Fred Dickey

Fred Dickey is a writer living in Cardiff, CA, USA

Stifling of Campus Free Speech Tied to Coddled Youth

By Fred Dickey                            San Diego Union-Tribune                July 10, 2017



The thugs were egged on by government indifference. That’s all they needed to have a holiday of riot.


They smashed windows. They burned. They attacked opponents and sent bystanders scurrying in fear. And the police stood by. And the authorities that had the power to discipline them quailed in their offices.


The ideas the goons rioted to suppress had to slink away unheard. A victory for the bad guys, if we can play loose with the term.


That happened in Berlin, Germany in 1937, right?


Similar things, yes, but this particular travesty happened at UC Berkeley in 2017.

It did not turn into a book-burning because the Nazis had made that tactic unfashionable, so it was off the table.


Think I’m being overly dramatic? Maybe we shrug in disbelief because “it couldn’t happen here.”


Well, it did, and for an un-American reason: A provocative, conservative speaker had been invited to address a campus club in February, and leftist extremists, mainly students, decided they had to suppress “hate speech” by any means available — including clubs and fire.


This happened to be left attacking right, but it could have been reversed. Once that beast leaves its cage, it can turn on its minders, and they themselves are at risk coaxing it back in.


*

For almost a thousand years, western universities have been where free speech and ideas have flourished, and occasionally went to hide.


Now, however, leading universities — Berkeley, Yale, UCLA and others — have bent the knee to groups who are a small percentage of student bodies and allowed them to trash free speech, the most sacred precept of higher education.


(“The ultimate values at any university should be free thought and free speech.” — leftist scholar Camille Paglia)


It all comes back to the students. They are the ones responsible for the violence to property, people and ideas. Only a relative handful do it, of course, but others encourage or ignore it. They are partners by indifference.


What has so transformed today’s students that this could happen? The question is given to Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D., professor of psychology at San Diego State University who has studied this ugliness.


Twenge (pronounced “Twangy”) is 45 and lives in Rancho Peñasquitos with her husband and their three daughters.

She is a calm, methodical scholar who makes it clear she is a defender of the right to peaceful protest and carries water for neither right nor left. That makes her scholarship more valuable by not having a dog in the fight.


She also does not claim that her findings supply the complete answer for campus intolerance.


Next month, she will release a book that relates to the subject. Its title: “iGen.”

It explores why today’s college youths have become emotionally reliant on “safety.”

“iGen” is her term for those born after 1994 — neat choice. She studies those who are suckled by electronics from an early age. Her subtitle, which requires a couple of breaths to read, gives her point of view:


“iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood — and What That Means for the Rest of Us.”


Using the term of perhaps an earlier day, today’s youths are pampered, and Twenge said research shows it’s happening across all races, ethnicities and regions.


I ask if some of this is due to children being fewer, thus more precious? And then, how about the guilt of mothers working away from the home?


She says, “If that were the case, I think these changes would have started in the ’70s, but they didn’t. They started much more recently.


“The job of what a parent is supposed to do has really changed. There’s now this idea that as a parent you are supposed to carefully nurture the child.”


That entails more up-close guidance, more security and “protection” of all kinds, including against ideas that confuse or threaten.


But how does the conclusion in Twenge’s subtitle tie in with the violence against those of differing opinions? “More tolerant” doesn’t seem a precursor for rage.


Twenge makes the point that when students leave home to attend college and mommy and daddy are no longer there to prop them up, the job is inherited by college administrators and teachers, and it seems they assume the role without objection, at least openly.


She says, “Over the last 5 to 10 years, administrators and faculty have come to realize that students come to campus with less experience and less independence, so the umbilical cord isn’t cut when they go away to college. It just gets longer.


“Students insist on not just physical safety, but also on something that they call “emotional safety” from ideas that differ from their protected childhoods, or from classroom lectures that don’t steer clear of ‘unwanted’ ideas.”


Twenge says adolescence is not about risk as much as it used to be. “iGen thinks that risk is dangerous, that it might be dangerous to their futures, that it might be dangerous to their emotions, that it might be dangerous to their bodies. They are very, very risk-averse.”

It seems strange that a sheltered childhood could lead to shouting down speakers. However, if a minority of students believe some intellectual outsider is challenging their safe and sound ideas, and the university is willing to stand back and allow them to run amok, then it becomes a short step to rioting or bullying in the name of “right ideas” against those who would destroy those ideas.


When the adults in charge of the school step aside and do nothing, predisposed students see that as permission to tear things up with no consequences.


Also, when those 20-year-old juices start percolating, it might be kind of a rush.

The Berkeley riot earlier this year was against the scheduled appearance of Milo Yiannopoulos, a gay conservative provocateur. The speech was canceled. Following that, outspoken conservative Ann Coulter had a scheduled campus speech canceled because of the threat of violence.


There have been multiple widespread campus disruptions in recent months, all involving the appearance of conservative speakers.


Twenge says so-called “elite” Williams College in Massachusetts recently “disinvited” a conservative speaker because it might have caused students “emotional injury.”


*

Things don’t happen in a vacuum; certainly, riots don’t.


In some cases, protesting students are egged on by some professors who in class have drumbeated vilification of politicians and writers who don’t believe the “right things.” They also don’t teach alternative viewpoints.


