Best of ‘The Torch’: Prof to Students: ‘You Are Here to Be Disturbed’

August 3, 2015

This week, FIRE is showcasing the past year’s best pieces from our award-winning blog, The Torch. Please enjoy as FIRE revisits some of our most memorable posts from the past year.

This article originally ran May 11, 2015.


Prof to Students: ‘You Are Here to Be Disturbed’

FIRE has written before about increasing calls for “trigger warnings” in academia, complaints about “microaggressions” on campus, and the insistence that students have a right to be free from speech they don’t like. Columbia University journalism professor Todd Gitlin examineswhat factors might be contributing to these demands and whether they are reasonable in an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education today.

Gitlin first recognizes the necessity of discomfort in higher education, due in large part to the fact that the world isn’t an entirely happy place:

No one ever promised that the truth would be comforting. History, Western and otherwise, is (among other things) a slaughterhouse. The record of civilization is a record of murder, rape, and sundry other brutalities. As for the discomfort that may be occasioned by the discovery — even the shock — of this record, discomfort is the crucible of learning. The world is disconcerting. The proper way to begin understanding it is to accept the unwritten contract of university education: I am here to be disturbed.

Despite this reality, many students expect to be kept comfortable—not just physically, but emotionally and intellectually—during their time at college. Gitlin considers several potential explanations: changes in the emotional health of college students over time, the percentage of students who are the first in their families to attend college, and sexual assault on campus, for example. He finally lands at the idea that words are considered more powerful than they have been in the past, both as tools for change and as weapons against other individuals. But Gitlin maintains that any demonstrable negative effects that words can have aren’t sufficient to justify attacks on freedom of expression:

Insofar as arguments about the need for trigger warnings, speech-muffling, and runaway squeamishness rest on beliefs about the practical consequences of speech, they fail. No one knows the effects of nasty talk. Slurs can be denounced as disgusting without requiring censorious policy. Cherry-picked surveys and anecdotes cannot overcome the principle that liberty of speech is too precious to cancel, most especially on campus, where the cultivation of reason is fundamental — for citizenship as well as for learning. Fright in the face of words needs to be tamped down, not encouraged. The burden of proof lies heavy on anyone who insists that the conceivable harms are decisive.

FIRE agrees that combatting hurtful language does not require censorship. As we frequently say, the best answer to speech with which one disagrees is more speech.

Read the rest of Gitlin’s article on The Chronicle of Higher Education’s website.