Scroll down to find all the staff notes and reader reactions to the controversies over race and free speech on college campuses. (A similar debate on campus PC and mental health is here, spurred by our Sept ‘15 cover story.) Join the discussion via email.
Howard University confirmed it was increasing security on its Washington, D.C., campus following an anonymous death threat posted online on Wednesday night. [...] The FBI confirmed the threat in a statement early Thursday afternoon. “We are aware of the online threat and have made appropriate notifications," the FBI said in a statement to the Washington City Paper. “We urge anyone who has information about the threat to contact the Metropolitan Police Department or the FBI.”
The threat was posted on a forum that appears to be a 4chan board, a photograph of the post has been shared widely on Twitter and Instagram.
Some words “by their very utterance” cause injury or incite an immediate breach of peace, and they do not receive constitutional protection. Among the category of unprotected speech are “true threats,” statements in which a speaker expresses a “serious” intent “to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals.” Even though statutes that punish unprotected speech have “never been thought to raise any Constitutional problem” and Congress has made it a crime to use interstate communications facilities to make “threats,” the law governing this subject has been unclear.
The federal circuit courts of appeals disagree over the correct mens rea requirement necessary to prove a violation of the federal threat statute. A majority of those courts require the government to prove only that the defendant knowingly made a statement that “was not the result of mistake, duress, or coercion” and that a “reasonable person” would regard as threatening. Other courts have required a different, stricter standard—one that requires the government to prove not only that the defendant knowingly made a statement reasonably perceived as threatening, but also that he subjectively intended for his communication to be threatening.
Update: A letter sent by the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), Greg Lukianoff’s group, to Mizzou officials today contains a passage especially relevant to this history:
[T]he University of Missouri itself is at the center of one of the [U.S. Supreme] Court’s most famous decisions applying this principle [that merely offensive or hurtful speech is protected] specifically to the public university campus. In Papish v. Board of Curators of the University of Missouri, 410 U.S. 667, 670 (1973), the Court held that “the mere dissemination of ideas—no matter how offensive to good taste—on a state university campus may not be shut off in the name alone of ‘conventions of decency.’” That case memorably upheld the rights of journalism student Barbara Papish to distribute a newspaper featuring a cartoon depicting police officers raping the Statue of Liberty and the Goddess of Justice, as well as an article titled “Motherfucker Acquitted.”
Flag desecration, funeral protests, and cartoons of the kind distributed by Papish are without question considered “hateful” or “hurtful” by some, even by many. With passions running high at Mizzou in the midst of important discussions and debates on the topics of race, equality, and justice, it is quite likely, if not inevitable, that some exchanges were and will be considered hateful or hurtful. It is crucial that students be able to carry out such debates without fear that giving offense will result in being reported to the police and referred for discipline by the university. Indeed, the expectation that the right of students to fully express themselves on the Mizzou campus will be respected is part of what has made the demonstrations of the last few weeks possible.
My fiancee is a Mizzou alumna, and we got into a brief squabble about this the other night. It’s frustrating because she kept insisting that I wasn’t there and couldn’t know what the protesters had endured during their time on campus. She wouldn’t hear my argument that preserving free speech is important no matter what the situation, even though I agree with the cause of the protesters just as much as she does. I couldn’t seem to make her understand that their situation doesn’t excuse their attempted suppression of the free speech of others.
Once that line has been crossed, all the opposition has to do is say “but they did the exact same thing.” And they can hit back with the same approach but with much more cultural and institutional power behind it.
In other words, inroads to authoritarian behavior, even in the service of a noble cause, always lead to the use of authoritarian behavior against the people who first look to it as a line of defense. By preserving First Amendment rights, the protesters might make a slightly longer road for themselves in the short term, but they will also ensure that road doesn’t lead them into a box canyon of their own making.
Here’s a more historical view from a “graduate student in the humanities at a major Midwestern research university”:
There’s an aspect of the recent campus “political correctness” debates that seems to be missing in all of the discussions of millennial fragility, standards of civility, and so on. There is, after all, a reason that the college campus has been the epicenter of this current wave of “P.C.,” and it isn’t simply attributable to youthful demographics or politically liberal professors. It’s the product of a larger trend in academic scholarship within the social sciences and humanities over the last three decades or so, usually called the “cultural turn.”
Many fields have moved away from a materialist view of the world and toward a seemingly obsessive focus on discourse as the most important explanation for social problems like income inequality, racism, sexism, etc. The idea, to put it simply, is that the way we represent people, places, and things is as important—if not more important—than reality itself.
In fact, reality is actually itself shaped by the way it is represented. Thus, making use of clichés and stereotypes, using a word that contains certain connotations, or even simply speaking at all without the proper qualifications (primarily based on gender/race/class identity) may not just be questions of taste but, instead, potentially grave acts of violence.
Some may remember that in the 1990s, this formed the basis for a broad debate in academia over the merits of what was generally referred to as “postmodernism.” This debate is pretty much over, partially due to the turnover of older professors trained in materialist methodologies retiring and being replaced by younger scholars who enthusiastically embrace the priorities of the “cultural turn.”
Also, I suspect, the debate is over because of the frustrating inefficacy of a conversation in which disagreement is construed as oppression or violence. It’s simply easier for the many professors who do not share the research priorities of the cultural turn—for example, a sociologist studying the reasons for poor health conditions in Indian slums instead of the language surrounding poor health in an Indian slum—to simply defer to their discourse-focused colleagues on most issues rather than risk career-damaging accusations of “silencing” or “marginalizing” or “epistemological violence.”
Perfectly apt and inoffensive words like “native” are considered too retrograde for public use owing to their perceived, oppressive connotations. That word is replaced by longer, Latinate synonyms like “indigenous,” which are in turn rotated out for even longer, clumsier alternatives (“autochthonous”). It is in this triviality-addicted academic environment that intellectually-engaged students begin to discover the world around them and to grapple with its many injustices.
