that’s especially true if you’re progressive. The last thing you want is for your progressive daughter to be raised in this bullying monoculture, and to become a self-righteous bully herself.

JOHN LEO: Well, that’s one of the things I learned from your site. I kept debating with friends whether the closed mind, all the PC and the yen for censorship were there before they arrive at freshman orientation. But I hadn’t see it written about until Heterodox Academy came along.

JONATHAN HAIDT: I wouldn’t say the game is over by the time they reach college.  I would just say, they’re, they’re already enculturated.  But that doesn’t mean they can’t change.  Kids are very malleable.  Kids are anti-fragile.  I would say there’s some research suggesting that by the time you’re thirty, your frontal cortex is set.  So after thirty, I don’t think you can change.  But at eighteen, I think you still can.  So my hope is that universities will be forced to declare their sacred value. I hope we can split them off into different kinds of institutions–you know, Brown and Amherst can devote themselves to social justice. Chicago is my main hope. The University of Chicago might be able to devote itself to truth. They already have this fantastic statement on free speech, making very clear that it is not the job of the university to take sides in any of these matters. The university simply provides a platform.

JOHN LEO: Yes, that’s just one university though.

JONATHAN HAIDT: But that’s fine. As long as you have an alternate model, then other universities can copy it. But more importantly is this – here’s the one reason for hope – almost all Americans are disgusted by what’s happened to the universities.

JOHN LEO: You mean the micro-aggression, the trigger warnings and the censorship?

JONATHAN HAIDT: Yeah. The craziness on campus. Almost everybody says, you know, shut up, grow up, stop complaining. And this is even true for people on the left.  And so, there’s a gigantic market of parents who don’t want to send their kids to Yale and Brown and Amherst, and they want to send them someplace where they won’t be coddled.  And so my hope is that if there are some prestigious alternatives where their kids actually could learn how to survive hearing things they don’t like, and that market forces will lead a stampede to less coddling schools.

JOHN LEO: But what about the craving for elite credentials, no matter how bad the school really is. A lot of parents will send their kids anywhere, to the mouth of hell, if they can get a Yale degree.

JONATHAN HAIDT: Yeah. Well, look, Chicago’s pretty darn good. Chicago’s a very prestigious school. I don’t know what Ivy could join them. …

JOHN LEO: Well, Columbia still has the Great Books course.

JONATHAN HAIDT: Columbia is very PC. Columbia’s not, going to be it. So, another reason for hope is that more and more progressive professors and presidents are being attacked. And each time they’re attacked, they usually feel quite bitter. And at some point we’re going to get a college president who has been attacked in this way who sticks his or her neck out and says, enough is enough; I’m standing up to this. I also hope and expect that alumni will begin resisting. That’s something we’re going to do at “Heterodox Academy.” We’re going to try to organize alumni and trustees.

Because the presidents can’t stand up to the protesters unless there is extraordinary pressure on them from the other side.

JOHN LEO: After the Duke fiasco, I made a point of looking into the alumni reaction. Resistance at Duke fizzled out very quickly. Stuart Taylor, Jr., co-author of Until Proven Innocent, the classic study of the Duke disaster, predicted that Brodhead would never get another term as president of Duke, or any other college. Not so. Despite the mess he made of things, they gave him a big, new contract. The forces upholding dereliction and folly are very strong.

JONATHAN HAIDT: Yeah. Duke was one outrageous case. This, “The Yale Problem,” is a much more existential threat to the whole system. It’s very hard to organize alumni for collective action. But if there’s a widespread sense of revulsion out there, then I think it might be more possible. You asked, how has “Heterodox Academy” been able to be so successful so quickly? And the basic answer is, we’re pushing on open doors. Most people are horrified by what’s going on.  And when we ask people to join or support us, they say, yes. If we can find an easy way to organize alumni and get them to put their donations in escrow, or otherwise stop giving to schools that don’t commit to free speech and free inquiry, we may begin to see schools move away from illiberalism and return to their traditional role as institutions organized to pursue truth.

Groveling at Emory and Oberlin

Demands by student protesters at Emory University here, include extending student evaluations of faculty to include a tallying up of microaggressions each teacher has made and a stipulation that Emory “shall not protect the privilege of students to vocalize hate speech.”

Power Line blog said:

“Emory’s provost, Claire E. Sterk, and the dean of campus life, Ajay Nair, responded on December 4 with a long and typically bureaucratic letter (not available online—a faculty member shared it with me) that essentially says, ‘We’ll cave where we can.’ And as for the demand that students be censored for thought crime expressed on YikYak, Sterk and Nair write:

‘Through a partnership between Information Technology Services and the University Senate, a task force will be created to examine the feasibility of a geofence covering the zip codes for Emory University, including Oxford College. Dean Nair took no chances, though, writing in the campus paper a few days ago that the student protests are ‘illuminating the path to progress.’

Get ready for a first-class grovel.

