Academic self-censorship: is  ‘offence culture’ really the problem?

A couple of people have asked me my opinion on an article published on Vox this week.  Writing anonymously, a university lecturer laments the entitled, consumerist tendency amongst his students, which means that they complain whenever they are exposed to ideas or opinions that make them uncomfortable.  The article carried hyperlinks to examples where academics—both students and in some cases teachers—have successfully shut down discussion or caused events to be cancelled because they were deemed ‘offensive’ or upsetting.

If this is a real trend then it’s appalling.  As I and others have argued previously and constantly, there are numerous benefits to having offensive statements made openly.  Such statements can be countered and challenged on the one hand; but they may actually have some merit and change minds and morality (for example, women’s suffrage or gay marriage).  Offence can shock people out of complacency, or be the only thing that makes people question traditional values and the structure of their society.  Finally, it’s far better to have offensive views out in the open, rather than driven underground where they can fester and grow, and where those who have been censored can claim to be a ‘free speech martyr’.

I do want to raise a few aspects of the article that give me pause for thought, however.

The first is simply to question whether this is a systemic problem that is effecting all universities, or whether it’s is simply a collection of the worst examples of student politics from all over the world, brought together to give the impression that there is a wider trend towards censorship and self-censorship, when in fact most universities are still the bastions of free speech we want them to be.  The author writes from the U.S. but includes British examples in his litany—are the two education systems comparable? Do French or German or Canadian universities have this problem? Lumping together examples from disparate educational traditions feels wrong to me.

Vox also published a rejoinder to the anonymous article making similar points.  Amanda Taub writes:

… the plural of anecdote isn’t data … And yet the response to his article, which as of this writing has now been shared more than 190,000 times on Facebook, shows it has struck a nerve. This is something people are genuinely concerned about — enough that the thoughts of an unidentified man from the Midwest feel like a revelation, as if some secret truth everyone suspected has finally been exposed. … In other words, it’s truthy: it offers a conclusion that feels as if it should be true, even though it isn’t accompanied by much in the way of actual evidence. In this case, that truthy conclusion is that the rise of identity politics is doing real harm — that this new kind of discourse, whether you call it “identity politics” or “call-out culture” or “political correctness,” is not just annoying or upsetting to the people it targets, but a danger to academic freedom and therefore an actual substantive problem to be addressed.

Taub also makes an important point about the fear expressed by the anonymous professor. It does not come from his students directly, but because the university does not “have his back”.  Free speech on a campus should allow, first, academic freedom to discuss controversial issues; and second, the freedom of students and other academics to critique, in whatever tone they deem appropriate, these discussions.  By all means run a seminar on The Bell Curve if you feel you have to, but be prepared to have others start talking about how you are endorsing racism. By all means read aloud from Mark Twain, but don’t be surprised when some students tell you you’re making them feel uncomfortable.  Such dissent is not illegitimate.  

Not is it the end of the conversation.  Free speech means that no-one gets to have the last word. Academic freedom has a third layer too, which is that professor can always respond to accusations of racism or insensitivity, and should have the confidence to do so robustly.  If the university does not facilitate that, and instead suspends the teacher, then that is a problem with the institution, not with a student speaking her or his mind. And if the professor doesn’t have the confidence to defend their academic choices… well… perhaps there is some truth to whatever accusation has been put to them! Maybe next term, their syllabus will be more refined and their own ideas more nuanced?

Public or Private?

Another big question is whether universities are public or private spaces, where the rules of debate are necessarily different.  Whenever a ‘free speech moment’ flares up at a university, it’s often the conception of what kind of space the university is that is being debated.  If someone is considered racist or sexist or ableist or transphobic, activists campaign for them to be ‘no-platformed’. The prospective speaker has the legal right to air their views, say the pickets, but why invite them onto private property to repeat their offensive thoughts?  You wouldn’t invite a racist to your house, so why invite them to the Union?

The problem with this way of thinking is that although universities may legally be private property, that is not how they function in our society and economy.  They are supposed to be places of cutting-edge thinking, open to as many people as possible.  Cathedrals of Learning. Free Speech Zones.  That is certainly how universities brand themselves to potential students and to governments, the twin sources of their funding.  

And so they should be considered as pseudo public spaces, and events and teaching within them should be programmed accorindingly. Not only must we allow offensive speech at students unions and in lecture theatres, but there may be a virtue in actively encouraging such speech too.  

Health and Safety

Another issue that seems to surface with these controversies is health and saftey. Often, when one digs into the reason why some controversial event has been cancelled, it was not because protestors demanded it, but because the event organisers cited ‘health and saftety’ as a reason for cancellation.  The fact that there was going to be a protest or a picket against a particular person is enough to get the event cancelled.  This is certainly what happened in the case of comedian Kate Smurthwaite’s canceled gig at Goldsmiths College earlier this year, and some of the cancelled events mentioned in the Vox article too.

In such situations it is unclear whether cancellation was the secret aim of the protestors all along, or whether the ‘authorities’ (either the university administration or the student body responsible for event logistics) are simply using the health and safety excuse as a way to wash their hands of a controversial event.  For those who want to sit on the fence and have a problem just go away, “health and safety” concerns are an elegant, non-ideological get-out.  Later, the media may spin this as ‘feminist censorship’ or whatever, when the aim of the protestors was to add more voices to an event, not to shut it down.

Finally, we should note that “identity politics” is not the only cause of censorship at universities.  Until recently, fear of the libel courts was a major reason why researchers avoided controversial topics. New counter-terrorism legislation threatens to place strict controls on ‘radicalisation’ at universities which may well shut down political speech.  And universities and students unions have been known to censor student newspapers in the past when those outlets have been critical of campus policies. I think that these sources of censorship may actually be the greater threat to freedom of expression at universities, than zealous student activists moaning about speech that offends them.

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