Sunday, March 12, 2017


Frank Bruni looks at a recent incident at Middlebury College, in which a planned appearance by Charles (The Bell Curve) Murray was disrupted by angry hecklers:
Chanting that Murray was “racist, sexist, anti-gay,” the students wouldn’t let him talk. And when he and the professor moved their planned interchange to a private room where it could be recorded on camera, protesters disrupted that, too, by pulling fire alarms and banging on windows. A subsequent confrontation between some of them and Murray grew physical enough that the professor with him sought medical treatment for a wrenched neck.
To Bruni -- and to a lot of other observers -- this is part of a disturbing pattern:
... according to an essay in Bloomberg View last week by Stephen Carter, a professor of law at Yale, the impulse to squelch upsetting words with “odious behavior” is so common “that it’s tempting to greet it with a shrug.”

“The downshouters will go on behaving deplorably,” Carter wrote, “and reminding the rest of us that the true harbinger of an authoritarian future lives not in the White House but in the groves of academe.”

I wouldn’t go that far. But I worry that in too many instances, the groves of academe are better at pumping their denizens full of an easy, intoxicating fervor than at preparing them for constructive engagement in a society that won’t echo their convictions the way their campuses do.
But how common is this? At Lawyers, Guns & Money, Paul Campos questions the perceived ubiquity of speech censorship on campus. Campos quotes that Stephen Carter essay:
According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, 2016 saw a record number of efforts to keep controversial speakers from being heard on campus — and that’s just in the U.S. To be sure, not all of the attempts succeeded, and the number catalogued, 42, is but a small fraction of the many outsiders who give addresses at colleges and universities each year. The real number of rejected speakers is certainly much higher, once we add in all the people not invited in the first place because some member of this or that committee objects to their views, or because campus authorities fear trouble. But even one would be too many.
Campos replies:
By my count the actual number of “rejected speakers,” per the data base Carter cites, is 24. They include things like the singer Common having an invitation to give a commencement speech revoked because police groups protested that he was the author of “a song in which he depicted a woman convicted of killing a police officer as a victim.”

... And more than a quarter of the attempted dis-invitations were aimed at Milo Yiannopoulos, a professional attention seeker, whose total lifetime contribution to actual intellectual debate in even the broadest sense of the phrase can be calculated as approximately zero.
And I'd add that two of the disinvitations were not for speeches, but for musical performances by the rapper Action Bronson:
In March 2016, the Program Board of the George Washington University announced that Bronson would be the headlining performer for the University's yearly spring concert, "Spring Fling." Controversy soon erupted.... In April 2016, Bronson was similarly disinvited from the Trinity College Spring Weekend concert.
And why would that be?
Bronson has a history of public transphobia, and has mocked transgender people on Instagram. He’s also been widely criticized for his song “Consensual Rape,” in which he describes drugging and raping a woman. One of his music videos, for a song called “Brunch,” depicts Bronson cooking a meal next to a woman’s dead body, putting her body in the trunk of his car, then stabbing her repeatedly while shouting gendered insults. Due to this controversy, he was pulled from the lineup of last year’s NXNE music festival in Toronto ...
(You can watch the "Brunch" video here.)

Returning to Campos's point: If there were 24 disinvitations in all of America in 2016, that's out of how many total invitations?
As Carter coyly acknowledges, the total number of talks on potentially politically sensitive topics at American colleges and universities in any one year must reach seven figures (There are four thousand such institutions in the US, so if you assume one such talk per day per institution — surely a gross underestimate — that’s 1,460,000 opportunities for civil discourse-destroying protest). So tens of thousands — at least — politically controversial talks take place at American institutions of higher learning for every one that leads to any (overt) attempt to keep that talk from taking place.
I don't know if the number is that high, but surely the majority of appearances by opinionated speakers on college campuses take place with little or no disruption -- and yet those events are invisible. We don't know about them. We're being led to believe that there's censorship every time an even moderately controversial public figure attempts to speak on a campus.

Campus censorship is being reported in the mainstream press the way crime by non-whites and undocumented immigrants is reported in the right-wing press. We know the consequences of that: Republican voters believe that crime is skyrocketing when it isn't, and believe that immigrants are more dangerous than native-born Americans when they aren't. And now we have a president of the United States who believes those things, based on anecdotes rather than data.

How prevalent is campus illiberalism? We don't know. On this issue, we're the ones relying on anecdotes, not data.

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