It appears that American colleges’ speech-censoring chickens have come home to roost, in the form of three dickish white bros. The students filed a racial discrimination complaint after their black, female professor dared try to teach them about structural racism.
While no one should support the guys’ desire to remain ignorant about race, some are blaming increased competition in higher education for the debacle. This misses the larger, more important problem at play. In their quest to restrict speech, schools have prioritized comfort over truth. And in so doing they have created the perfect opportunity for traditionally privileged students to start using these policies to suppress ideas which make them uncomfortable.
Today’s American college campuses restrict speech in a variety of ways, from “free-speech zones” to dictate when and where students may pass out pocket Constitutions, to preventing students from taping flyers criticizing politicians to their dorm doors. Anti-harassment policies like the one which appears to have been invoked by the students here are intended to ensure students and faculty, especially those who have traditionally borne the brunt of identity-based harassment, can teach and learn in an non-hostile environment.
But what speech restrictions reliably do is protect people from unpopular speech. As the ACLU so eloquently explained, “Those with unpopular political ideas have always borne the brunt of government repression.”
Speech policies on college campuses generally work out okay because outright racism against minorities has been mostly unpopular. But making sure they work in the future requires that outright racism against minorities remains unpopular. This is not a safe bet. White people actually believe they are victims of racism more often than blacks. What we are seeing on this particular campus may be a harbinger of a backlash against the “politically correct” attitudes on college campuses which have traditionally not tolerated racism and sexism well.
For instance, A Voice for Men describes college campuses thusly:
College campuses are among the least tolerant places in America. Smug, elitist faculty gravitate to the easily mouthed clichés of feminism and other forms of political correctness to give them a false veneer of enlightenment and sophistication, and to separate them from the “guns and religions” crowd they find so abhorrent. This veneer arms them with McCarthyistic bats to attack anyone who doesn’t share their world view.
In this environment, continuing to allow anyone to use speech codes to stifle unpopular speech will empower people with racist, sexist views to stifle any dissenters.
The harmful effects of the majority’s tendency to use speech restrictions to silence the minority is one reason America fiercely protects free speech.
Ultimately, we need fewer racists and sexists. But speech restrictions actually protect racism and sexism by forcing it underground on college campuses, leaving it unexamined and unchallenged. Under anti-harassment policies, teachers can’t teach about race if it makes students uncomfortable, and students can’t question their teacher if it makes her uncomfortable. In this situation, everyone is comfortable, but no one is learning.
Racism in America has not been beaten back by restricting racist speech. What history shows is that the way to fight repugnant speech is with more speech. Education is key. One would think that institutions of higher learning would understand this best.
A college’s job is to foster learning, not make their students, faculty, and administrators comfortable by deciding which ideas deserve a hearing. Speech restrictions do everyone a disservice. They keep the dudebros ignorant about race, and the professor ignorant about their racism. By allowing the free flow of ideas, schools facilitate learning by challenging the majority’s assumptions.
Cathy Reisenwitz is a Young Voices Associate and a D.C.-based writer and political commentator. She is Editor-in-Chief of Sex and the State and her writing has appeared in Forbes, the Chicago Tribune, Reason magazine, Talking Points Memo, the Washington Examiner and the Daily Caller.