Liberals Are Killing the Liberal Arts
This is how bad censorship is getting: Discussions of what can’t be said come with a ‘trigger warning.’
By HARVEY SILVERGLATE, WSJ Opinion Nov. 9, 2014
On campuses across the country, hostility toward unpopular ideas has become so irrational that many students, and some faculty members, now openly oppose freedom of speech. The hypersensitive consider the mere discussion of the topic of censorship to be potentially traumatic. Those who try to protect academic freedom and the ability of the academy to discuss the world as it is are swimming against the current. In such an atmosphere, liberal-arts education can’t survive.
Consider what happened after Smith College held a panel for alumnae titled “Challenging the Ideological Echo Chamber: Free Speech, Civil Discourse and the Liberal Arts.” Moderated by Smith President Kathleen McCartney in late September, the panel was an apparent effort to address the intolerance of diverse opinions that prevails on many campuses.
One panelist was Smith alumna Wendy Kaminer—an author, lawyer, social critic, feminist, First Amendment near-absolutist and former board member of the American Civil Liberties Union. She delivered precisely the spirited challenge to the echo chamber that the panel’s title seemed to invite. But Ms. Kaminer emerged from the discussion of free speech labeled a racist—for defending free speech.
The panel started innocuously enough with Ms. Kaminer criticizing the proliferation of campus speech codes that restrict supposedly offensive language. She urged the audience to defend the free exchange of ideas over parochial notions of “civility.” In response to a question about teaching materials that contain “hate speech,” she raised the example of Mark Twain ’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” arguing that students should take it as a whole. The student member of the panel, Jaime Estrada, resisted that notion, saying, “But it has the n-word, and some people are sensitive to that.”
Ms. Kaminer responded: “Well let’s talk about n-words. Let’s talk about the growing lexicon of words that can only be known by their initials. I mean, when I say, ‘n-word’ or when Jaime says ‘n-word,’ what word do you all hear in your head? You hear the word . . . ”
And then Ms. Kaminer crossed the Rubicon of political correctness and uttered the forbidden word, observing that having uttered it, “nothing horrible happened.” She then compared the trend of replacing potentially offensive words with an initial to being “characters in a Harry Potter book who are afraid to say the word ‘Voldemort.’ ” There’s an important difference, she pointed out, between hurling an epithet and uttering a forbidden word during an academic discussion of our attitudes toward language and law.
The event—and Ms. Kaminer’s words—prompted blowback from Smith undergraduates, recent alumnae and some faculty members. One member of the audience posted an audio recording and transcript of the discussion, preceded by what has come to be known in the academic world as a “trigger warning”:
One has to have imbibed this culture of hyper-victimization in order even to understand the lingo. “Ableism,” for example, is described at ableism.org as “the practices and dominant attitudes in society that devalue and limit the potential of persons with disabilities” and that “assign inferior value (worth) to persons who have developmental, emotional, physical or psychiatric disabilities.”
The contretemps prompted articles in the newspapers of Smith College and neighboring Mount Holyoke College, condemning Ms. Kaminer’s remarks as examples of institutionalized racism. Smith president Ms. McCartney was criticized for not immediately denouncing Ms. Kaminer. In a Sept. 29 letter responding to the Smith community, she apologized to students and faculty who were “hurt” and made to feel “unsafe” by Ms. Kaminer’s comments in defense of free speech.
A rare academic counter-current to the vast censorial wave came from professor of politics Christopher Pyle at Mount Holyoke. He wrote in the Mount Holyoke News that readers of the paper were misled by a report that “a Smith alumna made racist remarks when speaking at an alumnae panel.” He criticized the condemnation of Ms. Kaminer for her willingness to challenge the tyranny of “sanitary euphemisms.”
Smith is not the epicenter of hostility to free speech. On university campuses nationwide we are witnessing an increasing tide of trigger warnings. They are popping up on syllabi, in discussions of public art, and even finding their way into official school policies.
On Oct. 27, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology circulated a survey questionnaire to its entire student body on the issue of sexual assault—a so-called “climate survey” to try to determine and expose the extent of the problem at the school. Remarkably enough, the survey itself came accompanied by, guess what:
“TRIGGER WARNING: Some of the questions in this survey use explicit language, including anatomical names of body parts and specific behaviors to ask about sexual situations. This survey also asks about sexual assault and other forms of sexual violence which may be upsetting. Resources for support will be available on every page of the survey, should you need them.”
Hypersensitivity to the trauma allegedly inflicted by listening to controversial ideas approaches a strange form of derangement—a disorder whose lethal spread in academia grows by the day. What should be the object of derision, a focus for satire, is instead the subject of serious faux academic discussion and precautionary warnings. For this disorder there is no effective quarantine. A whole generation of students soon will have imbibed the warped notions of justice and entitlement now handed down as dogma in the universities.
Mr. Silverglate, a lawyer and writer, is the co-founder and current chairman of the board of directors of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Wendy Kaminer is a member of FIRE’s board of advisers.