In the wake of the October 7 massacre in Israel, University of Pennsylvania president Liz Magill declined to comment because, she said, she didn’t think it was the role of college administrators to express an official view on controversial political issues. And she noted that “as a university, we also fiercely support the free exchange of ideas as central to our educational mission.” Magill went on: “This includes the expression of views that are controversial and even those that are incompatible with our institutional values.” The recent embrace of the principles of “free speech” on campus and the sudden desire of administrations to remain “neutral” on political questions have come as a surprise to many observers, who have been complaining for years that certain views have been stifled thanks to faculty and administrators. What an odd coincidence that violent anti-Semitic protests have awoken these educators’ desire for a “free exchange of ideas”!
What should the reaction be toward this hypocrisy? Thanks to some vocal donors who are closing their wallets and some employers who want nothing to do with these students once they graduate, those administrators who have spent the past decade making life uncomfortable or worse for those with views that do not conform to the latest campus fashion are getting a taste of their own medicine. This is not the resolution that Greg Lukianoff and Rikki Schlott favor. In their new book, The Canceling of the American Mind, they worry that “for some on the right, a false sense has arisen that the way out of Cancel Culture is More Cancel Culture.”
Lukianoff, the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Expression (FIRE), and Schlott, a columnist at the New York Post, devote much of this work to the flashiest examples of cancel culture at work, organized helpfully by the sector of the economy this destructive trend has affected. There are chapters on the woke takeover of not only education but also publishing, medicine, and even psychology. Regular readers of conservative media will not find much that is new, but it is worth having a chronicle in one place of this insanity and how quickly it has spread.
How did stating the most obvious facts about the world become something that could get you fired from your job? To take just one outrageous example: Carole Hooven, the co-director of undergraduate studies in human evolutionary biology at Harvard, dared to tell a reporter of her concern that medical schools were teaching students to ignore a patient’s biological sex. “To ignore or downplay the reality of sex and sex-based differences is to perversely handicap our understanding and our ability to increase human health and thriving,” she wrote. Hooven became the target of a cancel mob at Harvard, with students demanding her resignation and administrators publicly criticizing her for “using dangerous language… [to] perpetuate a system of discrimination against non-cis people within the med system.” Hooven couldn’t actually conduct the course she had planned on—because no graduate student would serve as her teaching assistant.
But what exactly is the relationship between cancel culture and free speech? FIRE has a long history of applying the same standards to conservatives as it does to liberals. There is no doubt that FIRE’s founders and current employees are deeply principled people committed to free speech and determined to elevate it above other values.
So the authors are often at pains to show that cancel culture is a problem across the political spectrum. Take their section on the new spate of “book bans” across the country, which they say amounts to a “tsunami.” “According to a report from the American Library Association, 2021 saw the largest number of banning attempts recorded in their twenty-year history.” The conceptual problems with The Canceling of the American Mind begin here. Lukianoff and Schlott offer no acknowledgement of the tsunami of completely inappropriate books coming out for children—books filled with pornography and other topics that do not belong in elementary-school libraries. Lukianoff and Schlott only go so far as to say that “some of the titles frequently singled out for banning could conceivably hit the threshold of inappropriate for school-aged children.”
Even the word “ban” is off the mark in these cases since most of these supposedly suppressive actions are merely removing books from school libraries or moving them out of children’s sections and into adult sections of libraries. Adults can still access them, and kids can find a lot of this stuff online more easily anyway. Is this problem the same as online mobs forming to demand that publishers cancel the contracts with authors who violate woke ideology?
You can see how far Schlott and Lukianoff are willing to go to find examples of conservatives engaging in cancel culture when they call out Liberty University. This is like a man with a high-powered rifle deliberately trying to find a barrel that has a fish in it to shoot. Liberty has been racked by corruption, scandal and academic nonsense for decades. It has been nothing more than a mouthpiece for Jerry Falwell Jr. A quarter century ago, when I asked to visit the school for a book I was writing about religious colleges, its administrators turned me down because they were worried about any kind of criticism. By comparison, Bob Jones University—famously controversial on almost every front—said yes. People who come to Liberty expecting free speech are even more naive than those who come to NYU expecting it. It’s not on their menu.
While FIRE supports freedom of speech and freedom of expression, it has always had to apply different standards to different institutions because they are governed by different rules—and often by different laws. So in this book, the question of what is legal does, at times, get muddied with what would be culturally beneficial. Even within higher education, there are questions of what is allowed at a public versus a private school. It is relatively easy to say that the University of Michigan—a land-grant school that must follow the dictates of the state’s constitution and statutory rulings by courts governing public works—cannot decide to allow Ta-Nehisi Coates to speak but not Glenn Loury, cannot give funding and space to a Muslim group but not an evangelical one, and cannot allow a protest from Democratic Socialists of America but bar an “affirmative-action bake sale” by campus Republicans.
