Teaching Students to Watch What they Say

By Wendy Kaminer

        Once college students risked their lives challenging segregation and participating in voter registration drives in the deep South.  Today, on many campuses, students fight for the right not to be offended, with the support and encouragement of college and university administrators.  The hysteria about racial or ethnic slights and presumptively offensive speech that reigns on so many campuses is explored and exemplified by a recent article in the Boston Globe.  “They’re Sitting Right Next to Us,” shrieks the headline of a remarkably unbalanced story on “ethnic tensions and racist attitudes” that might have been written by a mid level administrator defending a repressive speech code, or a recent graduate weaned on one.

        What qualifies as racism on campus today?  It includes “microaggressions” (in other words, slights,) that are troubling precisely because they are “difficult to report,” as if people should be “reported” for giving offense.  Boston College student, Irene Jeon says that she often hears fellow students exclaiming that the ethnic food she and her friends eat in their rooms “smells so bad.”  Jeon feels threatened by these remarks partly because people can’t be punished for making them:  “(Y)ou can’t call the police and say, ‘they’re complaining about my food,' ” she acknowledges.  “ ‘That’s why it’s so dangerous  -- there’s no legal recourse.’ ”

        Globe reporter Vanessa Jones doesn’t question the belief that students are endangered by casual insults to their food and ought to have some “legal recourse” for them.  She doesn’t wonder how college students came to feel so fragile, so incapable of independently addressing or simply shrugging off the normal frictions of communal living, so averse to fighting their own, everyday battles without the assistance of paternalistic administrators.  She trivializes the problem of bigotry by failing to distinguish verbal slights, racial epithets, and hate crimes: Jones seques unthinkingly from a discussion of jokes and insults to an FBI finding that hate crimes rose last year -- as if all decent, reasonable people agree that bad jokes lead to acts of violence.  Or maybe, like many advocates of suppressing “hate speech,” she considers bad jokes the equivalent of violence.

        Instead of addressing the challenge of achieving social equality without sacrificing liberty, Jones makes a thoughtless case for policing speech: Offering anecdotal evidence of presumed bigotry on campus (including criticisms of affirmative action or ethnic food,) she doesn’t question the belief that expressions of perceived bias should be actionable and that opposition to political correctness reflects opposition to equality.  Jones approvingly quotes Simmons College assistant professor Darren Graves, who dismisses protests of PC as a backlash to the civil rights movement.  “The people in power think things are moving too quickly,” Graves opines.  “What you might be seeing on campus is a reflection of what you’re seeing in society in general: ‘Let’s slow down with this PC stuff.  It’s taking people out of their comfort zones. I have to watch my words and that’s not what America’s about.’ ”

        Civil libertarians have good reason to worry about the future when an assistant professor at a respected college denigrates the claim that America is not about suppressing speech.  Graves needs to take, not teach, an elementary civics course, as well as classes in history and logic.  “People in power” are apt to be the enemies, not the friends of free speech.  Who does Graves imagine suppresses dissent, including demands for civil rights  -- people without power?  Does he think that campus speech codes reflect the powerlessness of campus officials who want to protect students from being offended?

        Free speech advocates, many of whom are veterans of various civil rights movements, (and none of whom are quoted by Vanessa Jones) do battle against political correctness precisely because it abuses power.  The movement against PC is a movement against censorship and thought policing, which have been normalized on many campuses through speech and harassment codes, as well as mandatory sensitivity training.  (You can find a depressingly numerous array of examples on the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education website.)  On many campuses, students can be punished for uttering the sort of jokes heard regularly on South Park or The Daily Show.  

        These anti-libertarian regimes of speech codes and ideological re-education programs don’t exactly prepare students for citizenship in a free society.  Off campus, for example, the virtues of affirmative action are subject to debate and satire.  On campus, they are often articles of faith, and students who criticize much less mock affirmative action risk being punished for harassment (the PC version of heresy.) 

        It would be hyperbole to call the hunt for political in-correctness an inquisition, but students have reason to feel chilled by efforts to chronicle and expose alleged incidents of bias, which undoubtedly include allegedly biased remarks. (That there is no difference between an utterance and incident, that speech equals action, is a basic tenet of PC.)  The Globe reports that at Tufts, where freshman orientation includes “a group exercise that unveils bias,” the Bias Education Awareness Team, “creates programming around bigotry and guides students on how to report bias incidents.”  Incidents may be reported and accessed on line.  “It’s the everyday incidents that go unnoticed and unreported,” one student explains, lauding the effort to create a campus network of informants.  The anti-bias team’s campaign should ensure that at Tufts, America is indeed about watching what you say – and in whose earshot you say it.  

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