heterodox: the blog
The Problems of Campus Culture: Presumption and Self-Censorship
This piece is available in audio format on our podcast, “Heterodox Out Loud: the best of the HxA blog.” Narration begins at 1:40.
In August 2017, as an intern at the Spectator in London, I wrote a cover feature on ‘Campus Tyranny’, alongside Spiked editor Brendan O’Neill, entitled ‘Safe Spaces and ‘Ze’ Badges: My bewildering year at a US university’. Although I relayed my experience cheerfully, my argument was a serious one:
It [the university] is riddled with paradox: safe spaces which are dangerously insular; the idea of ‘no absolutes’ (as an absolute); aggressive intolerance for anything perceived as intolerant; and censorship of ideas deemed too offensive for expression. It’s a form of totalitarianism and it’s beginning to infect British universities, too.
Evidently, the message resonated widely (it was the Spectator’s fourth most-read piece of the year); and I received countless messages of solidarity from students and professors on both sides of the Atlantic.
Yet during this time I couldn’t help but wonder why, given how many people seem to agree, the academic community remains quiet on these issues. The answer I have arrived at, perhaps unsurprisingly, is that the problem is less to do with campus politics (that is, bureaucracy) and more to do with campus culture (that is, prevailing attitudes).
Consider, by way of example, this letter to the editor of the Spectator from an American Ph.D. student. The student had done the reverse of me. She moved from New York City to the UK for her doctorate studies because, she said, of the problems I had described. She wrote:
The idea of a balanced argument at my undergraduate university [in the US] was ‘neoliberal’ versus ‘radically liberal’. We spoke of the importance of diversity, but political diversity was never considered. I thirsted for a deeper understanding of why half of Americans could hold opinions that were only met with dismissive ridicule or barely acknowledged. What I wanted was a wide exposure to different ideas and arguments, whether or not I agreed with them.
She then referred to polarisation in the US more generally:
In the US, if someone disagrees with you politically, they disengage from you and refuse to get to know you on a personal level. So I have often kept quiet among my peers, only revealing my true thoughts to those who have ‘come out’ to me in the same way that Madeleine describes. This has been compounded by the fact that my undergraduate degree was in gender studies, a famously radically liberal discipline. I am proud that I do not conform to the stereotype of a gender studies student.
I wish to remain anonymous not because I am ashamed of my views, but because I want to be an academic and fear assumptions might be made about my politics. Academia is so liberal that, though I am politically neutral or centrist, others might regard me as being conservative and not want to hire me. Nevertheless, I look forward to working towards a future where academics have intellectual freedom in the form of open discussion, not anonymous letters.
Hence, while some have spoken up against political bias (and while plenty have denounced censorship); there are more insidious forces sweeping British and American campuses. Namely, presumption and self-censorship.
Before discussing these, and their continual interference with the free exchange of ideas, it is necessary to comment briefly on the available evidence. In other words: To what extent do students and professors feel limited in their ability to express ideas? And how can we measure this?
In December of last year, Heterodox Academy published a summary of its campus expression survey which consulted 1,227 currently enrolled students in the USA. A similar study was conducted by FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Both surveys clearly show that a majority of students practice self-censorship.
Of course, a more comprehensive data set could illuminate this in greater depth. But since these are matters of psychology and day-to-day behavior, rather than specific policies or events, they are inherently less visible. And, ergo, more likely to go unnoticed.
1. Political presumption
‘The idea of a balanced argument… was ‘neoliberal’ versus ‘radically liberal.’’
While universities might not, ostensibly, prevent one from speaking one’s mind; the parameters of acceptable dissent are, implicitly, narrow. Indeed, in On Liberty, John Stuart Mill is careful to distinguish between coercion by legislation and by popular opinion. But he argues that both are deadly to free thought.
On moral positions, for instance, university stances (official or unofficial) on social justice issues leave little room for challenge. For example: if you’re not for ‘reproductive rights’ (i.e. abortion); you must be against women. Of course, this is to radically simplify the field of bioethics; and to ignore the fact that many women are, themselves, anti-abortion.
In The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom wrote that ‘The liberally educated person is one who is able to resist the easy and preferred answers, not because he is obstinate but because he knows others are worthy of consideration.’
However, he also warned about the dangers of cultural relativism — the belief that there is no such thing as objective truth. Indeed, conviction that the application of reason can lead to the discovery of truth is woven into the very foundations of U.S. institutions of higher learning, and even American democracy itself.
For this reason, as he worked to establish the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson charged, “This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”
In the contemporary context, however, reason itself has been destabilized and replaced by seemingly aimless discourse. What, then, are we left with save ‘I feel, therefore it is’?
It is with great difficulty that a mindset such as this can coexist with facts. On the one hand, we can all agree that there must be standards of accuracy. It is egregious when, for example, the President of the United States lies to the American people. But on the other hand, certain facts, those which are deemed politically inconvenient, are frequently ignored or derided.
This is the point that Professor, and HxA member, Steven Pinker made at a Spiked event at Harvard last year. Pinker – who is himself on the political left – gave examples of facts that are absent from university discussion on account of being considered too controversial. The examples he gave were: capitalist societies are better than communist ones; men and women are not identical in their life priorities, sexualities, tastes and interests; and different ethnic groups commit violent crimes at different rates.
Naturally, Pinker went to considerable effort to clarify that he was not inferring racist or sexist conclusions from these observations. Quite the reverse. His suggestion was that the university’s failure to address these facts and to provide reasonable conclusions (of which there are many) had fuelled distrust for mainstream liberalism and driven some into the arms of the alt-right.
Unfortunately, because meaningful challenge is so rare on campus, students have little but outrage with which to defend their opinions. Moreover, in relying on a caricature of their opponents, they have, as Mill argued, been intellectually shortchanged. In his chapter on the liberty of thought and discussion, he wrote why it’s a mistake to shut out opposing views:
If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.
Mill’s argument, incidentally, presupposes the belief in truth (thus upholding the principles of the Enlightenment).
‘I have often kept quiet among my peers, only revealing my true thoughts to those who have ‘come out’ to me in the same way that Madeleine describes.’
Imagine that you are an 18-year-old student. Perhaps you were raised in a liberal household; or perhaps, in a conservative one. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that you have arrived at a top American university. Like the other freshmen in your class: you’re intelligent, insecure and largely ignorant.
As classes begin, you start to absorb the signals; the mantras; the soundbites and principles of relativism and progressivism. In categorical and absolute terms, you learn of the stupidity and malice of the ‘other side’.
In this climate, would you, young and looking to make friends as you are, dare to voice a different view? Would you, on your own time, question such assumptions? Maybe you would. But the likelihood is that you would not. Or at least, you would rather not. Because it would make your student life difficult.
These are not hypotheticals, but real people. An Oxford undergraduate, who identifies as liberal and a feminist, tells me she is a ‘secret heretic’; fearful to voice her doubts on gender fluidity and intersectionality. While a liberal professor at New York University tells me she’s exhausted trying to qualify every lesson with progressive frames.
And if this is how many liberals feel, can you imagine what it’s like to be a conservative?
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