Obama on colleges and universities

This is a quote from Esquire:

The Esquire writer took him to task because “the political attitudes of the people behind trigger warnings are less threatening than the political attitudes of the people who have their fingers on actual triggers.”

Not quite sure what he’s saying there, but, to me, university is a place to have your world-view challenged; not a place to be coddled.

What say you?

It will shock absolutely no one to learn that I agree with President Obama, as I do on most things.

However, it is important to differentiate between students on a college campus who are expected to open their minds and learn something, and who may be uncomfortable with the curriculum, and citizens who are experiencing active discrimination.

The Esquire writer is concerned because while allowing free and open discussion on college campuses is important, it is less important than ensuring that citizens are not being denied their civil rights, arrested, and killed because of entrenched bigotry. It is possible to think that it is O.K. to express uncomfortable ideas in an academic setting, while still believing that those ideas have no place in our government or in the way that we treat each other. And it is especially important to remember that defending your right to say something in no way implies agreement with what you say.

Colleges are the most progressive places in America, which is itself one of the more progressive nations in the world. You are unlikely to find an area anywhere farther left than Cambridge or San Fransisco. The fact that the people who attend colleges in these areas can still find endless grievances and injustices is not merely a sign of the facileness of social justice, but also of the moral crusades to come. Southerners should have kept those confederate flags flying, because if the left can find prejudice in institutions it exclusively controls, it’ll find prejudice everywhere.

I entirely agree with the quote from Obama. On the other hand, his defense of free speech on college campuses would be more praiseworthy if it weren’t his own administration that was responsible for much of the censorship on college campuses. That’s something that neither he, nor the media, bother to mention very often:

We have the federal government to thank for that. Specifically, the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights—a massive, bureaucratic agency staffed with 650 lawyers. They have one job: punish universities that don’t sufficiently police campuses for harassment and discrimination.

Ostensibly, they do this under the charge of Title IX, a 1972 amendment to the Higher Education Act that prohibits gender discrimination at universities that received federal funding. Initially intended to make sure that female student-athletes received as much institutional support as male athletes, Title IX has been reinterpreted by OCR to apply to virtually all human activity that takes place on campus.

Harassment, according to OCR’s confusing and ever-mutating guidance, is ill-defined and largely subjective. And since universities risk losing millions of dollars in funds if OCR deems them out of sync with Title IX, administrators have understandably decided they are better off airing on the side of censorship.

For an example of this thinking, consider CUNY. In January, Provost Louise Lennihan instructed university staff members to eliminate gendered salutations like “Mr. and Ms” from their emails to students. When asked about the policy, which staff members were encouraged to apply “as broadly as possible,” Lennihan explained that she was merely bringing CUNY’s policies in line with Title IX.

The idea that Title IX requires the university community to eschew pronouns wouldn’t stand up under legal scrutiny. Indeed, the Supreme Court has generally taken a staunchly pro-speech view of student and faculty rights. For speech to count as unprotected harassment, it has to cross some very serious lines—at a minimum, it must be targeted, discriminatory, and objectively offensive, according to the Court’s decision in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education.

But OCR isn’t operating off of a consistent, Court-approved definition of harassment. It’s operating off the dictates of its assistant secretary, Catherine Lhamon, an Obama appointee who has greatly expanded the scope of OCR’s investigations since joining the agency in 2013.

“One thing you quickly learn is universities are terrified of Title IX investigations and lawsuits,” said Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a free speech organization, in an interview with The Daily Beast. “The investigations themselves are really onerous, the lawsuits are expensive, and given the climate on campus, they are really afraid just to be accused of discrimination.”

So yeah, if Obama wants to solve the problem, he could start by removing his own appointee so that she doesn’t keep causing the problem.

I don’t think university is a place to be coddled. But I don’t think it should necessarily be a place where all viewpoints are equally esteemed either. And by that I mean, students should feel free to voice their viewpoints. But they should also be mature enough to face the consequences after they express those viewpoints. “Free speech” does not mean “everyone respects what I have to say.” Coddling can go both ways.

When I was in college, one of my favorite recreation activities was pointing and laughing at the ultra-religious old guy who’d show up on a regular basis and preach at us through a bullhorn. He’d tell the female students that we were all going to burn in hell for denying God’s wish for us to stay in the kitchen, birthing babies. He’d call all the guys homosexuals like that negro-lipped Mick Jagger. I think at any given time there was always a group of students assembled around him, shouting at him to STFU. And that was our right. He was disrespecting us. So we could disrespect him.

Now do I think it would have been wrong for the school to ban him from campus? I’m really not sure. I don’t think he added anything useful to my education or anyone else’s. His ramblings certainly didn’t challenge my world-views. I don’t think anyone would have missed his presence. But he did give me something to talk about on a message board fifteen years later, so I guess that’s something.

The KKK also represents a viewpoint. Should a university invite the leader of KKK to challenge the student body’s “world views”? I don’t think so. Would it be so awful for students to protest the decision to invite the leader of the KKK to speak to the student body? I don’t think so either. I don’t think universities should be elevating all speech and viewpoints equally. Nor do I think that it would be good for students to not voice their dissension when the university makes a call they feel is offensive. They are paying tuition. That means they should have some say on what kind of environment they get to live and study in.

I agree with the president. But I think there is such a thing as appropriate academic discourse.

Birthing babies in the kitchen sounds unsanitary.

