A Market Solution To Academic Snowflakes

September 14, 2015

By Ken White at PopeHat

For years I’ve been grumbling about the rise of the imagined right notto be offended.

It’s not going away. If anything, feelings of entitlement not to be offended are growing, especially in academia. The University of California is considering enshrining a right to be free of “expressions of intolerance,” defined as meretriciously as you’d expect. Chancellors of great universities announce that free speech requires feeling safe. Too many students seek not just to disagree with ideas but to prevent ideas they don’t like from being uttered in their safe spaces at all.

Plenty of folks and institutions — the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, for example — are devoted to pushing back against this attitude.

But what if they’re taking the wrong approach? What if the market is the right way to deal with the imagined right not to be offended?

Snowflake U.

Imagine a world in which the market lets people decide whether to be special snowflakes — people wtih an actual protected right not to be upset or offended.

As the University of California’s proposal shows, the legions of school administrators are perfectly capable of creating Snowflake Schools, where the administration vigorously defends students’ rights to be free of offense. What if we let them?

Take, let’s say, Brown University. They’re already on FIRE’s red light policy list, and frankly I enjoy making fun of them. Brown could decide to take on the mantle of a Snowflake School. It could openly declare that its students have a right not to be offended. It could enact policies accordingly, and discipline students and faculty who cause any offense through their speech and actions. Brown could display the snowflake symbol on their letterhead and web page. They could even vigorously rebrand themselves to attract students who don’t want to be offended — I don’t know, they could rename their teams The Blizzards or something.

Students, staff, and academics could then vote with their feet. Do I want to go to an acknowledged Snowflake School? Maybe I do, and will wear the snowflake badge proudly. Maybe I don’t — either because I don’t want to get expelled for offending someone, or because I’m embarrassed to go someplace that marks me as a snowflake.

Other people could vote, too. Do I want to hire someone who chose to go to a Snowflake School? You might, but I wouldn’t. Do I want to date a Snowflake? Do I want a doctor, a lawyer, an accountant who wears a Snowflake U. sweatshirt?

The Department of Snowflake Studies

But wait! Isn’t the snowflake/non-snowflake decision too binary, you ask? Won’t schools that make a choice always be riven by snowflake vs. non-snowflake conflict, with some schools lurching back and forth?

Perhaps. That’s why we can implement market forces within schools as well.

Imagine: “Snowflake Choice” schools have a Snowflake Registry. Students, staff, and academics can choose to sign up for that registry, or refuse to. Only folks on the registry can assert a right not to be offended, and pursue offense-related grievances. If you’re on the Snowflake Registry, you are subject to full punishment for causing offense. If you’re not on the Snowflake Registry, you’re subject to punishment only with respect to self-selected Snowflake Classes and Snowflake Activities and Snowflake Departments. You might get kicked out of Professor Feels’ classes but not Professor Grownup’s classes.

Once again, this lets market forces take hold. Do I want to take history from a professor on the Snowflake Registry, knowing I can get kicked out of her class if I offend someone? Or do I want to sign up for a class taught by a professor not on the registry? Do I want to major in a Snowflake Subject, or a non-Snowflake subject?

Transcripts, naturally, would reflect status. I’d be able to see if a job applicant only took classes from Snowflakes, and act accordingly. I’d be able to see if an applicant’s major was in a Snowflake Department. I’d be able to notice if a student got all As from non-Snowflake teachers but Cs from Snowflake-teachers, and draw appropriate conclusions.

Every Snowflake Is Unique

A few caveats are important. First of all, non-Snowflake status would not be a defense to accusations of genuine misconduct. A physical assault is not mere offense, nor is a true threat.

Second, Reverse-Snowflakes would find no solace. A Reverse-Snowflake is someone who thinks they have a protected right not to be told they’re offensive, someone who thinks that they have a right not to be called an ass when they act like an ass. That’s whingy and unprincipled nonsense. Such people should sign up for a Snowflake School, since that’s what they fundamentally are.

Let A Thousand Snowflakes Melt

The virtue of this approach is choice. The struggle between Snowflakes and Non-Snowflakes would remain, but rather than a struggle to control institutions to impose their viewpoints, it becomes an individual struggle.

Non-Snowflakes may worry that the market would operate in a way they don’t like — that the market would favor Snowflake Schools and Snowflake Majors and huge drifts of graduating Snowflakes. Maybe. But if that’s the case, do we deserve any better?