A student concerned about the plight of Central American immigrants living illegally in the U.S., for example, learns that the first and most important steps to alleviating this problem are to change the language he or she uses to talk about the issue. They are not “illegal immigrants”; they are “undocumented,” or preferably just “immigrants.” One should be wary about referring to them as “Hispanic” or “Latino,” as this may reify harmful, generalized stereotypes. Referring to them as “refugees” rather than “immigrants” may call much-needed attention to the role of the U.S.’s drug policies in fomenting societal unrest in their countries of origin, but on the other hand it may reinforce negative perceptions of Central American nations as violent, backwards “banana republics.”
Perhaps the student should avoid using any labels at all and allow individuals from the marginalized community identify themselves? The stakes here are very high. While none of this, of course, has any effect on the living conditions of undocumented immigrants, change must begin somewhere.
Is it any wonder then, that within this academic zeitgeist, where terminology is considered the foundation of social change and language itself contains the capacity to inflict violence and heap misery upon millions of people, that politically-active students have begun to demand administrative action to control speech and other forms of expression on campus? A blonde-haired, Anglo-American student dressed in a Villa-esque costume with bandoliers and a large sombrero is not just having fun with a pop-culture archetype on Halloween. She is mocking and degrading Mexican-American students on campus by appealing to clichés of Mexican lawlessness, and in so doing she makes campus an oppressive, potentially violent and unsafe space for other students of Mexican ancestry.
We know this because scholarship has been telling us this for decades. Decades of research on the role of language and representation in processes of oppression and marginalization has led to an academia where the free expression of ideas is tightly-controlled and the proponents of language-policing believe, with the kind of certainty that comes only from religion or theory, that they are engaged in a war against the forces of injustice.
In order to move beyond the kind of campus environment where students feel threatened by their peers’ poor taste in costumes—or by an email written by a professor suggesting that their fellow students may be entitled to their poor taste—there must also be a change in the priorities and attitudes of professors themselves. It is up to the next generation of scholars entering the academy to find a way forward, out of this unpleasant and deeply trivial intellectual quagmire. Based on the worldviews expressed by the current generation of students leading the “P.C.” charge, I am not optimistic.
Disagree with that assessment or simply have a different view to share? Email firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll air the strongest dissenting views. Update from a reader:
I am a graduate student in the humanities at UC Berkeley, and though my name/position are clear from my signature and email address, I would ask that I remain anonymous if my words should ever see the light of day. The second email you posted, from the graduate student at the midwestern research university, is illuminating in its anonymity. The position that the student takes, which I believe to be well-founded and fair, cannot really be taken with one’s name attached to it, especially if the speaker is a graduate student.
The reader’s fear is that the next generation of faculty—that is, the current graduate students—are training and learning in an intellectual environment detached from reality, all gripped by the fear that reckless talk about “reality” will make it real. Further, we are to fear that, if we describe reality as it is, we will be complicit in its ills. And thus we add successive layers of insulating language until we are engaging in nothing but semantics, a realm that people of our skill set can comfortably dominate.
As your first reader suggested, the tendency is inherently authoritarian, and like any authoritarian system, it is prone to internecine conflict. Sealed from the outside world behind this growing intellectual barrier, the near enemy is the only one near enough to throttle—thus the reason for the reader’s anonymity, and mine. The whole worldview leads inexorably to purges, and graduate students (and, increasingly, non-tenured faculty) are the most vulnerable targets.
In a roundabout way, though, I think the graduate student’s email is reason for hope, if indeed we hope for a revival of free speech and room for dissenting views. A fractious ideology like this one makes more enemies than friends, and although its proponents are quite loud, they are not necessarily preponderant in numbers. Those who are skeptical of the entire edifice, and wise enough to keep their mouths shut, might very well comprise a silent majority—the term’s historical and cultural connotations be damned.
The protest was organized by the group People of Color at Ithaca College to express their concerns about racism on campus. They called for a vote of no confidence against Ithaca President Tom Rochon, as well as for Rochon to step down. During the protests [Wednesday], The Ithaca Journal reports, one student asked, “How can a campus dedicated to preparing us for the real world not actively foster growth to our consciousness of oppression and privilege?”
In March, the student government at Ithaca College, in upstate New York, went so far as to propose the creation of an anonymous microaggression-reporting system. Student sponsors envisioned some form of disciplinary action against “oppressors” engaged in belittling speech. One of the sponsors of the program said that while “not … every instance will require trial or some kind of harsh punishment,” she wanted the program to be “record-keeping but with impact.”
Full details on that dystopian idea here. For the protests Wednesday, Melissa Quinn chronicles the recent microaggressions that student leaders are using to pressure the president out of a job:
The first involved public safety officers who, during training sessions with Ithaca College resident assistants, allegedly made “racially insensitive” and “aggressive” statements, according to The Ithacan, Ithaca College’s student newspaper.
The second, [said Kyle Stewart, a spokesperson for the Student Government Association], centered on an off-campus party hosted by an unaffiliated fraternity last month. The party was themed “Preps and Crooks,” and students and alumni viewed the theme, described in a Facebook post, as “racially charged” and a “microaggression,” according to The Ithacan.
The last incident occurred during a university-sponsored event called “Blue Sky Reimagining” last month, where an African-American alumna of Ithaca College said she had a “savage hunger” to succeed in her professional career. A Caucasian Ithaca College alumnus speaking alongside the woman repeated her description, calling the alumna a “savage” multiple times, Stewart said. [...]
