Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Colleges or Nursery Schools?

The University of Michigan is the latest American campus determined to prove that the central premise of higher education — the free and open exchange of competing ideas — is a cruel hoax. Last Tuesday, in a spasm of oh-so familiar political correctness, UM initially canceled a scheduled showing of “American Sniper” after 300 students and others whined about the “negative and misleading stereotypes” of Muslims portrayed in the film. As pathetic as that outburst was, the Center for Campus Involvement (CCI) that oversees student activities managed to top it, saying, “While our intent was to show a film, the impact of the content was harmful, and made students feel unsafe and unwelcome at our program.”

But wait, it actually got even more absurd. Following the accommodated temper tantrum, the CCI decided to show a film whose content was tailor-made for the legions of thumb-suckers pretending to be college students: “Paddington,” a child-oriented, PG-rated movie about a talking bear’s adventures in London.


The online memo circulated to stop the showing of a patriotic movie that grossed $540 million worldwide contains the predictable anti-American sentiment that animates its signers, including students, some staff, the Muslim Brotherhood-founded Muslim Students' Association and the president of Students Allied for Freedom and Equality, a Palestinian solidarity group. “Chris Kyle was a racist who took a disturbing stance on murdering Iraqi civilians,” the collective letter stated. “Middle Eastern characters in the film are not lent an ounce of humanity and watching this movie is provocative and unsafe to MENA (Middle Eastern and North African) and Muslim students who are too often reminded of how little the media and world values their lives. … The University of Michigan should not participate in further perpetuating these negative and misleading stereotypes.”

Not all students were on board with the idea that censorship should triumph over the “right” not to be offended. “It would be nice to see the university … take a stand against outrageous claims of ‘student exclusion,’” a UM sophomore said. “The film ‘American Sniper’ in no way creates student exclusion any more than ‘Saving Private Ryan.’ Both show American soldiers at war, the atrocities of war, and the costs of war, yet I’m sure ‘Saving Private Ryan’ would not illicit the same response.”

He got his wish. A day after canceling, the University abruptly switched gears and decided to show “American Sniper” at its regularly scheduled place and time. E. Royster Harper, UM’s vice president for student life, insisted the cancellation was a “mistake” and “not consistent with the high value the University of Michigan places on freedom of expression and our respect for the right of students to make their own choices in such matters.” Yet she remained appreciative of the concern that “some students are uncomfortable with the content of the movie” and promised that “Paddington” would be available for viewing at another campus location.

Why the change of heart? One reason might be a tweet by new Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh stating, “Michigan Football will watch ‘American Sniper’! Proud of Chris Kyle & Proud to be an American & if that offends anybody then so be it!”

Another might be the reality that a major university has been exposed as a de facto cocoon of intellectual “safety,” which might not be the most attractive calling card for future students. There was also a competing petition created by a third-year law student that garnered more signatures in support of “American Sniper” than the one demanding it not be screened.

But the bet here is that the most compelling reason for the change would likely be an outpouring of disgust from UM alumni who aren’t thrilled with their alma mater being subjected to national ridicule — disgust that might cause a decrease in endowments by those same alumni.

Meanwhile, Muslim student Omar Mahmood satirized this hypersensitivity in The Michigan Daily, UM’s liberal campus newspaper. In a column entitled “Do the Left Thing,” Mahmood portrays himself as a left-handed student offended by “patriarchy” of right “handydnyss” and the resulting “microagressions” directed at him. After it was published, the paper ordered Mahmood to apologize to an offended staffer who felt “threatened” by him. He refused and was fired. Mahmood’s apartment was vandalized shortly thereafter, and papers with statements such as, “You scum embarrass us,” “you self-righteous d—,” “you have no soul,” and “everyone hates you you violent prick,” were left by his door. A printout of his column was also left behind with the words “Shut the f— up” on it.

This is the current state of affairs at UM and countless other colleges across the nation. No doubt it’s only a matter of time before “Paddington” needs a trigger warning as well. That’s what happens when America’s colleges become nursery schools. And it’s hard to decide who’s worse: the legions of hypersensitive, infantilized students who lurch from one self-inflicted “trauma” to another, or the cowardly and collaborative administrators and faculty who abet them.

Update: Via Campus Reform, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has also postponed a showing of “American Sniper” due to complaints from Muslim students.


Colleges rush to violate free speech, due process in response to speech controversies

In the wake of the University of Oklahoma’s unconstitutional decision to summarily expel students involved in a racist fraternity chant, colleges and universities across the country are in a “race to the bottom” to violate the rights of students at the center of campus controversies involving speech deemed offensive, heedless of either context or the precedent set by censoring unpopular speech.

Last week, the University of South Carolina (USC) suspended a student who used a racial slur when writing a list of reasons “why USC WiFi blows” on a white board. Shortly after a photo of the student writing the list was posted to social media, USC President Harris Pastides issued a statement saying the university had “taken appropriate actions to suspend [the] student and begin code of conduct investigations”—displaying a “sentence first, verdict afterwards” mentality straight out of Alice in Wonderland.

