If you've been paying attention to the news, then you've probably seen a lot of thinkpieces about college student protests and free speech. The conflict seems to be between "PC culture," which discourages certain terms and words, and our Constitutionally Protected Freedom of Speech, which is simultaneously our most important right and apparently the most delicate, since three-dozen college kids with some particle board can eradicate it forever in an afternoon.
The problem is that this supposed conflict only makes sense on the surface. If you actually look into the details of these stories, you'll find that a lot of the assumptions we're making about what's going on on college campuses is actually way wrong. Because, you see ...
4We Only Care About Free Speech Fights When We Get to Punch Down
Articles about how modern college kids hate the first amendment have become more prevalent than STDs at a frat house. There's one I wrote, for example, and then this one about "The New Intolerance of Student Activism," and another one that outright says that "some of the most potent threats to free speech these days come not from our government or corporations, but from our citizenry." The "citizenry" he's referring to is, of course, college kids at schools like Mizzou and Yale.
Here's the short version of both the stories we're all talking about: At Mizzou, a bunch of protesters were caught on camera refusing to let journalists into their demonstration. They blocked one photographer's shots, and a professor threatened to "muscle" another student with a camera. Yale was home to a similar viral video. You can see a student screaming at an administrator, "Who the fuck hired you?! ... [Your job] is not about creating an intellectual space!" These stories seem to fit the "coddled college student who hates freedom" narrative perfectly, right? First the students tried to silence journalists, then they said that feeling comfortable was more important than education. It's official: Kids these days suck.
Even if we assume that the critics are right totally right, and that these are just a bunch of stupid brats who don't understand free speech, I gotta ask: why are these the stories that get our blood all angered up on this issue? Isn't this stuff exactly what we expect from college students? Experimentation with thought? Weird ideas? Isn't that a big part of what free speech is? Or are we mad because, as proud defenders of the Constitution, we won't tolerate any "threat" to free speech, ever, no matter how innocuous? "I may disagree with what you say," we type proudly, "but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Then we sit back from our computers and smile with satisfaction, content in the knowledge that our Facebook statuses have made the world a better place.
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"Your freedoms are protected, America."
Or maybe you're worried about the future, and you're quaking in your boots about what's going to happen once these kids grow up and start running the country. Well, if that's the case, then this next sentence should have you strapping on a bow and arrow and storming the Capitol: The same month that both the Mizzou protester stories went viral, a Missouri legislator tried to stop a University of Missouri grad student's research into abortion, saying that the school was breaking the law by allowing her to continue. This happened at literally the exact same school as the protests, and it's a way more cut-and-dry threat to free speech. The government is literally telling a grad student what they're allowed to study, which is precisely what the first amendment is meant to prevent.
Then there's the recent study which found that a quarter of American workers have had their boss ask them about their politics, and two-thirds of those people have been pressured to change their viewpoints to agree with the person giving them a paycheck. Again, these are huge stakes. A boss ransoming his employee's livelihood over political issues is at a Dickensian-villain level of evil. Sure, the study was just a single poll of a thousand people, but we know this stuff happens because of that time Murray Energy forced its Ohio workers to attend a Romney rally and hold signs which read "COAL STANDS WITH MITT."
These people were forced to be here, and they weren't paid.
You see, whenever someone says "I disagree, blah-dee-blah, right to say it," they're defending an ideal that's supposed to prevent these exact types of things from happening -- the powerful forcing the powerless to change their opinions to match the status quo. Oh, and by the way, that Mizzou professor resigned her post and apologized to the journalists, while the Yale administrator says that what has happened on campus "reflects the best tradition of free speech." Meanwhile, corporations are literally trying to rig our election process.
Notice that I'm making this argument with the assumption that the college kids are wrong. I can't stress this enough: Assuming these college kids are 100 percent wrong about everything they're saying, why do we fucking care? "Because college kids are always being oversensitive and ridiculous," you might say. "We're sick of their shit, and this is just the final straw."
Well, there's one big problem with that ...
3 Most Of The "College Kids Are Oversensitive!" Stories Are Bullshit
The trendy thing to say about college kids is that they're too thin-skinned, too easily offended, and too censorious. "You damn kids, with your safe spaces and microaggressions," we scream from our lawns, waving our canes with one hand and helicoptering our dicks with the other. "Just stop thinking up new things that I have to learn!"
The reality is that this is all a bunch of malarky, like everything that stupid old people have shrieked at college kids since college was invented in 1998 (It started as an alternate reality game for the film Can't Hardly Wait, but got out of hand). The problem is that this myth of fragile, easily-offended 20-something has absolutely no basis in reality, and all the evidence is nothing more than the standard "signs of the times" that old people and reactionaries always misinterpret. We're seeing more college students getting offended because instead of writing in their journals, they're posting about it on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
"But we're seeing it happen!" you say. "We've also seen Wesleyan students debate cutting funding for the student newspaper after it ran an op-ed criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement. At Mount Holyoke, students canceled a production of The Vagina Monologues because they felt it excluded transgender women. Protests led to the withdrawal of Condoleezza Rice as commencement speaker at Rutgers and Christine Lagarde at Smith."
(Special thanks to this New York Times columnist for being my straw man today. You're a goddamn hero, sir.)
The problem is that if you actually read those stories instead of just phrasing them in the most alarmist way possible, you'll find that none of them happened the way you think. The Vagina Monologues wasn't just abruptly cancelled; it was replaced with a different show that they felt might be more inclusive of trans people. The goal was to add more perspectives, which is literally the opposite of censorship. The "Commencement Speaker Protest" story has a similar issue: According to a someone who went to Smith College and actually spoke with the protesters (almost like, ya know, a journalist), they weren't even trying to block the speaker at all, and were surprised when they decided not to show up. The real story was "Student Protesters Challenge Speaker, Speaker Takes Her Ball and Goes Home Like A Baby With Poopy Pants."
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"They should've been thanking me for being paid $35,000 to talk to them for 90 minutes."
As for the newspaper at Wesleyan, it's sort of important that they didn't cut funding because the paper criticized Black Lives Matter -- they cut funding because the article in question had terrible fact-checking and made no sense. Obviously, that's murky territory since it's always the first criticism anyone makes of an article they disagree with, but figuring that sort of stuff out is exactly why student newspapers exist. I ran a student newspaper in college, and let me tell you, motherfuckers were trying to cut my funding every day, for dozens of reasons. Some disagreed with me politically, some wanted my funding for their projects, and some just liked protesting stuff. This constant struggle to figure out how to embrace free speech while still making sure that the official student paper wasn't just the word "SHITBARF" typed 500 times on 16 page leaflets distributed around campus wasn't a problem. It was part of our education. If I'm wrong about this, then hey! New York Times! The student body president once threatened to sue me for making fun of him! Write an article about me!
In fact, the only reason I used the word "most" in the title of this entry was because, hey, maybe there are genuine cases in which college kids have grossly, irresponsibly attacked our country's First Amendment rights, and I just haven't been able to find one. Anywhere.
All I'm saying is that if you disagree with the protesters, it's really lame to pretend that it's over a "free speech" issue. Because what's actually going on here is that a largely powerless group (young minorities and women) are using the First Amendment to try to raise awareness of the problems they're facing, and our response is to shout at them to shut up and say they threaten our way of life. Which is, frankly, how people always respond when a new group tries to ask for equality, respect, and justice. And that's actually the point, because ...