Sticks, Stones, and Mayhem in the Marketplace of Ideas

In a lifetime of writing, I have spent many grueling hours perfecting the art of the compelling introduction–to say nothing of the time spent crafting clever and thought-provoking titles. For my current topic, however, I am afraid that I have only a series of introductions and a not-too-clever title–all pointing to the same chilling thesis, but with no well-planned argument (or too much), no evidence that hasn’t already assaulted us to the point of saturation (hence, the “too much”), no inspiring peroration that offers hope if only . . .

Three years ago, as part of our ongoing professional development, all the English instructors where I teach had to present a workshop to other faculty members on a topic about which we were passionate. The first and only topic for which I could summon the energy for the required research and preparation was the crisis of free speech on campus. Yes, I was late to the debate even then, but I wanted to infect my colleagues with my ardor for protecting academic freedom, encouraging the free exchange of ideas, and protesting any effort to balkanize the campus into safe spaces and free speech zones. My only hesitation, which I expressed to my supervisor, was the fear of being seen as a right-wing nutcase. So that’s how I introduced my presentation (which, sadly, infected none of the six people who attended; they had already had their immunizations). I began with a few slides of the free-speech controversies from the time when I was awakening intellectually and politically: the 1963 North Carolina Speaker Ban, the 1964-65 Berkeley Free-Speech Movement, Angela Davis, Herbert Aptheker, Stokely Carmichael, Jane Fonda. With this background, when free speech was the cause célèbre of the radical left, I moved to the present, when my liberal compatriots have retreated, abandoning their posts in defense of the First Amendment to the outspoken far right.

Another introduction gone to seed is the one in which I list the professors and teaching assistants from my own university years who would now be summarily dismissed for the words they used with impunity, without remote fear of reprisal, in the classrooms of the mid-1970s. The first was my Spanish teacher, who sent us home to look up body parts and bodily functions; the next day, unsatisfied with hand and knee, eat and walk, he wanted to know the words for penis and dick, for sexual intercourse, screw, and fuck. Another was one of the stars of the history department, a well-known scholar of ethnic studies generally and Judaica specifically, who referred to illegal–oops, undocumented–immigrants  as “wetbacks” in a survey of American history. And then there was the teaching assistant who told me before a packed lecture hall to “smoke a joint and get laid.”

At some point in my planning and research for this post–I have no less passion for the First Amendment now than I did three years ago, more, in fact–I have understood more fully that the college campus is not the only place where free speech has gone to curl up and die. Thus, one promising introductory paragraph was going to expand my focus to society at large and contrast the First Amendment with the second half of the Great Commandment (“Love thy neighbor as thyself”), arguing that we must follow the Constitution, not the commandments of Jesus, as public law. That is, our civil liberties afford no protection against being offended. I was prepared to use Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society as a reference and a suggestion for  additional reading.

With that, I arrive at the final introduction with no place to go, inspired by an acrimonious weekend exchange on social media. Although I participate regularly on Facebook (I have four cats, after all), I make it an almost firm policy never to make political comments. I did post my choice in the Democratic primary, and I shared an impassioned essay by Roger Angell, who argued that the current Presidential election is the most important of the eighteen in which he has voted. Otherwise, I might chide people who exceed the bounds of civil discourse, but I try to keep my comments politically neutral.

Until Saturday, that is. I saw an article from the Huffington Post entitled “Donald Trump Jr.: Women Who Can’t ‘Handle’ Harassment ‘Don’t Belong in the Workforce.'” Unless the harassment becomes assault or rape, both of which are already against the law, I happen to agree, and I said so:

I am an ardent supporter of Hillary Clinton and will do everything in my power to defeat her opponent and this man’s father. However, I agree with this sentiment; the entire issue of sexual and gender harassment has gone too far and actually stifles workplace relationships. If jokes, language, and photographs make you too uncomfortable to do your job, then perhaps you do not need to be in the workplace at all. . . . Nor would I base my decision on whom to vote for on locker-room braggadocio.

