An essay of mine last week on free speech caused a lot of comment, and I had to confess at the end of it that I had been unable to say anything about a new and disturbing attack on free speech that I had referred to at the beginning. So this is that extra contribution, and it has been prompted by news both in the USA and Australia about what is allowed and not allowed within universities.
And I want to start by going back to my own undergraduate period, in the mid 1950s. I don’t think anyone talked about ‘free speech’ in those days. What would have been forbidden? We were supposed to be dealing with the great ideas that had come from the journey of humanity. For many of us, these ideas had only been faintly talked about at school. Now we were tackling them. One of the best courses I did was called ‘Renaissance and Reformation’. Our lecturer was an urbane, well-read man called Ted Tapp. We were dealing with the Reformers, like Luther, Calvin and Knox, the Counter Reformation, with Ignatius Loyola, and the deals between the Church and the Holy Roman Empire. Is it ever OK to kill people in the interests of your religious faith? Tough stuff at a tough time, and lots of people died. Our class included half a dozen nuns from the local convent, all of them studying to be high school teachers (like most of the rest of us). I learned that the nuns had been given a dispensation to listen to what had to be some anti-Catholic stuff, along with some pretty trenchant stuff on the nastiness of some aspects of the Reformation. Ted Tapp was even-handed.
There were no demonstrations, even though religion rather than politics was the principal cleavage within the study body, not that it was much of a cleavage. No one complained. A few students from other courses came to hear a bit of it, on the ground that it sounded interesting. It never occurred to me that anyone could object. Human history is fascinating, bloody, inspiring, amazing, awful. You need to know the guts of it, not sanctified versions shaped to support a particular agenda. We all entered university a year earlier than today’s students, having had only five years of high school. But all this was good for us, and we needed no protection.
After classes we had four possible places to go: a common room, a men’s common room, a women’s common room and a cafeteria. The men’s common room was dominated by a group of senior students who smoked, told stories, wondered about sporting outcomes, and plotted. The women’s common room was a place of mystery to men students, though we knew it was larger and much more pleasant than ours. The general common room was for playing cards, music and socialising. It all seemed to work. We were virtually all residential students, so we also had rooms to go to, if our residence was on the campus; or we could go into town on the bus. The great majority were the academically proficient kids of white-collar and skilled blue-collar families. We were all poor, and almost no one had a car.
It doesn’t seem to be like that today. In the US, according to a long and disturbing essay by Michael Shermer, there are all sorts of devices to prevent particular students feeling threatened somehow. By other students? Well, not exactly. But by words. Words? Yes, students seem to need to be warned about ‘words’ that might be uttered. To quote from the essay: 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. The author says that the very concept of ‘triggering’ is a recipe for censorship. I agree, at least, on the basis of what I have read.
Along with trigger warnings come ‘safe spaces’. I guess some of our women students in 1954 saw the women’s common room as a safe space, but the notion has been expanded to this: 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.
I find this really extraordinary. Universities, in Western society, are among the safest places there are, anywhere. Isn’t part of a university education the challenge to confront ideas and work through them? As I said in the last essay, we choose whether or not to be offended about things, and what we do about it. I am offended by the vacuity of much advertising, but don’t feel that I need a trigger warning that rubbish is coming, or that the advertsising should be disallowed.
Have you committed a ‘microaggression’ lately? You have if you’ve asked anyone where they’ve come from, or suggest that jobs should go to the best qualified person. I loved this little story: 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 [of Brandeis University] to issue an apology to anyone “triggered or hurt by the content of the microaggressions.” Oh dear.
Then there is ‘de-inviting’. You invite a well-known personality to give a graduation speech, and receive an honorary degree. The invitation is criticised by students for some reason, and the administration backs down and cancels the invitation. 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). I’m not aware of that having happened in our country.
Shermer suggests that American society is passing from a culture of honour to a culture of victimhood. The first leads to autonomy, independence self-reliance and self-esteem, while the second leads to dependence and the need for a parent-like figure to solve problems. Oh, and the second also leads to ‘virtue-signalling’ 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… That sounds like an episode from recent Chinese history.
This essay is well worth reading, even if it is centred on what is happening in the USA. The take-home message for me is his notion that freedom of speech and expression is being sacrificed in the name of ‘tolerance’. He continues: A deeper reason behind the campus problem is a lack of diversity. Not ethnic, race, or gender diversity, but viewpoint diversity, specifically, political viewpoint.
You can see examples of this in the preparedness of some to try to shut up debate on global warming by referring to the questioner as a ‘denier’. And that is in the broader society. How far has this cultural shift permeated Australian universities? I have no idea — they are no longer my working environment. I’ve read a few local op.eds that don’t seem a problem to me — for example, this one. But it usually isn’t long before something in the USA becomes a model for part of our society. I’m not looking forward to its arrival here.