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Column: Campus Free Speech Is Threatened. But How Much?



For The Washington Post
Sunday, April 15, 2018

Every revolution triggers a counterrevolution. And a counter-counterrevolution ... ad infinitum, until everyone collapses in an exhausted heap.

And so with campus free speech. First came the treatises on “microaggressions,” the safe spaces, and finally the assaults and the flames. Then anxious conservative think-pieces wondering if the toxic miasma of progressivism had finally destroyed students’ minds. And then left-wing writers arguing that said writers were losing their minds over a phenomenon that didn’t matter enough to merit remark, and regardless wasn’t happening.

Who’s right? Well, astute readers will have noticed that this is actually two questions: “Is intolerance of speech actually increasing on campus?” Followed by “If so, why should we care?”

At Heterodox Academy, a site devoted to ideological diversity on campus, Sean Stevens and Jonathan Haidt dive into that first question. The answer they come up with is: Yes, support for free speech really does seem to be decreasing among the current generation of college students. And presumably as a result, speech-chilling activity is increasing.

The number of students agreeing with the statement “The climate on my campus prevents some people from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive” increased between 2016 and 2017. Surveys find that current college students are more likely to express support for speech restrictions, and less for the benefits of free speech, than graduates.

Virtually everyone on campus seems to agree that politically conservative views are restricted more than liberal ones, and conservatives are more likely to report self-censorship than members of the left. And while the rate of successfully disinviting speakers or disrupting speeches is low, it has risen in recent years, with all of that increase coming from the left.

To be clear, we’re not talking about Maoist China; even most Republicans think it’s possible for their ideas to be heard on campus. And the trend is of short duration. Survey data is inherently noisy, so it’s possible that the trend may turn out to look, in retrospect, more like a blip.

Yet at the moment we’re left with the disinvitations and the heckler’s veto (most recently against law professor Josh Blackman at the City University of New York), and occasionally, the vandalism and assault. These incidents do seem to have risen recently, even if they’re not an everyday occurrence or a long-term trend. Which leaves us with the question: How much should we care?

Frankly, though, it’s a little odd to see a journalist, like Mari Uyehara at GQ, arguing that we shouldn’t pay attention to something because it’s rare. Many things journalists pay attention to are rare. We don’t write about all the millions of people who drove uneventfully to work today, had a series of middling-productive meetings, and then drove home again to have a pleasant but unmemorable dinner with their families. We write about the murders and the rapes, the swindlers and the scoundrels, all of them very rare beasts indeed. That’s why we cover them: because they are remarkable.

Uyehara, for example, recently wrote about New York Times op-ed editor and writer Bari Weiss, who quoted a line from Hamilton in a tweet about American Olympic bronze medalist Mirai Nagasu: “Immigrants: They get the job done.” Nagasu is the child of immigrants, but she herself was born in California. Weiss was swarmed by critics, with whom Uyehara gently sides, who accused Weiss of racism and related sins.

Leaving the merits of the accusation aside, let’s note that this tweet was a pretty rare event. It happened once. The group of campus critics who swarmed to Weiss’s defense — and who are the real target of both of Uyehara’s articles — is itself tiny, probably smaller in number than the number of students who have participated in disruptive protests. Why talk about any of it?

The answer, of course, is something like what conservatives might say about the more vivid examples of campus speech suppression: that these things are the little tip of a vast iceberg lurking beneath the waterline. That for every group of hecklers shouting down a speaker or ritually humiliating a professor and that happens to be caught on camera, there may well be thousands of other less noticeable interactions producing the same effect with less spectacular means. And that when the ocean these icebergs are floating in consists of some of our most culturally powerful institutions, the custodians of our Gross National Intellect, they can be dangerous indeed.

Some time back, criminologists pointed out that the cost of crime isn’t just the sum of the goods damaged or stolen, the annual budget for the nation’s courts and prison system. You also have to look at the cost of all the precautions that are taken to avoid crime: the burglar alarms and the bars on the windows, the trips not taken because it’s not safe to go somewhere alone. Those costs are probably larger than the direct costs that we can measure.

And so here. The big cost of what antifa did protesting Milo Yiannopoulos at Berkeley is not the property damage, or even the hefty security bills universities are now paying to host controversial speakers. It’s the future invitations that won’t be issued, the people who started to speak their minds, then thought the better of it.

Of course, if you think that those people shouldn’t speak their mind, then that “cost” may look more like a benefit. But many of us still think that the great liberal compromise that ended Europe’s wars of religion — “I don’t like what you say, but will defend unto death your right to say it” — is one of humanity’s noblest inventions, right up there with the steam engine and the wheel. We think that this made the Enlightenment possible, and all the flowering of human thought and invention that followed it. We might also point out, a little puckishly, that it created the modern left.

But more seriously, we’d note that liberalism let groups of people with radically different answers to life’s most vital questions live together without killing each other. And ask those who would break that truce (or at least ignore the signs of activity in the DMZ) to remember the real perils that an overzealous consensus presents for everyone, including the true believers. If you declare holy war, you’re apt to get an unholy one. And if you make your Inquisition too powerful, eventually you get Martin Luther.

Megan McArdle is a Washington Post columnist and the author of The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.