Free speech is not doing particularly well on today’s college campuses. The good news is that resistance to the little commissars is mobilizing; the bad news is that this “resistance” consists almost entirely of abstract scholarly essays or grandiloquent soapbox speeches (see here, for example). Indeed, these pontifications have reached industrial scale proportions and scarcely a day passes without me personally encountering boilerplate-like arguments about how intellectual life can flourish only with open debate, why democracy requires tolerating the most noxious views, how an inclusive public forum is vital to solving our current tribulations and on and on.
Great stuff but, unfortunately, all a waste of time. Hard to imagine the opponents of intellectual honesty being swayed by these erudite arguments even if they encountered them. I also seriously doubt that they are even aware of their existence. This is therapeutic, preaching-to- the-choir.
What can be done? Let me suggest that this war against the barbarians is largely misdirected. To be blunt, an unspeakable link exists between the smothering of campus free speech and its current obsession with upping racial diversity.
Begin with a simple question: why now? Surely the social sciences and humanities faculty has been overwhelmingly Left for decades but these ideological leanings never manifested themselves in demands for speech codes, safe spaces, mandatory sensitivity training, persecution of those guilty of micro-aggressions, and cleansing the campus of toxic whiteness.
What has changed is the burgeoning number of African American on campus (“critical mass”) who have been socialized to embrace political activism—marches, demonstration, occupying administrative offices, even manufacturing bogus hate crimes—as the all-purpose solution to whatever ails them. To make matters worse, these students are forever angry, veer toward paranoia, and are exasperated over what they see as the lack of racial progress. Most are in over their heads academically, genuinely puzzled why, for example, they cannot ace Organic Chemistry. Might it be because the classroom building is named after a slave-owner? Or the instructor sub-consciously devalues black contributions to science? That they hold an exaggerated view of their intellectual ability only exacerbates the problem. Now add a dollop of well-paid administrators ( “Dean of Diversity and Inclusion”) who put bread on their tables by keeping campus race relations simmering just below the boiling point. And, of the utmost importance, they enjoy a well-deserved reputation for solving their tribulations, real and imagined, by threats of violence
It is this toxic brew, particularly its penchant for violence, more than anything else that drives campus craziness. If one doubts this overwhelming racial character and its belligerent flavor, visit the website The Demands that (as of December 2015) catalogues student demands from some 80 colleges and universities. Nearly everything is about the plight of campus blacks and the need for draconian measures–mandatory sensitivity training and prohibitions of “hate” that must be implemented.
To appreciate the PC epidemic/diversity link, try a mental experiment in which the Supreme Court had unequivocally, as per 1964 Civil Right Act, banned any racial preferences in college admissions. The decision’s impact would, guaranteed, substantially reduce African American enrollment (perhaps to 2 or 3%) while those admitted could, happily, actually do the required work (and many of these would be apolitical immigrants or children of these immigrants). It would also add more Asian students to campus which, in turn, would mean scaling back Black Studies Departments and similar programs whose existence depended on rabble-rousing academically marginal blacks. In an instant, the likelihood of campus uproars over a Charles Murray or Heather MacDonald lecture would fall dramatically.
This is not to suggest that African American students are the sole source of today’s PC pox. Others campus groups also contribute to today’s anti-intellectual climate, notably radical feminists and airhead snowflake social justice warriors but these groups are easily quarantined or just ignored and, most of all, nobody fears them physically. From decades of experience as a professor, my sense is that nearly all feminists are practical careerists easily bribed with a well-paid tenured position in an autonomous women-themed academic departments plus the usual academic perks—research funds, low teaching loads, travel money, and the like. And, yes, snowflakes may demand trigger warnings for Shakespeare but professors hardly fear confronting such sensitive creatures provided administrators support intellectual integrity. Wacky Queer Studies professors and all the rest may make for entertaining stories on Fox News, but their existence has little to do with suppressing campus free speech.
Campus outsiders cannot imagine how the fear of offending quick-to-anger campus blacks can undermine the life of the mind. I’ve personally experienced it firsthand at Cornell in the early 1970s and this fear has never diminished. The slightest criticism of Black Lives Matter, let alone anything critical of the civil rights agenda, no matter how nuanced, can shut down the school for a week. And truth is no defense against those who sense dog-whistle racism everywhere or believe that only blacks can speak authoritatively on anything, anything that somehow touches on people of color. In today’s environment saying that blacks are disproportionately incarcerated because they commit more crimes is now judged “controversial” if not racist. Nor is it possible to take pre-emptive steps by funding a multicultural center or hiring more black professors to quell eruptions.
Think of today’s PC mania as “incident proofing” the campus as one might spray oil on stagnant water to stamp out malaria. Nobody can anticipate where the next outrage will occur, so take no chances. From white boy fraternities to professors with endowed chairs, everybody must be on full alert. Even a private Facebook post among friends poking fun at a “challenged” black professor invites serious trouble.
And make no mistake: in today’s super-sensitive environment, this orthodoxy is extensive and daily expands as past social engineering projects fail to work. Hard to imagine even a half-way honest discussion of crime, economic inequality, healthcare, financial regulation and the like without some white being condemned for micro-insults or stereotyping. Even those teaching 19th English literature may soon be up on charges if they “forget” to include people of color in their syllabus. Recall that the whole micro-aggression thing began with how to capitalize “Indigenous People.” The swords of Damocles are everywhere and nobody—even those who publically drink the PC Kool-Aid—are safe. Better to remain silent or get with the program.
In today’s campus atmosphere only a fool would try to connect the drift toward totalitarianism with the most sacred of all campus deities, diversity. Even worse would be to point out that that many cognitively “challenged” students cannot grasp the idea that “offensive” facts can be empirically correct and that “ought” is not “is.” How many of those in over their head academically grasp that professors occasionally explicate noxious ideas that they do not personally believe for the sake of a lively discussion? Or that scientific verification, not moral offensiveness or a group’s history of suffering, is the gold standard for ascertaining truth. And, the more diversity the greater the number of enrollees who just cannot grasp these relationships.
The free speech battle really ought to be about the intellectual costs of bringing ill-prepared students, regardless of color or ethnicity, to campus so as to achieve superficial diversity. Making brilliant distinctions between permitted and banned speech or the marketplace of ideas and Western Civilization is beside the point, a safe harbor for those terrified of speaking honestly.