The latest assault on Americans’ freedom of speech comes, somewhat ironically, from the far left – which is odd, given its historic rule of pushing the First Amendment’s envelope. But as the left gained power, it also lost sympathy for its opposition – an arrogance which revealed itself when the dissenters to new orthodoxies had the temerity to disagree with left-wing norms.
It was therefore convenient to create a nation full of “safe spaces” and “microaggressions.” These terms, rooted in the language of violence and assault, seek insidiously to equate words with actions. Actions appropriately fall under governmental control – language does not. Goodbye, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Hello, “words that wound.”
We all know that there are tiny exceptions to the rule that words will never hurt me – like the tort of defamation – but those are rare and clearly limited. These days, the danger of “harm” to the sensibilities of those who are ready to take offense reigns supreme. Free speech is reserved for “correct” ideas, as determined by those in charge. Of course, this logic was aptly eschewed when the right called anti-war protesters “un-American” and “traitors.” But the current free-speech antagonists don’t apply that lesson to the ideas that are currently out of fashion.
What happened to the days when the ACLU defended the free speech rights of neo-Nazis, despite the fact that the organization found its clients’ views abhorrent? What happened to the Bill Bowens (of Princeton, not Arkansas), who defended an academic’s right to make terrible, racist claims — even though Bowen rightly rejected the substance of those assertions?
Here’s what happened: that cultural climate was replaced with one in which thoughtful, pro-diversity academics like Richard Sander — who dared to question the efficacy of massive race-based preferences with empirical science — were subjected to ad hominem attacks that were too often deemed appropriate by the left. Never mind that Sander has actually proven his claims. I would suggest that even if Sander couldn’t supply the data he needed to demonstrate the accuracy of his opinion, he was still entitled to argue for his ideas without being personally attacked.
And should anyone be surprised at the latest development? If you’re subjected to the “horrors” of hearing ideas that you find anathema – such as, for instance, that your candidate lost an election — you should expect medical treatment: government funded, no less.
No doubt some people have special needs that should be addressed, but we do them and others no favor by depleting limited resources through routinizing the medicalization of all discomfort. Sadness is not depression. Losing a contest doesn’t constitute a psychological loss. And, sorry, you don’t deserve an award just for showing up.
Luckily, I’m not alone in these views. Frank Furedi, a retired professor from the University of Kent in England, recently penned “What’s Happened to the University? A Sociological Exploration of its Infantilisation.” In his review of the book, Daniel Shuchman of the Wall Street Journal soundly observes:
“Furedi … argues that the ethos prevailing at many universities … is the culmination of an infantilizing paternalism that has defined education and child-rearing in recent decades. It is a pedagogy that from the earliest ages values, above all else, self-esteem, maximum risk avoidance and continuous emotional validation and affirmation. (Check your child’s trophy case.) Helicopter parents and teachers act as though ‘fragility and vulnerability are the defining characteristics of personhood.'” …
“If words can cause trauma and are almost akin to violence, an appeal to health and safety guarantees that ‘the work of the language police can never cease.'”
I’m reminded of the then-readily discounted caution extended to Democrats in the Senate when they abandoned the filibuster for most presidential appointments: be careful what you wish for. Grabbing that snake’s tail may not prove useful to you in the long run.