The colliding of the American mind

University protesters believe they are fighting for justice; their critics think free speech is imperilled

The Economist | Jun 4th 2016 | PRINCETON AND YALE

VISITING some American universities these days feels like touring the scene of an earthquake, or a small war. Though administrators insist the protests that dominoed across campuses in the past year were therapeutic, grievances seethe. Fears for jobs, and of harm—both reputational and physical—endure. “The campus is traumatised,” says Reuben Faloughi, one of the leaders of the protests which, last November, forced the University of Missouri’s president to resign.

As Mr Faloughi knows, some external observers “just think the kids got upset and had a fit”: that these disturbances conform to the old quip about academic quarrels being so vicious because the stakes are so low. That view is mistaken, and not only because of the impact on the participants. As Eshe Sherley, an activist at Yale, says, “Things that happen in the university don’t just stay there.” Rather, the people and ideas they produce ripple across the country. And just as the energy and issues involved are bound to spread beyond campus, they did not originate there either.

The protesters believe they are pursuing social and racial justice, in part by changing the way America remembers its past—debates that are convulsing the country at large. For others the right at stake is freedom of speech, a principle imperilled around the world. As Nicholas Christakis, a Yale professor caught up in the turmoil, puts it: “If we can’t get that right at our elite universities, we’re doomed.” How far these values are compatible, and whether their advocates can listen to each other, are quandaries these events have dramatised.

The students are revolting

New-wave feminists and sexuality campaigners have added to the ruckus. So too have supporters and opponents of Israel, in a row that typifies how protecting one group’s rights can allegedly impinge on another’s. The Amcha Initiative, for example, aims to combat anti-Semitism at American universities, a job Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, its director, thinks the authorities are often unwilling to do. She wants them to decry prejudice against Jews as they would other forms of bigotry. Yet the initiative has been accused of stifling free expression. Official disapproval of the kind she seeks is, for some, tantamount to censorship; in the overlap between criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism, the line between legitimate and hateful opinion is contested.

Still, the main grievance racking American campuses is alleged racism. Several student groups demand more pluralistic curriculums, cultural-awareness training for staff, more diverse faculties and extra facilities for minorities. The flashpoints have sometimes been ugly. At Yale, after Erika Christakis, who is Dr Christakis’s wife and was then a residential college’s associate master, suggested in an e-mail that students might be allowed to pick and police their own Halloween costumes, the couple were cruelly harassed. In Missouri student protesters barracked and obstructed journalists; some professors lent a hand. Demonstrators at Princeton occupied the office of its president, Christopher Eisgruber. “They took quite good care of it,” he says, adding that threats to the students led the university to consult the FBI.

Some of these tactics are thuggish; thuggery, moreover, committed over seemingly piffling complaints. For instance, with its hammocks strung between blossoming trees, the courtyard of Yale’s Silliman College—where students claiming to feel endangered jeered Dr Christakis—is idyllic, despite its proximity to gritty bits of New Haven. Taken in isolation, these incidents can seem the lamentable fruit of modernity’s least appetising traits: mollycoddling parenting, a sub-Freudian narcissism, a hypochondriacal sense of entitlement and a social-media ecosystem that reinforces insularity and cultivates an expectation of instant response. As Mr Eisgruber says, recent demands “often involve an expectation of immediacy” that a slow college bureaucracy is ill-equipped to satisfy.

Those YouTube highlights, however, are a caricature. Clumsy and excitable as these demonstrations have sometimes been, dismissing them all as trivial is lazy. Peter Salovey, Yale’s president, notes that within a week of the Halloween kerfuffle, students were discussing broader concerns. Belittling them all as “crybullies” or “snowflake” protesters (for their exquisite fragility) ignores the breadth of their outlook, which is generally more historical than parochial. This wave of student activism coincides with the Black Lives Matter phenomenon, and they evince a shared rage at racialised political rhetoric and police abuses, to which even Ivy League students, or their families, can be exposed.

“We feel unsafe here,” says Ms Sherley at Yale, “like we feel unsafe everywhere.” Last year, for example, a black student at Yale, who happened to be the son of a New York Times columnist, was detained at gunpoint outside the library. Even the gripe about Halloween costumes is tangentially related: the stereotypes they reinforce—of black people as gangsters, say—can contribute to real-world injustice, the students argue. They know that today’s biases do not match up to full-blown segregation. Still, as Brea Baker, head of the Yale chapter of the NAACP, a black lobby group, says, “Better doesn’t mean good.”

Woodrow must wobble

Students and their sympathisers think that free speech is sometimes invoked to deflect these claims; or, so Princeton’s Black Justice League maintains, as a “justification for the marginalisation of others”. Echoing debates over memorials across the nation, many students have demanded that the slavery-tainted names of college buildings be changed. Some Princetonians want the public-policy school to honour someone other than Woodrow Wilson, a president who was a segregationist, albeit an idealistic promoter of world peace. Some Yalies object to Calhoun College commemorating a pro-slavery ideologue and statesman.