People of Color at Ithaca College called on Rochon to respond to the incidents and became frustrated when the responses from Ithaca College’s administration were inconsistent, Stewart said. In the case of the fraternity event, the response from college leadership was swift, and Ithaca distanced itself from both the fraternity and the event, calling the language in a post describing the party “reprehensible for its racial and class stereotyping,” the Ithacan reported.
Ithaca’s response to the comments at Blue Sky Reimagining, however, came days later—and after a video was taken offline.
[Students] walked out of class en masse Wednesday at noon in support of the injustices students of color face on college campuses nationwide. Raven Fowlkes-Witten, a Smith student who organized the movement, said she was inspired by a similar walk-out planned for Ithaca College Wednesday to protest their president’s handling of race issues on campus. [...]
About 200 people, including students, professors and the dean of the college, gathered in the middle of campus. Someone started chanting “who’s not here” to call attention to white students who don’t carry the burden of racism, Fowlkes-Witten said. The chant was also meant for students of color who can’t be at Smith because of institutional racism, she said.
Update from a “loyal tipster” reader who flags “some complaints about Ithaca College’s president that have been passed out recently”:
Earlier this week we heard briefly from a staff member of The Maneater, the student newspaper at the University of Missouri. Now a former staffer writes in:
I was a journalism undergrad at Mizzou 20 years ago (‘93) and immediately began working for The Maneater. I spent the next two years covering black student government (and white), as well as the black and white fraternity systems, all of which were 100 percent segregated—not by policy, but because people chose not to intermingle and sit amongst each other.
I tried endlessly to make black friends. I covered their communities for two years. I still had no friends. As an outsider—someone from Colorado on a campus that largely draws students from in-state—I couldn’t understand the anger and hostility I encountered, nor fathom why none of the black students would even give me a chance to talk to me, to find out who I am. I became frustrated and eventually gave up when so many black students couldn’t care to even recognize that I was their ally; I was someone eager and willing to help. But they were so standoffish and frankly “blind” to any difference between different white people.
This year, black students protested the annual Homecoming parade. They were doing that 20 years ago too; it was my first cover story I wrote for The Maneater.
For my news story, I couldn’t get any of the protestors to articulate what EXACTLY the changes they wanted. Apparently these protests have been going on every year since! The response of the white people I interviewed in the audience at the protest 20 years ago was bewilderment:
“Why are they shouting and making black power fists in the middle of warm, fall day? We’re just here to celebrate our community and bring out children, and then all these people show up screaming and angry. Why would they do that?”
Shouting things like “justice now” and waving black power fists and marching with angry scowled faces in the middle of a happy fall parade filled with small children—what can that do short of alienating and hardening the hearts of the people who are watching it? Hurling profanity at random groups of people—all it does is alienate the white people who actually believe in equality and want to partner with you.
If Mizzou black students want to make genuine systemic change, it will happen not through screaming, not using profanity and hysteria. It will happen by calmly and logically listing out concrete, specific changes they would like to see. And they need to measure “success” not by whether all 100 of their requests are met. Success is if SOME of the requests are met, and the ones that aren’t, it is calmly and respectfully debated what the reasons are.
My hunch is this whole issue is really about the larger broader social issues related to the arrests and shootings of black men around the country, and less about some sort of vile, threatening environment at Mizzou itself.
It’s worth noting the Concerned Students of 1950, the activist group that forced the resignations of Mizzou’s president and chancellor, did issue a list of fairly concrete, specific demands to the university last month:
I. We demand that the University of Missouri System President, Tim Wolfe, writes a handwritten apology to the Concerned Student 1-9-5-0 demonstrators and holds a press conference in the Mizzou Student Center reading the letter. In the letter and at the press conference, Tim Wolfe must acknowledge his white male privilege, recognize that systems of oppression exist, and provide a verbal commitment to fulfilling Concerned Student 1-9-5-0 demands. We want Tim Wolfe to admit to his gross negligence, allowing his driver to hit one of the demonstrators, consenting to the physical violence of bystanders, and lastly refusing to intervene when Columbia Police Department used excessive force with demonstrators.
II. We demand the immediate removal of Tim Wolfe as UM system president. After his removal a new amendment to UM system policies must be established to have all future UM system president and Chancellor positions be selected by a collective of students, staff, and faculty of diverse backgrounds.
III. We demand that the University of Missouri meets the Legion of Black Collegians’ demands that were presented in 1969 for the betterment of the black community.
IV. We demand that the University of Missouri creates and enforces comprehensive racial awareness and inclusion curriculum throughout all campus departments and units, mandatory for all students, faculty, staff, and administration. This curriculum must be vetted, maintained, and overseen by a board comprised of students, staff, and faculty of color.
V. We demand that by the academic year 2017-2018, the University of Missouri increases the percentage of black faculty and staff campus-wide to 10%.
VI. We demand that the University of Missouri composes a strategic 10 year plan by May 1, 2016 that will increase retention rates for marginalized students, sustain diversity curriculum and training, and promote a more safe and inclusive campus.
VII. We demand that the University of Missouri increases funding and resources for the University of Missouri Counseling Center for the purpose of hiring additional mental health professionals -- particularly those of color, boosting mental health outreach and programming across campus, increasing campus-wide awareness and visibility of the counseling center, and reducing lengthy wait times for prospective clients.
VIII. We demand that the University of Missouri increases funding, resources, and personnel for the social justices centers on campus for the purpose of hiring additional professionals, particularly those of color, boosting outreach and programming across campus, and increasing campus-wide awareness and visibility.
After the president and chancellor lost their jobs on Monday, the group issued new demands:
“Moving forward, Concerned Student 1950 demands an immediate meeting with the UM System Faculty Council, Board of Curators and the governor of the state of Missouri to discuss shared governance and create a system of holistic inclusion for all constituents,” said Marshall Allen, an original member of Concerned Student 1950, announced at the conference. Allen added that the group’s demands must be met “in totality.”
