Politics & Policy

How to Censor Speakers on College Campuses

Oberlin students trying to censor Christina Hoff Sommers conflate speech and violence.

In Monty Python’s Life of Brian, there is a scene in which a market seller becomes irritated with his customer because he does not have time to “haggle properly.” “How much” for this false beard? the panicked patron asks, looking around him for soldiers. “Twenty shekels,” replies the salesman. “Right,” says the customer, and he hands over the cash, without a fight.

Evidently, this is rather annoying. “No, no, no!” the exasperated merchant exclaims. “You’re supposed to argue! Haggle properly!”

For those of us who frequently engage in political debates, this scene will be oddly familiar. There you are, halfway through making your case, and all of a sudden — without any warning at all — your interlocutor comes out and willfully demolishes his own position. Yesterday afternoon, in the course of an asinine argument about David Horowitz’s visit to the University of North Carolina, I witnessed a young undergraduate at the college do precisely this. “ur part of an oppressive group (white, male),” he told a critic who had suggested that his condemnation of Horowitz was intolerant. “Don’t tell me whats oppressive. I tell you, you shut up and listen #NotSafeUNC.”

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Right there, for a brief, shining moment, all of the pseudo-academic tosh to which we have become accustomed was thrown unceremoniously out of the window; and, in its stead, was placed the good old-fashioned language of power and of dogmatism. It was not long before a Twitter account named @NotSafeUNC had picked up on the exchange and channeled a similar sentiment. “You’re part of a structurally privileged group and must engage with your privilege responsibly,” it contended. And what, pray, did this mean in practice? “You don’t question when someone you have privilege over speaks to you on oppression.” 

In other words: Be quiet.

Typically, such bracing honesty is not so forthcoming. Indeed, for a dramatic contrast we might consider the manner in which the precious little darlings at Oberlin College have this week protested the visit of the “factual feminist,” Christina Hoff Sommers. First we saw the willful conflation of violence and language — a calling card of all would-be censors. Next came the pretense that to debate is in fact to “silence.” And, finally, we were subjected to the predictable insistence that there are some opinions that are just too egregious to be heard. This approach was ugly, yes. But one could not help but notice that it was infinitely more effective than was that of our friend at UNC. In the modern era, “shut up” is unlikely to win too many hearts and minds. Pseudo-intellectual nonsense, on the other hand, is golden.

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This is not, of course, to say that it is virtuous or that it is sensible. Indeed, the knots into which our self-appointed arbiters of taste are tying themselves these days are increasingly absurd. By way of example, take a look at this farcical missive from the Oberlin Review, in which around 150 students at the college claim repeatedly that Sommers was coming to campus to present not a viewpoint with which many of the students vehemently disagree but rather an actual threat to student safety. Sommers, the signatories contend, is not an academic sharing her work, but a participant “in violent movements” and an accessory to “threats of death and rape.” The decision to allow her to speak, they conclude, “has real life consequences on the well-being of people.”

Why did they claim this? Well, largely because they know that it works. As Ace of Spades noted acidly yesterday evening, the “game” is rather simple: “If you claim someone is making you feel ‘unsafe,’” Ace noted “that sets in motion Title IX protections,” and, in consequence, “administrators are under legal peril if they do not act.” He is correct. Indeed, as progressives across the world have come to realize, the most successful way of getting speech banned or condemned is to propose that there is something inherently different about it — something that is so sinister and so mysterious that it is likely to cause both psychic and physical harm. Or rather, as one trumped little agitator named Lydia Smith put it, Sommers’s views are “super f[***]ing oppressive,” and they need to be suppressed.

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Once upon a time, college was intended as a means by which one might broaden one’s horizons. Now, as its customers search for a perfectly bleached learning environment, it seems determined to narrow them. Sommers, Lydia Smith complains, is a heretic, who has the temerity to harbor views that differ wildly from the “general Oberlin consensus.” Moreover, by choosing to express these views in public, she is running the risk of silencing “people’s lived experiences,” silencing “people’s realities,” and — worst of all, perhaps — silencing “people’s trauma.” Never mind that there is a material difference between individual cases and generalized statistics. Never mind that there is still a raging debate as to what the “reality” of so-called “rape culture” actually is. Never mind that, far from being an enemy of women or an “apologist” for sexual assault, Sommers is in fact rather worried that falsehoods hurt women more than they help them. Never mind these things at all. She has departed from the campus line, and she must be expelled.

If they were honest with themselves, Smith and her associates would readily acknowledge that they are the censors here and Sommers is the censoree. And yet, drunk on their own sense of victimhood and held hostage by the twin evils of mawkishness and self-indulgence, they have instead taken to masquerading as the martyrs of the piece. You will note, of course, that none of the outraged parties at Oberlin were obliged to attend Sommers’s talk, or even to be on campus while she was being hosted. Had they wished, they could have sat the whole thing out with nary a word. Indeed, it was quite by choice they injected themselves into the event at all.

RELATED: Fighting Against ‘Rape Culture’ Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

And how. Per Sommers’s report, some attendees “yelled & jeered throughout,” while others sat dramatically in the “first three rows” with their “mouths taped shut.” Thus, by electing to show up and then complaining that they had been put upon, did a ragtag bunch of losers and malcontents manage to transmute a voluntary question-and-answer session into a blow against reasoned discussion. How thrilled the victims of the Gulag would have been to be so mistreated.

#related#The consequences of this approach were downright comical. “Oberlin activists,” Sommers recorded, contrived to establish a “‘safe space’ for those triggered by my talk.” And exactly how weakened were those who felt the need to use it? So fragile, it seems, that the administration at the college felt obliged to provide “police security to protect me from safe spacers.” In the meantime, a flurry of inflammatory, profane, and often downright illiterate protest signs gave the lie to all the talk of love and compassion. Christina Hoff Sommers “supports rapists!!” one read. “F*** anti-feminists” urged another.

Once upon a time, our protestors at least had the courage of their convictions. Like our friend at UNC, they admitted openly that they wished to silence their enemies and to punish their competition. “No free speech for fascists,” the signs would read, and the entrance to the school would be blocked with bodies. Now, our campus activists have at their disposal an entire superstructure of veritable nonsense, within which liberty can be rendered as slavery, speech can be sold as censorship, consensus can be transmuted into dissent, and words and violence can be made indistinguishable from one another whenever the occasion suits. That we have arrived at the point at which the indulgence of the latter is deemed to be more respectable than the honesty of the former cannot bode well for any of us. Perhaps haggling is overrated after all.


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