Do Inclusion and Sensitivity Threaten Free Speech?

| TBS Staff

Are you ready to discover your college program?

Are today’s college students coddled, entitled, oversensitive, and ill-prepared for the real world?

Probably yes.

Should they have the power to call for change, demand inclusion, and advance equality?

Absolutely, they should.

But how to reconcile the two?

Somewhere between political correctness and bald-faced bigotry is the First Amendment. It protects our right to believe and say whatever we want just as it protects the rights of those who disgust us to believe and say whatever they want.

Today, more than ever before, college campuses are confronted with a problematic dilemma. What role must the university play in protecting the First Amendment? And what are its responsibilities to its students and faculty when the First Amendment facilitates expressions of hatred, insensitivity, or willful ignorance?

At what point does the drive for political correctness undermine this role? At what point does a failure to meet these responsibilities represent a threat to racial, gendered, and sexual harmony on campus?

These questions seem foremost on the minds of students, professors, and school administrators today.

But what is it that differentiates one university’s policy of protection from another university’s staunch commitment to free speech, the offended be damned?

Well, basically the same thing that separates Walmart, Urban Outfitters, Talbots, and Bloomingdale’s from one another—the clientele.

Every college shares a single imperative: survival. Universities compete for students, ranking, endowments, funding, and reputation—though each does so with its own set of priorities and imperatives. Whether your university leads the annual party-school power rankings or derives its image from strong moral turpitude, whether it is known for its academic clout or draws its popularity from its accessibility, whether it is driven by a vaunted athletics program or the promise of diversity, every university has a brand.

Enter the hot topic of political correctness, at once a calling card for liberal activism and an epithet leveled by the conservative guard. As unrest ripples across campuses nationwide, and as demonstrations achieve a level of visibility that would have been impossible in the pre-Web era, the pressure on universities to respond has also never been greater.

But how each university responds is a matter of some variety. Those who believe there is a wholesale cultural thrust in which colleges are spinelessly yielding to the demands of an entitled and emotionally fragile generation of students are mistaken. So too are those who believe colleges are collectively and callously defying progress. The truth is somewhere in between and differs from one school to the next.

This is because, like most decisions a college must make, political correctness is an economic one.

P.C. is a Dirty Word

Make no mistake, we are living in heated times. Cases like the shooting death of young Trayvon Martin in Miami-Gardens, Florida, and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri—both unarmed black teenagers—and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, have forced us to reevaluate race relations in a way not seen since the Civil Rights Era.

All evidence suggests that this is a conversation we need to have right now and that we must continue to have. As they have always been, college campuses are a hotbed for this kind of discourse. Young minds on all sides are willing and eager to throw down and pick up the gauntlet of debate.

But in a broader context, away from the sun-dappled mall of your college campus, the accusation of political correctness has become a powerful conceptual weapon designed to silence that conversation.

Peruse the Web for articles that accuse college campuses of stifling free speech in the name political correctness. You’ll find that many of these editorials have something in common: whether the discussion centers on racial discord, the permeation of sexual assault against women, the marginalization of the LGBT community, or the isolation of ethnic others—those who would otherwise defend themselves have been accused of doing so at the expense of free speech.

In a Washington Post column, conservative commentator George Will discusses what he perceives as political correctness run amok on college campuses, offering a condescending aside in which he implies that the concept of Advanced Feminist Theory is an oxymoron.

In a New York Magazine article, Jonathan Chait characterizes protests over racial discord at the University of Missouri as an expression of a renewed left-wing hostility to freedom of expression.

Mitchell Blatt, in an article at The Federalist, says that Universities are becoming more threatening for students, professors, public intellectuals, and free thinkers, but it is the politically correct social-justice fascists who are the most to blame.

Look closely at these examples, and at the level of discourse in general. These commentators are correct in asserting their right—and ours—to free speech. But a certain amount of misdirection cannot be overlooked. The political correctness backlash offers a quick exit from any honest discussion about racial disharmony, gender inequality, or the exclusion of marginalized groups.

The meaning of the political correctness has varied considerably both over the course of history and depending on who has wielded the phrase.

Check out Washington Post’s instructive and fascinating history on the phrase and its various fluctuations in meaning. Some of its earliest recorded instances are attributed to members of the American communist party in the ‘30s and ‘40s. They used the phrase to describe those political values that were thought to be ideologically right within the party.

In 1964, during a Convention of the United Auto Workers, President Lyndon B. Johnson said I’m here to tell you that we are going to do those things which need to be done, not because they are politically correct, but because they are right, implying that political correctness was something that one engaged in merely to win elections.

