Commencement controversies: free speech vs. mob rule

What is it about today’s college students, acting like they’d need smelling salts if their safe space was invaded by controversial ideas?

Commencement speaker choices now drive an annual ritual of protest, led mostly by intolerant students (and too many faculty) unwilling to have to hear provocative comments from someone with whom they disagree or who is affiliated with a disagreeable institution. Only people with the right purity of thought and action, usually a liberal, get a pass.

God forbid exposing students to ideas that might challenge their preconceptions and destroy their youthful innocence.

And the protests are not, as some would claim, exercises in free speech. The students are not just objecting to the speakers’ ideas; they are endeavoring to stifle what the speakers have to say.

In 2014, International Monetary Fund director Christine Lagarde withdrew as a planned commencement speaker at Smith College and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pulled out at Rutgers University.

Lagarde withdrew after a petition circulated on iPetitions with charges such as, “IMF… policies (have) led directly to the strengthening of imperialist and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide.”

At Rutgers, Rice withdrew after some students asserted that by inviting Rice the university was “…encouraging and perpetuating a world that justifies torture and debases humanity.”

Students protest planned commencement address by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at Rutgers University

Students protest planned commencement address by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at Rutgers University

This year, dozens of faculty at John Fisher College criticized the school’s commencement invitation to former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, asserting he is “a political figure who has recently shown himself to be inflammatory and divisive in his commentary.”

In Texas, student’s objected to a commencement address at the University of North Texas by Gov. Greg Abbott. The critics assailed Abbott’s views on immigration and same sex marriage and his efforts to undo a voter-approved fracking ban in the area.

The protests are part of the effort by intellectually arrogant students (and faculty) to filter out different opinions, to create echo chambers for “acceptable” views.

The protests are consistent with the push for “trigger warnings”, warnings that certain class material might make some students uncomfortable.

At Rutgers University, for example, a student wrote to the school newspaper endorsing notifications to students of material that might trigger discomfort, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” which “…possesses a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence.”

Even the liberal New Republic has raised warnings. “Structuring public life around the most fragile personal sensitivities will only restrict all of our horizons,” the magazine wrote. “Engaging with ideas involves risk, and slapping warnings on them only undermines the principle of intellectual exploration.”

The way things are going, the only acceptable commencement speaker will be Kermit the Frog. He’s already primed and ready, by the way, having addressed commencement Exercises at Southampton College in 1996.

kermitcommencement

Warning: this post may trigger thinking

Universities apparently have a new mission…protecting students from exposure to speech that makes them uncomfortable. God forbid, we don’t want our academic institutions subjecting kids to provocative ideas that might challenge their preconceptions and destroy their youthful innocence.

On a recent trip to Santa Barbara, CA I spotted a brief item in a local paper about the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB). Its Associated Students Senate had passed a resolution to begin the process of instituting mandatory “trigger warnings” on class syllabi.

“Having a trigger warning on a syllabus allows a student the choice to be present and gives a student advance notice of possible triggers and the choice to be present or not instead of having to leave in the middle of a class or lecture,” the Resolution said.

The high level of Students Senate debate at the sun-steeped school overlooking the blue Pacific was exemplified by the supportive comment of Off-Campus Senator Beatrice Contreras, “I’ve been in this kind of situation before — it sucks; we should pass it.”

University of California Santa Barbara

University of California Santa Barbara

The Los Angeles Times opined, and rightly so, that the whole idea is foreign to learning. “Trigger warnings are part of a campus culture that is increasingly overprotective and hypersensitive in its efforts to ensure that no student is ever offended or made to feel uncomfortable,” said a Times editorial.

Still, the concept appears to be gaining ground.

In February, Ohio’s Oberlin College put out guidelines asking faculty to refrain from using in their course materials information or works that would offend students. If professors believed such materials were essential to the course, they were expected to place a “trigger warning” in their syllabus. If students felt the material would be too emotionally difficult, faculty were encouraged to make such triggering material optional.

Faculty were urged to “be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression,” to remove triggering material when it doesn’t “directly” contribute to learning goals.

For example, faculty were cautioned that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, a highly-praised novel about the struggles of a man from an Ibo village in Nigeria, may “trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide and more.”

After strenuous criticism within the school and in the media, Oberlin has temporarily suspended the trigger policy, pending further faculty review.

The issue has surfaced at Rutgers University, too, where a student wrote to the university newspaper endorsing notifications to students of material that might trigger discomfort.

“…literature courses often examine works with grotesque, disturbing and gruesome imagery within their narratives,” the student noted. “For instance, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s critically acclaimed novel, “The Great Gatsby,” possesses a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence. Virginia Woolf’s famous cerebral narrative, “Mrs. Dalloway,” paints a disturbing narrative that examines the suicidal inclinations and post-traumatic experiences of an English war veteran.”

Even the liberal New Republic ran a piece criticizing the trigger-happy trend. “Structuring public life around the most fragile personal sensitivities will only restrict all of our horizons,” wrote Jennie Jarvie. “Engaging with ideas involves risk, and slapping warnings on them only undermines the principle of intellectual exploration.”

Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas had the right answer to all this foolishness.

“…a function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute,” he wrote in the majority opinion in   Terminiello v. City of Chicago  “It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger. Speech is often provocative and challenging. It may strike at prejudices and preconceptions and have profound unsettling effects as it presses for acceptance of an idea.”

A university free from challenging or disturbing thoughts is a university free from learning.

 

Addendum, 11/19/14:

The Microaggression Farce

The latest campus fad, which sees racism everywhere, will create a new generation of permanent victims.