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.
The events at Yale over the past weeks have provoked a great deal of conversation, but little effort to understand or acknowledge the cultural and institutional biases at play. In their responses, many have made the same mistake that my friend did [by dressing in blackface], assuming that individual actions can be divorced from their broader context, or from the larger and more troubling legacy of racial discrimination in America. But they can’t.
Continued here. Robby Soave at Reasonsees a historical irony:
Perhaps the most astonishing thing about these students’ censorious actions is how profoundly conservative they are. By communicating an expectation that their master or president protect them from unsightly Halloween costumes, or promise them no more hurtful words will be said at their expense, students are essentially calling for a return to campus life under in loco parentis. [...] Half a century ago, student activists liberated themselves—partly, at least—from in loco parentis: the paternalistic notion that college administrators should serve as watchful guardians, restricting students’ activities and rights in order to provide a safe environment for them, the way a mother or father would.
Political correctness is a system of thought that denies the legitimacy of political pluralism on issues of race and gender. It manifests itself most prominently in campus settings not because it’s a passing phase, like acne, but because the academy is one of the few bastions of American life where the p.c. left can muster the strength to impose its political hegemony upon others. The phenomenon also exists in other nonacademic left-wing communities, many of them virtual ones centered on social media, and its defenders include professional left-wing intellectuals. [...]
That these activists have been able to prevail, even in the face of frequently harsh national publicity highlighting the blunt illiberalism of their methods, confirms that these incidents reflect something deeper than a series of one-off episodes. They are carrying out the ideals of a movement that regards the delegitimization of dissent as a first-order goal. People on the left need to stop evading the question of political correctness — by laughing it off as college goofs, or interrogating the motives of p.c. critics, or ignoring it — and make a decision on whether they agree with it.
But Daniel Drezner at the Washington Postdownplays the situation at Yale—namely the viral video of the student screaming at the faculty member and an op-ed written by another student—as basically the behavior of college goofs:
One of the purposes of college is to articulate stupid arguments in stupid ways and then learn, through interactions with fellow students and professors, exactly how stupid they are. Anyone who thinks that the current generation of college students is uniquely stupid is either an amnesiac or willfully ignorant. As a professor with 20 years of experience, I can assure you that college students have been saying stupid things since the invention of college students.
The difference today is that because of social media, it is easy for college students to have their opinions go viral when that was not the original intent. [...] If you are older than 22 and reading this, imagine for a second how you would feel if professional pundits pored over your undergraduate musings in real time.
One part of my life, the part that engages with the broader political conversation, is filled with well-meaning liberal and left people who say “oh, there’s no illiberal attitudes among college students — that’s all a conspiracy by the conservative media.” These people, generally, are not on campus. Meanwhile, my extensive connections in the academy, and my continuing friendships with many people who are involved in the world of campus organizing, report that this tendency is true — and often justify it, arguing that this illiberalism is in fact a necessary aspect of achieving social justice.
Shifting back to the Missouri campus, Balloon Juice’s Betty Cracker succinctly sums up the problem with how the protestors pushed back the media:
This isn’t a George W. Bush rally; there are no “free speech zones.” If you want to escape reporters, it’s pretty simple — leave the public space.
Media critic Erik Wemple chronicles the actions of the non-students at that standoff:
These three university employees had a chance to stick up for free expression on Monday. Instead, they stood up for coercion and darkness. They should lose their jobs as a result.
The most infamous of the three, communications professor Melissa Click, just resigned her courtesy post at the journalism department, but her job is still intact. Now there’s a report that the Missouri University Police Department is monitoring speech:
[T]he MUPD asked “individuals who witness incidents of hateful and/or hurtful speech or actions” to call the department’s general phone line “to continue to ensure that the University of Missouri campus remains safe.” [...] In the email, MUPD readily admits that hurtful or hateful speech is not against the law. But, they write, “if the individuals identified are students, MU’s Office of Student Conduct can take disciplinary action.”
[T]here’s not even any claim that they’re just trying to find evidence of crimes, or trying to answer speech with more speech. Here a university is urging students to call the police whenever they hear “hurtful speech,” precisely so the university “can take disciplinary action” against the speakers. This is the new face of the modern university.
[T]he Wesleyan Student Assembly affirmed a resolution to restructure how The Argus is funded. The resolution is complicated, but it would substantially decrease The Argus’s printing budget; money saved this way would be put toward stipends for writers at various campus publications that don’t publish as frequently as The Argus. The WSA claims the purpose of the resolution is to “reduce paper waste,” by printing The Argus less frequently. The exact details haven’t been hammered out yet, but Argus editors expect their funding to be cut by $15,000 [the total budget is about $30,000].
If you’d like to highlight other controversies over campus speech across the U.S., drop me an email. Update from a reader:
This reminds me of a related controversy at Brown University last month in which their school paper published a couple of controversial op-eds. The response wasn’t to argue against what was written, but to complain that they shouldn’t have been published in the first place because of how it made some people FEEL.
As one student said, “When an institution like The Herald, the university’s oldest newspaper, posts this type of article, our comfort in this space is taken away.” I found this quote particularly shocking; she actually believes she should be made to feel comfortable when reading a newspaper! The exact opposite is true, especially of op-eds. You should be agitated and challenged and made to think, not reflexively look to stop the conversation because of your discomfort.
One interesting bit of context to the kerfuffle at Yale:
I was a student at Northwestern University from 2009 to 2013. During that time, a small number of students on campus did some pretty racist stuff. In 2009, two graduate students wore blackface to a Halloween party; a few years later, more than a dozen kids dressed up in varying types of redface and blackface for an outdoor “Beer Olympics” party. Both incidents produced student anger and campus discussions.
