Adapted from an Op. Ed. by Jesse S.
British comedian Rowan Atkinson said, “the best way to increase a society’s resistance to insulting or offensive speech is to allow a lot more of it” in his speech at a Parliamentary reception to reform Section 5, a public order act which criminalized insulting speech. In February, 2014 the word “insulting” was removed from the act. The conversation about offence and the limits of free speech has only recently begun in American universities, but that same conversation has been going on for a lot longer in the UK, where people have been arrested for charges as trivial as calling a police horse “gay.” We would do well to listen to Atkinson’s advice.
Since the discussion in America is still in its infancy, it is understandable that our society has yet to define the nature of the issue. In order for the problem to be defined, the cause and consequence must be understood. Last fall, The Atlantic published an article, written by Lukianoff and Haidt, which identified the reason behind student’s demands for campus “safe spaces” and classroom “trigger warnings” has to do with “[e]motional reasoning” (par. 22). At the end of the article, they offer a list of twelve common cognitive distortions. Throughout the article, they suggest these distorted ways of thinking have been fostered by universities (par. 23).
But the threat is not just to the mental health of the members of this movement. Lukianoff and Haidt say “safe spaces” are “where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. And…[this movement] seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally” (par. 5).
American universities need to define the nature of the problem they are facing with groups of students in the digital age demanding restrictions on free speech. If they don’t, they may find the problem defined for them by those who wish to cut off any dissenter’s ability to disagree with them. This movement, obsessed with victimhood, allows no dissent.
Atkinson points out an unfortunate consequence of allowing free speech to be regulated by emotional reasoning: “The clear problem with the outlawing of insult, is that too many things can be interpreted as such.” He goes on to list them: “criticism…ridicule…sarcasm, unfavorable comparison, merely stating an alternative point of view to the orthodoxy can be interpreted as insult.”
That’s the position in which student writer Bryan Stascavage found himself when he wrote an article unfavorable to the #blacklivesmatter movement in the Wesleyan Argus last September. Rather than writing an article in reply to Stascavage, members of the Wesleyan Student Assembly Senate called for the paper to be defunded (Laermer, et. all.).
It’s a scary thing when a generation of students would rather silence and censor speech they don’t agree with rather than address it with rational arguments. In September, President Obama addressed the concerns of college students becoming “coddled” after a rash of speakers were disinvited to universities because of their conservative views. Obama challenged students: “Anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with them, but you shouldn’t silence them by saying you can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say” (Ross).
In the UK, those wishing to preserve free speech have had to fight against the law. Here in America, we still have the law on our side—for the moment. But let’s keep Atkinson’s advice close at hand as we make the decision about what speech we allow on university campuses lest we wind up with a law like that formerly in Britain, “the law…is indicative of a culture…with the reasonable and well-intentioned ambition to contain obnoxious elements in society has created a society of an extraordinarily authoritarian and controlling nature. That is what you might call the new intolerance.”
Beeler, Nate. “The Commencement Speaker.” Geoffrey R. Stone and Will Creeley, “Censorship Takes Over Higher Education,”Herald and News Guest Commentary, Oct. 1 2015, http://www.heraldandnews.com/members/forum/wire_commentary/censorship-takes-over-higher-education/article_6a22f8cf-3775-5d96-9e06-4a6525e4977a.html.
Laermer, Courtney. et. all. “Petition Demands Defunding of The Argus.” The Wesleyan Argus. Wesleyan Argus Student Mag, 21 Sept. 2015, .http://wesleyanargus.com/2015/09/21/petition-demands-defunding-of-argus/
Lukianoff, Greg and Haidt, Jonathan. “The Coddling of the American Mind.” The Atlantic. The Atlantic Mag, September Issue 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/09/the-coddling-of-the-american-mind/399356/.
Image. “Mounted Section.” South Yorkshire Police, http://www.southyorks.police.uk/content/mounted-section.
reformsection5. “Rowan Atkinson’s speech at Reform Section 5 Parliamentary reception.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube 18 Oct. 2012.
Ross, Janell. “Obama says liberal college students should not be ‘coddled.’ Are we really surprised?” The Washington Post, 15 Sept. 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2015/09/15/obama-says-liberal-college-students-should-not-be-coddled-are-we-really-surprised/.