There has been much consternation lately about university students. A wave of articles, with headlines such as “I’m a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me” and “the coddling of the American mind”, bemoan the rise of a hypersensitive generation who demand trigger warnings, “no platforms” for those with offensive views and “safe spaces” to protect them against “microaggressions”.
Iconic evidence of the supposed problem is provided by video footage of a student, now dubbed “shrieking girl”, loudly berating the master of her college at Yale University when he came out to reason with angry students after email exchanges debating “culturally unaware and insensitive” Halloween costumes.
Custodians of Enlightenment values such as the University of Kent’s Joanna Williams – profiled in last week’s issue – are appalled. Their arguments centre on protecting free speech and the university as a space where intellectual adventure and the free play of ideas (including offensive ones) enable the development of strong, critical minds. How, they ask, have the values of freedom, rationality and reasonableness been subjugated by such unreasonable, irrational and politically correct obsessions?
I initially had sympathy for this view, but I’ve been thinking again. Commentators taking this line are often leaving out something important: namely, an analysis of power. Dominant voices have long defended the established views of their time on the grounds that they are rational and dispassionate, and this general point is particularly apt in the “coddling” debate. Critics of today’s students sometimes cite Thomas Jefferson’s statement at the founding of the University of Virginia: “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.” Yet it is easy to forget that the reason of one age was another age’s unreason – and that the content of rational-seeming positions (including truths held to be self-evident by the slave-owning Jefferson) can change dramatically thanks to activists who struggle against those with more power.
Power operates less visibly than those who have it would like to admit. The irrational, the unreasonable and the uncomfortable are often the only weapons available to the powerless. This is not to laud all unreasonable ideas, but it is to say that we would do better to ask who has the power before judging too quickly.
Free speech advocates insist that no one has the right not to be offended, and make an important distinction between insults and threats, insisting that only the latter should be curbed because they might lead to actual harm. But this distinction is hard to maintain in light of that question about power. We talk as though 1,000 flowers should be allowed to bloom without considering the uneven soil in which they are planted. The local mobster who terrifies the owner of a corner shop with a “nice place you’ve got here” and a knowing wink is much more threatening than an angry child shouting “I’m going to kill you”, despite the literal sense of their words.
“Who has the power?” is a complex question to answer. Without this perspective in mind, we can drift towards a thinned-out and misleading transparency, with the ironic consequence that the free speech of those who oppose mainstream views – often unreasonably and discourteously – can be seriously curbed. So I think twice when I picture a young, black, female student berating an older, white, male tenured master at a university that still has a college named after a white supremacist (John Calhoun), and ask whether the vilification and mockery she has endured seems right.
Students of today will be the opinion formers of the future. And some of what is derided as political correctness gone mad today will become common sense tomorrow. As George Bernard Shaw very nearly said, “The reasonable person adapts herself to the world: the unreasonable person persists in trying to adapt the world to herself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable person.”
Let’s not forget that this more gender-neutral revision of Shaw’s original owes much to generations of unreasonable, even “shrieking” girls and women.
Ziyad Marar is author of Intimacy (2014), Deception (The Art of Living) (2008) and The Happiness Paradox (2003) and global publishing director of Sage Publishing. He tweets at @ZiyadMarar