Incidents like these exist on two levels simultaneously. On the one hand, they are offensive to many students, a betrayal of the idea of college as a respectful and enlightened place. On the other, they are very bad PR. So to head off both negatives, university administration began emailing students a week before Halloween, reminding kids not to dress in blackface or do something to mock other people’s race or religion. It included this set of questions:
• Wearing a funny costume? Is the humor based on “making fun” of real people, human traits or cultures?
• Wearing a historical costume? If this costume is meant to be historical, does it further misinformation or historical and cultural inaccuracies?
• Wearing a ‘cultural' costume? Does this costume reduce cultural differences to jokes or sterotypes?
• Could someone take offense with your costume and why?
These emails felt unfortunate but necessary. Gawkerwrote them up, but even the feeling among students was something like: Better an ounce of prevention-related headlines than, you know, a pound of the other type.
The emails became a part of the campus calendar. A week before Halloween? The please-don’t-be-racist email was going to go out. And usually they were signed by our old dean of students, Burgwell Howard.
Howard moved to Yale this fall. Students there received a similar email this October—and the email looked much the same to the one we got in 2010.
But I do feel like that past plays into the current discussion of what’s happening at Yale. Administrators are proliferating at nearly every campus in the country. Many professors and graduate students resent their reach; they feel that the various vice associate provosts are doing little more than shuffling papers and making busy work for themselves. This is part of the subtext when critics sneer that 13 different administrators signed Yale’s Halloween email.
But the Yale Halloween email emerged from professional experience as much as anything else. I’m no defender of administrators everywhere, but in light of what happened at Northwestern (and countless other schools where blackface has been a problem), the Yale email looks less like administrative overreach and more like historically informed prudence.
Maybe that will let us move on a bit from one particular he-said-she-said incident—as one Yale student, Aaron Z. Lewis, has already asked us to do.
Like his predecessor, Gary Forsee, the former Sprint CEO, Wolfe came from the world of business rather than academia. He had spent years at IBM and Novell— years the university system hoped would help in fundraising and cost-cutting.
How do you explain the selection of a former software executive with no significant academic credentials as the leader of a four-campus university system? Answer: You take a sow’s ear and turn it into a silk purse.
The tenure was controversial from the start. Wolfe ended the $400,000 subsidy for the University of Missouri Press in May 2012, said the press would close completely in July, and in October—after massive backlash—said it would stay open, after all.
Under his watch, the university ended a decades-old program to train students at Planned Parenthood, and stopped granting hospital privileges to the sole doctor performing abortions at the organization’s clinic in Columbia, MU’s main campus. The university also ended subsidies that allowed its graduate students to pay for health insurance.
I should add here that I’m a graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism and my time there, 1998-2000, predated Wolfe’s presidency. But my conversations with former classmates, as well news reports, make it apparent that Wolfe’s decision-making wasn’t always popular.
In 2014, the University of Missouri football team generated $14,229,128. Coach Gary Pinkel recently received a salary increase from $3.1 million to about $4 million; Wolfe, by contrast, made $459,000 per year.
In the end, it was football that forced Wolfe’s resignation. After nearly two months of protests over racial incidents on campus—in which Wolfe’s response was seen as inadequate—the school’s football team announced a boycott. Thirty-six hours later, Wolfe was gone.
In the coverage of the campus protests this week, two small details reminded me of the central thesis of our September cover story from Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff (debated by readers at length here). They argue that a new heightened climate of political correctness is fueling the anxiety and catastrophizing of many students that could be harming their mental health more than the perceived slights would otherwise.
The first detail is the following excerpt from Missouri Students Association letter that spurred the resignation of the university’s president and then chancellor (the whole version of the letter was released on Twitter):
The mental health of our campus is under constant attack. We asked the University to create spaces of healing and they failed to do so.
Second, from the list of demands issued to the university last month by the activist group Concerned Student 1950:
VII. We demand that the University of Missouri increases funding and resources for the University of Missouri Counseling Center for the purpose of hiring additional mental health professionals — particularly those of color, boosting mental health outreach and programming across campus, increasing campus-wide awareness and visibility of the counseling center, and reducing lengthy wait times for prospective clients.
Here are the relevant excerpts from Haidt and Lukianoff:
These first true “social-media natives” may be different from members of previous generations in how they go about sharing their moral judgments and supporting one another in moral campaigns and conflicts. We find much to like about these trends; young people today are engaged with one another, with news stories, and with prosocial endeavors to a greater degree than when the dominant technology was television. But social media has also fundamentally shifted the balance of power in relationships between students and faculty; the latter increasingly fear what students might do to their reputations and careers by stirring up online mobs against them.
We do not mean to imply simple causation, but rates of mental illness in young adults have been rising, both on campus and off, in recent decades. Some portion of the increase is surely due to better diagnosis and greater willingness to seek help, but most experts seem to agree that some portion of the trend is real. Nearly all of the campus mental-health directors surveyed in 2013 by the American College Counseling Association reported that the number of students with severe psychological problems was rising at their schools. The rate of emotional distress reported by students themselves is also high, and rising. In a 2014 survey by the American College Health Association, 54 percent of college students surveyed said that they had “felt overwhelming anxiety” in the past 12 months, up from 49 percent in the same survey just five years earlier. Students seem to be reporting more emotional crises; many seem fragile, and this has surely changed the way university faculty and administrators interact with them.
The question is whether some of those changes might be doing more harm than good. [...]
If our universities are teaching students that their emotions can be used effectively as weapons—or at least as evidence in administrative proceedings—then they are teaching students to nurture a kind of hypersensitivity that will lead them into countless drawn-out conflicts in college and beyond. Schools may be training students in thinking styles that will damage their careers and friendships, along with their mental health.
