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College Students Must Grow Thicker Skin: An Argument Against Civility


In the latest campus free-speech showdown, Yale’s Muslim Student Association, along with other campus groups, pressured the William F. Buckley Jr. Program to alter a speaking event featuring Islam critic Ayaan Hirsi Ali, asking to limit what she could talk about, or at the very least have a pro-Muslim speaker on hand who could offer counterpoints.

Many at Yale, including a university chaplain, stated their support for the Muslim Student Association’s request, which was ultimately denied.

Now that the mid-September event is over, and went off without a hitch, it’s time to reflect: Was that really so bad after all?

As calls for civility echo across college campuses, from Yale to UC Berkeley, students could use a little perspective.

Sometimes people say truly nasty things. But it must be asked whether being offended, uncomfortable, or disagreed with is the worst thing that could happen to a college student? Especially given that, in pursuing protection from offense, they’re undermining their own right to be offensive when the tables are inevitably turned.

Let’s take a look at just how bad it’s gotten:

It’s gotten so bad that many students – and their administrators – think it’s appropriate to “disinvite” or even shout down controversial speakers.

It’s gotten so bad that the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education saw the need to launch a campaign aiming to sue every single school with a speech code.

It’s gotten so bad that Berkeley’s student government—perhaps taking a page from their chancellor’s book—last year banned the term “illegal immigrant” from campus discourse.

It’s even gotten so bad that a full 23 percent of University of Colorado students reported that they felt “intimidated to share their ideas, opinions, and beliefs in class” because of their political philosophy.

Too many students would like to change the rules to create a kinder, gentler democracy, shutting out any idea that could lead to raised voices or hurt feelings. In the process they are destroying the freedoms that make democracy worthwhile. They’ve forgotten that a tolerant, open society isn’t something we’re simply gifted with. An open and free society has to be maintained. Sometimes, this means we’ve got to weather a little offensiveness.

Campus civility standards and free speech can’t, after all, coexist. Here’s the C. Vann Woodward Report, one of the most thoughtful defenses of free expression on campus, on the issue of civility:

We have considered the opposing argument that behavior which violates these social and ethical considerations should be made subject to formal sanctions, and the argument that such behavior entitles others to prevent speech they might regard as offensive. Our conviction that the central purpose of the university is to foster the free access of knowledge compels us to reject both of these arguments…They make the majority, or any willful minority, the arbiters of truth for all. If expression may be prevented, censored or punished, because of its content or because of the motives attributed to those who promote it, then it is no longer free.

To put it another way: every individual has a different idea of what is civil and what is not. Attempting to separate legitimate (protected) speech from unprotected speech on this basis won’t work because it requires a subjective judgment by whoever is enforcing the rule.

For example: administrators might decide that using graphic images on the quad is appropriate when dealing with issues they care about (“it speaks to the gravity of the situation!”), but wholly unnecessary (and therefore uncivil) when used to promote a perspective they find off-putting. For example, some colleges allow graphic Sex Week events while they shudder at prolife protests that use graphic images.

This is not a standard that allows for creative dialogue and the exchange of new ideas.

If students and administrators are concerned about civility, if they are concerned about solving these problems and overcoming these differences, they need to preserve a space for impassioned debate on campus. The controversial issues being debated will continue to matter, whether discussed on campus or not, and I think most would find it preferable that scholars and students take part in such debates.

If you are a university student, alumnus, or faculty member, and you would prefer that the most important issues facing our nation continue to be discussed among communities of scholars, you must take it upon yourself to advocate for free speech on campus. You can start by encouraging your classmates or students to grow a thicker skin.

College Fix contributor Alex McHugh is a recent graduate of American University.

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