I contributed this calm, civil response in which I stated an opinion based on almost 40 years in the workplace–decades spanning the institution of sexual harassment laws and the requisite (and ludicrous) training on recognizing, avoiding, and reporting such activity. I should have realized that civility was unwelcome on a site entitled “The Bitchy Pundit.” However, it’s a strongly held opinion, and I didn’t expect the firestorm I created. First, I was called archaic and then shamed with the information that I hadn’t received a single “like.” I was labeled a “sicko” and “an accomplice to rape culture.” One notable member of the intelligentsia wrote, “You are deeply fucked up, Vicki. Holly [sic] crap.” And then came the final appeal to logic:

Vicki Bozzola you are a piece of shit for advocating rape culture. Sailor language is what you deserve. You have no virtues! Advocates of rape culture like you are not entitled to respect so get off your false sense of entitlement. Stop the double standards ya sick lady!

Apparently Facebook has at least some threshold of required civility because one response was removed–the one that referred to me as an even more vulgar term than Trump Sr. used to describe the part of the female anatomy he likes to grab, small hands notwithstanding. I guess this is what we once called irony on more levels than one. Clearly, ideas no longer have equal standing in the competitive marketplace.

Yes, I have far more introductions than I need, all leading to a common thesis: that the freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment are more imperiled now than ever before in the 228 years since the Constitution was ratified on June 21, 1788. I can provide evidence aplenty; I have a manila folder two inches thick containing articles collected randomly from Google searches, relating mostly to campus speech codes, mandatory diversity training, and draconian limits on academic freedom in the classroom, obvious products of the Left to whom I still vow my allegiance–but not with the jerk of a knee. I could also (if I didn’t value my job in the halls of academe) provide a quick list of my own opinions and values that would be greeted with the same vitriol as that illustrated above if expressed in a public forum.

I cannot, however, provide solutions to this problem that I believe has chipped away at our understanding of the very notion of civil liberties–depending as they do so heavily on the free exchange of ideas and a free press. Although I understand that some trends are cyclical, I fear that the strangulation of free expression proceeds in 0nly one direction.

What I can do is provide a reading list for those who wish to learn more about the crisis of free speech in this country that extols itself as the land of the free and those who wish to lend their own voices in opposition to the trends that threaten to silence all voices via the law, public policy, campus speech codes, threats, name-calling–or even sticks and stones.

  • First, I recommend the website and the numerous publications of The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation dedicated to the protection of civil liberties on college campuses–specifically “freedom of speech and expression; religious liberty and freedom of association; freedom of conscience; and due process and legal equality on campus.” FIRE offers voluminous information about past and ongoing legal cases, books, videos, and guidelines for campus activism.
  • Nat Hentoff, known for his work in The Village Voice and The New Yorker, is also a respected authority on the First Amendment, including Free Speech for Me–But Nor for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other (1992) and “‘Speech Codes’ on the Campus and Problems of Free Speech” (1991).
  • The Human Stain (2000) by Philip Roth tells the fictional story of a respected professor and dean who becomes the victim of a campus witch hunt because of an unintended slur agains two African American students he had never met–and the ironic denouement that I will not reveal because I hope you will read the fascinating novel.
  • Academic Freedom and the Modern University: The Experience of the University of Chicago (2002, reissued in 2016), edited by John Boyer, presents the issue from a historical perspective at one American University. It is available in PDF form online.
  • A simple Google search for “free speech on campus” will yield an alarming number of articles that chronicle case after case of students and professors being intimidated, censured, or dismissed for violating speech codes–that is, for committing such offensive acts as calling someone a water buffalo, passing out copies of the Constitution on Constitution Day, being a Marxist, being a Christian, teaching “Antigone,” using the word “violate,” committing any number of possible microaggressions, and failing to provide trigger warnings.
  • Below are a few more books on the topic that I find particularly compelling:
    • Mick Hume, Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech? (2015)
    • Greg Lukianoff, Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate (2014)
    • Jonathan Rauch, Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought (1993, expanded edition 2014)
    • George F. Will, Campus Speech in Crisis: What the Yale Experience Can Teach America (2016)

Please share as comments your experiences, your thoughts, and your ideas for solving this crisis in free speech. Please convince me that my pessimism about the impending demise off the First Amendment is unfounded. I would love to choose one of these fruitless introductions, state the problem clearly, present my evidence, and then suggest a solution that might bring back the free exchange of ideas to American campuses–and with it, a renaissance in the values of liberal education which cannot otherwise exist.

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