The Winter of Our Discomfort: Speech, Debate, and Learning on Campus

November approaches, and with it thoughts of #snowflakes. I was called one not too long ago, for arguing that a history magazine should not have published a letter promoting a debunked myth and defaming one of its debunkers. The use of editorial discretion in such a venue, I was told, would be “censorship”. As I’ve learned more recently, I could equally have been called a #fascist or a #stalinist for the same thing; in some quarters, “free speech” now entails the right to both the venue and the reaction the speaker prefers. (In other words, its purported advocates begin to be dictatorial, demanding not a voice, which they already have, but rather an audience. Given the political proclivities of some of them, this elision is perhaps not too surprising.)

Academics are natural targets for such insults, both because they often inhabit attractive or prestigious venues and because they are easily vilified as a group. Isolated in their Ivory Towers, they are widely believed to be at once oversensitive (snowflakes) and overbearing (fascists). Would-be scourge of the historians John Pepall, who insists that I have “shat” on him from just such a tower — he has, I must assume, neither visited Concordia nor been properly shat on before — encapsulates this neatly in his claim that academics both ignore and at the same time seek to dominate public discourse. Pepall’s tweeted appeal from the “Ivory Tower” to the “common room” — one academic venue to another — is curious, and revealing. But his views of academics are mainstream.

If only there were no academics, it seems, universities might be great (again?). If only history journals would publish anything submitted to them, there would finally be real debate. If only academics wouldn’t “gang” up on speakers by writing mean letters, if only students wouldn’t protest their speaking engagements, we could learn something. (Who’s “we”, in the university context? The academics and the students? But I thought they were the problem….) If only people in universities would stop using established means of expression to say what they think their institutions should do and give the floor instead to well-known, widely published, and powerful people whose views are already familiar (that’s why people are protesting), then… then what? Then the biology student would be exposed to the intelligent design theorist, the environmental history researcher to the climate change denier, the genocide scholar to the Holocaust denier, the Jewish or Muslim student to the Nazi, and they would… learn… what, exactly?

Debates about “debate” tend to conflate in convenient but dishonest fashion a variety of claims: the right to speak, the right to a particular platform, the right to a particular audience, the right to a particular reaction. Though the charge has become routine, I do not see how denying someone a particular platform, especially in a restricted space like a university classroom or a specialist journal, violates any “right to speak”. (Still less do I see how protesting someone’s actual, past use of that platform does so. But then “fascism” is a notoriously elastic concept.) The usual move at this point is to shift the goalposts and insist not on the general rights of the speakers but instead on the particular duties of academic faculty and students to host and hear them. These duties, however, are purely imaginary. That is not to say that faculty and students have no responsibilities. I have a responsibility, as a teacher, to represent the subjects I teach to the best of my ability; I have a responsibility, as a researcher, to present my findings accurately and honestly and to acknowledge and/or criticize the contributions of others to the subject, as I understand them.

In neither respect am I enjoined to read, teach, or respond to everything that purports to address a given topic, any more than a magazine is responsible for printing everything that people choose to send it. One obvious reason for this is simply lack of time and space. But another is quality. Much of what is written and said about the past (and about the present, for that matter) is crap. It is important, in public, to confront this crap with evidence and arguments. But the idea that every university course on the Holocaust should spend time proving against its deniers that it happened, or that every course on slavery should carefully consider the “Irish slaves” counter-narrative, or that every course in geology should first deal in depth with the objections of the Flat-Earth Society — or else rights have been violated and duties abandoned — is ludicrous. In the context of an academic institution, there are other and more worthwhile things to learn and to argue about. Yet much this kind of duty is insisted upon when it comes to the theatre of high-profile visiting speakers — as if big-ticket talks are where real learning in the university happens, and as if real learning is an endlessly repeated clash of stale fundamentalisms or slapdash op-eds.

Giving privileged platforms to myth-pedlars and self-promoting provocateurs flatters a certain cartoon image of “debate” but does nothing to promote learning — which is the purpose of universities, and which is difficult and contentious on its own. There is no special virtue in mutely presenting irreconcilable views. Objectivity is not neutrality; sometimes one side is right. If the purpose of debate is to move towards truth — and this is its conventional raison d’être, much repeated in this context — then it requires more than venting different “views” over and over again. Debate is more than disagreement; it requires mutual and commensurable engagements with a shared question or problem. Between Nazis and their would-be targets there is no academic “debate”; there is a chasm. Between Holocaust deniers and historians there is no scholarly “debate”; scholarship is on one side. Giving a platform to people who reject the premises of scholarship or academic community, or who question the humanity of members of that community, is not noble, much less required, in an academic setting. It generates not genuine debate but repetitive spectacle — entertaining for those with no skin in the game but laughable as a means of “learning” and corrosive of the community that hosts it.

It is common to attribute the sentiments I’ve just expressed to an academic intolerance of dissent or discomfort. Into this capacious bin goes a host of bugbears, from trigger warnings to safe spaces to identity politics to protests to petitions (did you know that the Soviet Union began as an academic letter-writing campaign?) to people not liking what you said in class. Students and faculty, we are told, simply cannot deal with disagreement, with any challenge to their worldview, with anything that makes them uncomfortable. Perhaps; they are indisputably human. (Well, actually, Nazis and eugenicists might dispute that. Shall we have a debate to find out who’s right?) On the other hand, the bulk of the campus “free speech” crusade, which has aligned itself with such liberal beacons as the Ku Klux Klan, and which has been abetted by government and institutional sanctions on academic speech, has been directed particularly against protests, petitions, letters — basic forms of free expression — as well as social media posts, tweets, and so on, types of speech redescribed as “academic mobbing”, Soviet-style “groupthink”, “reverse racism”, and “fascism”. Who’s feeling uncomfortable?

One thought on “The Winter of Our Discomfort: Speech, Debate, and Learning on Campus

  1. Pingback: Student-Teachers and the Limits of Academic Freedom | memorious

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