It appears you believe the instances of discrimination Mizzou has faced are “essentially nothing.” I presume you don’t attend my school, so I’ll try to paint a picture for you: the white-washed walls with shit-smeared swastikas and the turn-away of black girls at certain fraternity parties and the Confederate flag-adorned dorm rooms and the dirty slurs thrown out the window like garbage to the Asian students walking outside. So thus it has been a great culmination of many, many little nudges of disrespect and discrimination here and there—much like how Tim Wolfe and his driver bumped their car just so slightly into a line of black peaceful protestors during this year’s homecoming parade. You wouldn’t be able to feel the impact unless you stood very close, perhaps thigh-to-bumper, to this car, and it literally touched you firsthand. And so tell me, how much closer did it need to get before it ran them over completely?
The student activists have no concept of free debate, intellectual stimulation, or respect for differing perspectives. They, their parents, teachers, and mentors should be ashamed at their behavior. No matter how valid or invalid you think their message is, their tactics are disreputable and childish.
Another reader is more considered in his criticism:
I read “The Coddling of the American Mind” a while back, and the outrage of various microaggressions propping up around American campuses strike me as a pretty straightforward result of general breakdown in civil American discourse. As the students themselves admit, what they are looking for in college is not actually intellectual examination, but identity and community.
That desire for community strikes me as a product of those people’s inability to find comfort in the broader American community. And that inability, in return, seems like product of identity Balkanization in America, in which the notion of “being American” has broken into several different competing tribes of mutually exclusive “American” types, with different values, different notions of reality, and an increasingly existential intolerance for competing “American” identities.
This idea has been readily studied on the right, in conservative terms. The insulating effect of right-wing media, the literal separation of communities, suburbs, and gerrymandered districts into ideological camps, and a widespread literature implying cultural persecution at the hands of liberals—those phenomena have created an intolerant right, the sort that hero-worships Donald Trump or Ben Carson and has difficulty believing “facts” presented by any source they haven’t already legitimated.
I think some people—like myself, unfortunately—think of the “left” as being more progressive, tolerant, and open-minded. But all this news about colleges rightfully challenges those assumptions. What’s happening here is that left-wing ideologies are ossifying into community identities, in opposition to right-wing ones. And now that left-wing ideas such as “tolerance” are becoming less about actual ideas and more about symbols around which a community can gather, tolerance is becoming more sacred, easier to threaten, and more intolerant to perceived threats.
In other words, being liberal in the U.S. right now—like being conservative—is less about ideas and more about identity. The effects of that are showing.
Another reader notes the identity politics animating the far right at the moment:
I am so tired of the perpetual whining by conservative reader at The Atlantic regarding people of color being victims. I mean, I’ve spent the last 48 hours seeing a social media brouhaha regarding the minimalist red cup design at Starbucks being “shots fired in the war on Christmas.” I mean, as your anonymous Hispanic reader put it, “I simply don’t know what precisely will satisfy these perpetually aggrieved people.”
Emma covered the Starbucks cup brouhaha this morning.
It’s too easy, and also rash and risky, to criticize people on the basis of perhaps-out-of-context social media snippets.
So let me compliment someone! You may already have seen the video below, shot this afternoon at the University of Missouri. The drama involves a photographer who wants to take pictures of the student protestors who have wrought such change at the university, and the students and their supporters who want him to go away.
The point the photographer makes is that they’re all standing on public property, and just as they have a First Amendment right to protest, he has a First Amendment right to record what is going on. And, as he points out, to document it for history.
You see the photographer from the back at the start of this video; you’ll figure out which one he is very quickly. What struck me as the encounter intensified was his unflappable, always polite, but unrelenting insistence on his First Amendment rights, as they are insisting on theirs. You can hear the main discussion starting around time 1:20.
I’ve learned that the photographer is named Tim Tai; the site on which he displays his photography is here. He has said this evening on Twitter that he doesn’t want to be the focus of the story, which is proper and gracious. But in real time, under mounting pressure, he shows intellectual and emotional composure anyone in our business would admire. The way the students (and some professors) are dealing with him is the way I’ve seen officials in China deal with reporters, which is not a comparison that reflects well on them.
Sincere congratulations to someone who this morning had no idea he would be in the national eye. But he turned out to be, and behaved in a way that reflects credit on him and the calling of news-gathering. Update Admiration as well to Mark Schierbecker, the video journalist who recorded the entire episode. Update-update And some of Tim Tai’s earlier photographs of the protests, for ESPN, are remarkable.
For the less glorious parts of this encounter, you can start with the account in Gawker. Hint: a Mizzou journalism communications professor is among those shooing him away.
The largest point that many opposing Tim Wolfe’s resignation are missing isn’t that he is responsible for the racism on campus, but that he failed to address the racism continuing on his campus. He should have known better, especially as president of the state university of possibly the most divisive state in race relations, historically and currently.
Another reader is on the same page:
The left has been “coaching” people to see themselves as victims with no power since the 1960s and probably longer than that. This man was fired or resigned because he demonstrated that he does not have the political skills or common sense it takes to lead a public university. As president of the school, he has to represent the whole school, and if that was the best answer he could provide to these kids, no matter how irrational they were/are, then he failed to do his duties.
This reader likewise has little sympathy for Wolfe:
This is the Ferguson Effect. However, contrary to your reader, minority students have in fact been “coached up and primed” to believe that their daily victimhood is not worth protest.
They have been “coached up and primed” that when presented with the opportunity to become educated, one should simply be happy to be in school, getting an education to better self and community. To me, these students and professors at the University of Missouri have rejected this complicity in an oppressive system and are now demonstrating a new active mentality growing in the public consciousness. This is a loud signal that a climate of quiet racism will no longer be ignored as accepted background noise only heard by the few. Now it will be confronted like the issue it is—loud, frustrating, complicated, and tragic.
