The Banality of Campus Speech Controversies

We may be reaching peak meltdown in the current campus “free speech” conflagration. The political correctness / free speech crisis has been a manufactured trope of the conservative right for decades, certainly dating back to the swirl surrounding Allen Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind and Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education nearly three decades ago. But the crescendo of conservative consternation in the age of Trump and Twitter is laughably hyper-inflated and transparently staged.

For sure, the current political environment has surfaced campus hot spots that deserve scrutiny and introspection. In particular, the odd behavioral dynamics that can characterize (barely) post-adolescent populations sequestered within (essentially) closed communities have made problematic the vagaries of institutional control, due process, and proportional response when it comes to student (and faculty) misconduct cases – sexual and otherwise.

But the attention given recent challenges at Berkeley and Middlebury to the free speech “rights” of provocative speakers – Milo Yiannopoulos and Charles Murray – is beyond ludicrous. Let’s consider the facts of these cases; the definitional haze extending beyond these facts; the identities of those manipulating and distorting and generally mangling these facts to trigger maximal emotional fallout; and the reality obscured by this fallout.

Facts

Speaker smackdowns on college campuses are exceedingly rare. While the Berkeley and Middlebury incidents were unfortunate, they were also each sui generis moments that bore little resemblance to each other and that provide no serious basis for generalization except for those who already know how they will fit the data into their political map of the world. Generally speaking (so to speak), invited speakers can say whatever it is they have to say without disruption or controversy.

Milo Yiannapoulos is a professional agitator and attention whore with nothing of substance or interest to say to anyone who cares about ideas, truth, problem-solving or other lofty goals associated with a liberal education. Milo arrived at Berkeley hoping and assuming that mayhem would ensue. The shit show he ignited perfectly fits the definition of shouting fire in a crowded theater. Those organizing his appearance always intended for it to end before it started – with a stampede.

As for the Middlebury incident, the Charles Murray debacle (and it was definitely an unfortunate and unnecessary debacle) involved an aging and prolix policy wonk who surely does occupy the world of ideas, no matter how deranged and twisted they might seem to most people. Murray presumably wanted to be heard and deserved to be heard. But given the manifold differences that separate them, there is no possible universe in which Milo Yiannapoulos and Charles Murray would appear together on the same stage.

Haze

Yes, protesting students (and non-students) at Berkeley and Middlebury could not have more stupidly (and perfectly) conformed to the narrative envisioned by campus conservatives (and their sponsors). The students were not wrong to protest; they simply would have been far more successful in achieving their goals (to the degree they could identify their goals) with a less is more strategy.

At Middlebury, for example, the image of student protesters simply standing (or sitting) silently with their backs to Charles Murray would have been incredibly effective theater. Unfortunately, when students turned their backs and shouted down Murray, they didn’t undermine Murray and his ideas. The students merely undermined themselves.

But given the inflected spatial and emotional boundaries of college and university campuses, important questions arise that stand in the way of immediate judgment or generalization.

  • Many of the protesters at both venues were not enrolled students. Are the campuses public spaces or private spaces?
  • College students, generally, are young and boisterous. In these liminally uncertain protest environments, do we consider these students impulsive and emotionally challenged adolescents or fully realized and responsible adults?
  • Education can be (and should be) a many-splendored thing that activates and places at risk the entire person, not just an abstracted concept of mind. Are student actions and reactions in these liminal settings and situations part of an ongoing learning experience that requires some (hopefully controlled or limited) acts of stupidity that produce more sublime moments of self-awareness and self-correction? Or are these students notionally fixed and predetermined agents entirely in command of their actions and so entirely responsible for the consequences of those actions?

The haze of hysteria surrounding these specific events conceals from us a simple truth. The issues at stake in these manufactured narratives have little to do with free speech, political correctness, marginalized and enfeebled conservative viewpoints, and the collapse of western civilization, and everything to do with how campuses encourage students to think about and explore the interplay between freedom and license, judgment and tolerance, and words and deeds. A hugely important matter left hanging concerns the proper role of college and university administrations in managing and framing and adjudicating these fraught situations – how schools can imagine such moments as opportunities, not threats.

Identities

The conservative victim narrative is also laughable. As Jane Mayer and others have fully disclosed, massive amounts of private money exist to support conservative causes, spotlight their ideas, and hail their champions. Most college administrations will take money from anyone with deep pockets, and the most prestigious and wealthiest (and most “liberal”) institutions have been hollowed out and privatized from within through the infusion of conservative cash to support largely unaccountable intellectual “beachheads” on behalf of free market and culture warrior agendas.

Are relatively few students politically or culturally conservative? Perhaps. But that does not mean that an unbridled “liberal” or “progressive” or “communist” radicalism sweeps the halls of higher education. Of course, more indifference or opposition to economic or cultural conservatism will exist at elite universities and liberal arts colleges (e.g., Harvard, Oberlin) than at schools with a strong regional or religious or vocational identity (e.g., University of Alabama, Brigham Young, Drexel University). But most students do not deeply understand or care about abstract debates concerning and contesting lofty ideals. Most students are not, and do not want to be, social justice warriors.

Reality

The daily rhythm and reality on nearly every college and university campus is incredibly prosaic and pedestrian. Millions of students go to class, study in libraries, write papers, take tests. They are not at college to change the world. They are at college to detect or divine or deduce – partially and haltingly – their own identity and their own future, which they ponder and conjure with anticipation, excitement, anxiety, and doubt.

The controversies surrounding matters of intellectual freedom on college campuses can take on a life of their own because these semi-closed environments are generally so institutionally self-referential and disconnected from their surrounding communities. Because education is largely about words and language, colleges and universities tend to be discourse communities, not actual communities. So of course words and language matter, and deserve to be taken seriously.

But “taken seriously” does not mean everything must be politicized and adjudicated and litigated. Is language and diction unnecessarily fraught in the classroom? Do professors or students spend too much time worrying about topical minefields or hazards of word choice? I’m not sure anyone knows. But we might do well to de-escalate and de-politicize the conversation about these important (and interesting!) matters.

The reality is that campuses are contingent and liminal places because their populations are unformed, peripatetic, and transient. Students come and go. The (tenured) faculty and administration abide. The institutions themselves must do a much better job of conceptualizing how the education mission can accommodate and make productive use of the developmental and identity dramas that inform student life and student consciousness. The best way to accomplish these goals might be to consider students not as discrete, self-contained, fixed moral entities, but as works in progress.