Are Campuses Really More PC Today?

Sp!ked Magazine,

Release Date
December 18, 2017


Free Speech

And are “Millennial snowflakes” really to blame? Steven Pinker, Robby Soave, Wendy Kaminer, and Brendan O’Neill discuss the past and present of campus speech codes. Excerpted from the Spiked Magazine ‘Unsafe Space Tour’ panel discussion at Harvard University. Moderated by Tom Slater (of Spiked Magazine.)

    1. Freedom of Speech: Why We NEED Academic Freedom (video): Should we give up on academic freedom in favor of social justice? Prof. Donald Downs explains the essential importance of academic freedom and free speech on campus.
    2. DEBATE: Should We Limit Free Speech for Nazis? (video): Professors Laura Kipnis, Angus Johnston, and author Brendan O’Neill debate whether the principle of free speech should apply even in favor of those promoting abhorrent ideologies.
    3. A Brief History of Title IX (video): “Title IX” was never intended to regulate romantic relationships on campus. So how did we get here? Robert Shibley, Executive Director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, explains.

[Steven Pinker] – As someone who’s plotted an awful lot of graphs tracking things quantitatively over time, I’m always suspicious of any argument that something is bad now, therefore, it’s worse than it used to be because often those claims don’t survive fact-checking. I’m not getting any younger, but I have a good enough memory of what things were like in the 1970s when I was a college student, and things were pretty bad then as well. I remember my first week on campus at a junior college. I was only 17. This was 1971. There was a guy behind a table, several people selling or giving away some sort of the Marxist, Leninist, Trotskyist, People’s Workers United Manifesto Party circular with a picture of Mao and Stalin and Lenin, and he was getting into an argument with someone who was trying to engage him in argument, and I remember him shouting him down, screaming, “Fascists don’t have the right to speak.” This was 1971. Most people here weren’t born yet. So, this syndrome goes back a long way. In the 1970s and 1980s, a number of psychologists who mentioned claims that by now are fairly unexceptionable, like evolution might have something to do with behavior, like there may be some genetic differences among individuals, were shouted down, often assaulted. E.O. Wilson, Emeritus Professor, still here, was shouted down by chanting students who said, “Racist Wilson, you can’t hide. “We charge you with genocide.” Dick Herrnstein was shut down when he tried to lecture on pigeons back in the 1970s because of his Atlantic Monthly article, which did not mention race. This was well before the bell curve. These attempts at shutting down unpopular beliefs goes back at least 40 years. I think one of the things that happened is that the generation that first tried to shut down speech, namely, we Baby Boomers, got into power. We expanded the Student Life bureaucracy, and we created something of an invitation to students who I believe are getting far too much blame for this movement. The idea that millennials are snowflakes that can’t handle unpopular beliefs I think is totally wrong. It’s really our generation that has kind of welcomed this, rewarded it, and used it. I think a better analogy than snowflakes who are traumatized might be the cultural revolution in China in the 1960s in which one faction of the adult generation mobilized the students to attack another faction of their generation. A lot of the enabling was done by, not by the students, but by the factions that egged them on. So, what’s to be done? I would certainly like to see, I would like to find out how much we are seeing a case of pluralistic ignorance, where everyone assumes that everyone else is offended, and no one actually is offended. Everyone assumes that everyone else has these dogmatic politically correct beliefs, but it may not necessarily be a majority who do, and to crack this pluralistic ignorance you really do need people who announce that the emperor has no clothes, who say in public what everyone else might be believing in private. That’s gonna be a crucial step in making it happen, in response to your question.
[Wendy Kaminer] – I wanna disagree with you just a little bit, Steven, your description of what it was like on campus in the 60s and 70s, ’cause I was there too. I’m probably a little older than you, even though my hair isn’t gray, and will never be.
[Steven Pinker] – But I can’t ask you your age.