The phrase emerged to describe an action or expression that was thought to be morally correct for the first time in the 1980s. This usage gradually morphed into a broader cultural movement for more inclusive thinking through language.

This led directly to a backlash in the 1990s wherein opponents of political correctness laid conceptual waste to the term. According to The Washington Post:

When the first President Bush declared that free speech was under siege by P.C. culture, ’mainstream America (began) to latch onto this term,’ [Collins College history Professor] Burnett says. ‘That’s when ‘political correctness' appeared on the nightly news.' More than 25 years later, you can still find it there. But instead of describing a culture clash within academia, it’s now a broad-brush insult directed against any ideological opponent.

Those who postured themselves as protectors of free speech found, in the P.C. movement, a decidedly convenient way to obstruct any ideological push for equal rights without ever having to voice their own biases. Its opponents were ultimately successful in recasting political correctness as language- and thought-policing.

As a consequence, political correctness is today most commonly bandied as an insult, leveled against liberals for what their conservative counterparts view as soft-headed oversensitivity so extreme as to trample on individual liberties.

The stigma of this phrase has become so effectively pronounced that few liberals will openly embrace the appellation, even if they embrace its underlying premise. Conservatives have emerged victorious from the semantic war over the phrase itself.

But the debate over political correctness is a smokescreen.

Legitimate Protest

The events on the University of Missouri campus have nothing to do with political correctness, neither the way that they unfolded nor the way they ultimately shook out.

This Fall, spurred by an open letter from Student Body President Payton Head over the permeation of racial disharmony on campus, members of the student body initiated an ongoing wave of demonstrations designed to force greater top-down recognition of the school’s precarious climate. Tensions gradually boiled over, bringing widespread public attention to the protest and inciting variously crude responses from white-supremacy and neo-Nazi groups. Protesters called themselves Concerned Student 1950, named in recognition of the first year that the University of Missouri began admitting black students.

Concerned Student 1950 issued a list of demands to the University calling for greater representation of diversity among faculty and staff, a wider offering of culturally inclusive courses, and greater efforts to retain marginalized students. As it became clear that university president Timothy Wolfe was unprepared to negotiate this list of demands, the student group ultimately sought his ouster.

One of the group’s more effective demonstrations was a mock campus tour that coincided with an actual tour of prospective enrollees and which highlighted the numerous locations around the university where racially charged incidents had occurred.

Among the more creative statements rendered by the opposition was a feces-swastika anonymously painted on the wall of a residence hall.

Now then, let us return to the claim that student protests are emblematic of political correctness run amok, or that a tenor of oversensitivity has stifled the prospect of open debate, or suppression of free speech. How should we classify the feces-swastika? Is that open debate, free speech, or good ol'-fashioned American candor, the kind that political correctness threatens with elimination?

When we conflate the over-sensitivity of our young adults with an actual demand for respect, change, acknowledgement, equality, or inclusiveness, we aren’t just defending unfettered free speech. We are also legitimizing the messages of those who would resist change, equality, or inclusiveness. We’re arguing that it’s important for their messages to be heard…except that it isn’t.

Those who express hatred have a right to do so but it is the responsibility of a healthy, functional, and progressive society to shout hatred down. This is not to stifle free speech. It is to demonstrate that certain speech, however legal, will not be culturally tolerated.

Free speech is very much intact, very much alive, and very much protected. This is America. You can say whatever you want, no matter how odd, embarrassing, or offensive. You can sit on your porch wearing a bathrobe and a toilet plunger for a hat, saying that same odd, embarrassing, or offensive stuff. The Constitution says so. (Well, it doesn’t say the thing about the toilet plunger. Obviously, though, it’s implied.)

But—and this is a big but—you must expect to face the consequences of your freedom, because, of course, everybody else is equally as free to tell you exactly how they feel about what you just said. This is true whether you’re a raving derelict in an alleyway, a professor, or some combination of the two. Maybe in 1941, you could stand up in front of your lecture hall and speak disparagingly about women, or black people, or members of the LGBT community. You’d have gotten away with it, too, in the absence of those meddling kids. Those that you stood to offend, marginalize, or humiliate hadn’t the collective voice or cultural visibility to do a thing about it.