Other faculty members bury their heads in books and want it all to go away. But nowhere, it seems, are there scholars who will stand up and say: “This is wrong! This is not what we stand for.”


In April, SDSU president Elliot Hirshman was surrounded by students and not allowed to leave for two hours because of a minor incident that he had nothing to do with. He stood there and tried to placate his captors.


I ask Twenge what would have happened if Hirshman had said, “You have falsely imprisoned me. Stand aside or I will have you arrested.”


“He would probably have been fired,” she said.


As she knows, he has since resigned to take another job, so the point is moot. But you get the idea.


However, the bluff can be called. There is a Youtube video of a recent sit-in for something or other in the administration office of Ohio State University. A spokesman comes out of the president’s office and gives the students a deadline for leaving the building or they’ll be arrested and expelled.


The protesters grab their backpacks and scurry out the door.


(President Barack Obama in 2015 strongly opposed the banning from campus of speakers holding objectionable opinions. “I don’t agree that students have to be coddled and protected from different points of view,” he said.)


*

So, how does the faculty adjust to this?


Twenge says, “In psychology, for example, we teach the research on cultural differences. We teach research on gender differences. We teach research on racial differences. These are classic areas of inquiry.


“There are many students now who think that we shouldn’t even discuss those issues. Anything about differences among people, they don’t want us to discuss it.”


My impression is that some teachers bite their tongues and don’t speak of material they believe they should teach.


“That’s a difficult position to be in as a faculty member because you want them to get the education and learn about the field, yet you live in fear of a student who is offended going to the administration.”


Isn’t that what tenure is supposed to protect against?


“We have a lot of un-tenured folks who are teaching classes who should be able to discuss scientific research in their fields without the fear of being fired.


“It’s a tough position to be in because if you want an open discussion of ideas in class, you need to have students give their opinions. Today’s students are often reluctant to do so because they’re afraid of offending someone.


“Faculty are often reluctant to use the Socratic method — you know, back-and-forth questioning, because a lot of today’s students are scared of that, and it is next to impossible these days to play devil’s advocate and say, ‘Look I don’t believe this, but let’s make this argument.’”


I should think all of this would lead to frustration and even depression for teachers.

“Frustration for sure, but it’s a difficult thing because, I mean, how would faculty rebel? If they do rebel and they, say, use that technique of free discussion, if they’re un-tenured, they could get fired. If they are tenured, their student evaluations will suffer.”


Where are the other students who might speak up and complain, saying, “Hey, come on! I want to discuss this idea”?


She says, “The majority of students would welcome a free and open discussion, but the minority rules in this case because all it takes is one person out of 200 to cause trouble and shut down the entire discussion.”


My sense is that many of the objectors have learned that administrators and faculty are not psychologically equipped to fight back. They’re scholars, not fighters.


“I think that’s fair, yeah.”


In other words, administrators are pushovers, so we can push them.


“Right. I mean, I think for administrators it’s all about keeping their jobs. For faculty, often it’s to keep their jobs or to get good student evaluations. For some faculty, it’s simply that they just don’t want to spend the emotional energy or time fighting the types of accusations they would get.”


Going along to get along.


“When we do (teach “dangerously”), we wait with bated breath for someone to protest, and sometimes it happens, and sometimes it doesn’t. You are playing with fire when you’re teaching.


“When you teach (fearlessly), you won’t know that day if you’ve offended someone. You’ll know in a week or two when your chair or dean tells you, ‘Oh, I heard that this happened in your class.’


“So it’s all done after the fact. The student will almost never come to you directly. It’s all done through administrators.


“I personally think we need administrators to stand up and put a stop to all this. They are the only ones who have the power.


“It has to be administrators backing up faculty who are teaching their curriculum. You know, the thing is, if people want to protest, they should protest (the right way). I mean, I am not against protest.


“The cure for speech that you don’t like isn’t to shut it down. It’s more speech, and that’s what is not happening with the victim idea of, ‘Let’s go have an administrator intervene.’”


So, how does the university recover? How do we get back to universities of a thousand-year-old tradition of open ideas?


“You might have seen this past fall the University of Chicago issued a statement that said, “We do not disinvite speakers and we encourage free debate and free discussion on our campus,” Twenge says.


“I thought that was excellent. They actually said we are going to insist on free and open discussion. That is what a university is about.”


But which other college presidents are going to make that happen?


“They’re afraid they’ll get fired. Given recent history, that’s a valid fear.”


*

In terms of coddling their kids, parents have to do what they think is right. But there is no excuse for college administrators who have their ranks larded over with associate directors of this and assistant deans of that to allow a handful of students to “cry havoc” and attack free speech.


Journalists, too, have to speak more loudly on this issue. If these student censors and their “mentors” would have their way, journalists would be at the front of the line to be fitted for muzzles.


A few years after the blood drained out of the French Revolution, many of its most fierce-eyed followers slinked away and feigned ignorance about cheering as the guillotine blade grew dull by overuse.


Perhaps college administrators and professors will react the same when later asked if they defended free speech as that most sacred tenet of their profession was ravaged.


Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net

He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at freddickey1@gmail.com