So this is not the story of a poor administrator being unfairly persecuted; this is a story of a pained population finally being fairly heard.
Here’s a very different view from an Asian American female reader:
Did you hear about the feminist activist going on a hunger strike until her university head resigned because he failed to stop sexual violence on campus? Of course not, because that didn’t happen. Even though violence against women by men dwarfs racial violence both on campus and in society at large, one would be hard pressed to find a feminist who thinks a university administration can take any viable action to utterly banish sexual assault, let alone misogyny in general, especially misconduct neither on campus, nor by students. Yet women continue to go to class despite an appreciable chance of sexual assault, let alone derogatory comments.
This current crop of race activists seems to think a utopian world free of all racial prejudice is in our grasp and it is some conspiracy of “white supremacy” to prevent it from becoming reality. The first thing a rational person grasps is that there are outliers in life, and it would take a dystopian authoritarianism to stop them in most cases.
I’m all for on-going fostering of a climate of kindness and pluralism on campus, but you can’t stifle free expression at a university. What I see in these activists is a combination of immature expectations coupled with authoritarian leanings. They think they can outrage their way to utopia, and it is a damning statement on our prevailing educational philosophies that they have been allowed to reach this point in life with that mentality intact.
An outsider’s view:
I am reading this from afar, being a foreign reader who has never experienced the U.S. college system first hand. Many aspects of American culture eventually filter through to us here in the UK, however, so I observe these events with no small amount of interest.
I am not sure of the causes of this strange new ultra-illiberalism amongst students, nor do I know how widespread it really is. But what I do know is that where it is encountered, it must be met with resistance rather than compromise. Appeasement has no positive effect and will only drive ever more extreme demands. Colleges find themselves on the front line in confronting this peculiar new threat to free society, and I hope they are prepared to live up to the principles of free speech, free inquiry, and personal liberty that underpin the academic tradition.
Critics are letting their disdain for the president blind them to geopolitical realities.
When a new coronavirus emerged in China and began spreading around the world, including in the United States, President Donald Trump’s many critics in the American foreign-policy establishment were quick to identify him as part of the problem. Trump had campaigned on an “America first” foreign policy, which after his victory was enshrined in the official National Security Strategy that his administration published in 2017. At the time, I served in the administration and orchestrated the writing of that document. In the years since, Trump has been criticized for supposedly overturning the post–World War II order and rejecting the role the United States has long played in the world. Amid a global pandemic, he’s being accused—on this site and elsewhere—of alienating allies, undercutting multinational cooperation, and causing America to fight the coronavirus alone.
The coronavirus pandemic and a chapter of history that should have expired long ago
In a large windowless room in the bowels of the CIA, there is a sign that reads Every day is September 12th. When I first saw those words, during a tour of the agency’s operations, I felt conflicted. As a New Yorker who witnessed the 9/11 attacks, I once felt that way myself, but by the time I saw the sign, during the second term of the Obama administration, it seemed to ignore all the things that our country had gotten wrong because of that mindset. Now, as COVID-19 has transformed the way that Americans live, and threatens to claim exponentially more lives than any terrorist has, it is time to finally end the chapter of our history that began on September 11, 2001.
I say that as someone whose life was shaped by 9/11. I was a 24-year-old graduate student working on a city-council campaign when I watched the second plane curve into the World Trade Center and then saw the first tower collapse. Everything that I’d done in my life up to that point suddenly seemed trivial. I walked several miles to my apartment, as my fellow New Yorkers came out into the streets to be near one another (as we can’t be today). In the days that followed, my Queens neighborhood was the setting for a number of funerals for firemen. I will never forget the image of one devastated widow sitting in a lawn chair in her front yard, receiving condolences from a line of the toughest—but most broken—men I had ever seen.
The U.S. may end up with the worst COVID-19 outbreak in the industrialized world. This is how it’s going to play out.
Three months ago, no one knew that SARS-CoV-2 existed. Now the virus has spread to almost every country, infecting at least 446,000 people whom we know about, and many more whom we do not. It has crashed economies and broken health-care systems, filled hospitals and emptied public spaces. It has separated people from their workplaces and their friends. It has disrupted modern society on a scale that most living people have never witnessed. Soon, most everyone in the United States will know someone who has been infected. Like World War II or the 9/11 attacks, this pandemic has already imprinted itself upon the nation’s psyche.
A global pandemic of this scale was inevitable. In recent years, hundreds of health experts have written books, white papers, and op-eds warning of the possibility. Bill Gates has been telling anyone who would listen, including the 18 million viewers of his TED Talk. In 2018, I wrote a story for The Atlantic arguing that America was not ready for the pandemic that would eventually come. In October, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security war-gamed what might happen if a new coronavirus swept the globe. And then one did. Hypotheticals became reality. “What if?” became “Now what?”
Widespread social-distancing measures have produced some jarring effects across land, air, and sea.
From inside her living room in London, Paula Koelemeijer can feel the world around her growing quieter.
Koelemeijer, a seismologist, has a miniature seismometer sitting on a concrete slab at the base of her first-floor fireplace. The apparatus, though smaller than a box of tissues, can sense all kinds of movement, from the rattle of trains on the tracks near Koelemeijer’s home to the waves of earthquakes rolling in from afar. Since the United Kingdom announced stricter social-distancing rules last month, telling residents not to leave their home except for essential reasons, the seismometer has registered a sharp decrease in the vibrations produced by human activity.