Well that has changed quite significantly as college campuses—and society as a whole—have become more diverse and inclusive. That diversity has created quite the problem for those who wish to speak and act without consequence. Again, free speech tells us that we can say whatever we want. But today, with campuses serving the needs of an increasingly multicultural pool of students—many of them paying or borrowing exorbitant sums of money to be a part of their respective communities—insensitive, ignorant, and ethnocentric speech will have its consequences.

That is the price of free speech.

Safe Spaces and Trigger Warnings

Let’s acknowledge the probability that some students are coddled, oversensitive, and bred (both by their parents and their Facebook friend groups) to silence opposing viewpoints.

The idea of the campus as a Safe Space is all well and good. But it also seems fairly counterintuitive to the idea that we are somehow preparing students for survival in a world brimming with real and pervasive danger.

In particular, if you consider bigotry, hatred, or good old-fashioned ignorance to be dangerous—and they certainly can be—you might consider never ever going on the Internet. Seriously, read the comment section following any article about anything. Go read an article about how the high price of canola oil is ruining the average American’s ability to bake muffins.

Then skip down to the comments section. Two comments in, somebody will blame Obama. Four comments in, somebody will refer to a fellow commenter whom they’ve never personally met as a moron. Said fellow commenter will insult the original commenter’s mother and then advise him to commit suicide. The next two dozen posts will devolve into seemingly unrelated diatribes targeting specific minorities with blanket observations and epithets.

And that’s not even the real world. That’s the virtual real world. In the real world, your senses will be constantly and unceasingly assaulted by ideas that you find offensive, by opinions that make you queasy, by worldviews that challenge your desire to see humanity as essentially good.

To this extent, your college does you a great disservice if it attempts to shelter you from these things. There will be no shelter when you sit on the train listening to the loud-mouth across the aisle spouting racial provocations into his cell phone. There will be no trigger warning when a presidential candidate tells you that all Mexicans are drug-peddling rapists. There will be no recourse when a drunken buffoon two barstools down from you explains to his strangely acquiescent friend that Bill Cosby was framed by a coven of fame-seeking succubi.

Well, there is one recourse. You can engage in rhetorically sound debate, if you think it’s worth it (though it often isn’t). But spending your college years wrapped in bubble-plastic will leave you ill-equipped to do anything other than be offended.

Nobody is questioning your right as a college student to be offended, nor to protest, nor to demand that your university take practical steps to ensure equal opportunity for all. But to demand that your university serve as a safe space seems a total misconception of higher education’s purpose. The call for trigger warnings, the constant pinpointing of microaggressions, and the demand for action every time somebody even tangentially violates these principles are indeed evidence of a student body with a poor understanding of the world ahead of them.

The purpose of college is neither to coddle nor to comfort. It is to educate. If this education doesn’t include at least some confrontation with that which makes you uncomfortable, with that which challenges your native assumptions, with that which is generally repulsive in the world, it has given you little exposure to the things that will be inescapable in your future.

It has also opened the door for any number of incidences which serve to largely discredit the push for progress.

There’s the embarrassing snafu in which University of Missouri faculty member Melissa Click was captured on film assaulting a journalist who attempted to film a student demonstration. That…well that was just bad. It was bad, and misguided, and served to undermine a protest that, by all rights, should embrace all the visibility it can muster.

Click acted impulsively and with the intent of protecting her students, which has become a useful metaphor for those who would unfairly dismiss the Missouri protests as the temper-tantrums of sheltered children.

Other popularly cited examples of rampant sheltering are less incriminating but equally vulnerable to mockery.

Take, for instance, the University of Tennessee’s widely derided approach to gender-identification sensitivity. The school’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion published a statement urging teachers and students to respect gender neutrality by replacing the gender specific pronouns he and she with ze. The University’s desire to produce a more inclusive and accepting environment for its transgendered students is an admirable one.

Its approach, however, was remarkably oblivious to the ridicule and lampooning that would inevitably follow.

And follow they did. The language guide raised the hackles of self-proclaimed free speech defenders (never mind that it never achieved the status of a campus-wide policy initiative).

Ultimately, the university withdrew its language guide altogether amid a flurry of incorrectly reported claims that gender-specific pronouns had been banned on the campus. But it served as handy proof—if one was inclined to interpret it thusly—that the language police are coming for your words.

Then there was the case of the University of California, which in 2015 also became the subject of ridicule for including, among its faculty guidelines, a tool called Recognizing Microagressions and the Messages They Send.

The document [PDF] explained that:

Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.

Among the specific examples of microaggressions which were pulled out of context and made the subject of scorn, the guide advises against phrases like America is the land of opportunity. It explains that such phrases assume a collective cultural experience which may not be true for members of marginalized groups. This advice obviously made a lot of Americans pretty angry.

