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Is Campus PC Out of Control? (Spoiler: Nah)

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I have a review of The Coddling of the American Mind in Academe. The parts of the book about campus p.c. suffer from the typical effects of the genre: that is, overgeneralizing based on cherry-picked anecdotes, some of which demonstrate the opposite of the points they’re intended to prove on closer inspection.

When Lukianoff and Haidt attempt to apply their lessons to twenty-first-century academia, their arguments get shakier. While many of the well-worn anecdotes that tend to make appearances in arguments about campus political correctness—such as the assault on a faculty member at Middlebury College who appeared with conservative intellectual Charles Murray—are recounted here, the authors are not engaged in a David Horowitz–style right-wing jeremiad. Liberal academics who are targeted for harassment after their words are taken out of context by Fox News and other conservative outlets are identified and defended, for example. But the authors are unable to avoid the overgeneralizations and contradictions that are endemic to discussions of free speech on the modern campus.

The biggest problem with this section of the book is its tendency to draw the very broad conclusions laid out at the book’s outset from a series of cherry-picked anecdotes. The Coddling of the American Mind does present systematic data showing that calls from the Left to disinvite speakers have increased since 2000, but the absolute number remains small given how many speakers appear on American campuses in a given year. For the most part, however, the generalizations made in the book are based on a handful of stories. Claims that fragile students routinely seek “safe spaces”—a phrase that has already become a cliché—are based on a single incident at Brown University discussed by journalist Judith Shulevitz in 2015. Violence surrounding an appearance by professional alt-right troll Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of California, Berkeley, is objectionable, but it is not indicative of some broad trend of left-wing campus violence. The authors persuasively argue that the wave of student outrage that compelled professors Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying to resign from Evergreen State College was disproportionate. But treating this tiny college famous for its liberal activism as broadly representative makes about as much sense as looking at the invited speakers in a typical year at Hillsdale College or Liberty University and concluding that liberal voices have been excluded from American higher education.

And at times Lukianoff and Haidt present the anecdotes they use in order to build their arguments in tendentious fashion. For example, when discussing the case of Erika Christakis—the Yale University lecturer and “master” of one of Yale’s residential colleges who gained notoriety for her email criticizing a dean’s suggestion that students avoid wearing “blackface,” “redface,” or other racially insensitive costumes at the university’s official Halloween events—the authors quote relatively anodyne language from her email, leaving out the more charged language in her question, “Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious . . . a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?” A fair presentation of Christakis’s argument that there should be room for “offensive” costumes at university events complicates the claim that students are hypersensitive “snowflakes.”

The most egregious example concerns Amy Wax and Larry Alexander, the University of Pennsylvania law professors who received harsh criticism (including in an open letter signed by thirty-three colleagues) for a rather silly and offensive op-ed published in the Philadelphia Inquirer lamenting the decline of “bourgeois values.” Taking Wax’s claims at face value, Lukianoff and Haidt assert that the signers “did not do what scholars are supposed to do: use their scholarly abilities to show where Wax and Alexander were wrong.” But this is an inversion of the truth. In fact, two of Wax’s colleagues at the Penn law school who signed the open letter wrote detailed, substantive critiques of Wax and Alexander’s op-ed, and it was Wax who refused to engage the debate on the merits, choosing to make generalized claims of martyrdom rather than address the lengthy critiques of her colleagues. Lukianoff and Haidt also fail to note that the open letter’s critique of Wax’s arguments also contained explicit defenses of Wax’s free-speech rights and academic freedom.

While Lukianoff and Haidt are far from the worst offenders, these examples also illustrate the tendency of arguments about campus political correctness to collapse into incoherence. Calls for robust free speech on campus have a tendency to morph into arguments that speech—especially when directed at more powerful people by less powerful people—has gotten too robust, as people who make deliberately “provocative” arguments complain bitterly when the target audience responds to the provocation. Whether or not one agrees on the merits, harsh criticism of Erika Christakis’s letter and even calls for her to resign from her supervisory role over a student resident constitute free speech, not a suppression of free speech. It is odd to turn Amy Wax into a victim of a campus war on free speech because many colleagues made substantive criticisms of an article with which she has refused to engage. Similar problems exist with some of Lukianoff and Haidt’s (too) familiar arguments about free speech on campus. The authors take it as self-evident that calls to disinvite speakers subvert free speech, but nobody is entitled to any particular forum, and there’s nothing contrary to free speech about students making known their views about whether a particular speaker is an appropriate choice. The Coddling of the American Mind also treats “trigger warnings” with particular derision and supports the University of Chicago manifesto that opposes them. But trigger warnings—as Harvard Law School’s Mark Tushnet has observed—are a pedagogical tool for presenting potentially disturbing material, not a mechanism for excluding it. Perhaps presenting such material directly is preferable, but nothing about the use of trigger warnings in itself threatens free speech or assumes that students are too fragile to be exposed to disturbing or offensive material.

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