• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.

Title

A Major Threat to Campus Speech

There's an even bigger threat than Middlebury.

March 19, 2017
 
 

 

 

 

Depending on your point of view, the hullaballoo over Charles Murray’s appearance at Middlebury is either a sign of the impending collapse of free thought and inquiry on college campuses or an inevitable spasm of disturbance when groups previously excluded from the conversation insist on being heard.

Count me in the second camp. There is no excuse, as we are all wont to say, for the violence that followed Murray’s aborted appearance, but to condemn an entire generation of students as budding leftist totalitarians on the basis of a handful of incidents seems undeniably alarmist to me.

It feels akin to the irrational concerns parents have for their children, their top worries being: kidnapping, school shooters, and terrorists.

The real dangers to children: car accidents, homicide (by someone known to the child), and abuse. 

Children are far more likely to be harmed in the presence of or by a loved one than any stranger. Still, the depth of parents’ fear of strangers is understandable because if it happens, it would be devastating, life ruining. Why wouldn’t we do everything possible to guard against such disaster?

And of course thanks to our interconnected society, we have the opportunity to hear the stories about every abducted child, often over a period of days and weeks. The emotional toll on parents of being exposed to these stories is real, but this doesn’t make the chances of a child being abducted any more likely.[1] 

No one does a news report on the millions of children who arrive home safely every day. Similarly, there are no national stories about the hundreds and thousands of appearances by conservatives that go off without a hitch on campuses across the country every week. If we are looking at the odds of a public talk by a conservative speaker devolving into shouts and violence, they seem infinitesimally small.

This is not to say we shouldn’t be concerned about the times this does happen, but it strikes me that a sense of perspective and proportion is appropriate, particularly if we claim to be acting in the interests of protecting freedom of speech and inquiry on college campuses.

The truth is that these things are complicated. We like to think of higher education as a “marketplace of ideas,” but as Aaron Hanlon writes at The New Republic, speakers like Charles Murray and Milo Yiannopoulos are not invited because of the quality of their ideas, but are instead rewarded for their “ability to provoke.” It is a marketplace of “outrage,” not of ideas.

Of course, if invited, even provocative speakers with crappy ideas should be allowed to speak, but as I say, perspective matters.[2] It’s interesting that we’re not hearing so much about Yiannopoulos now that he’s uttered some ideas that even his previous supporters believe don’t belong in the marketplace. Murray’s discredited race science and past as a high school cross burner during the Civil Rights Era have not disqualified him, though. I suspect it may have something to do with his eminence grise persona, but who knows?

While I find much of the response to l’affaire Middlebury overblown, I share the values of free speech and free inquiry that are meant to underpin higher education. They are awesome, necessary ideals.

Let’s just not kid ourselves that they have all that much to do with the day-to-day goings on at many of our nation’s colleges and universities or that we spend much time thinking about much more common and severe threats to those ideals.

As compared to Murray/Middlebury,[3] Many fewer people last week took notice of Assistant Professor at USC-Beaufort Deborah J. Cohen’s advice essay, “Speaking Out as an Untenured Professor,” which is a lesson in the cautions you must take prior to earning the protections of tenure, that is if you intend to speak on any topics of even mild controversy. Never having been in a similar position, I can only assume Prof. Cohen’s advice is good, but it is also a clear indication that higher education as an unfettered market of ideas is largely a myth.

How open is the market when a significant proportion of the purveyors are afraid to bring their goods to the public?

Of course, we already know this. Contingent faculty often don’t even have any voice in these debates, let alone one that must be tempered in order not to risk tenure. We are simply unwelcome in the arena, and therefore unheard.

How I wish the hundreds of important academics signing on in defense of campus speech and academic freedom could manage to extend their concerns to this far more pervasive and far more damaging assault on our putative ideals.

I went looking for a statement from Cornel West and Robert George on the issue of contingent faculty and its implications for “freedom of thought and expression” and came up empty.

But if we are considering the harm to these values, the treatment of contingent faculty is many times worse than what happened to Charles Murray at Middlebury. Where’s the outrage?

Some are saying that we can be concerned about both of these problems at once. We can walk and chew gum at the same time.

Apparently not.

Perhaps some of you are thinking that, for whatever reason, contingent faculty have not earned these privileges. When I write about these issues, there are certainly many who appear who seem to believe so.

But if we believe in free inquiry and free speech on campuses, there cannot be a cost of entry. This must be true for students as well.

So, pardon me if I roll my eyes when prominent academics get on a high horse when claiming to defend free inquiry from the barbarian hordes. I’ve been down here with many others shouting and waving my arms for years about just these issues, and yet they can’t see me and people like me.

Are we truly invisible? Or are we just inconvenient?

 

 

 

 

[1] Additionally, 75% of child abductions are perpetrated by family members, not strangers.

[2] The idea that Charles Murray, a man supported by a sinecure at the American Enterprise Institute is somehow similar to the Little Rock Nine is a particularly silly equivalence. 

[3] The incident was now more than two weeks ago, and yet here we are still talking about it. Mea maxima culpa.

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