The French political journalist and supporter of the Royalist cause in the French Revolution, Jacques Mallet du Pan, famously summarized what often happens to extremists: “the Revolution devours its children.” I was thinking about this idiom—and its doppelgänger “what goes around comes around”—while writing a lecture for a talk I was invited to give at my alma mater California State University, Fullerton on the topic: “Is freedom of speech harmful for college students?” The short answer is an unflinching and unequivocal “No.”
Why is this question even being asked? When I was in college free speech was the sine qua non of the academy. It is what tenure was designed to protect! The answer may be found in the recent eruptions of student protests at numerous American colleges and universities, including Amherst, Brandeis, Brown, Claremont McKenna, Oberlin, Occidental, Princeton, Rutgers, University of California, University of Missouri, Williams, Yale, and others. Most of these paroxysms were under the guise of protecting students from allegedly offensive speech and disagreeable ideas—defined differently by different interest groups—with demands for everything from trigger warnings and safe spaces to microaggressions and speaker disinvitations.
Between the 1960s and the 2010s, what went wrong?
Trigger warnings are supposed to be issued to students before readings, classroom lectures, film screenings, or public speeches on such topics as sex, addiction, bullying, suicide, eating disorders, and the like, involving such supposed prejudices as ableism, homophobia, sizeism, slut shaming, transphobia, victim-blaming, and who-knows-what-else, thereby infantilizing students instead of preparing them for the real world where they most assuredly will not be so shielded. At Oberlin College, for example, students leveled accusations against the administration of imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism, and the ne plus ultra in gender politics, cissexist heteropatriarchy, the enforcement of “gender binary and gender essentialism” against those who are “gender variant (non-binary) and trans identities.” The number of such categories has expanded into an alphabet string, LGBTQIA, or lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer/questioning, intersex, asexual and any other underrepresented sexual, gender, and/or romantic identities.1 This is not your parents’ protest against Victorian sexual mores, and the list of demands by Oberlin students would be unrecognizable to even the most radical 60’s hippies:
- The creation of a school busing system for Oberlin, Ohio’s K–12 schools, paid for by the college.
- The establishment of special, segregated black-only “safe spaces” across campus.
- A more inclusive audition process in the Conservatory that does not privilege Western European theoretical knowledge over playing ability.
- The creation of a bridge program that will recruit recently-released prisoners to enroll at Oberlin for undergraduate courses.
The most audacious demand was “an $8.20/hour stipend for black student leaders who are organizing protest efforts.” These students wanted to be paid for protesting!
As often happens in moral movements, a reasonable idea with some evidentiary backing gets carried to extremes by engaged moralists eager for attention, sympathy, and the social standing that being a victim or victim sympathizer can bring. Soldiers suffering from PTSD, for example, may be “triggered” by the backfire of a nearby automobile, but no one has proposed that automobile manufacturers put “trigger warnings” on cars to accommodate soldiers. As well, the Harvard psychologist Richard McNally points out that trigger warnings may have the opposite effect for which they are intended, because “systematic exposure to triggers and the memories they provoke is the most effective means of overcoming the disorder.” McNally sites an analysis by the Institute of Medicine, which found that “exposure therapy is the most efficacious treatment for PTSD, especially in civilians who have suffered trauma such as sexual assault.” In other words, face your problems head-on and deal with them. An additional problem with trigger warnings is that the number of triggers has expanded to the point where nearly every speech and lecture could contain triggering words, turning communication into a moral hazard. Finally, who determines what is “triggering” anyway? The very concept is a recipe for censorship.
Safe space, according to the organization Advocates for Youth, is “A place where anyone can relax and be fully self-expressed, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome or challenged on account of biological sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, cultural background, age, or physical or mental ability; a place where the rules guard each person’s self-respect, dignity and feelings and strongly encourage everyone to respect others.” Some such places even contain pillows, soothing music, milk and cookies, and videos of puppies.
In addition to infantilizing adults, this practice often means protecting students from opinions that they don’t happen to agree with, or shielding them from ideas that challenge their beliefs, which has always been one of the most valuable benefits of a college education. In any case, college campuses, along with the cities and states they’re in, are already designed to be safe from violence and discrimination based on the rule of law enforced by the police and courts. In point of fact, most of these colleges nestled in American cities are among the safest places on earth. If you want to build a safe space for people who really need it, go to Syria or Somalia. And if this opinion triggers you or makes you feel unsafe then you haven’t been paying attention to what’s going on in the world.
