Opinion | Morgan Liddick: American universities now First Amendment-free zones
On your right
Brenda Smith Lezama doesn’t like her prejudices challenged or her preconceived notions confounded by fact.
To this end Ms. Lezama, student body vice president at the protest-wracked University of Missouri, thinks the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has no place in the academy: “I personally am tired of hearing that First Amendment rights protect students when they are creating a hostile and unsafe learning environment for myself and for other students here.”
Like earlier generations of academics who found the razor-witted questions of Socrates or the heliocentric system of Claudius Ptolemy “hostile and unsafe,” she wants no unfamiliar ideas to ruffle the placid shallows of what passes for her thoughts. In this, she reflects a disturbingly large sector of the modern American academy: Far from being a place for free inquiry and growth through the reconciliation of conflicting theories, our post-secondary educational system is increasingly a monad designed, built and functioning as a factory for production of reliably lockstep leftist thinkers.
There are a number of strategies to protect fragile young psyches from the challenges of contrarian thought. Perhaps the most prevalent are “speech codes,” proscribing various types of hostility in argument. More than half of all colleges and universities in the U.S. have very restrictive codes; interestingly, those of the University of Missouri are among the most so.
Although such codes might actually be useful if they nixed such claptrap as circular argument, ad hominem or non sequitur, they don’t. Instead, like those at Colorado’s own UC-Pueblo, they forbid “infliction of psychological and/or emotional harm upon any member of the university community through any means, including but not limited to email, social media and other technological forms of communication.”
The university used this spongy definition in 2014 to close the email account of Professor Tim McGettigan after he sent a message comparing the university administration’s planned layoffs to the Ludlow Massacre. His email only compared planned terminations to the massacre in terms of its impact on the lives of those terminated, but the university administration treated it as a threat, saying “Considering the lessons we’ve all learned from Columbine, Virginia Tech and more recently Arapahoe High School … the security of our students, faculty and staff are our top priority.” UC-Pueblo really knows how to put the absurd in “reductio ad absurdum” — not least because it bases the definition of “harm” on the delicate emotions of the recipient.
They are joined by UC-Berkeley’s Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, who remarked on the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement: “(W)e can only exercise our right to free speech insofar as we feel safe and respected in doing so.” Somewhere, Mario Savio is spinning in his grave. Irreverence, aggressive challenge and, sometimes, brutal honesty are the very stuff of academic discourse that undergirds intellectual growth. And it is being driven from the campus in favor of approved thought and emotional airbags.
One recent development in this area is the discovery of “microagression,” a term coined in 1970 to describe those minor slights, malapropisms, misunderstandings and just plain rudeness that fill the public spaces of any diverse society. Back when the U.S. had an honor-based culture, we sometimes settled these questions with “interviews” on the field of honor: think Hamilton and Burr. Later, we became a society of self-confident individuals that largely ignored them. Now, we are once again urged to pay very close attention — but not to respond individually. Instead, the aggrieved party must petition the appropriate official organs for redress, including legal sanctions against the offender.
In a university setting, this gives enormous power over the lives of others to those who often exhibit low capacity for analysis or self-control and set high value on emotional drama. Two common examples: “I never get picked right away for team projects because I’m (insert racial or gender classification here).” Or perhaps because your colleagues know you’re an inept slacker with no interest in the material or the outcome. Sometimes, it’s not the thing about you that you think. Similarly, “When I came into the lecture hall and sat down, the girl next to me got up and sat elsewhere.” Maybe she saw someone she knew and wanted to compare notes about last night; maybe she just sat down and discovered she was under an air conditioning register. Sometimes, it’s not about you at all, no matter how self-obsessed you are.
Nevertheless, “microagression” will soon become another popular impediment to frank discussion and honest discourse. It will join other spurious sex and race-based arguments as a handy method to derail conversation that isn’t going the right way. And we will all be very much worse off intellectually for it.
No matter how comfortable Ms. Lezama feels.
Morgan Liddick writes a weekly column for the Summit Daily.
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