‘You have a right to your opinion unless it oppresses others."
I came across this maxim — a sure prescription for well-intentioned censorship — a few days ago on Tumblr, the social media site popular with the college-age crowd. Judging by its number of "likes" and "shares," the post had found widespread support among the site’s users.
Fortuitously, I happened to be reading Greg Lukianoff’s excellent new book, "Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate," which explains well how such a thought-stifling mindset would take hold.
Lukianoff, an attorney, is president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), whose mission is to defend free speech on college campuses. While the group is often portrayed as a conservative foe of leftist political correctness, it is an equal-opportunity fighter against censorship: sometimes directed at left-wing speech (anti-war or pro-Palestinian), sometimes at speech that displeases campus bureaucrats (such as satire lampooning the college).
The focus of "Unlearning Liberty" is the push to censor speech and even thought in the name of political correctness — sensitivity to oppressed groups defined by race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation and other characteristics. While these groups have suffered real and egregious injustice, Lukianoff’s well-documented narrative leaves no doubt that the cure offered by many U.S. colleges is worse than the disease.
Many schools’ harassment codes ban not only insults and threats, but stereotyping and "negative comments or jokes" related to race, gender, disability, and other categories — or any statement perceived as offensive. Some even target incorrect gender-based "perception" (shades of Orwellian "crimethink").
Lukianoff chronicles cases of students, professors and campus organizations penalized for innocuous jokes (such as a flier with tongue-in-cheek "gun safety tips") or controversial viewpoints. At Tufts University, a student newspaper was sanctioned for "racial harassment" for publishing an ad that offered examples of intolerance and misogyny in Islam to counter the religion’s positive portrayal during the school’s Islamic Awareness Week.
The book’s most chilling section deals with campus orientations designed to inculcate correct beliefs. A mandatory program at the University of Delaware (eventually suspended due to FIRE’s efforts) herded students into workshops that immersed them in extreme versions of racial, ethnic and gender stereotypes. In another exercise, students had to line up on opposite sides according to their position on social issues such as abortion or same-sex marriage – with no middle ground allowed — to publicly shame the heretics. (One unacceptable viewpoint was that eating disorders are caused by individual mental problems rather than society.)
The effect of this enforced sensitivity, Lukianoff asserts, is not to promote discussion of difficult issues, but to stifle it. Many observers report that debate in classrooms has all but disappeared: Students are too afraid to offend others by expressing or challenging an opinion.
But the ramifications go beyond campus, to endanger the right to provocative speech in the larger society. During the recent debate about the YouTube video that insulted Muhammad, sparking outrage across the Muslim world, several college professors publicly argued that such speech should not have First Amendment protections.
It’s time to speak out for speech. After all, if we accept the dictum that an opinion can only be tolerated if it does not "oppress" (read: offend) anybody, pretty soon this dictum will be the only opinion allowed to exist.
University of Delaware