Microaggressions are comments or questions that slight, snub, or insult someone, intentionally or unintentionally, in anything from casual conversation to formal discourse. According to the University of California publication Tool: Recognizing Microaggressions and the Messages They Send, examples include:
- Asking, “Where are you from or where were you born?” or “What are you?” This implies someone is not a true American.
- Inquiring, “How did you become so good in math?” (to people of color) or suggesting “You must be good in math” (to an Asian), which is stereotyping.
- Proclaiming, “There is only one race, the human race” or “I don’t believe in race.” This denies the significance of a person of color’s racial/ethnic experience and history.
- Opining, “I believe the most qualified person should get the job” or “America is the land of opportunity.” This suggests that the playing field is level, so if women or people of color do not fill all jobs and careers in precise proportion to their population percentages, it must mean that the problem is with them, or that they are lazy or incompetent and just need to work harder.
Yes, language matters, and some comments that people make are cringe worthy (e.g., saying “you people” to a group of African Americans, or “you’re a girl, you don’t have to be good at math”). But do we really need a list of DOs and DON’Ts handed out to students and reviewed like they were five-year olds being taught how to play nice with the other kids in the sandbox? Can’t adults work out these issues themselves without administrators stepping in as surrogate parents? And who determines what constitutes “hate,” “racist” or “sexist” speech? Who it happens to bother or offend? Students? Faculty? Administration? And as with the problem of trigger words, the list of microaggressions grows, turning normal conversation into a cauldron of potential violations that further restricts speech, encourages divisiveness rather than inclusiveness, and forces people to censor themselves, dissemble, withhold opinion, or outright lie about what they believe.
An incident at Brandeis University in 2015 is instructive: when Asian American students installed an exhibition on microaggressions, other Asian American students claimed that the exhibit was itself a microaggression that triggered negative feelings, leading the president to issue an apology to anyone “triggered or hurt by the content of the microaggressions.” Agreed, blurting out “Why do you Asians always hang out together” is lame, but at this point in history it just makes the communicant sound more like a bore than a bigot, and more deserving of eye rolls than public humiliation.
Speaker disinvitations—cancellations of invited speakers—have been accelerating over the past decade. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), 257 such incidents have occurred since 2000, 111 of which were successful in preventing the invited guests from giving their talks. In 2014, for example, Ayaan Hirsi Ali was invited to give the commencement speech at Brandies University, where she was to also receive an honorary doctorate. After students protested, citing her criticism of Islam for its mistreatment of women, the administration caved into their demands and Ali was no-platformed (as it is called in England). Worse, in this theater of the absurd, students from U.C. Berkeley attempted to no-platform the comedian and social commentator Bill Maher for his alleged “Islamophobia,” code for anyone who criticizes Islam for any reason. Maher delivered his commencement oration nonetheless, telling the very liberal student body that “Liberals should own the First Amendment the way conservatives own the Second Amendment,” pointing out that apparently irony is no longer taught at this birthplace of the 1960’s free speech movement. This was topped by students at Williams College who, in October 2015, succeeded in disinviting Suzanne Venker, author of The Flipside of Feminism. Venker was invited to participate in the college’s “Uncomfortable Learning” lecture series but, well, she made some students feel too uncomfortable. “When you bring a misogynistic, white supremacist men’s rights activist to campus in the name of ‘dialogue’ and ‘the other side,’” whined one student on Facebook, it causes “actual mental, social, psychological, and physical harm to students.” Physically harm?
The effects of such protests are often the opposite of what the protesters sought. Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s speech, for example, was printed in the Wall Street Journal where it was seen by that paper’s 2.37 million readers, many orders of magnitude more than would have heard it on campus. Bill Maher turned his Berkeley brouhaha into a bit for his HBO television show Real Time, which carries over four million viewers. More irony.
What may have started out as well intentioned actions at curbing prejudices and attenuating bigotry with the goal of making people more tolerant, has now metamorphosed into thought police attempting to impose totalitarian measures that result in silencing dissent of any kind. The result is the very opposite of what free speech and a college education is all about.
Why such unrest in the academy—among the most liberal institutions in the country—surrounded as these students are by so many liberal professors and administrators? Here I will offer five proximate (immediate) causes, one ultimate (deeper) cause, and some solutions.
