Want a depressing read? Try Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate by Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). FIRE is an interesting organization: it appeals, obviously, to libertarians like me who are concerned with speech codes, their chilling effects on debate, and the potential for opinions like mine to be marginalized.

But this book is no partisan diatribe. Lukianoff is a self-described secular, liberal atheist, and he documents story after story of students and faculty being made to pass through an administrative gauntlet because of something they said or did that rubbed someone — usually an administrator with a clear view of How the World Should Be — the wrong way. Lukianoff offers some examples:

  1. RAs at the University of Delaware were “actually trained to shut down debate and discussion” when overhearing discussions of politics or religion.
  2. Administrators at Washington State University were training and buying tickets for students who wished to disrupt an “offensive and inflammatory” student performance.
  3. A Central Connecticut State University student was defending concealed carry in a presentation, and the professor called the police.

Most troubling about the cases Lukianoff documents is not simply the tone-deafness of the administrators he encounters or the infuriating willingness among some to consider property destruction and borderline mob violence “freedom of speech.” It’s that by creating categories of official thought-crimes and by turning those thought-crimes into judicial offenses (usually tried by kangaroo courts), administrators hobble the conversation and emergent mentorship that help to transmit the values conducive to a good society.

A Better Way to Handle Offensive Speech

I cringe when I think about the “reeducation” I escaped in the years between my early teens and my mid-twenties. Like just about every other male between the ages of 13 and 25, I had tendencies, habits, and dispositions that could be charitably described as self-absorbed and boorish (there was the time I swore at my high school band director, for example). From time to time, I’ve wondered if perhaps I don’t need to track down virtually everyone I’ve ever known so I can apologize, personally, for my inexcusable and indefensible jerkitude.

I thank God for my high school band director. He was an absolute master when it came to handling teenagers and imparting wisdom. Knowing I had let him down with my conduct was one of the worst feelings in the world. As a brusque, 17-year-old know-it-all, did I recognize the value of what he was doing? Of course not. With the benefit of hindsight, however, I appreciate and treasure his wisdom. I wouldn’t have learned that lesson if I hadn’t been able to express myself, even though my expression was offensive.

The creation of context-independent administrative procedures like the ones Lukianoff describes eliminates valuable learning opportunities and erodes the social capital that binds a community together. Turning everything into (almost literally) a federal case weakens the glue that holds us together, normalizes the cruelty of insufferable bureaucracy, and undermines the efforts of those who would otherwise take their wayward brothers and sisters under their wing.

Lukianoff also discusses a culture of taking offense that short-circuits meaningful discussion. He writes, “Being offended is an emotional state, not a substantive argument; we cannot afford to give it the power to stifle debate.” To be blunt, I expect temper tantrums from my three small children from time to time. I would hope we can hold people old enough to vote to a higher standard.

I’ll close with a suggestion for teachers: try not to let your students begin a statement with the words “I feel.” As I tell my students (somewhat jokingly), I don’t care what they feel. I care what they think.

And I want to hear it.