The New Intolerance of Student Activism, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Some remaining emails from readers on the tumult at Yale:

I think there’s a lot going on in the muddle on campus. Some of the (lack of) discussion resembles an internet argument, for example. I’ve recently had quite a few online encounters where I think I was mostly agreeing with the other person, but because we weren’t using 100 percent identical premises and language, we wound up arguing anyway. And “Walk away, he doesn’t deserved to be listened to” from the Yale student sounds awfully like “Don’t feed the trolls” to me. Christakis is not a troll, of course, but the internet is where most people of my generation got their debating skills, such as they are.

Another reader is more pointed in his criticism of the discourse:

Perhaps this new methodology of social justice has its roots in a religious-like zeal in which all disagreement and dissent must be stamped out. Has anyone else noticed how “privilege” is like the fundamentalist version of “original sin”? Then if you challenge them, they can say the worst possible things about you with no recourse or shame—provided they are less “privileged” then you.

A law professor makes a couple of key distinctions in the Yale saga:

Ms. Christakis’ e-mail seems to conflate the wishes of a white preschooler to dress mimicking a fictitious, animated, individual, and named Asian character with the desire of college-age, mostly white, often male students to costume themselves as nameless, de-individualized black, Asian, or other persons of color. Small children of any background need neither excuse, justification, nor explanation for wanting to costume themselves as fictional characters. Children who do so typically mean no harm and cause no harm. Little kids just want to have fun.

However, in the vast majority of cases, college “kids” are legally adults.

Yes, these big “kids” also want to have fun. They want to be irreverent and silly and, as Ms. Christakis writes in her e-mail, “a little bit obnoxious” or “a little bit inappropriate.” Here I agree with Christakis; maybe these college students should be allowed a lot of leeway to behave in these ways. Colleges are places where the young go not just for education but for respite from the world. We should condone and even encourage a certain amount of mildly raucous carnival fun like Halloween where, as Christakis writes, students may engage in “a certain regressive, or even transgressive” behavior. Just as in other parts of the grown-up world, students should not be required to respect others.

But there are times when students should be asked to respect others. Tolerating ersatz carnival is condoning insult, wherein people in power mock the relatively powerless. And citing freedom of expression norms to protect it is especially pernicious. Colleges have a unique responsibility to educate students well beyond the classroom. In loco parentis [as Robby Soave discussed] may not be as robust a doctrine as in past decades, but neither is it dead letter. Inculcating values of respect, thoughtfulness and decency remain important parts of the mission of modern colleges.

This reader turns to the lack of decency among other students:

Perhaps I’m being overly simplistic, but when did it become okay to spit on those with whom you disagree?  Students at Yale did, and in doing so violated basic tenets of civic discourse, as well as potential criminal and constitutional laws. The shame of it is that these groups seem to have legitimate claims of racism against their schools. These acts by individuals most certainly (hopefully) do not reflect the general feelings of each student group, but if there was a way to find sympathy for the “establishment,” these students provided it.

I suspect the students may say in response to my problems with spitting that their adversaries do much worse.  Which is probably true (especially with respect to the truly racist acts that have occurred there). But that logic is similar to saying it’s okay to torture captives of war because we know our enemies are doing it to us.

A final reader, N.P. Adams, thinks through the various realms of free speech:

Too many of the people opining on these issues are using the idea of freedom of speech in very vague, unspecified ways. At least some of this controversy would be clarified, if not resolved, just by getting clear on what we mean by freedom of speech. Only when we are clear on what we mean can we productively debate its grounds, its value, and its limits.

In the first instance, freedom of speech is about the relation of citizen to state. When the Constitution protects freedom of speech, it protects citizens from infringements on their expressions by the state. Suppression of speech by the state is a distinct, and distinctly more important, problem from most of the issues that have been called freedom of speech in these recent controversies. The state has immense coercive power that it can bring to bear on speech, and when it does so it has a profound and direct impact on the quality of our political culture and on the ability of individuals to live their lives freely.

Freedom of speech in other contexts—for example, between members of a university community, between family members, between neighbors, between church members, and so on—is a very different issue. First, the problem of coerciveness is, if not absent, at least not the same. Your church might expel you if you violate its norms, but it won’t lock you in a small room. Second, the purpose and nature of these contexts is very different. We think that there is often positive value in restricting speech in these spaces. Something would be lost if we did not.

These contexts are not the same as the political sphere, and different ways of interacting with people are appropriate in different contexts. This isn’t to say that suppressing speech in these contexts is necessarily good. We still need to interrogate the norms of those communities and ask whether they are apt. But they are not the same as political norms. When we enter these more local, more intimate communities, we subject ourselves to norms in different ways.

Of course, universities are a particular context where freedom of speech matters a very great deal. It matters for political reasons, as universities aim to train reflective citizens, and it matters for educational reasons, as universities strive to be a space where people can try out new ideas in a more open and less risky setting. (Of course it matters in a lot of other ways too, as with tenure and professors.) But universities often strive to be communities of a more robust sort as well, where certain norms of conduct matter for how members of the community can learn, and live, and flourish.

Sometimes those norms of flourishing community will come into conflict with norms of free speech. It’s not true that the norms of free speech should just automatically win when they conflict with other norms in this case. Because the university context is not the state-citizen context, the balance between free speech norms and other norms is going to be different. In all likelihood, the free speech norms are going to be more restricted than in the political sphere, as they are more restricted in religious and family and other community contexts as well.

This is not to say that the balance being called for in the particular Yale case or others is correct. But it’s important to realize that the context is different, so the appeal to freedom of speech that is often decisive in the political context should be different as well. The mere fact of speech restrictions is not a trump.