The 2015-16 academic year has opened with a predictable collection of demands for banning certain views, often involving sexual or racial matters. Many are couched in convoluted claims that disagreeable speech is making students feel “unsafe.”
Much of the squelching aims to fend off challenges to some of the more ludicrous theories of victimization. Well-constructed thoughts on social injustice can be defended in debates.
But the concern here goes beyond the issue of free speech. What do these bizarre definitions of sexual or racial harassment do to the students’ heads? They, too, are free speech, but when they are shielded from counterarguments, they take on the air of “facts.” The students leave school with “givens” that are not givens 5 feet outside the campus gates.
Case in point is the story of Ellen Pao. A hotshot Harvard-educated lawyer, Pao sued her Silicon Valley venture capital employer for gender discrimination. As evidence, she cited a partner’s referring to a porn star on a private jet.
Where would an otherwise worldly woman come to see a mere mention of porn watching as evidence of sexual bias? No need to answer.
Brown University just issued another survey “finding” that about 1 in 4 of its undergraduate women have suffered “nonconsensual sexual contact.” It’s hard to know what the heck that means, but you wonder how the throngs of unescorted high-school girls roaming nearby Thayer Street manage to survive the evening.
Brown offers an exhaustive list of advice for men wanting to counter sexual violence. Item No. 9: “Refuse to purchase any magazine, rent any video, subscribe to any website, or buy any music that portrays girls or women in a sexually degrading or abusive manner.”
Firstly, most pornography is legal, and school administrators have no business telling their scholars what is permissible reading.
Secondly, do the students have any time left to read Shakespeare? Come to think of it, they’d better not. (“Frailty, thy name is woman!”)
Over at Wesleyan University, “advocates” are trying to close the student newspaper for publishing an opinion piece critical of the Black Lives Matter movement. Author Bryan Stascavage wrote:
“If vilification and denigration of the police force continues to be a significant portion of Black Lives Matter’s message, then I will not support the movement. … I should repeat, I do support many of the efforts by the more moderate activists.”
Clearly not a scorched-earth portrayal, but it elicited demands for abject apology, diversity training for the newspaper staff, setting aside part of the front page for “marginalized groups/voices” and so on.
By the way, Wesleyan’s president and many of its students offered full-throated defenses of Stascavage’s right to speak his mind.
I actually feel sorrier for the students goaded into making tyrannical demands than I do the author of the piece. That’s because, to quote Shakespeare again, “the evil that men do lives after them” — especially in the Internet age.
College kids have forever made angry, unwise remarks. In olden days, that speech would end up forgotten, buried in a landfill on the yellowing pages of the student rag. Now the public cries are forever archived in the great cloud and easily retrieved by prospective employers and mothers-in-law.
And when a law firm, for example, Googles the name of the graduate who said an article mildly critical of her advocacy group made her feel “unsafe,” it might very well regard her as a risk not worth taking.
College administrators could spare themselves later heartache if they made clear from day one that no one has the right not to be offended. They might start with the professors.
Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at [email protected] To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at www.creators.com.