Privately owned schools are, and always have been, a different story. And while FIRE is right to say that a school that promises free speech for everyone should deliver on that promise, many private colleges have placed certain boundaries around what is acceptable that are easily known to all who apply and are accepted there. Religious universities, for example, often have community standards for not just what kinds of expression are allowed, but also how those things can be said.
To this end, FIRE recently sent Hillsdale College a warning for instituting policies that “clearly and consistently state that it prioritizes other values over a commitment to freedom of speech.” Does it? Hillsdale’s code states that “you may assert and defend any argument you conceive, as long as you do so in a way that is civil, academic, and conducive to thought and deliberation.” And as its president, Larry Arnn, wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “College is where people come together to use their capacities for speech and thought to understand ultimate questions. It is part of human nature to do this better as a group. But we can’t do it if we are screaming, hostile, or babbling.”
The difference between the limits that Hillsdale places on student speech and the limits placed by, say, Penn, is that Hillsdale (like most religious universities) is fairly transparent about what is and isn’t allowed. Prior to the past couple of weeks, many Jewish students on college campuses were likely unaware that students are allowed to yell genocidal slogans on campus with no consequences or that faculty members are allowed to place students in different groups based on whether they are deemed to be “colonizers.” What they did know is that if a student had yelled the n-word in the middle of campus or called for a Klan rally, that kid would be sent home. That kid could have called FIRE to defend him, but the truth is that no one was yelling the n-word and no one would dare. Turns out, the same standard is simply not present when Jews are at issue.
Lukianoff and Schlott are right to say that the culture on these campuses, and not just the right to free speech, matters. And they argue that the culture should be one in which just about anything goes. Short of threats and harassment, they argue, the best way to challenge bad ideas is out in the open, offering good ideas instead. But this assumes that we are all playing by the same rules and that debate is actually possible.
What has happened since October 7 should make everyone skeptical that this is any kind of solution to the monstrous devolution of university culture. Lukianoff and Schlott make a powerful case that we have failed to teach students how to think and argue rationally. We have failed to teach them how to separate the person from the argument. We have failed to teach them that words are not violence. We have failed to teach them that a person’s identity doesn’t mean he has to hold certain views. We have failed to teach students how to argue in good faith. In such an atmosphere, advocating to let a thousand flowers bloom seems not only beside the point, but naive. The people who use their freedom to cut down the thousand flowers have a thousand times more power than the ones who plant them.
And far from condemning the few schools out there like Hillsdale that demand students construct thoughtful and civil arguments to make their points, FIRE should be encouraging other schools to follow their example. Freshman orientation should not be a time to assign books about oppression and conduct sessions in microaggression, but rather a time to require students to engage in formal debates and force them to take sides they don’t agree with.
In a recent tweet, the economist Russ Roberts said he was reconsidering the views of a friend who once told him that “there should be free speech for everyone except those who hold ideologies that do not believe in free speech.” Once a group gives up on classical notions of speech that are our legacy from John Milton and John Stuart Mill, communicate only by screaming death chants or reciting anti-Semitic poetry or creating art to celebrate murder, and try to shut down any other group that is speaking or writing, what is the point?
The fact that such people are being publicly named and shamed or told that they will be missing out on job opportunities after college or be fired from their current positions is not cancel culture in any way—at least as most people understand it. Just as public Holocaust denial might have gotten you fired from your consulting job 20 years ago, so celebratory tweets about the murder of Jews by Hamas might mean some companies won’t want to hire you. Them’s the breaks.
The “cancel culture” that is challenging the principles of free speech involves assaults on people saying things that were perfectly harmless and ordinary until five minutes before elite culture shifted, and then having their lives destroyed over it. You can’t say only women get pregnant. You can’t use a word in another language that sounds like a bad word in English. You can’t say that lowering educational standards is harmful to black kids. These are things that are verboten now but weren’t until very recently. Just as celebrating murder has been verboten for a while, and with good reason—until people on college campuses openly began doing so with calls for the extermination of Jews with the deployment of the slogan, “From the river to the sea, Palestine shall be free.”
Lukianoff and Schlott are right to point to parents as the people who can start to fix this problem, explaining to their children why they are not just victims, why years of anti-bullying campaigns have only produced kids who cannot work out disagreements for themselves, and why it is important to give their peers the benefit of the doubt. I hope that it is still possible to introduce the next generation of college students to the benefits of a culture that celebrates the civil and free exchange of ideas, but that is a hope, and hope is not a strategy.
In the meantime, I wonder whether the obsessive desire on the part of Lukianoff and Schlott to demonstrate that “both sides” are guilty of free-speech violations is a productive exercise. In the face of speech that really does quickly slide into violent threats if not outright assaults, what should colleges do? Is the culture they want to create one in which anything goes? I am all for consistency, but maybe this moment calls for a higher standard. Maybe it demands arguments that are civil and thoughtful. Because campuses are filled right now with students who are “screaming, hostile, or babbling.” And we need something better, because people wearing kippot are getting menaced and injured for the crime of walking on the campuses of America’s elite universities—and lots of free speech isn’t going to solve that.
Photo: AP Photo/Mike Groll
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