With fewer trains, buses, and people pounding the pavement, the usual hum of public life has vanished, and so has its dependable rhythms: Before the spread of COVID-19 shut down the city, Koelemeijer could plot the seismometer’s data and see the train schedule reflected in the spikes, down to the minute. Now, with fewer trains running, the spikes seem to come at random.
New York’s Bill de Blasio seems irritated by the need to fight the coronavirus.
Bill de Blasio has long been spoiling for a fight, just not the one now before him and his city. When he became the 109th mayor of New York, on a colorless winter day in 2014, he promised to lead a struggle against “injustice and inequality.” Although he has had some genuine successes, he has failed to turn the city into a Copenhagen-on-the-Hudson. He hasn’t turned it into Caracas, either. New York is pretty much the same global metropolis it was when he took over.
Aware that his progressive ambitions have been frustrated, de Blasio has complained that legions of enemies—conservatives, capitalists, newspaper headline writers—are arrayed against his vision for the city.
However determined these forces have been to undo him, they are not responsible for whatNew York magazine called, on March 26, “his worst week as mayor.” Worse than the week in 2014 when two police officers were shot and killed, degrading his relationship with the department. Worse than the many weeks in 2016 of overlapping ethics investigations, which threatened to ensnare the mayor and his top aides.
My childhood was, by most definitions, pretty strange. I grew up a Russian Jewish immigrant in Midland, Texas, in a region whose biggest claims to fame are being the onetime home of George W. Bush and the inspiration for Friday Night Lights. In preschool, I got in trouble for not praying before eating my snack; later, I didn’t know what this “Super Bowl” everyone kept talking about was. I felt hopelessly different from everyone else in our town.
Even after we moved to a Dallas suburb, I never encountered another Russian immigrant kid like me. I rode the bus alone. I spent almost every evening alone. I began talking to myself—a habit that has unfortunately stuck. Once, someone toilet-papered our house, and I had to explain to my parents that this is what American kids do to losers. Undeterred, my dad eagerly raked the toilet paper into a garbage bag and put it in my parents’ bathroom for future use. “Free toilet paper!” he said happily over dinner.
How the coronavirus travels through the air has become one of the most divisive debates in this pandemic.
Updated at 7:22 p.m. ET on April 4, 2020.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues, many people are now overthinking things they never used to think about at all. Can you go outside? What if you’re walking downwind of another person? What if you’re stuck waiting at a crosswalk and someone is there? What if you’re going for a run, and another runner is heading toward you, and the sidewalk is narrow? Suddenly, daily mundanities seem to demand strategy.
Much of this confusion stems from the shifting conversation around the pandemic. Thus far, the official line has been that the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, could be transmitted only through close contact with infected people or contaminated surfaces. But recently, news reports have suggested that the coronavirus can spread through the air. After 60 choir members in Washington State rehearsed together, 45 fell sick, even though no one seemed symptomatic at the time. Now people who were already feeling cooped up are worrying about going outside. Many state guidelines are ambiguous, and medical advice can muddy matters further. When the writer Deborah Copaken came down with COVID-19 symptoms, her doctor chided her for riding her bike through New York City a week earlier. Going outside in the city wasn’t safe, the physician implied, with “viral load everywhere.”
Far from making Americans crave stability, the pandemic underscores how everything is up for grabs.
Fear sweeps the land. Many businesses collapse. Some huge fortunes are made. Panicked consumers stockpile paper, food, and weapons. The government’s reaction is inconsistent and ineffectual. Ordinary commerce grinds to a halt; investors can find no safe assets. Political factionalism grows more intense. Everything falls apart.
This was all as true of revolutionary France in 1789 and 1790 as it is of the United States today. Are we at the beginning of a revolution that has yet to be named? Do we want to be? That we are on the verge of a major transformation seems obvious. The onset of the next Depression, a challenge akin to World War II, a national midlife crisis—these comparisons have been offered and many more. But few are calling our current moment a revolution, and some have suggested that the coronavirus pandemic—coinciding as it has with the surge in Joe Biden’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination and the decline of Bernie Sanders’s—marks the end of any such possibility. “The Coronavirus Killed the Revolution,” declared the headline of a recent essay in The Atlantic by Shadi Hamid, who argued that the COVID-19 crisis makes people crave “normalcy” over deep structural change. As a historian of 18th- and 19th-century France, I think claims like these are mistaken.
The country has reasserted its foundational stability, and in doing so made real change more likely once this is all over.
Perhaps a testament to how close Britain has come to losing its way is the fact that it took a pandemic, an emergency of foggy complexity, for the country to get back on its path. This was a weekend that felt defining, not just for the immediate story, the coronavirus, but for British politics—and for Britain itself.
It was not a good weekend. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was hospitalized, and Britain’s death toll jumped as another 621 people died over 24 hours. The gravity of the situation moved the Queen to deliver an emergency address to the nation, something she has done only a handful of times in her 68-year reign. This was not a weekend in which Britain reached, or even caught a glimpse of, the peak of the coronavirus outbreak—never mind found a route back down from it and off the mountain.
More young people in the South seem to be dying from COVID-19. Why?
In a matter of weeks, the coronavirus has gone from a novel, distant threat to an enemy besieging cities and towns across the world. The burden of COVID-19 and the economic upheaval wrought by the measures to contain it feel epochal. Humanity now has a common foe, and we will grow increasingly familiar with its face.
Yet plenty of this virus’s aspects remain unknown. The developing wisdom—earned the hard way in Wuhan, Washington, and Italy—has been that older people and sicker people are substantially more likely to suffer severe illness or die from COVID-19 than their younger, healthier counterparts. Older people are much more likely than young people to have lung disease, kidney disease, hypertension, or heart disease, and those conditions are more likely to transform a coronavirus infection into something nastier. But what happens when these assumptions don’t hold up, and the young people battling the pandemic share the same risks?