Alan Jacobs draws attention to a “civility clause” a Canadian college professor attempted to institute in her class. In what she described as an effort to compel students to stop bullying teaching assistants, she told her students that any of them who behaved in a “discriminatory”, harassing, or rude manner in class would receive a 10 percent reduction in their grade for the first offense. University officials objected, saying this policy had the potential to quell open academic inquiry.
I think they made the right call. If I were in that class, and I knew my grade depended on appearing non-discriminatory in the eyes of the professor, I would keep my mouth shut all semester. To discriminate is to make value judgments. The whole point of education is to learn to make these kinds of judgments, which includes subjecting claims and arguments to critical scrutiny, and learning how to do that. The professor no doubt means the word “discriminatory” to apply to people who express bigoted opinions — but this is precisely where this policy is intolerable, from an academic freedom point of view. Many people on the left view disagreement with the same-sex marriage orthodoxy to be bigoted on its face. Others believe that to dissent from affirmative action dogma is an expression of bigotry. I’ve mentioned on this blog before how a group of liberal DC women who were friends of mine felt so threatened by learning that I was against abortion (they asked me for my opinion) that one of them started crying in the Adams Morgan restaurant, and told the others that having learned this information, she didn’t feel safe around me.
Which, of course, was absurd, and was a way of suppressing dissenting speech by claiming that it was a threat to her physical well-being. This is exactly what gay-friendly speech codes in high schools try to do. Gay activist groups like GLSEN operate under the premise that schools should be “safe” from bullying. And they’re right! But they make the illogical (but strategically clever) leap into claiming that schools can only be safe places if kids are taught not to make negative judgments about homosexuality. If you disagree with their methods, then you may be accused of being indifferent to the safety of gay students. That’s not at all true, or at least not necessarily true, but these disputes are about power, nothing more.
In a college classroom, it is easy to see how a student who disagreed with a point being discussed in class could be intimidated into keeping his or her mouth shut for fear of being tagged as discriminatory, and suffering academically. This, of course, could happen in a conservative academic environment. It would be just as wrong if, say, an Oral Roberts University student were penalized for defending gay rights in a classroom discussion.
We just don’t much care for free and open speech in this country. I fully support the idea that classrooms should be civil forums, because true learning can only take place in an environment where people can be heard, and can express their point of view without fear of intimidation. This does not require rules forbidding the expression of certain kinds of content in class. It only requires rules governing behavior. No fair-minded person could possibly complain about a professor penalizing or having removed from her class a student who repeatedly interrupts others, or conducts discourse in a manner designed to silence or intimidate those who disagree, or who inhibits the free and orderly exchange of ideas. You can do that without de facto speech codes, which, despite what their proponents claim, really exist to prevent favored groups from having to hear ideas that might hurt their feelings.
Anyway — and this is going a bit afield from the topic at hand — I think the whole concept of “hate speech” is mostly a ploy to stifle dissent. Stanley Fish, making sense in his Times blog today, writes about the unsolvability of the hate speech problem. Excerpt:
The contextual approach — regulation for this society, but not for that — will be resisted by those who insist that it’s a matter of principle: it’s just wrong to suppress and/or punish viewpoints with which the state disagrees, and it is wrong, indeed immoral, in every place and at every time. In response, pragmatic-minded commentators will say that the problem is not a moral but a managerial one. You’ve got to look at what you have, where you’ve been and where you want to go, and figure out the best means to get there. Regulating hate speech may be one of those means, and it may not be, depending on the facts of your particular situation. Why commit yourself to either course in advance? Why not allow yourself the flexibility to devise strategies that will work on the ground?
These questions will always circle back to the original — and unanswerable — question of what is hate speech and what does it do anyway. It is unanswerable because hate speech is a category without a stable content. As Strossen says, “One person’s hate speech is another person’s deeply held religious belief.” The response of Enlightenment liberalism to this difference — to the depth and intractability of substantive disagreement — is to seek a common, usually procedural, ground on the basis of which lines can be drawn without putting the state on the side of anyone’s viewpoint. If we can all just agree on a minimalist definition of hate speech and its harms, we might get somewhere and bring everyone along. But every effort in this direction founders on the fact that you can’t be minimal enough. No matter how low the bar is set, some will feel, and feel with reason, that it has been set to exclude them.
Surely if there is any place that should err on the side of freedom of expression, and creating a forum where it is held sacred, it is the college classroom. If you are going to college and expecting to avoid having your feelings hurt, or having to think critically about the things you believe are true, then you aren’t going to college at all, but to an advanced form of nursery school.