I graduated from Reed College what seems like several years ago, though in fact I enrolled at the school as a sophomore shortly after the Vietnam war ended. The campus had just settled down after a period of unusual turmoil that centered around the war. Now, more than forty years later, we have more division over issues of free speech.
The perversions of intellectual freedom we have seen on campuses during the last decade or two have gradually evolved into Maoist battles, complete with self-appointed enforcers to guarantee purity of thought. How did we reach a point where efforts to stop speech exceed efforts to promote it?
The operative principle of campus speech activism appears to be: my own right of free speech—that is, the space I need to think freely—requires me to keep you quiet. This principle applies to people who disagree with me, but it does not apply to me. In this respect, campus speech activism represents an instance of asymmetric power.
Think of how principles of asymmetric coercion and power work in other settings. They are so obnoxious in democratic institutions that we do everything we can to preserve open interactions, as well as equal rights for everyone involved in those interactions. Why should we accept asymmetric coercion and power rather than egalitarian interactions on college campuses?
The operative principle of campus speech activism appears to be: my own right of free speech—that is, the space I need to think freely—requires me to keep you quiet.
The Greenburg Distinguished Scholar Program at Reed College invited Kimberly Peirce to visit the campus in order to speak with students and faculty about her film, Boys Don’t Cry. Here is Robby Soave’s account of her visit at Reason:
Leftist Students Shouted ‘Fuck You Bitch’ at the Gay Director of a Pro-Trans Movie, Boys Don’t Cry
There was a time not so long ago when the people shouting “fuck you bitch” at a gender-fluid gay filmmaker would have been bigoted right-wing conservatives. But because we currently live in the year 2016, the people who heckled Kimberly Peirce—director of Boys Don’t Cry, a groundbreaking film about a transgender man—during her recent appearance at Reed College were far-left students.
The students hurled a litany of insults at Peirce, putting up posters that read “fuck your transphobia” and “you don’t fucking get it” among other things. Worse, when Peirce ascended to her podium, students had placed a sign there. It read “fuck this cis white bitch.” That Peirce is actually gender-fluid is quite beside the point.
The students’ unbelievable rudeness crossed the line into a kind of censorship when Peirce tried to speak: the students simply shouted over her. Eventually they let her talk, but some students continued to yell things like “fuck your respectability politics” and “fuck you scared bitch.”
You’re probably wondering why the social justice left hates Peirce so much. Bear with me. She had come to campus to do a Q and A following the screening of her 1999 film, Boys Don’t Cry. The film is an adaptation of the true story of Brandon Teena, who was born a woman but chose to identify and present as a man, and was murdered because of it. It’s a heartbreaking love story that undoubtedly introduced countless Americans to the reality of anti-trans violence.
You’re probably still wondering why the social justice left hates Peirce so much. Well, the film was ahead of its time in 1999, but in 2016 it’s problematic. That’s because the main character, Brandon, was played by Hilary Swank, a non-trans person. Students were also incensed at the idea of Peirce having profited from violence against trans people, which isn’t a remotely accurate way to characterize things, but there it is.
By now you want to ask, why weren’t these students expelled? Further, why would any graduate of the college ever want to donate another penny to such a school? Suppose a fraternity or sorority invited a black scholar or filmmaker to speak to their group about transgender issues, and members of the audience shouted down their guest with epithets like “Fuck you cis bitch!” Would that Greek organization be permitted to stay on campus? If not, why are students at Reed who did the same thing allowed to stay?
A likely result of such an admonishment is that people on campus become ultra-careful about who they invite to speak.
Dean of the Faculty Nigel Nicholson criticized Reed students for their behavior in an open letter to the community, published in the campus newspaper. He concludes: “I was deeply embarrassed and ashamed of our conduct, and I hope that as a community we can reflect on what happened and make a determination not to repeat it.” When you published that letter, Dean Nicholson, you did more than many administrators would have done. Nevertheless, the second half of your sentence about hope and reflection leaves one thinking, “That’s it? You want to leave it up to students to correct their behavior?”
A likely result of such an admonishment is that people on campus become ultra-careful about who they invite to speak. If ill treatment of a guest is at all possible, scratch the person from the list of candidate speakers. The enforcers will have their way, so long as they remain on campus. Yet the college admissions committee decides who arrives on campus each fall. It also sets standards for who remains on campus, to receive a degree. Why would extreme inhospitality to a guest not be cause for suspension or dismissal?
When I first read the news about treatment of Kimberly Peirce during her visit to Reed College in November, my response was, “Great, now my own school has fallen victim to the ugliest kinds of campus speech suppression.” After that I let it go: too many things to think about during the run-up to the holidays. Then last week, Middlebury College had an even uglier episode, where students attacked a female faculty member who moderated – or tried to moderate – Charles Murray’s on-campus lecture. They sent her to the emergency room.
