Unlearning liberty

By November 30, 2012

‘At Stanford, I took every human rights class that was offered, every First Amendment class, and in addition to that, for six additional credits, I did an independent study on the origins of the prior restraint doctrine of Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I. That’s how much of a nerd I am about this stuff.’ Greg Lukianoff lets out a big hearty laugh, before adding, ‘And I really enjoyed that last one’.            

There is no doubting Lukianoff’s passion for the principles of liberty. In 2006, he was made president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a campaign group established at the end of the 1990s (by civil-rights lawyer Harvey Silverglate and history professor Alan Charles Kors) to fight against the distinctly illiberal, speech code-obsessed turn in the American academy. FIRE has had considerable success, shaming offending institutions through articles in the media, and if that fails, defeating them in the courts; it seems the First Amendment continues to provide a precious bulwark against the censor-happy impulse abroad on US campuses.

And now, after 10 years at the frontline of the battle for freedom of speech on campus, Lukianoff has taken stock of his experience in his new book, Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate. As a window on the cowed conformism of America’s higher-education institutions, places in which freedom of speech is now held in historically low esteem, Unlearning Liberty is indispensable. But it is also valuable as a critique of the shrill, ‘hyperpolarised’ condition of America’s national discourse. As Lukianoff writes: ‘To put it bluntly, I believe that three decades of campus censorship has made us all just a little bit dumber.’

The silenced classroom

As you would expect from the president of FIRE, Unlearning Liberty teems with detailed examples of campus censorship. There’s Texas Southern University’s ban on ‘inappropriate jokes’ that cause ‘physical or emotional harm’; there’s Northeastern University’s prohibition on email messages that ‘in the sole judgement of the university’ are ‘annoying’ or ‘offensive’. There’s the absurd case of a mature student at Indiana Uni-Purdue ‘found guilty of racial harassment’… for reading a history book about the defeat of the Ku Klux Klan. And there are countless more from the annals of draconian farce that are FIRE’s case files. Indeed, just how inessential the idea of free and open debate has become to the academy is revealed by the fact that many American universities have created specific so-called free-speech zones, complete with designated opening hours and booking systems. Freedom of thought is no longer installed at the centre of the academy; it’s been relegated to the margins.

It is not just the students who are trained to believe that there are things of which they must never speak; faculty members are, too. In 2005, for instance, Harvard president Larry Summers gave a speech in which he speculated that, at the highest end of the IQ spectrum, men might be genetically predisposed towards being cleverer than women. He was forced to resign. ‘If the president of Harvard can’t start a meaty, thought-provoking, challenging discussion’, notes Lukianoff, ‘who on earth can?’.

The result of three decades’ worth of campus censorship, from the politically correct speech codes of the 1980s and 1990s to the anti-harassment dictata of today, has been chilling. Lukianoff tells me of a recent survey conducted by the American Association of Colleges and Universities: ‘Out of 24,000 students who were asked the question, “Is it safe to hold unpopular positions on campus?”, only 35 per cent of students strongly agreed. But, when broken down, the stat indicates something even worse. Forty per cent of freshmen strongly agreed, but only 30 per cent of seniors.’ In other words, students unlearn freedom of speech during their studies. ‘Even worse, only 16 per cent of university faculty strongly agreed with this statement. It’s not even a particularly strong statement, and if we’ve reached a point where only 16 per cent of faculty strongly agree with it, then we’re doing something wrong.’

How has this happened? How has censorship come to play such a prominent role within the academy? In attempting to answer this, it is impossible to ignore the therapeutic turn in society at large, captured in embryo in Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism (1979). In brief, the robust, trailblazing individual of American legend had, by the late twentieth century, been reconceived as fragile and in need of external help and protection. Campus censorship plays upon this theory of the vulnerable individual, which, as Lukianoff says, presupposes a very ‘weak idea of what people are capable of coping with’.

It is this belief that certain words and opinions might be too hurtful to young, vulnerable people which, in the eyes of the censors, justifies campus regulation of speech. Censorship even comes to present itself as the right thing to do, so much so that, according to Lukianoff, ‘people much too readily give the moral highground to those who are pro-censorship’.