Again, this was merely a guideline and never reached the point of policy-orientation. In fact, it doesn’t even explicitly suggest that one must adhere to its conditions. It simply avails itself as a way of understanding what microaggressions are and how they can be avoided. It is also derived entirely from a 2010 text by Derald Wing Sue entitled Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation and is thus not the work of the university itself. It is merely a reference.

As a measure for helping professors to become more respectful of classroom diversity, it probably wasn’t the worst thing. As a PR tool, it kind of was the worst thing. Its specificity regarding the kinds of phrases and actions that one should avoid—sometimes useful and sometimes not so much—generally lends itself to parody.

It can also be readily constructed as evidence that one’s freedom to be a jerk is somehow threatened. The efforts described above, well-intended though they might be, offer ammunition to the other side.

They also incline the very legitimate question, to what degree should we shield university-aged students from objectionable, even hateful, language? What if, by doing so, we deprive them of the experience and mental acuity to counteract this hatred? In what way, then, have we prepared them for a real world that is filled with a kind of hatred that can’t be fixed by college education?

Basically, you’ll have spent all of college bowling with bumpers, only to find that the real world is filled with gutters.

The Bottom Line Is, It’s About the Bottom Line

But to dismiss every protest as the product of millennial entitlement is to strategically discredit the various progressive causes which often must be voiced through this medium.

For the record, today is no different than any other point in history. Students protest stuff. That’s part of the campus experience for many young learners who are just beginning to define their beliefs and who harbor a sense that they can impact outcomes.

Your campus is the first community in which you actually feel you have a direct stake. It is a context where you feel that you can play a part in shaping the tenor, the atmosphere, the values, and the culture. And you are encouraged to do so, whether that means playing intramural ultimate frisbee, engaging in weekend neighborhood outreach programs, or picketing with signs and chanting things that rhyme.

If it is the last of these that you choose as your outlet for affiliation, your causes may vary dramatically. And in an era where marginalized groups have rightly taken steps to better define themselves and to more collectively defend their rights, the variance of subjects that might instigate protest is enormous.

So we’ve seen.

Students have a right to protest. And protests should be treated seriously to the extent that they deserve to be heard, acknowledged, overruled, or sustained.

But it would be an error in judgement to presume that this has anything to do with the validity of one student protest versus another. Whether a group is working to improve racial relations on a campus with an ingrained culture of racial hierarchy or campaigning for better vending machines in the student center, members of the group have something in common: they are customers.

The financial imperatives driving universities also have a marked impact on how they respond to campus protests. If it best serves your school’s branding and image to acquiesce to student demands, than the latently racist professor, or the vile fraternity house, or the offending vending machine will be firmly disciplined. Then again, if it best serves the reputation of your campus to take a hardline stance on preserving cherished traditions and obstructing dissent, you will mince no words in condemning the disruptive few for detracting from the campus-wide harmony preferred by the silent majority.

For a prime example of the latter, take the words of Oklahoma Wesleyan President, Dr. Everett Piper. In the wake of the unrest in Missouri, Piper penned an open letter to nobody in particular noting that universities are not designed to be safe spaces. Quite to the contrary, he told his students that:

“Oklahoma Wesleyan is not a ‘safe place,’ but rather, a place to learn: to learn that life isn’t about you, but about others; that the bad feeling you have while listening to a sermon is called guilt; that the way to address it is to repent of everything that’s wrong with you rather than blame others for everything that’s wrong with them. This is a place where you will quickly learn that you need to grow up.

“This is not a day care. This is a university.”

Piper’s harsh words are only ironic because Oklahoma Wesleyan maintains a student curfew, strictly forbids dancing, and punishes student parties with expulsion. So, y’know, it sounds a little bit like day care.

Given the strict code of moral hygiene dictated by Oklahoma Wesleyan, it seems pretty clear that its brand and image tie closely to a certain behavioral conformity. Piper has the luxury, possibly even a commercial imperative, to reassert his school’s image as a house of order and decorum.

Then there are those universities that can afford—and perhaps may even benefit from—a few more dropouts. Again, such institutions need not concern themselves with sensitivity. Take Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland, for instance. A recent article from Inside Higher Ed reports on the contents of several leaked emails transmitted from University President Simon Newman to members of his faculty.

The President, a former private equity investment advisor executive, espoused a plan urging faculty to goad struggling students to drop out during their first semester. He explained to administrators that this tactic would effectively improve the appearance of the school’s long-term retention rate by 4–5%.

