Yesterday's deadly shootout at a "Draw Mohammed" contest in Texas drives home the fact that free expression is under violent attack even in the United States. So too does the bomb threat called in to break up a "GamerGate" meetup in Washington, D.C.
There's also a softer form of repression that is flourishing, especially on the nation's college campuses. Call this, as Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Indvidual Rights in Education (FIRE) has, the "freedom from speech" movement. In the 1960s, student activists pushed for freedom of speech and the right to talk about whatever they wanted wherever they wanted on campuses. These days, the hottest trend is exactly the opposite and activists are trying to shut down any and all speech and scholarship they find objectionable.
In a recent column for The Daily Beast, I write:
What the fuck is wrong with kids these days and, more important, the supposed adults who look after them? They act as if they are raising human veal that cannot even stand on their own legs or face the sunlight without having their eyeballs burned out and their hearts broken by a single deep breath or uncomfortable moment. I'm just waiting for stories of college deans carrying students from class to class on their backs….
The way students and especially administrators talk about college today, you'd think parents are paying ever-higher tuition so their children can attend a reeducation camp straight out of China's Cultural Revolution. It's as if college presidents, deans, and the ever-increasing number of bureaucrats and administrators and residence-life muckety-mucks walked away from Animal House firmly believing that Dean Wormer was not only the hero of movie but a role model. At all costs, order must be enforced and no space for free play or discord can be allowed!
How might this sort of fever be broken? One possibility is simply through negative publicity. In the column, I write about a recent Georgetown talk by Christina Hoff Sommers, who also features in the GamerGate meetup mentioned above. Brought in by the College Republicans and the Clare Booth Luce Institute, Sommers gave an hour-long talk and took questions from protesters holding signs saying she was a rape apologist and whatnot. Sommers and the students had a good back and forth but when the Luce Institute put video of the presentation online, Georgetown admins demanded the protesters' faces and voices be edited out. Laurel Conrad of the Luce group was having none of it, explaining that the lecture was advertised as public and the cameras were in plain view. In discussing Georgetown's attempt to censor a video hosted at a non-campus group's YouTube channel,
Conrad invokes the "Streisand Effect," which refers to attempts to shut down publicity that inadvertently increase it. (In 2003, La Barbra tried to block publication of her Malibu home in an online public database of aerial photographs, which caused over 400,000 people to access the site hosting the picture. Before Streisand's demand, the image of her spread had been accessed just a half-dozen times.) By raising a stink, Georgetown has made the incident and video bigger than it ever was by inspiring news coverage on Fox News and at various news sites (including this one).
Perhaps the negative publicity from threatened reprisals will help break the spell that lies upon today's campus climate like a patient etherized upon a table.
The video of the presentation currently shows about 49,000 views, which I'm guessing is far more than it would have garnered otherwise. I don't agree with everything that Sommers says but she's giving precisely the sort of lecture that college students should be exposed to. And the questions aren't half-bad either. Take a look for yourself and see if you don't agree with my sense that this is exactly the sort of exchange with which everyone's college years should be packed.