At Oberlin, student demands include this language: “Oberlin College and Conservatory is an unethical institution…. Along the same lines stated by UNC Chapel Hill students in their 2015 document, ‘A Collective Response to Anti-Blackness,’ you include Black and other students of color in the institution and mark them with the words ‘equity, inclusion and diversity,’ when in fact this institution functions on the premises of imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism, ableism, and a cissexist heteropatriarchy.” — Oberlin College’s ABUSUA (Black Student Union) Institutional Demands

A spokesperson for Oberlin seemed to punt as well as accede to the overwrought demands in the traditional feckless manner: He said the college is 18 months into a strategic planning process. “And it has been clear from the start that inclusion and diversity will be a primary focus. However, it won’t be complete until March.”

This Is Not a Day Care Center—It’s a University!

This past week, I actually had a student come forward after a university chapel service and complain because he felt “victimized” by a sermon on the topic of 1 Corinthians 13. It appears that this young scholar felt offended because a homily on love made him feel bad for not showing love! In his mind, the speaker was wrong for making him, and his peers, feel uncomfortable.

I’m not making this up. Our culture has actually taught our kids to be this self-absorbed and narcissistic! Any time their feelings are hurt, they are the victims! Anyone who dares challenge them and, thus, makes them “feel bad” about themselves, is a “hater,” a “bigot,” an “oppressor,” and a “victimizer.”

We Don’t Do Coddling Here

tI have a message for this young man and all others who care to listen. That feeling of discomfort you have after listening to a sermon is called a conscience! An altar call is supposed to make you feel bad! It is supposed to make you feel guilty! The goal of many a good sermon is to get you to confess your sins—not coddle you in your selfishness. The primary objective of the Church and the Christian faith is your confession, not your self-actualization!

So Here’s My Advice

If you want the chaplain to tell you you’re a victim rather than tell you that you need virtue, this may not be the university you’re looking for. If you want to complain about a sermon that makes you feel less than loving for not showing love, this might be the wrong place.

If you’re more interested in playing the “hater” card than you are in confessing your own hate; if you want to arrogantly lecture, rather than humbly learn; if you don’t want to feel guilt in your soul when you are guilty of sin; if you want to be enabled rather than confronted, there are many universities across the land (in Missouri and elsewhere) that will give you exactly what you want, but Oklahoma Wesleyan isn’t one of them.

Learn Things, Like How to Grow Up

At OKWU, we teach you to be selfless rather than self-centered. We are more interested in you practicing personal forgiveness than political revenge. We want you to model interpersonal reconciliation rather than foment personal conflict. We believe the content of your character is more important than the color of your skin. We don’t believe that you have been victimized every time you feel guilty and we don’t issue “trigger warnings” before altar calls.

Oklahoma Wesleyan is not a “safe place”, but rather, a place to learn: to learn that life isn’t about you, but about others; that the bad feeling you have while listening to a sermon is called guilt; that the way to address it is to repent of everything that’s wrong with you rather than blame others for everything that’s wrong with them. This is a place where you will quickly learn that you need to grow up!

This is not a day care. This is a university!

Dr. Piper is president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University.

Snowflake Totalitarians at Yale

Last week, a real-life South Park episode somehow took place within the very prestigious confines of Yale University.

In the lead-up to Halloween, Yale Dean Burgwell Howard sent out an email requesting that students not engage in “cultural appropriation” when it comes to costume choice. That message prompted a very mild rebuke from the Associate Master of Silliman College Erica Christakis.

Can Students Be a Bit Obnoxious?

According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), Christakis took issue with the tone of Howard’s email that implied the school was trying to impose control over students’ choices and restrict free expression. She found that idea troublesome.

Additionally, she asked, “Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive? American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition.”

Hundreds of students responded with a resounding, “There’s no room for that, you  bigot!” to Christakis’s question. This is where South Park-style absurdity enters the story.

 ‘Oh. My—Pain-Causing Costumes’

More than 740 Yalies and offended allies signed a letter that declared Christakis’s opinion somehow suppressed the viewpoints of minority students. Many of those same signatories refused an invitation by the associate master and her husband, Master of Silliman College Nicholas Christakis, to discuss the matter over a Sunday lunch.

On Thursday, 100 students confronted the husband and demanded a bended-knee apology from Mr. Christakis for supporting his wife’s views. The professor tried to apologize for any “pain” the email might’ve caused, but he stood by his support for free speech.

That didn’t suit his inquisitors, and they proceeded to engage in something that resembled an improvised show trial. Christakis was belittled for eliminating the pretense that his college was a “safe space” and was cursed at as students cheered on. When trying to speak, he was shouted down by his chief accuser, ensuring he never got a good chance to defend himself.

(RELATED: Yale Student Shrieks At Prof For Denying Her ‘Safe Space’)

Here’s the clip showing the worst part of the interrogation:

The mentality of these students was encapsulated in a Friday column for The Yale Herald. A female Sillimander excoriated the college master for “instigating more debate” and valuing free speech over making her home “less threatening.” Apparently, the safety of all minority students is put into jeopardy by questioning the wisdom of a school controlling costume choices.

The implication here was that free speech could be easily discarded when so many students were in “pain” over one milquetoast email.

Whiny Babies, Hurt Feelings

Over the last few years, a growing media theme — particularly within conservative media — is that college kids are slowly transforming into whiny babies who need constant coddling. The Yale incident proves that this well-covered meme is no exaggeration.

It’s one thing to disagree with the Mr. and Mrs. Christakis over the issue of restricting “culturally insensitive” Halloween costumes. It is quite another to act like that opinion threatens your safety.