Last month, Bucknell University in Pennsylvania expelled three students who allegedly made racist comments during a campus radio broadcast. Administrators failed to provide a recording or transcript of the statements, instead arguing that “context really doesn’t matter once you see what was said”—a false argument that raises more questions than it answers. Bucknell invoked “administrative action” to expel the students for supposedly violating the student code of conduct, again with no sign of any hearing.

“Colleges have seized on the University of Oklahoma’s unconstitutional actions as a signal that they have an ‘all clear’ to toss free speech and basic fairness out of the window,” said Robert Shibley, Executive Director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). “While these punishments might earn temporary plaudits from the press and public, neutering freedom of speech will look a whole lot less clever when the censors’ own unpopular opinions inevitably come under attack.”

Other schools have also recently taken draconian measures to deal with offensive speech. On March 18, the University of Mary Washington in Virginia dissolved its men’s rugby team and mandated sexual assault training for all 46 of its members for a bawdy song sung by a few members at an off-campus party. On April 2, Duke University announced that a student alleged to have hung a noose on campus was “no longer on campus” and was to be “subject to Duke’s student conduct process,” and that “potential criminal violations” were being explored. However, the university has shared neither the motive for the display nor the identity of the student. (A similar incident at Duke in 1997 turned out to be a protest against racism by two black undergraduates.) Connecticut College canceled classes on March 30 and required all students to attend diversity sessions in response to racist bathroom graffiti—vandalism now thought to have been the responsibility of a local man who was not a member of the campus community.

Earlier this week, FIRE wrote to USC, Bucknell, and Duke requesting that they break their silence on the relevant details of the respective incidents so that students and the public can make up their own minds about the expression at issue, rather than being told what to believe by campus authorities.

Thankfully, not all colleges have fully jettisoned student rights. Bucking the trend, University of Maryland President Wallace D. Loh announced on April 1 that a recently publicized email containing racial slurs sent by a campus fraternity member last year constituted protected speech. “[T]his private email, while hateful and reprehensible, did not violate University policies and is protected by the First Amendment,” wrote Loh in an email to the campus community.

Since its founding in 1999, FIRE has repeatedly reminded colleges that the vast majority of speech deemed racist, sexist, or otherwise offensive is protected by the First Amendment on public university campuses. As the Supreme Court held in 1973, “The mere dissemination of ideas—no matter how offensive to good taste—on a state university campus may not be shut off in the name of ‘conventions of decency.’” And if a private college promises its students and faculty free speech rights—as the vast majority of them do, including Duke and Bucknell—such speech should not be the basis for discipline.

“Our nation has long recognized that the best way to fight ‘bad’ speech is with more speech, not censorship,” said FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff. “Yet increasingly we’re seeing calls from campus communities for freedom from speech, not freedom of speech, and college administrators are far too eager to comply. This is a dangerous problem for institutions that are supposed to serve as ‘the marketplace of ideas’—and one for which administrators might ultimately have to answer in court.”


Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces: The Campus Counter-Revolution

Once upon a time (not that long ago), the west’s colleges and universities were its centers of political dissent and incubators of cultural change.

From dress and speech codes to musical trends to the defining issues of the day, students — often with the support and encouragement of more “liberal” faculty — fashioned their own new civic religion out of the catch-phrase “subvert the dominant paradigm.”

The politically active among today’s generation of college students seem hell-bent on turning that religion inside out, maintaining its outward image, form and tactics while working diligently to negate its substance.

From “trigger warnings” ahead of controversial readings or class discussions to “safe spaces” within which potentially traumatizing elements are banned altogether, the goal is conversion of campuses into hothouses, with students as delicate flowers ensconced within and protected from any hint of challenge to their cherished preconceptions.

We’ve been here before. Be it Thomas Bowdler’s “family-friendly” butcherings of Shakespeare, Anthony Comstock’s crusade against delivery of “obscene, lewd, or lascivious” materials via the US postal system, or Tipper Gore’s demand for “Parental Advisory” labels on music, the neo-Puritan impulse cuts across our history as response to anything new, anything different, anything challenging.

Such movements are inherently conservative, and the 21st century campus version is no exception. Conservatism isn’t about the particular content of any set of ideas. It’s about protecting the established, enshrining that which exists now and protecting it from challenge or change at all costs.

If there’s a defining difference in this creeping (and creepy) new campus conservatism with its trigger warnings, safe spaces, and demands that scary, challenging speakers be un-invited to address students, it’s not the speed with which new social norms (particularly those relating to sexual mores, sexual orientation and gender identification) are adopted, but the speed with which the new norms are deemed sacred, no longer up for debate or discussion.

This is the conservatism of China’s Cultural Revolution; western college activists are its Red Guards. They are not the crowd storming the Bastille. They are the crowd cheering around the guillotine. Their demand that society accept the social changes of the last few decades as set in stone and immune to challenge is fundamentally reactionary.

Trigger warnings, safe spaces and campus speaker censorship tend neither toward advancement of good ideas nor protection from bad ideas.  Free thought and free expression, however, do serve those ends. Students: Rebel!


No comments: