Phi Beta Cons

Killing the Liberal Arts

Last weekend, FIRE’s Harvey Silverglate penned a must-read article in the Wall Street Journal.

In it, he tells the story of an event at Smith College gone ironically awry. In the modern academy, even progressive, feminist, ACLU members aren’t safe from ad hominem attacks by the mob.

The panel started innocuously enough with [panelist and lawyer] Ms. [Wendy] Kaminer criticizing the proliferation of campus speech codes that restrict supposedly offensive language. She urged the audience to defend the free exchange of ideas over parochial notions of “civility.” In response to a question about teaching materials that contain “hate speech,” she raised the example of Mark Twain ’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” arguing that students should take it as a whole. The student member of the panel, Jaime Estrada, resisted that notion, saying, “But it has the n-word, and some people are sensitive to that.”

Ms. Kaminer responded: “Well let’s talk about n-words. Let’s talk about the growing lexicon of words that can only be known by their initials. I mean, when I say, ‘n-word’ or when Jaime says ‘n-word,’ what word do you all hear in your head? You hear the word … ”

And then Ms. Kaminer crossed the Rubicon of political correctness and uttered the forbidden word, observing that having uttered it, “nothing horrible happened.” … There’s an important difference, she pointed out, between hurling an epithet and uttering a forbidden word during an academic discussion of our attitudes toward language and law.

[…]

The contretemps prompted articles in the newspapers of Smith College and neighboring Mount Holyoke College, condemning Ms. Kaminer’s remarks as examples of institutionalized racism. Smith president Ms. McCartney was criticized for not immediately denouncing Ms. Kaminer. In a Sept. 29 letter responding to the Smith community, she apologized to students and faculty who were “hurt” and made to feel “unsafe” by Ms. Kaminer’s comments in defense of free speech.

Was Ms. Kaminer being deliberately provocative? Surely. In the world of education that is not always a bad thing. Was daring to pronounce the ugly and offending word imprudent? Perhaps—but is that really the issue? The rush to denounce and attack her ought to make those concerned about free expression awfully queasy. Stop and contemplate for a moment what humankind’s legacy of literature and art would look like if everyone whose comfort level was violated could suppress the offending words and works. 

Speaking on an American university campus has become harder than walking on eggshells. The hypersensitivity that has gripped our colleges simply cannot coexist with the fearless, unrelenting, occasionally uncomfortable debates that ought to characterize the experience of higher education. For at the end of the day, we must always remember that while civility is a laudable virtue, free speech is a fundamental right, and education that stays within everyone’s comfort zone is hardly worth the name.

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