The aggrieved Yale students who demanded the heads of the Silliman masters perfectly embodied the type of young adult detailed by Judith Shulevitz’s expose on safe spaces for The New York Times. According to Shulevitz, students no longer object to speech they disagree with on political or moral grounds — they simply say it jeopardizes their emotional well-being to have it aired and urge for its censorship to protect them from harm.

This safety argument has allowed these precious snowflake totalitarians to suppress speech on campus. Free speech means nothing to them when it comes at the price of exposing their fragile little minds to ideas they don’t like. Thanks to spineless administrators that rush to appease each and every need of designated minority groups, activists are able to get away with this inane rationale for censorship.

Get into Yale, Be a Victim

The funny thing about the Yale case is how it shows young people at one of the most prestigious universities in the world — with all the opportunities imaginable available to them — are able to think of themselves as victims of society. This is the creme of the meritocracy we’re talking about here, the ones who have reaped the rewards of America.

More importantly, these are the kids who could very occupy the highest halls of power someday.

And they think a nicely-worded email and Halloween costumes oppress them.

It’s disturbing that America’s best institutions are churning out individuals who have no desire to uphold free speech.

What’s worse is that these same kids could be the leaders of tomorrow. Imagine the insanity of watching a president demand the arrest of dissidents for violating his/her/xyr’s safe space. Or diplomacy conducted via hysterical sobbing over how minor faux pas made a diplomat feel marginalized.

Nincompoop Power

That’d be the world we live if we gave these nincompoops power. And it could very well happen if universities like Yale continue to coddle these students and give them what they want.

The man who videotaped the show trial of Christakis, FIRE president Greg Lukianoff, co-wrote a much discussed-article for The Atlantic about how the safe space mentality is literally damaging the brains of students.

If that’s true, then administrators coddling students is not only bad for free speech, it borders on abuse.

What happened at Yale last week should make everyone concerned about the gelding of free speech from campus. It’s not just about making sure different viewpoints get heard at colleges everywhere — it’s about the kind of future we want to have as a country.

While South Park may be an entertaining show, the prospect of its absurd storylines becoming daily life in America — all without the happy endings — is not a reality we want to have.

Reprinted with permission from The Daily Caller


Scott Greer as an associate editor at The Daily Caller

UCal Regents Strike Back at Napolitano

On September 17 a committee of the Regents of the University of California discussed at their regular meeting a proposed “Statement of Principles against Intolerance” that had been drafted and offered for their approval by President Janet Napolitano and her staff. The Regents resoundingly rejected the draft, by implication questioning Napolitano’s judgment that it was worth their time. Items on the Regents’ agenda rarely attract public attention, but this one was different. Before the meeting the Regents received thousands of communications objecting to the statement, and both before and during the meeting there was severe criticism by individuals, organizations, and Regents.

Both state and national press reported on the event, but these accounts seemed in some ways confusing because the statement was criticized for two quite different reasons. Some thought the statement went too far, while others thought it didn’t go far enough. The latter wanted stronger action against campus anti-Semitism, while the former saw in the statement a threat to the free expression of ideas. But both wanted it withdrawn.

To fully grasp what happened at the meeting we need to understand that two different developments on the UC campuses, involving very different kinds of people, led up to the meeting. The one involved an ugly series of anti-Semitic incidents on the campuses. The other was a movement to identify and stamp out “microaggressions.”

The anti-Semitic incidents were well documented, and persistent. There have been painted Swastikas, graffiti expressing Nazi sentiments (e.g., “Hitler was right” and “Zionists should be sent to the gas chambers”), vandalizing of a Holocaust Museum, physical threats and even physical attacks. In particular, students wearing the Star of David are often menaced or assaulted. In one case a student was surrounded by angry Muslim students who threatened to kill him. Before the meeting over 100 UC faculty wrote a letter to the Regents expressing alarm at campus anti-Semitism, and noting that too often criticism of Israel crosses the line into attacks on Jews as people.

The campus climate is also influenced by bias in many classrooms, where treatments of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute commonly fall short of what competent academic inquiry must be: a sober presentation of all the relevant historical facts (not just those that favor one side), and of how those facts are interpreted by all the major participants. Instead, lectures and readings often present only one interpretation, and therefore only the evidence that supports that interpretation.

Microaggression Hunters

At the meeting, Regent and former Democratic Assembly Speaker John Perez laid to rest any possible doubts about the authenticity of these campus reports when he coolly said that he himself had witnessed actions on a variety of campuses which by any reasonable person’s definition were anti-Semitic. But perhaps the most compelling incident was the UCLA student Council’s vote to deny Rachel Beyda’s proposed appointment to its judicial Council on the grounds that she was Jewish.

The Nuremburg laws at UC? (The vote was hastily reversed only when the majority began to understand what this would cost them.)   The microaggression hunters, on the other hand, seemed to need a microscope to find what they were looking for. They wanted to see intolerance, bigotry, racism and sexism in all kinds of seemingly innocuous everyday language, so that, for example, to say “the most qualified person should get the job” must be interpreted as covert aggression and bigotry towards minorities, and not (as we always thought) simply the expression of a common view of an important question in social policy.