1. Moral Progress
As I document in The Moral Arc, we have made so much moral progress since the Enlightenment—particularly since the civil rights and women’s rights movements that launched the modern campus protest movement in the first place—that our standards of what is tolerable have been ratcheted ever upward to the point where students are hypersensitive to things that, by comparison, didn’t even appear on the cultural radar half a century ago. This progress has happened gradually enough on the news cycle measure of days and weeks to be beneath the awareness of most observers, but fast enough that it can be tracked on time scales ranging from years to decades. For example, remember when interracial marriage was a divisive debate? Me neither. But recall the now-jarring words of the trial judge Leon M. Bazile, who convicted Richard and Mildred Loving in the case (Loving v. Virginia) that ultimately made its way to the Supreme Court in 1967 and overturned laws banning interracial marriage: “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.” Same-sex marriage went through a similar evolution as interracial marriage, culminating in the 5–4 decision by the Supreme Court of the United States in 2015 to make same-sex marriage the law of the land, another data point in the long-term trend toward granting more rights to more people.
Interracial marriage and same-sex marriage are themselves the legacy of the rights revolutions that first took off in the late 1700s when the idea of rights was invented and then demanded, first in the American Revolution (starting with the Declaration of Independence in 1776), then in the French Revolution (with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789), inspiring subsequent rights revolutions and documents (for example, Declaration of the Rights of Woman in 1791). The result, two and a half centuries later, has been the abolition of slavery, the eradication of torture, the elimination of the death penalty in all modern democracies save America, the franchise for all adult citizens, children’s rights, women’s rights, gay rights, animal rights, and even the rights of future generations to inhabit a livable planet. Who knows, perhaps one day soon we’ll even grant rights to Artificially Intelligent robots. In other words, most of the big moral movements have been fought and won, leaving today’s students with comparatively smaller causes to promote and evils to protest, but with moral emotions just as powerful as those of previous generations, so their outrage seems disproportionate.
2. Transition from a Culture of Honor to a Culture of Victimhood
In a culture of honor one settles minor disputes oneself and leaves the big crimes to the criminal justice system. Over the past two decades this has been eroded and is being replaced by a culture of victimhood in which one turns to parent-like authorities (faculty and college administrators, but not the law) to settle minor disputes over insults and slights.2 The culture of honor leads to autonomy, independence, self-reliance, and self-esteem, whereas the culture of victimhood leads to dependence and puerile reliance on parental figures to solve ones’ problems. In this victimhood culture the primary way to gain status is to either be a victim or to condemn alleged perpetrators against victims, leading to an accelerating search for both.3 A student at the University of Oxford named Eleanor Sharman explained how it happened to her after she joined a campus feminist group named Cuntry Living and started reading their literature on misogyny and patriarchy:
Along with all of this, my view of women changed. I stopped thinking about empowerment and started to see women as vulnerable, mistreated victims. I came to see women as physically fragile, delicate, butterfly-like creatures struggling in the cruel net of patriarchy. I began to see male entitlement everywhere.
As a result she became fearful and timid, afraid even to go out to socialize:
Feminism had not empowered me to take on the world—it had not made me stronger, fiercer or tougher. Even leaving the house became a minefield. What if a man whistled at me? What if someone looked me up and down? How was I supposed to deal with that? This fearmongering had turned me into a timid, stay-at-home, emotionally fragile bore.
It is not that there are no longer real victims of actual crimes, but it is a disservice to them to equate the trivial peccadillos of microaggressions or triggering words with brutal rapes and murders. A feminist named Melody Hensley, for example, who was once the Executive Director of the Center for Inquiry in Washington DC. claims that years of online stalking and social media trolls gave her PTSD on par with that of combat soldiers, disabling her from being able to work. Not surprisingly, war vets were not sympathetic.
3. From Anti-Fragile to Fragile Children
One response to the 1970s and 1980s crime wave was a shift toward “helicopter parenting” in which children were no longer allowed to be, well, children. The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains why through the concept of anti-fragility: “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.” Those kids are today’s college students, and as a consequence they have brittle bones and thin skins. An example of an anti-fragile person with strong bones and thick skin is the model Isabelle Boemeke, who tweeted what she does when verbally harassed on the streets by ogling men:
Here's what I do when catcalled: roll my eyes, if he's Hispanic say "chinga tú madre!", put earphones on, continue with life.