He says: ‘In the history of censorship, there’s always been good intentions, there’s always been someone thinking that they’re saving the world by shutting someone up. There’s nothing new about that. But the telling thing about the argument presupposing the fundamental psychological fragility of the populace is that its advocates are merely echoing what the pro-Tsarists used to say in the late nineteenth century; that is, to paraphrase Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, the people can’t handle the truth, the people are too weak to live in a free society. And that’s one thing you have to point out when people try to take the moral highground in policing the mental and psychological safety of students. Not only are they saying that people are incredibly psychologically weak; they’re also putting themselves in charge of who gets punished, and – as Tsar Nicholas II amply demonstrated – time and again they punish those who they don’t like, those they disagree with.’

From a technical perspective, of course, university administrations don’t talk about censorship; they talk about ‘protecting people from harassment’. Yet, as Lukianoff writes, this represents a redefinition of the legal concept of harassment into a ‘generalised ‘‘right not to be offended”’. ‘A lot of people don’t know this’, he tells me, ‘but harassment as a legal concept was developed in the 1970s. As I understand it, when the US legislators passed the civil-rights laws, they wanted to avoid a situation where a company could be legally obligated to hire minorities and women but could then make life so awful for them, through outright harassment, that the formal equality would mean nothing. But in the 1990s, this particular concept of harassment evolved. A lot of Americans know about campus speech codes, they know that there was some sort of politically correct movement in the 1980s and 1990s. But what many don’t know is that many of those codes were modified harassment codes, which redefined harassment from being a serious pattern of discriminatory behaviour to anything which could potentially offend somebody.’

As Lukianoff admits, at the height of ‘PC gone mad’ stories during the early 1990s, many people rejected the convolutions of campus speech codes. They were objects of mockery not respect. But the preponderance of anti-harassment codes has not prompted the same resistance. ‘I think students have just gotten used to these absurd little harassment codes’, he says. ‘The courts don’t accept them. Every time they are challenged in court, they’re defeated. But unfortunately, I think that campuses are raising a generation that believes that harassment happens every time they are offended, and that is a dangerous thing.’

The importance of free speech

An acceptance of ‘absurd little harassment codes’ and an embrace of the ‘right not to be offended’ – here we approach the nub of the issue. Free speech does not appear to be something that is valued in higher education. In fact, being in favour of censorship, of preventing the ignorant from venting their ignorance, of prohibiting the airing of ‘wrong’ opinions, has acquired a progressive image. Lukianoff is not impressed: ‘When censorship develops a romantic sensibility about itself, that this is what good, kind, enlightened people do, we’re all in trouble.’

Unfortunately, this has long been apparent in Britain, where the National Union of Students, following the example long set by certain left-wing groups, officially adopted ‘no platform’ policies towards anyone from Zionists to so-called rape deniers. But the idea that censorship is progressive is also emergent in America. For example, in Unlearning Liberty, Lukianoff writes of the University of Carolina professor who came up with some mandatory ground rules for discussion, which were then disseminated across various other universities. They include the demand that students must ‘acknowledge that racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism and other institutionalised forms of oppression exist’. In other words, there are some things that, for the greater good, must not be questioned. Professor KC Johnson of Brooklyn College even revealed that education schools had institutionalised the process of evaluating their students according to their ‘dispositions’, including their commitment to ‘social justice’. Increasingly then, free and open debate is posed as a threat to any progressive agenda, rather than as a precondition for progressiveness.

What is odd is that freedom of speech used to be considered absolutely central to academic life. Lukianoff quotes the 1957 Supreme Court ruling: ‘The essentiality of freedom in the community of American universities is almost self-evident… Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise, our civilisation will stagnate and die.’ Or to quote Yale University’s C Vann Woodward, from his 1975 report into free speech at Yale, students should be free to ‘think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable’.

And why? Because, Lukianoff tells me, ‘No institution in our society relies more on free and open discourse, questioning and enquiry than higher education. In order to have a more dynamic, a more critical environment, you need to allow for the free flow of ideas, partly because you don’t really know where wisdom is going to come from. I was talking to someone on a campus pretty recently and he was saying, “Well, surely we can at least police people espousing stupid ideas or bad ideas or incoherent ideas”. And I tried to explain that if you look at relativity or quantum theory in the late nineteenth century, anyone but Henri Poincaré would have found those ideas completely incoherent. We rely on this very open system to come up with more creative, more interesting ideas, but also to shine light on problems.’

