I’m quite grateful to Erika Christakis, not only for inviting me to speak at Harvard next Tuesday, but also for writing an excellent piece on the importance of "using your words." In it, Christakis laments that today’s college students seem unwilling to engage in meaty debate. When faced with the choice between staying silent or making an argument that might offend someone, today’s students too often choose silence.
Shying away from a lively debate may not be what one expects of Ivy Leaguers, but silence is what Christakis encountered while dining at a table full of Harvard undergraduate students. She recalls an instance when one of them began complaining about financial aid recipients in words that she describes as "incendiary." Not one of the other students sitting at the table was willing to challenge those assertions. Instead, they left the table with bruised feelings that intensified over time. Had they engaged the student, Christakis contends, they would have been able to clear the air by sharing their views in a healthy debate.
"Use your words" is a phrase that exasperated parents across the country employ to cajole toddlers into revealing the reasons for their temper tantrums. But this entreaty may be applicable to college students as well. As I discuss in my book, Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate, modern college campuses surprisingly often stifle open discourse on subjects that carry even a whiff of controversy. Students are afraid of being punished for expressing unpopular opinions, and, from what I have seen on campus, I can hardly blame them (check out this new video about a student whose academic career was endangered because he — gasp! — cussed). And when students cannot "use their words" to discuss and test their beliefs, they miss the chance to further develop the critical-thinking skills that should accompany a college degree.
A quick look at the university in question reveals that it can, indeed, be risky to express opinions or, in some cases, crack jokes on campus today — even at Harvard. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE, where I work) gives Harvard a "red light" rating for imposing several speech codes on its students that restrict freedom of speech.
Considering that Harvard’s recent history includes firing professors, coercing freshman to sign a pledge to be nice boys and girls, censoring a particularly tame party, and, most recently, spying on e-mail to figure out who talked to the student press, it’s not surprising that Harvard students have decided to keep their mouths shut when they encounter controversial speech.
When we refuse to even have conversations on divisive issues, we help create a culture that fosters silence instead of exploration and innovation. New ideas cannot flourish and progress cannot be made in a society that fears talking it out. So I join Christakis in her advice to today’s college students: "Be offended. Get hurt once in awhile. Make your case." Don’t get into the habit of staying silent.