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Most free speech rhetoric on campus ‘not worth much’

Amy Wax, the professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School who was targeted for removal by activists after she co-authored an op-ed arguing that “not all cultures are created equal,” has felt the full brunt of the campus anti-free speech brigade. In a recent speech at Hillsdale College, Wax elaborated on the dismal state of college free speech politics, and speculated on “how unorthodox opinions should be dealt with in academia.”

“There is a lot of abstract talk these days on American college campuses about free speech and the values of free inquiry, with plenty of lip service being paid to expansive notions of free expression and the marketplace of ideas,” Wax said during the speech (adapted for publication in Hillsdale’s Imprimis).

“What I’ve learned through my recent experience of writing a controversial op-ed is that most of this talk is not worth much. It is only when people are confronted with speech they don’t like that we see whether these abstractions are real to them.”

As Wax points out, both she and her co-author, University of San Diego law professor Larry Alexander, argued that the dysfunctional and destructive habits of many American demographics represent a “breakdown of the country’s bourgeois culture.” That breakdown has taken various forms: “Male working-age labor-force participation is at Depression-era lows. Opioid abuse is widespread. Homicidal violence plagues inner cities. Almost half of all children are born out of wedlock, and even more are raised by single mothers. Many college students lack basic skills, and high school students rank below those from two dozen other countries. “

Pointing out that “the single-parent, antisocial habits prevalent among some working-class whites; the anti-‘acting white’ rap culture of inner-city blacks [and] the anti-assimilation ideas gaining ground among some Hispanic immigrants” are “not suited to a First World, 21st-century environment,” Wax argues that “cultures are not equal in terms of preparing people to be productive citizens in a modern technological society.”

This argument led to a swift backlash:

A raft of letters, statements, and petitions from students and professors at my university and elsewhere condemned the piece as racist, white supremacist, hate speech, heteropatriarchial, xenophobic, etc. There were demands that I be removed from the classroom and from academic committees. None of these demands even purported to address our arguments in any serious or systematic way. 

A response published in the Daily Pennsylvanian, our school newspaper, and signed by five of my Penn Law School colleagues, charged us with the sin of praising the 1950s—a decade when racial discrimination was openly practiced and opportunities for women were limited. I do not agree with the contention that because a past era is marked by benighted attitudes and practices—attitudes and practices we had acknowledged in our op-ed!—it has nothing to teach us. But at least this response attempted to make an argument. 

Not so an open letter published in the Daily Pennsylvanian and signed by 33 of my colleagues. This letter quoted random passages from the op-ed and from a subsequent interview I gave to the school newspaper, condemned both, and categorically rejected all of my views. It then invited students, in effect, to monitor me and to report any “stereotyping and bias” they might experience or perceive. This letter contained no argument, no substance, no reasoning, no explanation whatsoever as to how our op-ed was in error.

“We hear a lot of talk about role models—people to be emulated, who set a positive example for students and others,” Wax writes. “In my view, the 33 professors who signed this letter are anti-role models. To students and citizens alike I say: don’t emulate them in condemning people for their views without providing a reasoned argument. Reject their example.”

“Democracy thrives on talk and debate, and it is not for the faint of heart,” Wax argues. “…Disliking, avoiding, and shunning people who don’t share our politics is not good for our country. We live together, and we need to solve our problems together. It is also always possible that people we disagree with have something to offer, something to contribute, something to teach us. We ignore this at our peril.”

Read the whole essay here.

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