— Isabelle Boemeke (@isaboemeke) February 10, 2016
4. Puritanical Purging
Social movements tend to turn on themselves in puritanical purging of anyone who falls short of moral perfection, leading to preemptive denunciations of others before one is so denounced. The witch crazes of the 17th century degenerated into such anticipatory condemnations, resulting in a veritable plethora of nonexistent sorceresses being strapped to faggots and torched. The 20th century witnessed Marxist and feminist groups undergoing similar purges as members competed for who was the purist and defenestrated those who fell below the unrealizable standard. On the other side of the political spectrum, Ayn Rand’s objectivist movement took off in a frenzied build up after the publication of Atlas Shrugged in 1959, but by the time the philosopher-novelist died in 1982 most of the insider “collective” had been expunged for various sins against the philosophy, from listening to the wrong music to challenging the founder on any point of substance or minutia. Such purification purges are among the worst things that can happen to a social movement.
5. Virtue Signaling
Related to puritanical purging is virtue signaling, in which members of a movement compete to signal who is the most righteous by (A) recounting all the moral acts one has performed and (B) identifying all the immoral acts others have committed. This leads to an arms-race to signal moral outrage over increasingly diminishing transgressions, such as unapproved Halloween costumes at Yale University, which led to a student paroxysm against a faculty member, a cell-phone video of which went viral and nearly brought the campus to a stand still. This is an example of what Maajid Nawaz means by “regressive liberalism,” where freedom of speech and expression are sacrificed in the name of tolerance, which is actually intolerance. One of the first acts of totalitarian regimes is to restrict dissent and free speech, so perhaps it should be called totalitarian liberalism.
An Ultimate Cause
A deeper reason behind the campus problem is a lack of diversity. Not ethnic, race, or gender diversity, but viewpoint diversity, specifically, political viewpoint. The asymmetry is startling. A 2014 study conducted by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute found that 59.8 percent of all undergraduate faculty nationwide identify as far left or liberal, compared with only 12.8 percent as far right or conservative. In a 2015 study published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences Arizona State University psychologist José Duarte and his colleagues reported that 58–66 percent of social science professors identify as liberals, compared to only 5-8 percent as conservatives. Given the power of beliefs to drive actions, college students today stand next to no chance of receiving a balanced education on the most important topics of our time and for which social science is best equipped to study.
What goes around comes around. Today’s liberal college professors were radical college students in the 1960s and 1970s, protesting “the man” and bucking authority. One reason faculty and administrators are failing to stand up to student demands today is that they once wore those shoes. Raising children and students to be dismissive of law and order and mores and manners leads to a crisis in consciousness and the rejection of the very freedoms so hard won by their parents and teachers. A generation in rebellion gave birth to a generation in crisis. Thus it is that the revolution devours its children.
There is no magic bullet solution to the problems the academy faces today, but as liberals have known for some time it takes decades—even generations—to right the wrongs of the past, so solutions are likely to be incremental and gradual, which is almost always a good thing when it comes to social change, as it leads to less violent and more peaceful actions on the part of both activists and their opponents. Contra Barry Goldwater, extremism in the defense of liberty is no virtue; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no vice.4
Hiring practices fall under this rubric. If the academy is already comfortable with and active in seeking to diversify its faculty by ethnicity, race, and gender, why not viewpoint as well? Given the entrenchment of tenure this will take time, but as that scribe of moral progress Victor Hugo observed, “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.”5
In the meantime, viewpoint diversity can be increased almost overnight by inviting speakers from a wide range of perspectives—political, economic, and ideological—even if (or especially) if they are offensive to faculty and students. And no more disinvitations! If you invite someone to speak, honor your word, own your decision, and stand up to the cry bullies (as they’re called in this neologism). The assignment of books and papers for students to read—especially for courses in history, English literature, the humanities, and the social sciences—can and should include authors whose positions are at odds with those of most academicians and student bodies. And professors: in addition to assigning students articles and opinion editorials from the New York Times, give them a few from the Wall Street Journal. Balance The Nation magazine with Reason magazine, The American Prospect with The American Spectator, National Public Radio with Conservative Talk Radio, PBS with Fox News.
Viewpoint diversity, however, is subservient to the deeper principle of free speech, which should be applied indiscriminately across the academy, as it should across society and, ideally, the world. What does free speech mean? First, it does not mean that you can lie about someone. Libel laws are in place to protect people from defamation that causes reputational and financial harm. Second, free speech does not mean that the government, public institutions, or private persons, businesses, or publications are required to promote or publish the opinions of others. As the Publisher of Skeptic magazine, for example, it is not incumbent on me to publish articles or accept advertisements just because we’re in the business of publishing. Institutions should have the freedom to restrict the speech of anyone who utilizes resources within the jurisdiction of its own institution, such as a school newspaper. The government, however, cannot restrict citizens’ speech just because it finds their opinions distasteful, offensive, or critical of its policies. (Exceptions have been made for treason and the passing on of national secrets to enemies, but crying “fire” in a crowded theater was most likely an exception that proves the rule.)
