Osita Nwanevu wrote an article for Slate on Sunday titled “The Kids are Right: There’s Nothing Outrageous About Stamping Out Bigoted Speech.” The article addressed the recent protest at Middlebury College in response to guest speaker Charles Murray.
Without defining what constitutes “bigoted speech,” the author suggests that the utility of an individual’s speech may be dependent upon content, context, speaker, and audience. While he does not call for the criminalization of speech, he does support “politically correct standards of etiquette,” and argues that some speech “ought to be restricted not by law but by informal rules.”
A central tenet of Nwanevu’s argument is the important role of empathy on campus. As a professor, I concur with this sentiment. Empathy should be a part of any classroom philosophy. However, I do not accept the notion that empathy should be the governing principle of a classroom philosophy. A talented professor can teach and discuss topics that may be difficult for some students, while showing respect for their diverse experiences, backgrounds, and sensitivities. That respect should not require ignoring topics to avoid potential harm, however remote.
If higher education is still about escaping ignorance and groupthink by instilling values of critical thinking and healthy skepticism—and many of us still think it is—encountering ideas that we may personally find hurtful, unsubstantiated, or just plain wrong should be part of that enterprise.
As the American Association of University Professors argues, any approach that makes comfort a higher priority than intellectual engagement is wrong and creates a “chilly climate” for critical thinking in the classroom. True academic inquiry should be tested in the kiln of higher education, dragging the worst ideas into the sunlight to dispute them. Shielding students from certain ideas and certain speakers, even out of empathy, does not accomplish this lofty goal.
How Should Professors Respond To Offensive Speech?
A couple weeks ago, I was part of a panel discussion on civil discourse in the classroom. When asked how to deal with students who say offensive things, I answered that my best response is to simply ask the student: “Why?” and to inquire into the reasons behind their speech and how they know them to be true.
The purpose of my responsive question is intended, without taking sides with anyone and without being unnecessarily combative, to compel the student to think about and to defend their position. In my experience, this respectful response opens up the space for students to respond in an appropriate manner as well.
Admittedly, some faculty members in the audience nodded in agreement and others shared similar philosophies. Many faculty members, however, disagreed. For them, my approach was an incitement and, in their estimation, I wasn’t showing enough empathy for students who may have been hurt by the comment. Another professor insinuated that when a student says something in class that they deem to be bigoted, that student is permanently removed from class.
This approach to speech is akin to the Middlebury student who Nwanevu quotes saying: “While I defend Murray’s right to speak his mind, the fact that the college provided an elevated platform for him did more harm than good.” On one hand, this tacit endorsement of no-platforming certain speakers is a dangerous approach to ideas and to those with whom one deeply disagrees. It is the college-aged equivalent of covering one’s ears and pretending not to hear what the speaker has to say.
Shutting Down Speech Only Perpetuates Ignorance
Nwanevu does not explain how this no-platforming approach informs the students’ understanding of a topic, or how it draws them closer to the enlightened understanding promised by the liberal arts. He also doesn’t state how this addresses the bigotry that he sees in speakers, like Murray. Instead, all this approach does is to shield the students from an idea they don’t like. Shouting down or shutting down speech isn’t a triumph against ignorance; it perpetuates ignorance.
On the other hand, I fundamentally believe that my colleagues and Nwanevu are coming from a good place. I don’t believe that either is arguing in bad faith, nor do I think they have nefarious purposes. Sensitivity to and protection from the discrimination of historically underrepresented minorities on campus is a wholly legitimate purpose and it is why I support physical safe spaces.
However, I am not convinced that advocates like Nwanevu understand the consequences of their positions. I doubt whether many of the proponents realize that the protections they want may cause more harm than good. Empathizing with the students’ experiences is fine, but shielding students because you believe that they cannot handle ideas contrary to their own is, as the AAUP says, both “infantilizing and anti-intellectual.”
We Must Protect Against Dogmatism and Groupthink
A much better approach to speech than Nwanevu’s is the recent work of Professors Robert P. George of Princeton and Cornel West of Harvard. In their statement, “Truth Seeking, Democracy, and Freedom of Thought and Expression,” they write,
“Our willingness to listen to and respectfully engage those with whom we disagree (especially about matters of profound importance) contributes vitally to the maintenance of a milieu in which people feel free to speak their minds, consider unpopular positions, and explore lines of argument that may undercut established ways of thinking. Such an ethos protects us against dogmatism and groupthink, both of which are toxic to the health of academic communities and to the functioning of democracies.”
This statement advocates for students to respectfully listen and to vehemently question those we disagree with, which is good for our universities and our democracy.
Nwanevu closes his article with the questions: “In the Trump era, should we side with those who insist that the bigoted must traipse unhindered through our halls of learning? Or should we dare to disagree?”
I think we should dare to disagree. But Nwanevu doesn’t want students to have that opportunity.