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13 June 2012updated 03 Sep 2021 12:41pm

The costs of “free speech”

It benefits the American right to characterise campus culture wars as debates over “free speech”, when often they are not.

By Sophie McBain

In recent months, two of America’s most prestigious literary institutions have found themselves embroiled in heated debates over the boundaries of acceptable speech. In early September, the New Yorker announced that its editor David Remnick would interview Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, the far-right agitator Steve Bannon, on stage at the magazine’s annual festival. After facing harsh criticism from readers and several staff writers, Remnick quickly rescinded the invitation. A fortnight later, the editor of the New York Review of Books Ian Buruma was fired amid uproar over his publication of an essay by Jian Ghomeshi about how the former radio host’s career was destroyed by accusations of sexual harassment. Ghomeshi’s essay was an unedifying and unreflective exercise in self-pity in which he downplayed the nature of the accusations against him and mischaracterised his legal case.

It’s understandable that readers were perplexed by the editorial decisions made at both magazines. It was, after all, odd that of all the influential thinkers to headline its festival, the New Yorker chose Bannon, and that of all the under-represented voices that could write with intelligence and nuance about the #MeToo movement, the NYRB commissioned Ghomeshi. Yet both incidents also raised broader questions over how publications should respond to social media outrage over their coverage, and how America’s liberal establishment should handle politically unpalatable views. What is the best way to probe and challenge right-wing thinking, without over-amplifying marginal figures or normalising far-right rhetoric? How does the mainstream media determine what viewpoints are too extreme or offensive to be published?

In the case of the NYRB debacle, it is clear that Buruma demonstrated a poor understanding of the broader context of Ghomeshi’s story and it has been reported that he sidelined female colleagues who might have helped him understand the article’s flaws. But it sets a troubling precedent if editors risk being fired should they provoke (the wrong kind of) Twitter storm. Good writing should sometimes make you feel uncomfortable, angry or offended. After all, many markers of social progress such as gender equality and minority rights once offended mainstream sensibilities. 

There is evidence to suggest that younger people may be less tolerant than older generations of speech they consider offensive or otherwise harmful. In recent years, the number of speakers disinvited following campus protests has increased and critics say a culture of “safetyism” has emerged in academia, in which students angrily shut down the discussion of unsettling ideas.

Two of the best-known proponents of the “safetyism” thesis are the first amendment lawyer Greg Lukianoff and the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who in 2015 co-wrote a cover story for the American magazine the Atlantic titled “The Coddling of the American Mind” that went viral. They described professors struggling with how to teach students who demand trigger warnings (an alert given ahead of potentially upsetting material, for instance, a caution might be given before a discussion about rape because it is believed that victims of sexual violence might be retraumatised) so that they can opt out of emotive or difficult discussions. They are concerned that students’ preoccupation with calling out microaggressions (subtle and often inadvertent actions or comments that cause offence or suggest underlying prejudice, such as asking an Asian-American, “Where are you from?”) was creating an atmosphere in which some students were afraid to speak their minds, for fear of unintentionally offending someone. They argued that such trends are not just harming students’ intellectual development but also damaging their mental health, by making them fearful and oversensitive.

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In a book by the same name, the pair have expanded on these ideas. Lukianoff heads the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a free-speech watchdog, and Haidt teaches at New York University and is a member of the Heterodox Academy, a group of professors seeking to expand intellectual diversity. Both therefore have an intimate knowledge of campus culture, which they believe has become more intolerant and divisive, even in the past three years.

Haidt and Lukianoff argue that students today have been led astray by “three great untruths”: that what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker, that you should always trust your feelings and that the world is divided into good and bad people. Concepts such as “trauma” and “violence” are being applied too broadly, they say. For some students, words can be a form of violence, a definition that disrupts the common-sense distinction between, say, violent and non-violent crime. They blame trends such as overprotective parenting, rising rates of anxiety and depression and increased political polarisation for contributing to these unhealthy and distorted thinking patterns.

A lot has changed since the publication of their 2015 essay, not least the election of Donald Trump and the eruption of violent protests at several universities. The authors point to a 2017 Brookings Institute poll that found that one in five students believe it is sometimes acceptable to use violence to prevent a speaker from speaking. That’s because when you begin to confuse offensive speech with actual violence and harm, responding with physical violence can seem like a proportionate response, the authors argue.

Such reasoning may in part explain some of the violence coming from the left, such as the February 2017 Antifa (“anti-fascist”) demonstrators who caused $100,000 worth of damage at the University of Berkeley, California, when they protested against a talk by the far-right troll Milo Yiannopoulos. But you could draw very different lessons from right-wing violence. On 11 August last year, white supremacists marched through the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville. The following day, a neo-Nazi drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing 32-year-old paralegal Heather Heyer. The Trump presidency offers a devastating example of how the normalisation of hate speech translates into real violence. The threat felt by immigrants, people of colour or other minorities when they listen to far-right nationalists is not imagined.

The authors approvingly quote the progressive activist Van Jones, who makes a distinction between “good” safe spaces on campus, which offer protection from sexual harassment, physical abuse or being personally targeted by hate speech, and the “horrible” idea that students require ideological or emotional safety. This makes intuitive sense, but in practice the distinction between the two definitions is blurry. While undocumented students face the imminent threat of deportation, can we expect them to welcome speeches by the likes of Bannon? Can we expect them to maintain an academic detachment when discussing his ideology?

Though Lukianoff and Haidt both describe themselves as centre-left, many of their arguments about call-out culture are championed by the right. Lukianoff’s organisation FIRE receives considerable funding from conservative groups. This makes sense: the ratio of progressive to conservative professors has increased from 2:1 to 5:1 in the past three decades, and right-wing speakers are much more likely than left-wing ones to be barred from campus. But it also serves the American right to characterise campus culture wars as debates over free speech, when often they are not.

If students disagree with right-wing speakers, why should they not exercise their right to protest? When speakers are de-platformed at universities they are not forced into political obscurity. Far from it. Figures such as Yiannopoulos like to portray themselves as free-speech warriors leading “dangerous” campaigns against a powerful liberal establishment, but they are hardly disempowered outsiders. America’s right-wing media and the white nationalist movement now have the ear of the White House, after all. One imagines it might entertain Bannon to watch the “globalist media” agonise over the best way to cover his nationalist populist perspective, when you can hardly imagine Breitbart or even Fox News worrying about whether they are giving liberal voices a fair hearing. Students are exposed to right-wing ideology, even if they do not welcome its proponents on campus.

Undoubtedly some of the case studies explored by Lukianoff and Haidt suggest that concepts such as microaggressions and trigger warnings are sometimes taken to ludicrous and damaging lengths by students. Some of the speakers who have recently been disinvited are hardly right-wing extremists: they include the IMF’s Christine Lagarde and a regional head of the American Civil Liberties Union. Despite this, I found myself admiring the confidence and fluency with which students are testing out arguments about power and privilege that I was merely dimly aware of as a student, only a decade ago. The state of American politics today, and even the clumsiness of the public debate about the New Yorker and the NYRB, suggest that students might be better off figuring things out on their own. 

The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure
Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff
Allen Lane, 352pp, £20

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