Illusions over Solutions on College Campuses

By on January 15, 2008

One of the defining characteristics of modern American society seems to be the affinity those in positions of power seem to have for “addressing” various problems by instituting measures that only on the most superficial level appear appropriate for a given situation. The most apparent manifestation of this problem is, of course, in airport security. I recently witnessed a situation in which TSA personnel attempted to fit a giant plastic stroller through an x-ray machine. It was clear that there was no way it would fit, as its owners pointed out. Nevertheless, the security personnel attempted to jam the stroller through the machine, with predictable results—it got stuck and it took several minutes to pull it back out, with everyone in line getting angrier and angrier. Once the stroller was out, the security personnel simply pushed it though the beeping metal detector and yelled to everyone in line, “We’re required to try it.” This pointless attempt to make everyone feel safer in reality made us feel anything but safe. (Who knows what was in that stroller?)

Bergen Community College’s proposed “civility code” is a product of the same mentality. As Sam and Adam discussed in their previous blog entries on this topic, the code is billed as a guarantee of “civility” on campus and a response to thinking about how to avoid situations like the massacre at Virginia Tech last year. Of course, when FIRE (and just about anyone else outside of academia) learns about such “rationales” for speech restrictions, we are quick to call them “idiotic,” “nonsensical,” “irrational,” etc. And we’re right, because they are all of those things. But we don’t call the imposition of speech restrictions unexpected, because it is in fact an extremely common response to a problem that has no easy solution. Instead of fixing the problem, the college works to improve its PR without bothering to consider whether the new policies will make any substantive changes.

The argument that a civility code is truly going to make students more civil, or that it will help deter incidents like that at Virginia Tech, is necessarily a disingenuous one, as it cannot pass anything but the most superficial level of scrutiny. Any change stemming from the code will be purely illusory. Even if a civility code is somewhat successful in scaring students into saying fewer “uncivil” things (whatever that means) in public, students will simply move to using such speech only in private, where the societal restraints on behavior are vastly reduced. And the idea that a civility code would make even the slightest difference in avoiding a situation where a mentally disturbed person decides to murder dozens of people is patently absurd.

Further, there is a significant chance that the passage of such a code could actually make either situation worse. The proliferation of poorly constructed “racial harassment” codes on college campuses (which often have similar features to BCC’s proposed code) leads me to wonder if colleges actually believe that encouraging people to be racist in secret, where their beliefs can go unchallenged in the marketplace of ideas and they are free to act with undetected racist motivations, is preferable to allowing students to argue in public over whether their beliefs are racist and whether that is a good or a bad thing. I have faith that truly racist beliefs cannot stand up to the scrutiny of public exposure; does BCC really think that racism can withstand such challenge? As for a civility code’s ability to help prevent a campus massacre, it helps no one to suggest to students that a civility code will make them safer from incidents launched by mentally ill people when it manifestly will not; providing such a false sense of security is useless if not outright dangerous.

There is a great need for those on America’s campuses to be willing to challenge these deceptive attempts to address campus cultural problems. If there really is a “civility” problem at BCC, the only effective ways to address it are to punish or expel those whose actions are truly violent or illegal and to non-coercively encourage the creation of a social atmosphere where prejudice, dishonesty, and selfishness are seen as unacceptable. BCC also needs to realize that disputation over controversial issues is rarely “civil”—and in a free society, it doesn’t have to be and is never going to be. BCC’s current proposal is the equivalent of giving someone antibiotics to treat a viral infection—useless, but designed to make the patient feel like something is being done. BCC owes its students better than that. So do the countless other universities in our nation who choose to take similar ineffectual steps every day. FIRE will continue to challenge America’s colleges and universities on these pointless attempts at regulation until they finally learn to face such issues with a focus on problem solving rather than public relations.

Schools: Bergen Community College