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Opinion Afraid to speak up: In the era of trigger warnings, a tenured professor stays silent

There has been a lot of debate about speech on campuses across the country lately, with some students demanding safe spaces where they can avoid people whose opinions they find offensive, and trigger warnings before sensitive topics such as rape are mentioned in class.

Princeton protesters: Why we need safe spaces, and schools renamed

Some university officials have pushed back, telling students that they are concerned about academic freedom and don’t support faculty providing warnings before discussing controversial ideas. 

Don’t ask us for trigger warnings or safe spaces, the University of Chicago tells incoming freshmen

But there is still pressure to conform to prevailing views on many campuses, writes Rajshree Agarwal. She is the director of the Ed Snider Center for Enterprise and Markets at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, and a Cato adjunct scholar, and here she writes her “Confessions of a silenced professor.”   — Susan Svrluga

A colleague recently hit me with a hard question: “When did you start being afraid to speak up?”

She sounded surprised more than accusatory about my silence following a brouhaha at an academic conference from which we were returning.

As an assistant professor climbing the ranks in higher education, I frequently challenged the loudest voices in the room when I thought they were wrong.

Now I have tenure, which assures even greater academic freedom. But in the current campus climate of safe spaces, trigger warnings and outrage over anything politically incorrect, I find myself increasingly holding back and second-guessing myself.

I’m not the only one. A 2010 study from the American Association of Colleges and Universities shows that only 30 percent of college seniors and 17 percent of professors strongly agree it’s safe to hold unpopular points of view on campus.

My most recent struggle with self-censorship came in the context of a gala at the international conference. It was a joyous 1920s-style burlesque show, which was “equal opportunity” inclusive as it celebrated life. A comedian in purple pants embraced his gayness and got everybody laughing. Men and women dancers tastefully depicted multiple facets of the Roaring Twenties — some sensual, some humorous, and everything done to a fun and uplifting beat.

I was dazzled by every performance, but the conference director seemed nervous afterward. He wasn’t expecting something quite so provocative as a mini striptease in one sequence, and he worried that people might complain.

Sure enough, a critical post soon appeared on Facebook from a champion of gender inclusiveness — a gay woman who hadn’t seen the show but had learned about it from a friend. Like-minded thinkers quickly added their comments, and some called for a boycott of the society.

As the outrage spread, I wondered what happened to all the people — men and women — laughing and applauding during the show. I wanted to add my own comment: “I appreciate your position and your willingness to express it, but you do not speak for me. As a woman, I attended the show and loved it.”

Instead, I waited and watched in silence — passively allowing the angry voices to represent my own. In the end it wasn’t me, but another woman who stood alone against the Facebook/Twitter crowd.

German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann first wrote about the “spiral of silence” in 1974. She recognized the human fear of isolation and people’s willingness to keep unpopular opinions to themselves to avoid backlash. Even majority opinions can be stifled when the media amplify minority voices and makes them seem dominant.

People often discuss academic freedom in the context of the First Amendment, which prohibits prior restraint imposed by heavy-handed governments. The spiral of silence is something different, and perhaps an even greater threat to the human spirit that drives innovation.

College administrators might enforce free-speech zones, disinvite controversial speakers, send warning letters about cultural appropriation and remove segregation-era names from campus buildings. But external forces can never chill entrepreneurship like the self-doubt that comes from within.

I have spent my career studying innovation and entrepreneurship, so I understand the value of people who dare to go against the grain. Remember Apple’s “Think Different” campaign? It celebrates the pioneers, contrarians and innovators among us.

Most people recognize the financial risk involved in starting an enterprise. But fearless leaders also take reputational risks. They must overcome the fears of retaliation, ostracism and derision that feed the spiral of silence.

The threat is more than imaginary and more than just about questionable performances that may offend. During one recent exchange in an academic conference, I was asked what businesses can do to create social value. “They can do good business,” I replied.

My research supports this defense of profit, and I was ready to engage in civil discourse. Instead, two colleagues turned on me. “Milton Friedman, are we?” the first person said. “Didn’t you take money from the evil Koch brothers?” the other added, in reference to Charles and David Koch of Koch Industries, who are known for their free-market activism. (The Koch Foundation contributed to the creation of the Ed Snider Center for Enterprise and Markets in 2014.)

This was not the first time. I have been frontally attacked as a Koch “stooge” by a professor in philosophy who did not even know me, when I chose to become the founding director at the Ed Snider Center. Such comments can take a toll on anyone, including tenured professors. Students and assistant professors who “think different” are even more vulnerable because of the imbalance of power in academia.

At least two faculty members who have aligned interests do not want to publicly associate with the Snider Center, for fear of retribution from colleagues.

Greg Lukianoff, president and chief executive officer of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, highlighted the dangers of shutting people up under the guise of political correctness during a Snider Center free speech forum last week. “It’s really hard to innovate if you’re afraid to open your mouth,” he said.

People need filters. Self-regulation is part of emotional intelligence and necessary for reasoned and respectful discourse. But the distinction between self-regulation and self-censorship becomes blurry when a culture of fear silences opposing viewpoints in higher education.

Rather than looking to others to fix the problem, though, it is imperative to remember that we are intellectual entrepreneurs, who must muster the courage to speak up. Because ideas matter, and academia is their marketplace.