The common expression “America is the land of opportunity” might seem benign to most of us, but for the microaggression people it too carried dark implications of bigotry. And if a professor notices a minority graduate student looking lost in the corridors of a campus science building and offers help, that too is a microaggression, because the implication is that the student is really there to break into one of the labs. The draft statement offered a real gem: calling disabled people disabled would be a microaggression too.

Invisible Bigotry  

Side by side, the two situations formed an odd contrast. The microaggression hunters strained to find bigotry that nobody else could see, but managed not to notice all too real, well-documented bigotry and aggression that horrified others. They were quick to notice the slightest hurt to anyone’s feelings in some cases, but couldn’t see real emotional anguish even when it was repeatedly brought to their attention. What explains the exaggerated zeal in the one case, and total lack of concern in the other?

First of all, microaggression theorists have a finite list of groups that are oppressed and need protection, and Jews are not on their list.  (History is not their strong suit.)   Another motivating factor is surely a desire to narrow the range of permissible expression on campus. People who have reasoned doubts about affirmative action, or who think the free market a powerful force for the good, would be effectively silenced if the microaggression theorists had their way.

Finally there is the fact that on the modern campus denouncing racism and sexism seems to satisfy a deep-seated need for moral self-congratulation, though it is now terribly hard to find much of it there: campuses are devoutly politically correct places. Hence the frenzied attempts to find even the faintest traces of the sins that can afford the delights of ritual moral preening.

Common Sense

Needless to say, whenever accounts of microaggression theory come to the attention of the general public, the common sense of those who don’t live on campuses comes into play: the public finds all of this so stupid as to border on demented. And for everyone but the tiny charmed circle of microaggression obsessives, there is no need for any more nuanced judgment.

While both strands of campus life fed into what happened at the Regents’ meeting, only one of them actually provoked the session. The clamor at widespread, gross campus anti-Semitism became so great that something obviously had to be done about it.  But—and this is the crucial point for an understanding of what happened at the meeting—while anti-Semitism, not the notion of microaggressions, sparked the need for the meeting, Janet Napolitano assigned the drafting of the statement to the wrong side: she gave it to the microaggression theorists. She had recently created the new position of Vice-Provost for Diversity and Engagement (at a salary around $200,000), and the first appointee to that title is UC’s premier advocate of microaggressions. Predictably, microaggression people wanted to use the occasion to advance their own ideas, and so the draft was heavy on microaggressions, and didn’t even mention anti-Semitism.

This couldn’t have been a simple misjudgment on Napolitano’s part, for she is herself heavily invested in microaggressions. Earlier this year she set up a series of seminars on each of the ten campuses in which microaggression theory was relentlessly pressed on deans and department chairs. When protests arose about the inanity of the content of these meetings, Napolitano had her staff claim that the seminars had been purely voluntary. But that was a lie. In her letter of invitation to the seminars she had spoken firmly of “the seminar you will be attending,” and bluntly informed everyone that she had asked to be informed of attendance on each campus. Attend, or else, was the clear message.

Dodging Anti-Semitism

Reaction to the draft at the Regents’ meeting was withering.  Many Regents were openly contemptuous of a statement that avoided any real engagement with campus anti-Semitism.  Regent Norman Pattiz set the tone, leading off his remarks by asking: “What is this? It doesn’t say anything about anything.” He went on to say that it was “insulting” to the people who had brought the problem to the Regents.

Pattiz was clearly angry at UC’s attempt to dodge the problem of anti-Semitism, and the next three Regents explicitly associated themselves with his devastating remarks. The remaining five who spoke took essentially a similar view. John Perez called the statement a “whitewash…one which essentially says nothing,” and just walks away from offensive behavior. Bonnie Reiss lamented the fact that the statement gave no indication that the Regents had listened to the complainants. Bruce Varner said that we needed a statement that dealt with the real issue. And the student Regent, Abraham Oved, said that he had tried to make suggestions to the Vice-Provost who was drafting the statement, but was rebuffed.

Regent Richard Blum even went to the extraordinary length of saying that he had discussed the draft with his wife (US Senator Diane Feinstein), and that she planned to comment publicly about the university unless it produced something much better than this. As a UC faculty member I’ve seen 10 Presidents come and go, and don’t recall any of them being treated with such contempt.

Volokh’s Reaction

People concerned about the free expression of ideas on campus had been just as disturbed. A few days before the meeting, free speech theorist Eugene Volokh had published a highly critical analysis of the draft: . But though it was the microaggression silliness in the draft that prior to the meeting had most attracted adverse comment by those concerned about free expression, it was barely mentioned at the meeting, except in so far as the statement was repeatedly denounced as meaningless and empty.

Evidently, all present felt that that was all the commentary that microaggression deserved. Apart from issues of substance, the statement was also a confused and contradictory mess. It claimed to honor free expression while attempting to restrict it. It claimed not to be punitive while condemning certain expressions as unacceptable. As staff work it was lamentably incompetent, and yet Janet Napolitano thought it good enough to place before the Regents.