Reed and Middlebury are like sister schools on opposite sides of the country. Both stand not only for liberal thinking in arts, sciences, and humanities, but also for high standards of scholarship and personal behavior. When masked thugs set fires and smash windows at Berkeley, you find yourself saying, “What do you expect? That’s Berkeley.” That’s not fair to students of good character at California’s largest university, but Berkeley has a history. Reed and Middlebury have their own histories of activism, but efforts to suppress free speech have not generally been part of their traditions.
A little over fifty percent of Reed students receive financial aid. Proportionally and by probability, roughly half the protesters at Peirce’s November visit had support from generous donors among the school’s alumni. How many donors, would you guess, are happy to see their money spent to support would-be Maoist enforcers, who patrol the campus to descend on visitors with signs and epithets calculated to intimidate anyone who crosses them?
Consider then the college deans’ main response to students’ enforcement action. Dean Nicholson published a letter in the college’s newspaper, the Quest, addressed to the entire Reed community. He admonished members of the community that we do not treat guests this way, then concluded:
I was deeply embarrassed and ashamed of our conduct, and I hope that as a community we can reflect on what happened and make a determination not to repeat it.
I’ve already noted that Dean Nicholson’s letter represents a more vocal and literate defense of liberal values on campus than we have seen elsewhere. Higher education administrators seem altogether too ready to accommodate the currents of suppression they encounter on their campuses.
Yet reconsider the nature of Professor Nicholson’s letter. He admonishes the entire student body in his letter, especially in his conclusion. Before the end, he refers to the enforcers throughout the letter as some students. Reed hosts a small number of young scholars. If Nicholson did not know the enforcers’ names, he might have asked them to identify themselves. Alternately, he could have learned their leaders’ names. Yet he decided to let them stay anonymous. Given the letter’s concluding sentence, it effectively asks all students to do their part to prevent uncivil treatment of campus guests in the future.
That doesn’t seem so fair to me. I’m going to estimate the number of enforcers at a little over a dozen. In a student body of approximately 1,400, that equals one percent. Most of the remaining 99%, some of whom came to hear Peirce speak, are already appalled, disturbed, and ashamed of their fellow students’ behavior. They wonder how they wound up on a campus where people treat guests that way. They suddenly wonder how the enforcers will treat them if they step off the PC reservation.
Yet the dean lets the enforcers work their ways of intimidation – via handwritten signs and obscene threats – behind the veil of anonymity that all coercers crave. That’s why the thugs at Berkeley wore masks. They want to draw attention to the violence they inflict, but they do not want their victims to identify them. Enforcers at Reed and Middlebury did not wear masks – neither did they introduce themselves to their victims. Allison Stanger, injured faculty member at Middlebury, said the enforcers would not even look her in the eye. Mobs seldom do.
Colleges like Middlebury and Reed go through careful selection processes to determine who becomes a member of their communities. Some conditions of membership – most of them academic expectations – are written down. Most of the social expectations for community members are customary. You won’t find a rule in the student handbook that says, “Don’t call guests a fucking bitch.” Yet it’s still a rule. Deans who lead the community ought to identify students who violate this standard of behavior, then have a talk with each one, individually. Pointedly ask if the student wants to remain a part of the community, after having betrayed the college and the ideals of free exchange that it represents.
A student who walks out of the dean’s office after such a talk would know that the next time they participate in an enforcement action, they are gone. Their friends would know it, too. Word would circulate that other enforcers who practice intimidation on campus may find the deans less lenient the next time around. They would understand that if you breach unwritten rules, expectations that underpin the college’s reputation across the country, you can take the academic credits you’ve earned to some other college that welcomes your Maoist proclivities. Reed has plenty of applicants on its waiting list who understand how to treat guests.
Let me end with reference to an article I read this morning, by Eric Liu in The Atlantic. He writes about civic engagement in the United States, especially since the November election, and about how our interest in citizenship and participation informs a sense of how to behave in political groups:
Citizenship in a republic requires not just literacy in power but also a grounding in character. Power literacy means understanding systems of law, custom, and institutions—and acting with skill to move those systems. Civic character is more than personal virtue. It is about character in the collective—mutuality, reciprocity, respect, service, justice—and the prosocial ethics of being a member of the body.
All of these qualities apply to college communities as well as a whole republic. Schools claim to shape the whole person, within a healthy community. That means they prepare students for citizenship, first as members of a campus body, then as members of other groups they may join after they graduate. I would say, based on student behavior, that leaders of Reed, Middlebury, and hundreds of other colleges and universities across the country do not know how to develop these qualities of character in the students who come to their campuses. If they do understand how to develop these qualities, they ought to get moving, fast.
Asymmetric power – Related to a double standard, but includes intimidation and coercion as well. This kind of power relationship aims to deny other parties a right or privilege you claim for yourself.