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The New York Times finally gets it: on campus, feelings cancel facts

Those who track self-censorship on campus know the problem is not novel.

However, it finally made a splash in the New York Times, which published an essay Monday by a liberal University of Virginia student who writes that she fears voicing opinions on difficult issues.

Emma Camp, a senior at UVA, wrote that she “came to campus to debate,” but that her “college experience has been defined by strict ideological conformity.”

“Students of all political persuasions hold back — in class discussions, in friendly conversations, on social media — from saying what we really think,” she wrote.

“Even as a liberal who has attended abortion rights protests and written about standing up to racism, I sometimes feel afraid to fully speak my mind.”

Camp’s piece stands out because she’s not a conservative, and she argues that her peers across the political spectrum feel the same way.

Essentially, she’s arguing that campus cancel culture is a bipartisan issue: it’s not just liberals piling on conservatives, who make up a tiny, beleaguered minority. More fundamentally, the problem is that a climate of emotionalism has taken hold in which feelings take precedence over facts and reason.

By “emotionalism,” I mean simply the “tendency to regard things emotionally,” as Merriam-Webster defines it: to react to ideas with feelings instead of counter-arguments or other ideas.

We are not robots, of course, and our commitment to ideals are driven by our feelings as well as our rational conviction that they are true. Our feelings have an essential role to play in our moral lives. But it is necessary for academic and scientific progress that we manage our emotions properly in the classroom.

Camp states that her peers counter ideas with feelings, not other ideas.

She noted that when she argued that non-Indian women can criticize suttee, the historical Hindu practice of ritual suicide by widows, she sensed “disdain.” When a progressive student disagreed with a professor, the teacher seemsed“frustrated,” and the rest of the class was “energized” by echoing the pushback.

In “The Coddling of the American Mind,” their 2015 essay in The Atlantic, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff diagnosed the emerging problem of censorship in the name of emotional well-being and its dominance on campus. Haidt is a social psychologist, and Lukianoff is president of FIRE, a legal nonprofit defending free speech and other individual rights of students and faculty members on campus. Camp, not incidentally, is a former intern at FIRE.

“A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense,” the article begins.

“It presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm,” it states.

“The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into ‘safe spaces’ where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable.”

The authors diagnose a university climate produced by this movement that sounds quite similar to that which Camp describes: “a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.”

Dissenting speakers must fear emotional responses because higher education privileges “emotional reasoning,” or “assuming ‘that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are.’”

Haidt and Lukianoff go on to recommend a university culture that teaches “critical thinking” in the sense of “grounding one’s beliefs in evidence rather than in emotion or desire.”

If professors, administrators, and students can cultivate such a climate, it would go a long way towards empowering students like Camp – and students and professors of all political persuasions who want to transcend emotions and be challenged on the level of ideas.

MORE: Classroom discussions should prioritize evidence over lived experience

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About the Author
assistant editor
Maggie has previously worked as an associate editor of Columbia magazine, an editorial assistant at DNAinfo.com, and an elementary school teacher at a charter school in Phoenix. She holds a B.A. from New York University and lives in New Haven, Connecticut.