These requests are regarded by others as efforts to sanitise history. Announcing its recent decision to retain Calhoun’s name, Yale said that doing so would serve as a teaching aid. Princeton, too, has chosen to keep Wilson’s name, though a dining-hall mural of him, smiling and holding a baseball, has been scrubbed out. Both made compensating offers of explicatory artwork and exhibitions, while Yale promised to name a new college after Pauli Murray, a civil-rights leader. Whatever the merits of these demands—stronger in the case of Calhoun—they are not an infringement of free speech but an exercise of it. After all, whom institutions choose to celebrate and how they depict the past are choices to be debated, not immutable facts.

For all that, free speech is hardly a red herring. One ominous turn lies in the claim made by some protesters for the supremacy of their subjective judgments. Ms Baker argues that black people know best when they are being racially demeaned in the same way that women can best distinguish between a compliment and harassment. That may often be true. White, middle-aged deans would be rash to secondguess the experiences of black youngsters.

The powerful riposte is that, to function, society relies on impartial adjudication of wrongs, especially in an era of multiculturalism, with its attendant frictions. Prejudice may indeed abound, but for officials to intervene it must be proven, not merely alleged. In any case, the idea that any group’s experience is inaccessible to others is not just pessimistic but anti-intellectual: history, anthropology, literature and many other fields of inquiry are premised on the faith that different sorts of people can, in fact, understand each other.

Next consider the swelling range of opinion deemed to fall outside civilised discourse. To be sure, some opinions do, and the boundary shifts with time. The trouble now, says Zach Wood, a student at Williams College in Massachusetts, is that many people want to banish views that remain widely held among their compatriots, believing that, on neuralgic topics such as homosexuality, “It’s all said and done.” He runs a campus group that hosts challenging speakers. “Silence does nothing,” he reasons. Two of its invitations—to Suzanne Venker, author of “The War on Men”, and John Derbyshire, a racist provocateur—have recently been rescinded: Ms Venker was disinvited under pressure from other students, Mr Derbyshire by the college’s leadership. Mr Wood has been insulted, ostracised and (he is black) told he has “sold out his race”. Other prominent figures deterred or blocked from addressing university audiences include Condoleezza Rice, a former secretary of state, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former Muslim, and Jason Riley, an African-American journalist who wrote a book called “Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder For Blacks To Succeed”.

Activists are entitled to their protests. But when, as at Williams, they decry counter-arguments as tantamount to violence, they stray into censorship. On campuses across America not only have speakers been disinvited or shouted down for espousing assorted heresies (a practice known as “no-platforming” in Britain); administrators have also been urged to dismiss staff who, like the Christakises, are held to have transgressed. Dissenters, and those who simply worry about saying the wrong thing, are increasingly inclined to keep their mouths shut. Much to their bafflement, the targets are often themselves left-leaning.

This creeping intolerance chimes with the paternalism of “trigger warnings”, whereby students are alerted to potentially upsetting passages in novels or other texts, as if solidarity in suffering were not one of art’s chief purposes. Theoretically, if not yet in practice, trigger warnings may oust great literature in favour of socialist-realist tedium. Then there are “safe spaces”, dedicated sanctuaries in which minorities can recuperate. Sebastian Marotta, a student who is part of a Princeton free-speech group, reckons a movement avowedly committed to diversity may perversely result in “self-segregation based on beliefs and identity”. As Ms Christakis summarised in her ill-fated Halloween e-mail, others fear that, with the connivance of teachers and their overlords, America’s universities “have become places of censure and prohibition”.

At the heart of this dispute is the role of the university itself. Should it shield youngsters from the fraught world they will soon enter or, by exposing them to its affronts, prepare them for it? This has a corollary: whether a student is an adult, or an in-betweener needing special protection and privileges (such as the right to spend a lot of time in the library and getting drunk). All of the above, say diplomatic university bosses. Some students, though, seem to emphasise incubation over preparation; hence their requests for more reprimands and intrusion, for supposedly improving bans and rules. What really distinguishes them from their predecessors, say their critics, is not solipsism, impatience or a certainty that can slide from admirable passion into self-righteousness, but the expectation that all their problems should be magicked away. Whereas, as Dr Christakis says, universities “cannot readily deliver utopia, much as we might want to”.

The new activism thus illustrates what, beyond the groves of academe, may be America’s biggest political problem: opponents’ rising tendency to talk past each other, so that disagreement escalates into conflict. Nevertheless, beyond the viral clips, for those who care to notice there are signs this divide can partially be bridged.

The students’ new-fangled vocabulary, such as the perpetual admonition of “privilege” and “micro-aggressions”, often mystifies their elders. Yet buried within the jargon are old-fashioned values that the most conservative fogey could embrace. Cultural “re-education” sounds Maoist, but helping staff to cope with students from different backgrounds is common sense. Campus Jewish centres are well-established “safe spaces”, to which no one much objects; places where minorities are able to feel inconspicuous or comfortable are perfectly sound ideas, provided people do not spend all their time in them. If sparingly deployed, trigger warnings, too, can be benign. A gentle alert to the impending description of rape, for example, may be less liberal craziness than good manners.

In the aftermath of the nastiness towards journalists at the University of Missouri, Mr Faloughi and others distributed flyers around campus urging students to respect the media and the First Amendment. “We’re students, we don’t know everything,” Mr Faloughi acknowledges. Yet sometimes, when they identify injustices that society has blithely tolerated, or opportunities for progress it has missed, angry students can turn out to be right.

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