Commencement season brings a respite from the sinister childishness rampant on campuses. Attacks on freedom of speech come from the professoriate, that herd of independent minds, and from the ever-thickening layer of university administrators who keep busy constricting freedom in order to fine-tune campus atmospherics.
The attacks are childish because they infantilize students who flinch from the intellectual free-for-all of adult society. When Brown University’s tranquillity of conformity was threatened by a female speaker skeptical about the “rape culture” on campuses, students planned a “safe space” for those who would be traumatized by exposure to skepticism. Judith Shulevitz, writing in the New York Times, reported that the space had “cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies.”
The attack on free expression is sinister because it asserts that such freedom is not merely unwise but, in a sense, meaningless. Free speech is more comprehensively and aggressively embattled now than ever before in American history, largely because of two 19th-century ideas. One is that history — actually, History, a proper noun — has a mind of its own. The other is that most people do not really have minds of their own.
Progressives frequently disparage this or that person or idea as “on the wrong side of history.” They regard history as an autonomous force with its own laws of unfolding development: Progress is wherever history goes. This belief entails disparagement of human agency — or at least that of most people, who do not understand history’s implacable logic and hence do not get on history’s “right side.” Such people are crippled by “false consciousness.” Fortunately, a saving clerisy, a vanguard composed of the understanding few, know where history is going and how to help it get there.
One way to help is by molding the minds of young people. The molders believe that the sociology of knowledge demonstrates that most people do not make up their minds, “society” does this. But progressive minds can be furnished for them by controlling the promptings from the social environment. This can be done by making campuses into hermetically sealed laboratories.
In “The Promise of American Life” (1909), progressivism’s canonical text, Herbert Croly said, “The average American individual is morally and intellectually inadequate to a serious and consistent conception of his responsibilities as a democrat.” National life should be “a school,” with the government as the stern but caring principal: “The exigencies of such schooling frequently demand severe coercive measures, but what schooling does not?” “Unregenerate citizens” can be saved “many costly perversions, in case the official school-masters are wise, and the pupils neither truant nor insubordinate.” For a survey of today’s campus coercions, read Kirsten Power’s “The Silencing: How the Left is Killing Free Speech.”
In “Kindly Inquisitors” (1993), Jonathan Rauch showed how attacks on the free market in speech undermine three pillars of American liberty. They subvert democracy, the culture of persuasion by which we decide who shall wield legitimate power. (Progressives advocate government regulation of the quantity, content and timing of political campaign speech.) The attacks undermine capitalism — markets registering the freely expressed choices by which we allocate wealth. And the attacks undermine science, which is how we decide what is true. (Note progressives’ insistence that the science about this or that is “settled.”)
For decades, much academic ingenuity has been devoted to jurisprudential theorizing to evade the First Amendment’s majestic simplicity about “no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.” We are urged to “balance” this freedom against competing, and putatively superior, considerations such as individual serenity, institutional tranquillity or social improvement.
On campuses, the right of free speech has been supplanted by an entitlement to what Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education calls a right to freedom from speech deemed uncongenial. This entitlement is buttressed by “trigger warnings” against spoken “micro-aggressions” that lacerate the delicate sensibilities of individuals who are encouraged to be exquisitely, paralyzingly sensitive.
In a booklet for the “Encounter Broadside” series, Lukianoff says “sensitivity-based censorship” on campus reflects a broader and global phenomena. It is the demand for coercive measures to do for our mental lives what pharmacology has done for our bodies — the banishment or mitigation of many discomforts. In the social milieu fostered by today’s entitlement state, expectations quickly generate entitlements. Students are taught to expect intellectual comfort, including the reinforcement of their beliefs, or at least those that conform to progressive orthodoxies imbibed and enforced on campuses. Until September, however, the culture of freedom will be safe from its cultured despisers.