The furor at the meeting was a humiliation of Napolitano, and she knew it.  She responded to the discussion only with a short, halting, barely coherent comment. But then the next blow fell: the Regents took the whole matter out of the President’s hands, giving it to a committee that they would set up expressly to deal with it, one composed of Regents, faculty and students. Napolitano and her Vice-Provost for Diversity and Engagement would no longer be in control.

Grasp of Free Expression

The result of the meeting was in one way encouraging for UC. The university community and the Regents had recognized the draft for the absurdity that it was, and demanded better.  And the Regents had done what governing boards so rarely do:  they had intervened decisively after it had become clear that the administration could not or would not do the right thing.

What particularly impressed me was Regent Perez’s clear grasp of the nature of free expression indispensable to campus life, and of the need for firm action on anti-Semitism but only within the limits of that framework. University spokesmen never came close to this level of analysis and understanding.   What was not so encouraging was that UC’s President had been unable to recognize empty verbiage when she saw it, that she had committed herself unequivocally to the foolishness of microaggression theory, and that she was wasting a great deal of the university’s time and money on it.

When Napolitano was appointed, doubts were expressed about the appointment of a political figure with no experience in academic institutions. What has now become clear is that things are much worse than that. To debate the pros and cons of Napolitano’s performance in restrained academic fashion, setting out logical points for and against, would not really do justice to the situation. Only some rather more blunt language will do that: the meeting at which Napolitano presented her draft statement on intolerance brought shame on a great University, and a realization that it now has a politically correct president who is not up to the job.

‘My Students Scare Me’ – A Liberal Professor

I’m a professor at a midsize state school. I have been teaching college classes for nine years now. I have won (minor) teaching awards, studied pedagogy extensively, and almost always score highly on my student evaluations. I am not a world class teacher by any means, but I am conscientious; I attempt to put teaching ahead of research, and I take a healthy emotional stake in the well-being and growth of my students.

Things have changed since I started teaching. The vibe is different. I wish there were a less blunt way to put this, but my students sometimes scare me — particularly the liberal ones. Not, like, in a person-by-person sense, but students in general. The student-teacher dynamic has been re-envisioned along a line that’s simultaneously consumerist and hyper-protective, giving each and every student the ability to claim Grievous Harm in nearly any circumstance, after any affront, and a teacher’s formal ability to respond to these claims is limited at best.

What it was like before

In early 2009, I was an adjunct, teaching a freshman-level writing course at a community college. Discussing infographics and data visualization, we watched a flash animation describing how Wall Street’s recklessness had destroyed the economy. The video stopped, and I asked whether the students thought it was effective. An older student raised his hand. “What about Fannie and Freddie?” he asked.

“Government kept giving homes to black people, to help out black people, white people didn’t get anything, and then they couldn’t pay for them. What about that?” I gave a quick response about how most experts would disagree with that assumption, that it was actually an oversimplification, and pretty dishonest, and isn’t it good that someone made the video we just watched to try to clear things up? And, hey, let’s talk about whether that was effective, okay?

If you don’t think it was, how could it have been? The rest of the discussion went on as usual. The next week, I got called into my director’s office. I was shown an email, sender name redacted, alleging that I “possessed communistical [sic] sympathies and refused to tell more than one side of the story.” The story in question wasn’t described, but I suspect it had do to with whether or not the economic collapse was caused by poor black people.

My director rolled her eyes. She knew the complaint was silly bullshit. I wrote up a short description of the past week’s class work, noting that we had looked at several examples of effective writing in various media and that I always made a good faith effort to include conservative narratives along with the liberal ones. Along with a carbon-copy form, my description was placed into a file that may or may not have existed. Then … nothing. It disappeared forever; no one cared about it beyond their contractual duties to document student concerns. I never heard another word of it again. That was the first, and so far only, formal complaint a student has ever filed against me.

Now boat rocking isn’t just dangerous — it’s suicidal.

This isn’t an accident: I have intentionally adjusted my teaching materials as the political winds have shifted. (I also make sure all my remotely offensive or challenging opinions, such as this article, are expressed either anonymously or pseudonymously). Most of my colleagues who still have jobs have done the same. We’ve seen bad things happen to too many good teachers — adjuncts getting axed because their evaluations dipped below a 3.0, grad students being removed from classes after a single student complaint, and so on.

I once saw an adjunct not get his contract renewed after students complained that he exposed them to “offensive” texts written by Edward Said and Mark Twain. His response, that the texts were meant to be a little upsetting, only fueled the students’ ire and sealed his fate.  That was enough to get me to comb through my syllabi and cut out anything I could see upsetting a coddled undergrad, texts ranging from Upton Sinclair to Maureen Tkacik — and I wasn’t the only one who made adjustments, either.

I am frightened sometimes by the thought that a student would complain again like he did in 2009. Only this time it would be a student accusing me not of saying something too ideologically extreme — be it communism or racism or whatever — but of not being sensitive enough toward his feelings, of some simple act of indelicacy that’s considered tantamount to physical assault. As Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis writes, “Emotional discomfort is [now] regarded as equivalent to material injury, and all injuries have to be remediated.”

Hurting a student’s feelings, even in the course of instruction that is absolutely appropriate and respectful, can now get a teacher into serious trouble. In 2009, the subject of my student’s complaint was my supposed ideology. I was communistical, the student felt, and everyone knows that communisticism is wrong. That was, at best, a debatable assertion. And as I was allowed to rebut it, the complaint was dismissed with prejudice.

