The Fight For Free Speech On Campus Depends On This Overlooked Group

July 16, 2015

By Greg Piper at The College Fix

We don’t have many rules at The College Fix. Rules are for liberals, because they think they can change human nature for the better with no side effects.

One of the few strictures we do observe, which I learned by accident early on, is you don’t citeThe Onion in the Twitter feed.

Our readers already think the wacky campus news we unearth is made up, Editor Jennifer Kabbany told me. Best not to put some “real” fake news in there.

Yet there may be no greater force for promoting freedom of expression on campus now thanThe Onion and its comedy peers.

Its story posted Wednesday – “Parents Dedicate New College Safe Space In Honor Of Daughter Who Felt Weird In Class Once” – sounds like something you’ll read in The Fixduring freshman orientation next month:

“When our Alexis felt weird after hearing someone discuss an idea that did not conform to her personally held beliefs, she had no place to turn,” said Arnold Stigmore, standing outside the $2 million space that reportedly features soothing music, neutral-colored walls, oversized floor cushions, fun board games, and a variety of snacks. “God forbid any of you, in your years at this institution, are ever confronted with an opinion you do not share. But if you are, you will have a refuge on this campus.” …

As they have done often over the years, the Stigmores spoke openly about the time their daughter attended a class in which her political science professor “completely ambushed” her with standard course material that did not fit comfortably within her world outlook. Feeling unsettled, the college student reportedly had no way of coping with the challenging position that did not require her to consider the opinion, analyze its shortcomings, and think of possible counterarguments.

As a fan of jokes within jokes in the style of Arrested Development, I’d like to think The Onion‘s writers are making a deeper joke: By naming the safe space after a living person, they are taking a sly dig at the boundless use of the phrase “survivor” to describe anyone who went through an uncomfortable experience, like an emotionally jarring half-hour of drunk sex.

(Just so the “survivor” crowd doesn’t feel too attacked by the snark, The Onion threw in a dig at “straight white men at the college who won’t shut the fuck up about how they’re the real victims on campus these days.”)

Clearly this article is riffing on real news from recent months: Brown University’s cookie- and Play-doh-filled safe space intended for female students who were spooked by the presence of a woman on campus who questioned the idea of “rape culture,” and Crafton Hills College’s brief surrender to a student and her parents who demanded a trigger warning on raunchy graphic novels in her English class.

The Onion has already mocked the intellectual insularity that today’s college students seem to expect in recent months: “College Allowing Students Individual Commencement Speakers To Make Ceremony Acceptable For All” and “College Encourages Lively Exchange Of Idea.”

It sent up the higher-education bubble in “Pros And Cons Of Going To Grad School.”

Comedy is ideally suited to convey ideas that either sound too boring or too challenging for people when confronted with them in nonfiction. It makes people realize why they care. AsReason wrote in a 2007 feature on why The Onion was beating print newspapers at their own game:

While other newspapers desperately add gardening sections, ask readers to share their favorite bratwurst recipes, or throw their staffers to ravenous packs of bloggers for online question-and-answer sessions, The Onion has focused on reporting the news. The fake news, sure, but still the news. It doesn’t ask readers to post their comments at the end of stories, allow them to rate stories on a scale of one to five, or encourage citizen-satire. It makes no effort to convince readers that it really does understand their needs and exists only to serve them. …

It’s easy to see why readers connect with The Onion, and it’s not just the jokes: Despite its “fake news” purview, it’s an extremely honest publication. Most dailies, especially those in monopoly or near-monopoly markets, operate as if they’re focused more on not offending readers (or advertisers) than on expressing a worldview of any kind.

The Onion takes the opposite approach. It delights in crapping on pieties and regularly publishes stories guaranteed to upset someone…

“Crapping on pieties” is exactly what’s in short supply on college campuses. It’s why students, professors and staff with the sensitivity of a Geiger counter are piling on comedienne Amy Schumer and antagonizing comics like Chris Rock, Patton Oswalt and Jerry Seinfeld.

It’s why even the leftist loons at Salon are talking about threats to comedy from the Left.

There are many great organizations fighting for a freer, more transparent, less bullshity campus, like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Student Press Law Center and American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

But their most momentous accomplishments may be giving fodder to The Onion.