[Wendy Kaminer] – You can ask me my age. My age is not a secret. Of course, there are always people who are extremely intolerant of speech. That’s human nature, and there are always probably only a minority of people who are really strong free speech advocates when it comes to protecting the speech they don’t like. There are always people who indulge in heckler’s veto. I think the difference on campus is that there are now administrative systems that are devoted to shutting down whatever somebody complains of as what we might think of as a minor offense.
[Steven Pinker] – I agree.
[Wendy Kaminer] – You didn’t used to get disciplined for telling a joke that offended somebody.
[Steven Pinker] – The guy who said, “Fascists have no right to speak,” is now a dean.
[Wendy Kaminer] – But I also think that it’s not our generation as much as it is, you know, most of these Student Life Administrators are not in their sixties. I think most of them tend to be, I don’t know, what? In their forties? What I’m seeing is a real generational divide that, I don’t know, I think the cutoff is probably 45 or 50, and that younger faculty, and by younger I mean under 45, and administrators are people who were raised under these speech code regimes. They were educated under speech code regimes, and that’s why it’s important to remember that they date back to the early 90s. So, the people who graduated from college in the early mid-90s are now middle-aged, and somebody can shut that phone off. And they’re the people who are enforcing these things. I also wanted to–
[Tom Slater] – I just wanna quickly bring Brendan in, little bit of Robby, and then we’ll go back out ’cause I wanna get some more questions in.
[Brendan O’Neill] – Just one quick point on what to do next, I mean, it’d be really interesting to hear other people’s views on that, but I think, I completely agree with Steven. I dislike this word snowflake so much and, in fact, we recently banned its use on Spiked, not that we’re in favor of censorship, but it’s such an unuseful term in terms of describing what’s going on, and this idea of uniquely fragile millennials and so on, I think that’s a real cop out because what we really face is not simply a new generation that’s quite intolerant, and not simply campus craziness, in fact, but it’s really a counter-enlightenment, and then the challenge to all the ideals of the enlightenment, the ideal of universalism, the ideal of self-government, the ideal of freedom of thought and freedom of speech, of course, the ideal of using moral reasoning to negotiate your way through the world. It’s all those things that are under attack. You can’t blame that on some 20 year-old who thinks that–They’re not responsible for this. It goes back much further than that. The reason they express it so keenly is because they’ve been socialized through childhood in school and so on into this new counter-enlightenment, into this new culture that devalues freedom of speech, devalues due process, sacralizes self-esteem, and so on and so on. So, they are only the end products of a culture that I think has been growing probably before the 70s, going back maybe even to, you know, I’d like to blame everything on the 60s ’cause I’m quite anti 1960s, but maybe even before that. These students strike me as the foot soldiers of the West’s own self-doubt, and I think unless we grapple with the origins of that, then we will just end up shouting at young people, which is not very productive.
[Tom Slater] – So, Robby.
[Robby Soave] – I actually have a slightly different perspective than that. I am constantly struck by how un-ideological the opposition to speech is on campus, that it is purely psychological. This is an enormous difference and a very recent one among college students that their hostility to speech is based in discomfort to harmful emotions, and this you can measure. I have students report feeling anxiety and depression and trauma at off-the-charts higher rates than even ten years ago, even among kids who aren’t even yet in college, who are in high school. Jean Twenge has some fascinating research on this and how smartphone usage might correspond with it. But when I talk to students, they describe their hostility to offensive ideas in that it’s not really a deeply philosophical opposition. It’s this idea hurts me or maybe it hurts people in my community. It hurts them emotionally, and emotional harm is the same as violence because it triggers my trauma, a trauma I’ve been taught to think I have by this enormous campus bureaucracy that really weaponizes this trauma, or permits you to weaponize it because then you can shut someone down if you have it. So, there’s an incentive to make yourself be a victim when you really aren’t or you’re no more than anyone else that it is increased, I believe from looking at the data, is new and increasing and powerful and is the main driver of censorship.