Interview with FIRE’s Lukianoff Featured in UK’s ‘spiked’ Magazine

By on November 19, 2010

The London-based online publication spiked features editor Brendan O’Neill’s lengthy interview with FIRE President Greg Lukianoff. Entitled "Students are supposed to read books, not burn them," the wide-ranging interview discusses how so many college students today overreact to being offendeda disproportionate response spurred on by administrators and policies telling them that nobody should have to bear any negative emotion about someone else’s speech. As Greg notes, it’s hard to think of a concept that could leave students more unprepared for life outside the walls of academe.

The article kicks off by examining a bizarre and depressing instance of vigilante censorship: the ceremonial burning of a college newspaper, The Dartmouth, because it contained a cartoon that made a joke based on Nietzschean philosophy. Here it is:

Since one would have to be denser than lead to believe that this comic was endorsing date rape, the burning of the newspaper is inexplicable without understanding the nature of the phenomenon Greg calls "unlearning liberty." Students at Dartmouth College, as well as many other universities, are being taught that when it comes to certain topics, any treatment other than deadly serious earnestness in favor of the approved viewpoint is not just wrong, but evil. Is this not the primary message sent by the burning of such a publication?

As O’Neill writes:

In being inculcated into the speech-code ethos, American students are increasingly having their thoughts controlled rather than their minds expanded. Far from being laboratories of learning, many campuses have become laboratories for new forms of censorship and conformism. Governing everything from political hotheadedness to sexist speech (one American university outlawed any speech which judged someone on the basis of their sex alone, until FIRE pointed out that this meant the university was effectively banning men’s and women’s toilets), colleges now communicate to students the message that they are not entering an institution of open-mindedness and free, sometimes robust debate, but rather one made up of fragile individuals who must be addressed in a polite, PC manner at all times.

FIRE discusses how the PC ethos is crippling the academic enterprise all the time, and we have started talking more and more about what being educated in such an environment is doing to the young adults in our society. What sort of person must one be to succeed and to move forward without hindrance in a society like that which rules academia today? O’Neill reports Greg’s thoughts on it this way:

In short, you’re creating shrinking violets rather than thinking individuals, a generation of young adults going out into the world with their offensiveness antennae permanently switched on – more likely to say ‘You can’t say that’ than ‘Why do you say that? Let’s have a debate…’. Lukianoff says we have to move away from the idea that ‘words are like bullets’, that speech is a form of physical assault, and recognise that being argued with, even vociferously, is not the same as being beaten up. However, he says, ‘maybe words should wound. What’s so bad about that? The fact that words can hurt feelings, the fact that they carry emotional charges, is all the more reason for protecting them from censorship. Because the whole point of free speech is to have deep, meaningful, robust debates. We have to have deadly serious discussions about deadly serious things – and we can’t do that if everyone is listening out for potentially offensive words rather than thinking about and responding to the ideas being expressed.’

In light of the current furor over "bullying" and the proposed federal and state laws and regulations that are being proposed to give administrators new power to police expression on campus, it is increasingly critical that people remember that college students are adults who should be trusted to deal with expression they might not like. It is amazing to think that we as a society send 18-year-old men and women to Iraq and Afghanistan to risk their lives while at the same time creating institutions where their peers are not even trusted with the freedom to speak and hear all the viewpoints that can be found in a free society.

But, as Greg points out, the idea that hurt feelings are of paramount importance is not new. Indeed, it was back in 1990 that University of South Carolina Professor Lynn Weber developed her "Guidelines for Classroom Discussion," which amount to orders never to say anything that might be taken as mean about anyone and which absurdly require students to assume that everyone, in class or outside of it, is always doing the best they can. Twenty years later, this sentiment is far from dead. While speech codes have been consistently struck down by the courts many times since then, the effort to convince students that they shouldn’t be trusted with liberty is still very much alive.

For those interested in Greg’s take on the rise of speech codes and why "unlearning liberty" is so harmful, O’Neill’s very comprehensive interview is well worth a read.