Saturday, October 24, 2015

On The Other Hand, Conservatives Aren't Alone In Fearing Thought

So, as it turns out, are students on modern college campuses.

I'm the last person in the world to agree with critics of so-called "political correctness."  Much of what is denounced under that label has always seemed to be about promoting respect for diverse identities and diverse thought, rather than restricting the range of free expression.  One example of this, from my Oberlin days, serves to illustrate this point.

I was in a January term production of "Anything Goes" that was produced by two student theater groups.  The goals of the production were relatively simple:  to give the students involved a project through which they could receive credit, and to otherwise give the campus community a break from studying and suffering through another Oberlin winter.  Like most Broadway shows from 1930s and 1940s, the show's narrative traded in broad cultural stereotypes.  These stereotypes included two Chinese characters named, simply, Ching and Ling.  About a week before the show opened, the producers were contacted by a group that represented Asian-American students who objected to these characters, and asked them to put up signs on the doors and in the lobby of the theater denouncing the stereotyping of Asians.  The producers complied, the show went on without a hitch, and a lively campus debate ensued about cultural stereotyping.

My point in mentioning this episode in my undergraduate life is this.  Everybody won in this situation.  The show wasn't compromised in any way.  The Asian student group got the debate and the issue awareness they were seeking.  And the campus as a whole was better off, because the ultimate purpose of undergraduate life--exposure to new ideas and new ways of thinking--was well served by the mutual respect and accommodation shown by all of the parties involved.

I am 100% in favor of accommodating the needs of a culturally and ethnically diverse student body. And I am 100% against any efforts to use higher education as a vehicle for "protecting" young adults from offensive ideas.  Which is why I object to the type of speaker suppression that goes on now on seemingly a regular basis, as illustrated in this recent episode at Williams College.

Yes, the speaker's ideas are offensive (and wrong, for that matter).  Yet that is precisely why she should be allowed to speak.  Because offensive points of view exist in the world Williams students will enter when they graduate.  They can no more be banned from that world than can any idea or point of view, nor should they be.  We live in a country that was founded on the principle that freedom of thought, even offensive thought, was and is the best and surest path to arriving at the truth.  Banning speakers in public forums (which colleges and universities surely are) is the first step toward compromising that principle and, ultimately, destroying freedom for everyone.

Besides, undergraduate life is meant in part to be a preparation for adulthood.  Part of that preparation should be to handle offensive points of view, not by ignoring or suppressing them but by respectfully debating them, and exposing their flaws.  Colleges and universities exist in no small part to promote that type of debate.  As my undergraduate experience shows, it works well when both sides respect the process and each other.  It doesn't work at all when one side attempts to use raw power to deny the other side's right to exist.

Shame on Williams students.  Shame, indeed, on any students anywhere, who attempt to use the power of academia to suppress free thought and free debate.  I take a back seat to no one in denouncing criticism of feminism.  But no one should give such critics the imprimatur of martyrdom. Bring these people into the light of debate, and expose there views for the sham that they are.

Give academic freedom a chance to work.  Above all, give democracy a chance to work.  It's bad enough that conservatives want to destroy it; the last thing we need to do is help them.

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