I didn’t hesitate to reuse that same video in later semesters, and the student’s complaint had no impact on my performance evaluations.In 2015, such a complaint would not be delivered in such a fashion. Instead of focusing on the rightness or wrongness (or even acceptability) of the materials we reviewed in class, the complaint would center solely on how my teaching affected the student’s emotional state.

As I cannot speak to the emotions of my students, I could not mount a defense about the acceptability of my instruction. And if I responded in any way other than apologizing and changing the materials we reviewed in class, professional consequences would likely follow. I wrote about this fear on my blog, and while the response was mostly positive, some liberals called me paranoid, or expressed doubt about why any teacher would nix the particular texts I listed. I guarantee you that these people do not work in higher education, or if they do they are at least two decades removed from the job search.

The academic job market is brutal. Teachers who are not tenured or tenure-track faculty members have no right to due process before being dismissed, and there’s a mile-long line of applicants eager to take their place. And as writer and academic Freddie DeBoer writes, they don’t even have to be formally fired — they can just not get rehired. In this type of environment, boat-rocking isn’t just dangerous, it’s suicidal, and so teachers limit their lessons to things they know won’t upset anybody.

The real problem: a simplistic, unworkable, and ultimately stifling conception of social justice

This shift in student-teacher dynamic placed many of the traditional goals of higher education — such as having students challenge their beliefs — off limits. While I used to pride myself on getting students to question themselves and engage with difficult concepts and texts, I now hesitate. What if this hurts my evaluations and I don’t get tenure? How many complaints will it take before chairs and administrators begin to worry that I’m not giving our customers — er, students, pardon me — the positive experience they’re paying for? Ten? Half a dozen? Two or three?

This phenomenon has been widely discussed as of late, mostly as a means of deriding political, economic, or cultural forces writers don’t much care for. Commentators on the left and right have recently criticized the sensitivity and paranoia of today’s college students. They worry about the stifling of free speech, the implementation of unenforceable conduct codes, and a general hostility against opinions and viewpoints that could cause students so much as a hint of discomfort.


I agree with some of these analyses more than others, but they all tend to be too simplistic. 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 have a great deal of respect for both of these fields, but their manifestations online, their desire to democratize complex fields of study by making them as digestible as a TGIF sitcom, has led to adoption of a totalizing, simplistic, unworkable, and ultimately stifling conception of social justice.

The simplicity and absolutism of this conception has combined with the precarity of academic jobs to create higher ed’s current climate of fear, a heavily policed discourse of semantic sensitivity in which safety and comfort have become the ends and the means of the college experience.

This new understanding of social justice politics resembles what University of Pennsylvania political science professor Adolph Reed Jr. calls a politics of personal testimony, in which the feelings of individuals are the primary or even exclusive means through which social issues are understood and discussed. Reed derides this sort of political approach as essentially being a non-politics, a discourse that “is focused much more on taxonomy than politics [which] emphasizes the names by which we should call some strains of inequality [ … ] over specifying the mechanisms that produce them or even the steps that can be taken to combat them.”

Under such a conception, people become more concerned with signaling goodness, usually through semantics and empty gestures, than with actually working to effect change. Herein lies the folly of oversimplified identity politics: while identity concerns obviously warrant analysis, focusing on them too exclusively draws our attention so far inward that none of our analyses can lead to action.

Rebecca Reilly Cooper, a political philosopher at the University of Warwick, worries about the effectiveness of a politics in which “particular experiences can never legitimately speak for anyone other than ourselves, and personal narrative and testimony are elevated to such a degree that there can be no objective standpoint from which to examine their veracity.” Personal experience and feelings aren’t just a salient touchstone of contemporary identity politics; they are the entirety of these politics. In such an environment, it’s no wonder that students are so prone to elevate minor slights to protestable offenses. (It’s also why seemingly piddling matters of cultural consumption warrant much more emotional outrage than concerns with larger material implications.

Compare the number of web articles surrounding the supposed problematic aspects of the newest Avengers movie with those complaining about, say, the piecemeal dismantling of abortion rights. The former outnumber the latter considerably, and their rhetoric is typically much more impassioned and inflated. I’d discuss this in my classes — if I weren’t too scared to talk about abortion.) The press for actionability, or even for comprehensive analyses that go beyond personal testimony, is hereby considered redundant, since all we need to do to fix the world’s problems is adjust the feelings attached to them and open up the floor for various identity groups to have their say.

All the old, enlightened means of discussion and analysis —from due process to scientific method — are dismissed as being blind to emotional concerns and therefore unfairly skewed toward the interest of straight white males. All that matters is that people are allowed to speak, that their narratives are accepted without question, and that the bad feelings go away. So it’s not just that students refuse to countenance uncomfortable ideas — they refuse to engage them, period.

Engagement is considered unnecessary, as the immediate, emotional reactions of students contain all the analysis and judgment that sensitive issues demand. As Judith Shulevitz wrote in the New York Times, these refusals can shut down discussion in genuinely contentious areas, such as when Oxford canceled an abortion debate. More often, they affect surprisingly minor matters, as when Hampshire College disinvited an Afrobeat band because their lineup had too many white people in it.

