Social Justice Warriors Against Free Speech

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Well, that didn't take long.

The Social Justice Warriors have emerged from their safe spaces and begun attacking the University of Chicago's statement supporting free speech and opposing trigger warnings and safe spaces. They are complaining for a good reason: They don’t want free speech to spread to other campuses.

What are the main arguments against the Chicago letter? One of my former graduate students sent me this report from a group website for her liberal arts college (a very fine school). What do her fellow alums say?

Well, for one, they are surprised they even need to make arguments for their side. For years, they haven't had to. Administrators, like those at the University of Missouri, simply rolled over and played dead rather than confront them. But that was political cowardice, not real intellectual engagement. Now that the Social Justice Warriors must defend their position, what do they say?

The arguments against Chicago's free-speech letter

They object to "no trigger warnings" because it is insensitive to people who have experienced trauma and might need a "heads-up" if they are going to encounter triggering content in class.

They object to "no safe spaces" because those are the only places where marginalized groups will feel completely free to voice their opinions.

They say safe spaces are not about banning dissenting viewpoints but about banning hateful, bigoted speech that is truly harmful.

They reject the idea that colleges should be places where ideas are freely exchanged because “not all ideas are equal and some are too offensive to have a place in the community.”

The common theme is "we must all be more sensitive. Otherwise people will be harmed psychologically."

What's right with those arguments, and what's wrong?

First, let's consider trigger warnings. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a professor or teaching assistant saying, "We are going to discuss Greek myths and some of you might find them troubling." But it’s also perfectly fine if, all of a sudden in a class on Greek myths, the professor discusses one. The students at Columbia University actually wanted warnings before all myths. Their demand was not about helping one or two students in a large class. It was simply bullying under the cloak of "sensitivity."

Anyway, universities are all about discussing sensitive subjects and raising troubling questions. If a university is really vigorous, then the whole place should be wrapped in a gigantic trigger warning.

Finally, as a teacher, how can I possibly anticipate all the things that might trigger students in my class on "Big Wars From Ancient Greece to Early Modern Europe" (a lecture course I am teaching next year)? When I mention the Roman war with German tribes on the Rhine, how can I know that your grandfather died fighting on the Rhine in World War II?

Of course, if your grandfather did die fighting on the Rhine, or if your mother was named Jocasta and you accidentally slept with her, you might be triggered by the class discussions. What then? Well, that is why universities have mental-health professionals to help you deal with your anxieties, fears, and depression. Again, it is fine if professors want to give students a heads-up, but it is a mistake to demand it of everyone. It is a much bigger mistake to stifle class discussion for fear of offending. That's not hypothetical. That is exactly what happens in classrooms now. (So does ideologically rigid teaching that demands students repeat the professor's views. But that's another topic for another day.)

Safe spaces are another ruse. Are they really the only places where marginalized groups will feel completely free to voice their opinions, as these fashionable liberal-arts students say? We need to distinguish among three kinds of places on campus: classrooms, public spaces, and private (or semi-private) places like sororities or campus houses for co-religionists. If classrooms do not invite free expression, then something is badly wrong with the university.

Actually, some classrooms do not. They are almost always the classrooms run by the ideological comrades of the students demanding safe spaces. If you think diverse viewpoints are welcome in classes for race and gender studies, you are living in a dream world. In public spaces, like dining halls, people do sometimes group themselves voluntarily by race, sports, or dormitories. Nothing wrong with that, although persistent segregation by race, ethnicity, or religion would be a setback for the students' college experience.

Finally, it is perfectly fine for people to find their cozy spaces privately, at Hillel House (for Jewish students) or Calvert House (for Catholics) or a fraternity, sorority, or club. Who invades those private spaces? Normally, it's the Social Justice Warriors from the Dean's Office who object to students wearing sombreros to a party featuring Mexican food.

What about the argument that "safe spaces aren't about banning dissenting viewpoints but about banning hateful, bigoted speech that is truly harmful"? The obvious problem is this: Who decides? You think your march is to support women's reproductive rights. Your roommate thinks it is about killing unborn babies. Which position is hateful or bigoted? Again, who decides? Which of these is so hateful that it has no place in an academic community?

But let's take the clear-cut example of racial epithets, which are hate speech and add nothing to academic debate or learning. They do cause emotional harm, or at least they can. The difficulty here is "Where do we draw the line?" and, again, "Who draws it?" Is it hate speech to say, "He hates to spend money. What a Jew"? Most Jews would say yes, that's hateful. What if I said, "He hates to spend money. What a Scotsman"? Most Scots would say that recognizes their financial prudence. It is precisely because drawing these distinctions is so hard that our First Amendment, as interpreted by the courts, gives very wide latitude to speech and draws the line at specific threats to individuals and other palpable dangers. Canada, by contrast, has laws barring insults to minorities. (So do most European countries.) That's why a book arguing that Canadian Muslims were not assimilating and some were becoming radicals was prohibited and its authors harshly fined. The author and publisher spent years, and hundreds of thousands of dollars, trying to reverse that ruling. In the U.S., the book sold well, though you probably never heard about it. Muslim-Americans seemed to survive it.

There is real hate speech, of course, but you and I might not agree on what it is. And we might not agree on who gets to decide. I don't want some mid-level bureaucrat in the campus housing-and-dining office telling me what I cannot say or wear to a party.  Get over it.

By the way, the Yale professors who told students exactly that -- try not to be bothered by Halloween costumes you don't like -- were vilified, screamed at, taunted, and ultimately run out of their jobs in the housing system. Irony alert: They were brutally harassed by the sensitivity police.

Why not take the straightforward position and prohibit only hate speech that violates the First Amendment? That’s the same speech prohibited on the streets bordering the university. The only alteration I would make is this: Universities should not permit shouting down and disrupting speakers on campus. That stifles speech and debate.

Are they warriors or snowflakes?

Although the Social Justice Warriors are a fierce band, they can pretend to be Delicate Snowflakes when it gives them tactical advantages. At one Midwestern campus, some were so offended at pro-Trump chalk markings that the craven university actually banned all chalk markings. Although universities abandoned in loco parentis rules in the 1960s, they now impose intrusive new codes of politically acceptable conduct. They are treating students like all of them are Ralph Wiggums, who can't be given crayons because he will eat them. Let them debate, make mistakes, and sort it out.

There are other arguments against free speech, of course, but it is striking how few serious ones have been advanced to counter the University of Chicago's powerful statement. The Social Justice Snowflakes are fighting back lest other universities take the same, much-needed steps.

Of course universities should provide mental-health support for individuals who are genuinely troubled. They should prohibit direct threats. They should protect all students against physical harm and sexual assault. They should encourage students to build their own civil society, places where they can share common interests and speak freely. But they should not use these legitimate concerns to shut down free speech, uncomfortable arguments, and vigorous debates.

Let the debates and learning continue.

Who wouldn't want that for a real university?

RCP contributor Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, where he is founding director of PIPES, the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He blogs at ZipDialog.com and can be reached at charles.lipson@gmail.com.

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