As for the protests? Mmm. Imagine attending college 30 or 40 years ago, and the reception someone would get who was invited to speak on, oh, say, gay marriage. Obviously that would be completely inappropriate, and would draw protests. I’m pretty clearly on one side of the debate and not the other when it comes to gay marriage vs. racial discrimination, but I think the example shows we don’t want to look at what we think is appropriate right now as our filter on who gets to speak. I mean, if the KKK shows up and obeys all the rules, who’s harmed? Isn’t it helpful for college students to learn about the diversity of opinions in a safe environment?

There are plenty of ways to learn about the KKK’s platform without welcoming them into your figurative living room.

It’s important for college students to also learn the viewpoint of global Islamic terrorists. But I don’t think a university should feel compelled to invite the likes of Osama Bin Laden to campus to provide this opportunity. That’s bananas.

I’d say you’re a prime candidate for needing to have your world-view challenged.

I think this illustrates the central problem with people who espouse this attitude. None of them really oppose the indoctrination they claim exists. They’re just mad because their ideology isn’t being indoctrinated.

Well put. The Esquire article mentions Ayaan Hirsi Ali as an example of some supposedly spreading “bigotry”. For those not familiar with her, here’s a primer. She was born in Somalia, fled to escape an arranged marriage as an immigrant, left Islam, and end up as an advocate for women’s rights. She worked with filmmaker Theo Van Gogh on a movie about the oppression of women in Muslim societies. Van Gogh was murdered by Islamic terrorists for making that movie, and Ali has narrowly escaped death several times. She is an outspoken advocate for women’s rights still, and not a big fan of Islam, and occasionally fires off things like “I think that we are at war with Islam, and there’s no middle ground in wars.” Last year Brandeis University invited Ali to speak and receive an honorary degree, then withdrew the offer after Islamic groups protested.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a prime example of a speaker with a controversial viewpoint who needs to be heard, if universities are going to prepare students for life in the 21st century. The fact of her not being welcome on a major university campus is not good, and more and more hysterical reactions are arising to less and less offensive speech.

What’s the problem here? Speech is being responded to with speech. People are allowed to be invited to schools to speak, and the students are allowed to protest. School administrators can choose to disinvite the speakers or not, but no government is making them do so. I don’t see what this has to do with free speech – everyone can say whatever they want. That doesn’t mean that they get to speak everywhere.

I think the school administrators are cowardly, sometimes, and I think some of the protests are silly. The best response to a speaker a student doesn’t like is to speak up about it, and the best response to silly protests and cowardly school administrators is to speak up about that too.

Are you familiar with what happened to Laura Kipnis? She’s a professor at Northwestern University. She wrote an essay. Soon she was under investigation, two students charged her with “civil rights violations”, lawyers got involved, the charges against her were kept secret for a long time, and she was subjected to a lengthy process of harassment and intimidation. This is not free speech on campus.

Kipnis eventually won out, defeated the charges, and kept her job–not every professor is so lucky. But as the saying goes, “the process is the punishment”. If speech that one person on campus dislikes can make you the target of a lengthy, emotionally brutal investigation involving lawyers, secret charges, and the possibility of being fired, there’s no free speech.

Colleges are producing oversensitive, pissy-pants graduates with no grasp of the real world where people don’t actively search for offense in everything others do.

That’s what the president is doing…

Should we get off your lawn, too? Or are you ironically channeling every grumpy old man since the dawn of time?

I’m almost certainly younger than you and much more aware of the discourse habits of millenials.

So…get off my forum ya no-good ingrate.

And that’s fine with me.

Agreed. But it does mean, “Everyone must respect the right of others to say what they want, however distasteful you may find them.”

I completely agree. Protesting a speaker’s arguments is one thing, but protesting their very presence with a view to ‘No Platforming’ them is quite another. It’s deeply stupid and counter-productive, for a number of reasons.

For one thing, if you don’t know your enemy, you can’t defeat them. If, for example, you want to challenge the arguments of, say, an anti gay marriage demagogue, you need to know what his specific arguments are. The best way to learn them is to hear them directly.

For another, to paraphrase Tyrion Lannister “If you cut a man’s tongue out, you only succeed in convincing everyone else that you’re afraid of what he has to say.” Inviting a homophobic/racist speaker to campus and protesting his arguments rather than his presence shows that you’re not afraid of his point of view.

And thirdly, history has proven time and time again that, when it comes to bigots, sunlight truly is the best disinfectant. I remember when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was invited to speak at the Oxford Union. When questioned on Iran’s barbaric and primitive anti-gay legal system, he was forced to say, I shit you not, that there were no gays in Iran. Like, none whatsoever.

You could hear the laughter on the fucking moon. Ahmadinejad didn’t exactly have a stellar reputation in England to begin with, but that one remark turned him overnight from a threat into a walking punchline.

So there are plenty of reasons why protesting the presence of speakers is a stupid, shitty idea.

I love Obama. As i’ve said before: I’d have his babies.

Overall, I think he’s done a tremendous job. Unemployment, for example, has fallen from 10% to close to 5%. So maybe I have a bias.

But if Catherine Lhamon is to blame for the problem on campuses, then I agree: she should be fired. But I think it’s a cultural problem: not something that one particular person has created.

From your link:

I went to an extremely liberal, small liberal arts school. But back then, free speech was one of the central tenets of liberalism. Maybe that’s changed. But in my opinion, if you’re not in favor of free speech, you’re not a true liberal.

You say that like those are positive attributes…

Respect (and disrespect) for opposing viewpoints can be found on both sides. Bernie Sanders got a polite hearing at Liberty University, after all. I think it’s more a matter of one’s level of zealotry than of left vs. right.