When feelings become more important than issues

At the very least, there’s debate to be had in these areas. Ideally, pro-choice students would be comfortable enough in the strength of their arguments to subject them to discussion, and a conversation about a band’s supposed cultural appropriation could take place alongside a performance. But these cancellations and disinvitations are framed in terms of feelings, not issues. The abortion debate was canceled because it would have imperiled the “welfare and safety of our students.”

The Afrofunk band’s presence would not have been “safe and healthy.” No one can rebut feelings, and so the only thing left to do is shut down the things that cause distress — no argument, no discussion, just hit the mute button and pretend eliminating discomfort is the same as effecting actual change. In a New York Magazine piece, Jonathan Chait described the chilling effect this type of discourse has upon classrooms. Chait’s piece generated seismic backlash, and while I disagree with much of his diagnosis, I have to admit he does a decent job of describing the symptoms.

He cites an anonymous professor who says, “she and her fellow faculty members are terrified of facing accusations of triggering trauma.” Internet liberals pooh-poohed this comment, likening the professor to one of Tom Friedman’s imaginary cab drivers.  But I’ve seen what’s being described here. I’ve lived it. It’s real, and it affects liberal, socially conscious teachers much more than conservative ones.

If we wish to remove this fear, and to adopt a politics that can lead to more substantial change, we need to adjust our discourse.  Ideally, we can have a conversation that is conscious of the role of identity issues and confident of the ideas that emanate from the people who embody those identities. It would call out and criticize unfair, arbitrary, or otherwise stifling discursive boundaries, but avoid falling into pettiness or nihilism. It wouldn’t be moderate, necessarily, but it would be deliberate. It would require effort.

In the start of his piece, Chait hypothetically asks if “the offensiveness of an idea [can] be determined objectively, or only by recourse to the identity of the person taking offense.” Here, he’s getting at the concerns addressed by Reed and Reilly-Cooper, the worry that we’ve turned our analysis so completely inward that our judgment of a person’s speech hinges more upon their identity signifiers than on their ideas.

A sensible response to Chait’s question would be that this is a false binary, and that ideas can and should be judged both by the strength of their logic and by the cultural weight afforded to their speaker’s identity. Chait appears to believe only the former, and that’s kind of ridiculous. Of course, someone’s social standing affects whether their ideas are considered offensive, or righteous, or even worth listening to. How can you think otherwise?

We destroy ourselves when identity becomes our sole focus

Feminists and anti-racists recognize that identity does matter. This is indisputable. If we subscribe to the belief that ideas can be judged within a vacuum, uninfluenced by the social weight of their proponents, we perpetuate a system in which arbitrary markers like race and gender influence the perceived correctness of ideas. We can’t overcome prejudice by pretending it doesn’t exist.

Focusing on identity allows us to interrogate the process through which white males have their opinions taken at face value, while women, people of color, and non-normatively gendered people struggle to have their voices heard. But we also destroy ourselves when identity becomes our sole focus. Consider a tweet I linked to (which has since been removed. See editor’s note below.), from a critic and artist, in which she writes: “When ppl go off on evo psych, its always some shady colonizer white man theory that ignores nonwhite human history. but ‘science’. Ok … Most ‘scientific thought’ as u know it isnt that scientific but shaped by white patriarchal bias of ppl who claimed authority on it.”

This critic is intelligent. Her voice is important. She realizes, correctly, that evolutionary psychology is flawed, and that science has often been misused to legitimize racist and sexist beliefs.  But why draw that out to questioning most “scientific thought”? Can’t we see how distancing that is to people who don’t already agree with us? And tactically, can’t we see how shortsighted it is to be skeptical of a respected manner of inquiry just because it’s associated with white males?

This sort of perspective is not confined to Twitter and the comments sections of liberal blogs. It was born in the more nihilistic corners of academic theory, and its manifestations on social media have severe real-world implications. In another instance, two female professors of library science publicly outed and shamed a male colleague they accused of being creepy at conferences, going so far as to openly celebrate the prospect of ruining his career.

I don’t doubt that some men are creepy at conferences — they are. And for all I know, this guy might be an A-level creep. But part of the female professors’ shtick was the strong insistence that harassment victims should never be asked for proof, that an enunciation of an accusation is all it should ever take to secure a guilty verdict. The identity of the victims overrides the identity of the harasser, and that’s all the proof they need.

This is terrifying. No one will ever accept that. And if that becomes a salient part of liberal politics, liberals are going to suffer tremendous electoral defeat. Debate and discussion would ideally temper this identity-based discourse, make it more usable and less scary to outsiders. Teachers and academics are the best candidates to foster this discussion, but most of us are too scared and economically disempowered to say anything.

Right now, there’s nothing much to do other than sit on our hands and wait for the ascension of conservative political backlash — hop into the echo chamber, pile invective upon the next person or company who says something vaguely insensitive, insulate ourselves further and further from any concerns that might resonate outside of our own little corner of Twitter. Update: After a discussion with a woman whose tweet was quoted in the story, the editors of this piece agreed that some of the conclusions drawn in the article misrepresented her tweet and the article was revised.

