Quote of the Day:
On campuses across the country, hostility toward unpopular ideas has become so irrational that many students, and some faculty members, now openly oppose freedom of speech.
–Harvey Silverglate, co-founder of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), in today’s Wall Street Journal
Silverglate’s piece (headlined “Liberals Are Killing Liberal Arts”) recounts what happened when Smith College ran a panel on “Challenging the Ideological Echo Chamber: Free Speech, Civil Discourse and the Liberal Arts.”
The panel, moderated by Smith President Kathleen McCartney in late September, was apparently an effort to address attempts to shut down discussion of unpopular ideas on campus. Unfortunately, it became Exhibit A of the phenomenon it sought to explore.
One of the panelists was author Wendy Kaminer, a Smith alumna, feminist, former ACLU board member, and “near absolutist” when it comes to defense of the First Amendment. Kaminer is also a board member of FIRE.
Ms. Kaminer criticized various speech codes on campus and then made a fatal reference to Mark Twain’s great novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which has come under attack for what some allege is “hate speech.” Kaminer suggested that the novel should be “taken as a whole” rather than banned:
The student member of the panel, Jaime Estrada, resisted that notion, saying, “But it has the n-word, and some people are sensitive to that.”
Ms. Kaminer responded: “Well let’s talk about n-words. Let’s talk about the growing lexicon of words that can only be known by their initials. I mean, when I say, ‘n-word’ or when Jaime says ‘n-word,’ what word do you all hear in your head? You hear the word . . . ”
And then Ms. Kaminer crossed the Rubicon of political correctness and uttered the forbidden word, observing that having uttered it, “nothing horrible happened.” She then compared the trend of replacing potentially offensive words with an initial to being “characters in a Harry Potter book who are afraid to say the word ‘Voldemort.’ ” There’s an important difference, she pointed out, between hurling an epithet and uttering a forbidden word during an academic discussion of our attitudes toward language and law.
The event—and Ms. Kaminer’s words—prompted blowback from Smith undergraduates, recent alumnae and some faculty members. One member of the audience posted an audio recording and transcript of the discussion, preceded by what has come to be known in the academic world as a “trigger warning”:
“Trigger/Content Warnings: Racism/racial slurs, abelist slurs, anti-Semitic language, anti-Muslim/Islamophobic language, anti-immigrant language, sexist/misogynistic slurs, references to race-based violence.”
One has to have imbibed this culture of hyper-victimization in order even to understand the lingo. “Ableism,” for example, is described at ableism.org as “the practices and dominant attitudes in society that devalue and limit the potential of persons with disabilities” and that “assign inferior value (worth) to persons who have developmental, emotional, physical or psychiatric disabilities.”
The incident raises a question that relates to the sorry state of our culture: how can literature be taught in the current campus atmosphere? I rather suspect that it can’t and that this generation of students will be deprived of their cultural patrimony.
Leaving aside that I will no doubt be labeled a sexist for using the word “patrimony,” I recently had an experience with the delicate sensibilities of young people. I went upstairs to complain about the noise coming from a party. In the course of the conversation, I said, “Look, you’d have to be a deaf mute not to be upset by the level of this noise.”
I thought they were going to pass out. Stunned whispers of “Did you hear what she said?” floated about the room. They thought I had offended deaf people! Good heavens! I had only meant to offend them. Still, the effect was sulibrious: these delicate young people were so dumbfounded (there I go again!) that the party broke up. Mission accomplished.
Still, what Silverglate calls “hypersensitivity to the trauma allegedly inflicted by listening to controversial ideas” is so ingrained in academia that a new generation will be warped by it—and also, won’t get to read the classics that make life worth living.