Posts Tagged ‘Jonathan Chait’

Liberals, the left and academic freedom

February 6, 2015

quote-i-disapprove-of-what-you-say-but-will-defend-to-the-death-your-right-to-say-it-voltaire-334856I was a college student in the 1950s, the heyday of Joe McCarthy, and strongly believed in academic freedom, which was under attack.

The idea was that Communists, and people thought to be in sympathy with Communists, did not have the right to freedom of speech because they—by definition—did not believe in it themselves.

We liberals insisted that free speech was for everyone.  We frequently quoted John Milton, Thomas Jefferson, John Stuart Mill and others who insisted that freedom meant that people on all sides of a question had a right to be heard.

The big issue was whether a student organization called the Labor Youth League, which was on the attorney-general’s list of subversive organizations, should be permitted on campus.  We liberals said it should.  The correct response to Communist arguments was to refute them, not to suppress them.

Our principles were that any student organization that followed impartial university rules should be permitted, and any college professor who was met impartial academic standards should be permitted to teach.  True education meant exposure to a diverse ideas, including ideas we might not like.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been been a part of the academic world.  But I get the idea that my concept of academic freedom is no longer taken for granted on campus.   There is a whole campus sub-culture based on a vocabulary that is new to me—”cis-gender,” “tone police,” “micro-aggression”, and, by some accounts, little tolerance for deviation from the new norms.

A graduate student named Fredrick deBoer wrote recently:

I have seen, with my own two eyes, a 19 year old white woman — smart, well-meaning, passionate — literally run crying from a classroom because she was so ruthlessly brow-beaten for using the word “disabled.”  Not repeatedly.  Not with malice.  Not because of privilege.  She used the word once and was excoriated for it.  She never came back.  I watched that happen.

I have seen, with my own two eyes, a 20 year old black man, a track athlete who tried to fit organizing meetings around classes and his ridiculous practice schedule (for which he received a scholarship worth a quarter of tuition), be told not to return to those meetings because he said he thought there were such a thing as innate gender differences.  He wasn’t a homophobe, or transphobic, or a misogynist.  It turns out that 20 year olds from rural South Carolina aren’t born with an innate understanding of the intersectionality playbook.  But those were the terms deployed against him, those and worse. So that was it; he was gone.

I have seen, with my own two eyes, a 33 year old Hispanic man, an Iraq war veteran who had served three tours and had become an outspoken critic of our presence there, be lectured about patriarchy by an affluent 22 year old white liberal arts college student, because he had said that other vets have to “man up” and speak out about the war.  Because apparently we have to pretend that we don’t know how metaphorical language works or else we’re bad people.  I watched his eyes glaze over as this woman with $300 shoes berated him.  I saw that.  Myself.

via Fredrik deBoer.

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