The woman requested anonymity because she said she was receiving death threats as a result of the story, so her name has been removed. Unfortunately, threats are a horrible reality for many women online and a topic we intend to report on further.

(This story, originally published at Vox Media on June 3, 2015, is reprinted with permission.)

Edward Schlosser is a college professor writing under a pseudonym. 

Read More at Vox:

How Students Intimidate Professors and Stymie Learning

Hungry for love and it’s feeding time, Alice Cooper wrote in his 1991 classic song, “Feed My Frankenstein.” Academia has created its own Frankenstein with its speech codes, groupthink enforcement, and discouraging of dissent. This Frankenstein isn’t hungry for love – it’s hungry for power.  And academics themselves have belatedly discovered that they’re on the menu.

The most recent to find himself not the last up against the wall in this anti-free speech revolution is “Edward Schlosser,” a professor writing under a pseudonym at Vox, for reasons that become apparent almost immediately. Schlosser admits that he lives in fear of students who share his political point of view, and has to change his curriculum continuously to keep from running afoul of their potential for hurt feelings.

The relationship between students and teachers has changed, he says, thanks to the same hypersensitivity that Academia uses to silence dissent and debate. “The student-teacher dynamic has been reenvisioned along a line that’s simultaneously consumerist and hyper-protective,” Schlosser writes, “giving each and every student the ability to claim Grievous Harm in nearly any circumstance, after any affront, and a teacher’s formal ability to respond to these claims is limited at best.”

In the past, students complaints focused on actual teaching or bias in the classroom, issues which deal with the teacher’s actions and can at least form the basis of coherent criticism of behavior or teaching methods. Now, Schlosser knows that complaints can have little to with objective reality but with how the student perceives it.

He worries that an accusation will involve a lack of sensitivity to one individual’s “feelings,” or as Schlosser puts it, “some simple act of indelicacy that’s considered tantamount to physical assault … center[ed] solely on how my teaching affected the student’s emotional state.” Even if the instruction delivered is “absolutely appropriate and respectful,” any wounded emotions will “get a teacher in serious trouble” on today’s college campuses.

The only way to avoid the inevitable wounded-snowflake syndrome, Schlosser concludes, is to anodize the curricula so that no possible challenge to student worldviews sneaks into “higher education.” After watching a colleague lose his position over complaints that he had exposed them to Edward Said and Mark Twain, Schlosser began the clean-up project that continues to this day. Instead of challenging his students to learn, Schlosser felt compelled “to comb through my syllabi and cut out anything I could see upsetting a coddled undergrad, texts ranging from Upton Sinclair to Maureen Tkacik.” Schlosser said he wasn’t alone in that effort.

Laura Kipnis, a tenured professor at Northwestern University, agrees. She wrote an essay in February criticizing the “sexual paranoia” on college campuses regarding Title IX issues. Based on the essay, which appeared in the Chronicle Review, two students filed harassment charges against Kipnis, saying that her essay had “’a chilling effect’ on students’ ability to report sexual misconduct .” Northwestern investigated Kipnis essentially for criticizing Title IX, finally clearing her late last month.

“What’s being lost, along with job security, is the liberty to publish ideas that might go against the grain or to take on risky subjects in the first place,” Kipnis concluded, noting that her tenure made it more difficult for Northwestern to get rid of her. “But even those with tenure fear getting caught up in some horrendous disciplinary process with ad hoc rules and outcomes,” Kipnis noted. “Pretty much everyone now self-censors accordingly.”

What created this problem? Schlosser considers but dismisses the speech-hostile policies on campuses. The issue is “a simplistic, unworkable, and ultimately stifling conception of social justice,” he concludes. Combined with intense competition for teaching jobs in higher education, academics now feel intimidated into limiting themselves essentially to telling students what they want to hear, and not just in class but anywhere on campus or even in publications unaffiliated with their institutions at all. Ironically, academics find themselves deprived of any free-speech zones at all.

This has little to do with feelings, as Schlosser and others in academia are belatedly discovering.  The purpose is to impose each individual’s concept of social justice without actually doing any work traditionally associated with the concept. It’s easier to demand the cancellation of “an Afrobeat band because their lineup had too many white people in it” than it is to work to harmonize different cultures in the same space. It’s about enforcing identity over ideas, or entirely replacing ideas with blizzards of ever-changing boundary lines of victim constituencies.

Schlosser’s conclusion conveniently fails to follow through with the obvious next question. If students have “a stifling conception of social justice” that leans heavily on silencing dissent and policing speech and thought rather than engage on ideas, where did they learn it? The answer, for anyone who has attended either college, or paid attention to the proliferation of speech codes, development of “safe rooms and speech zones,” and the use of “triggers” to accuse people of harassment for what used to be rational debate, is pretty clear.

This is a stalking horse for censorship, not coincidentally of the same kind that college campuses have either encouraged or imposed for more than a generation on their students. The next generation will now experience “higher education” as an echo chamber, one in which teachers ensure that no cognitive dissonance enter the lives of those going into deep debt to experience what can only be considered an intellectual day-care, run by the toddlers. Those students have now become the masters. The academics created this monster, and now it has come for them. And us.

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Towson adjunct professor fired for racial remark in class
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Bolman fired after criticism of HSU | Mad River Union
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