Fifty years after the birth of the free speech movement at the University of California, Berkeley, officials across the UC system are encouraging faculty and students to purge mundane, potentially offensive words and phrases from their vocabularies.
Administrators want members of campus to avoid the use of racist and sexist statements, though their notions about what kinds of statements qualify are completely bonkers. “America is a melting pot,” “Why are you so quiet?” and “I believe the most qualified person should get the job,” are all phrases that should raise red flags, according to the UC speech police.
Requests for faculty to quit perpetrating these teensiest of microaggressions are thankfully just that—requests—although the fact that they come straight from the desk of UC President Janet Napolitano lends them some muscle. On January 5, Napolitano dispatched letters to UC deans and department chairs inviting them to attend seminars “to foster informed conversation about the best way to build and nurture a productive academic climate.” That’s bureaucrat-speak for learn to keep your mouths shut.
Seminars were held on nine of the 10 UC campuses throughout the school year. A professor who opted not to attend recently shared some details with The College Fix, and educational materials from the seminar are available online. Of particular interest is this handout, “Recognizing Microaggressions and the Messages They Send,” which is adapted from a book by Columbia University Psychology Professor Derald Wing Sue. It lists dozens of examples of mundane statements and then explains why each could be racist.
Saying, “There is only one race, the human race,” is offensive because it denies “the significance of a person of color’s racial/ethnic experience and history.”
“America is the land of opportunity,” implies that “People of color are lazy and/or incompetent and need to work harder.”
Asking an Asian, Latino, or Native American “why are you so quiet?” is tantamount to giving the order “assimilate to dominant culture.”
And stating the opinion, “Affirmative action is racist,” is a microaggression by default.
OiYan Poon, an assistant professor of higher education at Loyola University in Chicago, explained the rationale for that last example in an interview with Fox News.
“The statement that ‘affirmative action is racist’ completely ignores the history and purpose of affirmative action, which is to address inequalities resulting from the many ways our government and society have prevented people of color from accessing economic, educational and political opportunities and rights,” she said.
But how are students and faculty supposed to have an intellectual discussion about the merits of affirmative action if anyone making the opposite case is automatically branded a racist?
It’s not that every assertion in the seminar materials is wrong. Certainly, some of these statements, when uttered with sufficient malice, could cause offense.
But when university administrators make preventing offense the paramount goal—and automatically apply the terms “racist” and “sexist” to perfectly mild forms of speech—free speech enthusiasts have every reason to worry. That’s because a distressingly high number of universities are perfectly willing to resort to abject censorship to protect the delicate feelings of the easily offended, even though the First Amendment expressly prohibits them from doing so.
Indeed, the UC system is no stranger to forbidding certain types of speech. Students at the Davis campus were previously required to complete an activity filled with content quite similar to the civility seminars; the activity, “Words that Hurt,” forced students to affirm that certain phrases—“I’d hit that,” “I raped that exam!” etc.—were problematic before they could register for classes.
The archives of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education contain numerous examples of UC administrators censoring student publications and investigating professors who made provocative or controversial statements. Reason Editor in Chief Matt Welch detailed several other cases in a recent video for Reason TV.
Administrators claim to be defending students’ feelings—frequently at the request of students themselves. In fact, a vocal, activist minority of perpetually offended students have demanded that educators take increasingly ridiculous steps to protect them from speech they don’t like by instituting trigger warnings, safe spaces, and language sensitivity campaigns like Napolitano’s. And the federal Education Department’s broad understanding of what constitutes harassment certainly emboldens universities to err on the side of censorship.
But protecting students is often just an excuse deployed by PR-conscious administrators to justify crackdowns on forms of expression that make the university look bad. The Santa Barbara campus, for instance, once attempted to prevent a website that was critical of the university administration from using the letters “UCSB” is in its address.
During the ’60s, students at Berkeley understood that a campus climate of absolute tolerance for free speech was a precondition to successfully combating injustice in the UC system and elsewhere. Liberal and libertarian students and professors fought the administration for the right to hold political rallies, opt out of loyalty oaths, and advocate against the Vietnam War. They trusted that their ideas would win out in the court of public opinion, and only needed to establish that they had the legal right to utter such ideas.
Today’s UC campus body would be well served to recall these lessons. There is in fact no better place for unfettered free speech than a university campus, and students who spend their four-plus years in college without encountering provocation or offense won’t be adequately prepared for life in the real world. Students should recognize a censorship-lite approach like Napolitano’s for what it is: an attack on the idea of the university as a safe haven for all kinds of speech.
It also represents an absurd dumbing-down of the concepts of racism and sexism. Contrary to what the seminar materials assert, exclaiming, “Wow! How did you become so good at math?” is not an act of aggression—micro or otherwise. It’s a compliment. Shouldn’t students feel free to compare math-learning strategies without risking the wrath of the PC police?