Holocaust deniers, creationists, and 9/11 truthers, for example, should have the right to publish their own journals and books, and to attempt to have their views aired in other publications and media venues, as in college newspapers and web sites, but no one is obligated to publish them. Alex Grobman and I wrestled with the free speech issue in our 2004 book Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It? As we opined: “Being in favor of someone’s right to freedom of speech is quite different from enabling that speech.” But we chose to write a book about their movement and arguments, quoting them extensively because, we believe, “In the bright light of open discussion the truth will emerge.”6 And although I declined to publish an ad submitted by a Holocaust denier in Skeptic (running an advertisement in our magazines carries the imprimatur of endorsement), I did debate Mark Weber, the director of the Institute for Historical Review (the leading Holocaust denier organization) in a public forum they hosted.
The freedom of speech has been one of the driving forces behind moral progress because it enables the search for truth. How? There are at least five reasons:7
- We might be completely right but still learn something new.
- We might be partially wrong and by listening to other viewpoints we might stand corrected and refine and improve our beliefs. No one is omniscient.
- We might be completely wrong, so hearing criticism or counterpoint gives us the opportunity to change our minds and improve our thinking. No one is infallible. The only way to find out if you’ve gone off the rails is to get feedback on your beliefs, opinions, and even your facts.
- Whether right or wrong, by listening to the opinions of others we have the opportunity to develop stronger arguments and build better facts for our positions. You know that the world is round and goes around the sun, that evolution is real, and that the Holocaust happened. But can you explain how you know these facts? What are the best arguments and evidences for these facts? Could you articulate them clearly and succinctly in a debate or conversation? As John Stuart Mill noted in his classic 1859 work On Liberty: “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.”
- My freedom to speak and dissent is inextricably tied to your freedom to speak and dissent. Once customs and laws are in place to silence someone on one topic, what’s to stop people from silencing anyone on any topic that deviates from the accepted canon? The justification of censorship laws in the consequentialist argument that people might be incited to discrimination, hate, or violence if exposed to such ideas fails the moment you turn the argument around and ask: What happens when it is you and your ideas that are determined to be dangerous? It is the Principle of Interchangeable Perspectives that I introduced in The Moral Arc: For me to expect you to listen to me I must be willing to hear you. If I censor you, why shouldn’t you censor me? If you silence me, why shouldn’t I silence you?
This argument against censorship was well articulated in Robert Bolt’s 1960 play, A Man for All Seasons, based on the true story of the 16th century Chancellor of England, Sir Thomas More, and his collision with King Henry VIII over the monarch’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon. In the play a dialogue unfolds between More and his future son-in-law Roper, who urges him to arrest a man whose testimony could condemn More to death, even though no laws were broken. “And go he should, if he were the Devil himself, until he broke the law!” More entices.
Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!
More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that.
More: Oh? And when the law was down, and the Devil turned round on you—where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws from coast to coast…and if you cut them down…do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.8
For our own safety’s sake we must grant our devils their due.
Michael Shermer is the publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. His book The Moral Arc is now out in paperback. Follow him on Twitter @michaelshermer.
- This list comes from a memo sent to all faculty at Chapman University in the context of a workshop we were all invited to attend on safe spaces related to students who fall into one of these categories.
- Barry Goldwater’s famous line, which I’ve reversed, comes from the 1964 Republican Convention: “Let me remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” A clip of the speech can be seen on YouTube.
- The original French sentence, from the final chapter of Hugo’s book Histoire d’un Crime (The History of a Crime), is: “On resiste a l’invasion des armees; on ne resiste pas a l’invasion des idees.” “One can resist the invasion of armies; one cannot resist the invasion of ideas.” http://bit.ly/1K1dXCL
- Shermer, Michael and Alex Grobman. 2000. Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say it? Berkeley: University of California Press, 13–14.
- One of the earliest and still strongest defense of free speech was made in 1859 by the utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill in his classic work On Liberty, still in print and available for free online.
- The complete script of A Man for All Seasons is available for free online.