A new book has chronicled three decades of censorship on America’s college campuses, prohibiting discussions of politically incorrect ideas. Freedom of speech is now held in historically low regard in our educational institutions, according to Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and author of Unlearning Liberty. The result is that it has made us all “a little bit dumber.” Tim Black’s lengthy and excellent interview with the author appeared in today’s Spiked:
…Freedom of thought is no longer installed at the centre of the academy; it’s been relegated to the margins. It is not just the students who are trained to believe that there are things of which they must never speak; faculty members are, too… The result of three decades’ worth of campus censorship, from the politically correct speech codes of the 1980s and 1990s to the anti-harassment dictata of today, has been chilling.
Lukianoff tells me of a recent survey conducted by the American Association of Colleges and Universities: ‘Out of 24,000 students who were asked the question, “Is it safe to hold unpopular positions on campus?”, only 35 percent of students strongly agreed. But, when broken down, the stat indicates something even worse. Forty percent of freshmen strongly agreed, but only 30 percent of seniors.’ In other words, students unlearn freedom of speech during their studies. ‘Even worse, only 16 per cent of university faculty strongly agreed with this statement. It’s not even a particularly strong statement, and if we’ve reached a point where only 16 percent of faculty strongly agree with it, then we’re doing something wrong.’
How has this happened? How has censorship come to play such a prominent role within the academy? In attempting to answer this, it is impossible to ignore the therapeutic turn in society at large, captured in embryo in Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism (1979). In brief, the robust, trailblazing individual of American legend had, by the late twentieth century, been reconceived as fragile and in need of external help and protection. Campus censorship plays upon this theory of the vulnerable individual, which, as Lukianoff says, presupposes a very ‘weak idea of what people are capable of coping with’. It is this belief that certain words and opinions might be too hurtful to young, vulnerable people which, in the eyes of the censors, justifies campus regulation of speech. Censorship even comes to present itself as the right thing to do, so much so that, according to Lukianoff, ‘people much too readily give the moral highground to those who are pro-censorship’.
The article goes on to explain the importance of free speech and how it used to be considered central to academic life. As the 1957 Supreme Court ruling stated: “Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise, our civilisation will stagnate and die.”
In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill wrote disparagingly of the society in which truths go unquestioned, certain views unchallenged, beliefs untested: “Where there is a tacit convention that principles are not to be disputed, where the discussion of the greatest questions which can occupy humanity is considered to be closed, we cannot hope to find that generally high scale of mental activity which has made some periods of history so remarkable.’”
With our educational system teaching people to believe that there are certain things you cannot say and discourages people from engaging in intellectual debates, it’s not suprising that not only are people today unable to debate or hear other’s arguments, but it has reinforced a hyperpolarization of public debates, Lukianoff wrote:
…[I]f you surround yourself with people you agree with, you tend to become much more certain, and in some cases much more radical in your beliefs, whether conservative, liberal or neither. And you tend, therefore, to have a polarised understanding of where the other side is coming from. And that’s a big problem in the US today…. With rigorous debate discouraged throughout higher education, and people seeking out only those they already agree with, it is unsurprising that many find it difficult to explain why what they believe to be right is right. After all, they have never had to test their beliefs. And the inability to explain why we are right ‘makes us even more emotional and hostile when anything questions our certainty’, says Lukianoff – hence the shrill, overemotional inarticulacy of so much public discourse.