To not allow what are currently considered to be truths (be they scientific or political) to be questioned, to consider certain views unchallengeable, to shut down, say, an anti-Semitism research unit because it dared to ask questions of Islam (as Yale is rumoured to have done) – none of this furthers the pursuit of truth. Rather, it allows students and faculty alike to enjoy ‘the slumber of received opinion’. And this can have deleterious effects on the whole of society.

Dumbing down the national conversation

In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill wrote disparagingly of the society in which truths go unquestioned, certain views unchallenged, beliefs untested: ‘Where there is a tacit convention that principles are not to be disputed, where the discussion of the greatest questions which can occupy humanity is considered to be closed, we cannot hope to find that generally high scale of mental activity which has made some periods of history so remarkable.’

In Unlearning Liberty, Lukianoff characterises our historical moment in a way Mill would have recognised. ‘We live in certain times’, he writes. ‘America’s metaphorical culture war increasingly feels like a religious war, with too many crusades.’ Lukianoff is far from alone in drawing attention to the ‘hyperpolarisation’ and ‘groupthink’ that characterises discourse in the US, as he readily acknowledges when citing Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort (2010) and Charles Murray’s Coming Apart (2011). But he is unusual insofar as he identifies the decades of campus censorship as a contributory factor to the predominant ‘culture of smug certainty, partisanship, soundbites, and polarising uberpundits’.

After all, if many of those passing through higher education are not only taught to believe that there are certain things you must not say, but are also actively discouraged from engaging in vigorous intellectual debate, is it any wonder that national debate is so often intellectually flaccid, and divided by sides that seem incapable of hearing the other’s argument. While the incredible political and cultural polarisation evident in the US, with people seeming to live in almost entirely separate moral communities, as Murray put it, might not have been caused by campus censorship, it has certainly not been helped by it. The uncritical self-certainty of campus life has at least served to reinforce the hyperpolarisation of public debate.

As Lukianoff explains: ‘If there’s any risk whatsoever that a person can get into trouble for their opinion, people don’t change their opinion, they just talk to people they agree with, and they don’t bother talking to people they disagree with. And talking with people you disagree with is precisely what people should be doing in higher education.’

‘People not disagreeing with professors’, Lukianoff continues, ‘people not talking to people they disagree with… this all leads to group polarisation. And as far as the research on group polarisation is concerned, if you surround yourself with people you agree with, you tend to become much more certain, and in some cases much more radical in your beliefs, whether conservative, liberal or neither. And you tend, therefore, to have a polarised understanding of where the other side is coming from. And that’s a big problem in the US today. We have these very tight echo chambers and sort of cartoon-like pictures of what the other side is like.’

It is as if higher education helps to draw the battlelines in the Culture Wars, with the disputatious but prejudiced mass on one side, and the enlightened illiberal elite on the other. ‘I thought the most interesting statistic I came across while doing research for Unlearning Liberty was a study by Diana Muntz, which indicated that there was an inverse correlation between how much education you have and how many disagreements you have over a period of time. So if you have less than a high-school education, you’re likely to have the most political disagreements, and if you have a PhD you’re likely to have the least.’

With rigorous debate discouraged throughout higher education, and people seeking out only those they already agree with, it is unsurprising that many find it difficult to explain why what they believe to be right is right. After all, they have never had to test their beliefs. And the inability to explain why we are right ‘makes us even more emotional and hostile when anything questions our certainty’, says Lukianoff – hence the shrill, overemotional inarticulacy of so much public discourse.

Lukianoff is unusual in this regard; he is not content to surround himself with those who agree with him. So while he is a liberal in the American sense (voting Democrat, supporting progressive causes, and even being a member of the trendy Park Slope Food Co-op in Brooklyn), he is frequently dismissed as an evil right-wing conservative because he supports free speech and tolerates views he disagrees with. He admits that this is because, normally, ‘if you get into trouble for an opinion at all on campus, you’re more likely to get into trouble for a socially conservative one than anything else’. But that is to miss the point, he says. ‘The attempt to paint free speech on campus as a conservative niche issue is a tactic to dismiss its importance. I need to hammer this point home: free speech is too important to be a partisan issue. You should be concerned if your opponent is being censored.’

And with that, the interview came to an end. Lukianoff had to go off and vote in the presidential election; for Obama, as it happens. There you have it: a liberal committed to free speech. It is to our detriment, in both the UK and the US, that that is an increasingly rare thing these days.

Schools: Texas Southern University Northeastern University Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis Yale University