Newman told his professors, This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t. You just have to drown the bunnies…put a Glock to their heads.

So on the one hand, universities shouldn’t be such safe spaces that professors are not permitted to teach history, sociology, or political science with frankness and candor. On the other hand, they shouldn’t be so unsafe that the president feels free to invoke this kind of imagery. Is it overly-sensitive to suggest that the president of a university shouldn’t liken his students to cuddly bunnies that deserve to be drowned and shot? (And as a side question, what’s wrong with this guy that he’s blowing the brains out of bunnies?)

For just a moment, let’s take a closer look at the claim (that I myself am guilty of sometimes believing) that college students are coddled, entitled, needy, and oversensitive. Let’s consider how many of them will leave college in hopeless debt, how many of them will endure this experience without meaningful academic support, how many of them will have entered their campus as overlooked minorities, underserved immigrant populations, or marginalized cultural subgroups. Their experiences are not the gentle and nurturing ones that you imagine.

In reality, students must often choose their educational path by virtue of affordability and accessibility. Sometimes, these priorities overshadow the desire to live on a campus where one feels culturally accepted or welcome. For students who fall into this category, who find that their experiences are not only overlooked by their universities but that they are largely invisible, is it not reasonable to attempt to carve out some cultural space? To question their right to do so—which seems largely the prerogative of P.C. critics—is itself an act which aims to curtail free speech. In other words, freedom works both ways and so does suppression.

Political Correctness is not some powerful and sweeping movement designed to homogenize public discourse or to promote thought control. It is exactly the opposite. It is a symptom of hierarchy and proof of the eventuality that those at the bottom will strive for empowerment. That this is happening in colleges across America reminds us that our campuses are increasingly diverse, and that such diversity will instigate change. It is not, as George Will calls it, evidence of campuses so saturated with progressivism that they celebrate diversity in everything but thought.

Critics of Will’s ilk should be happy to know that colleges remain, today, as driven by capitalism as ever before, perhaps more so.

Even those progressive demonstrations which ultimately succeed do so as a consequence of some larger financial practicality.

Indeed, before you look to the resignation of Missouri’s president—which came to pass in November of 2015—as evidence that political correctness is in command on the old Mizzou campus, you should know that his departure only became a matter of inevitability after the football team joined protesters.

Former Missouri University president Wolfe has expressed no regret for failing to reign in an increasingly problematic racial tension but has been critical of the athletic program’s decision to boycott all upcoming games until his resignation. The first of those upcoming games was to have been a contest with BYU. Had Missouri forfeited the match, its athletics department would have been contractually obligated to furnish its would-be opponent with $1 million.

This cost alone created a kind of pressure on the university’s president that no amount of political correctness ever could.

Wolfe blames the football program, and not the fact that he had lost control over his campus, for his departure. He was probably not wrong. Clearly, money, not race—and most assuredly not political correctness—made this change inevitable.

Political correctness is a concept brandished with so much hostility that incidents suggesting its impracticality are trumpeted as evidence that free speech is dead.

This is not what’s happening. Campuses that depend on their appearance as bastions of liberal thinking will allow visible and voluble student groups to control their actions. Campuses that exude conservative dignity as a matter of branding will quell any such resistance firmly, decisively, and without transparency.

The debate over political correctness is a particularly useful diversion from the thoughtful discussion that we might otherwise have every time a student group raises a good point—or every time a student group raises a bad point, for that matter. So much has the phrase politically correct become anathematized that its invocation prevents us from determining which controversies deserve recognition and which truly are evidence of a coddled and entitled student body.

Indeed, as of this writing, we are in the midst of a presidential campaign season wherein the phrase politically correct is used as a weapon against any utterance in favor of inclusion, in opposition to bigotry, in contention with established patterns of discrimination.

All this talk about political correctness and whether it has become so rampant as to reduce free speech on campus is a boatload of libertarian fear-mongering. There isn’t really a concerted movement on campus to stifle free speech or to silence opposing viewpoints. But students do see themselves as customers and if they see something objectionable about the product they’re paying for, they will say so.

Universities have the right to respond however they desire, but the impact of that response on the end consumer is a major factor.

It’s easy to call it political correctness run amok, as though the students raising signs outside administration buildings are somehow the ones in control. But they aren’t. They are at the mercy of their universities, and their future employers, and their student loans, and the harsh realities of life after graduation.

Protest is really the only recourse they have.

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