Readings — From the March 2016 issue

Common Cause

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By Alix Rule. Rule is a doctoral student in sociology at Columbia University.

What is actually at stake in the recent conflicts at American universities? As on-campus skirmishes escalate into free-floating culture wars, two key points have been missed. First, many of these controversies have pitted students against professors. Second, when seen in that light — as conflicts between students and professors — few have anything to do with free speech. At Yale, for example, Erika Christakis, the assistant head of a residential college, volunteered her thoughts on a message that discouraged racist Halloween costumes: in her opinion, as a specialist in child psychology, “young people” should dress up as they liked. Students found her email infantilizing and offensive; they communicated those reactions forcefully. The head of the college, Christakis’s spouse, defended her position and her right to share her views. He was soon backed by other faculty. Students intensified their protest, and called for the couple to resign from their mentorship positions.

But Christakis’s freedom of speech wasn’t being threatened — not in the sense that an authority tried to limit it. Neither the state nor her employer sought to censor her, nor even a voting majority. She was taken to task for something she wrote, by undergraduate students.

What, then, did “free speech” mean to the many professors, at Yale and beyond, who went out of their way to side with Christakis in defense of the idea? To judge from the outpouring, they were concerned about preserving the university as a space for genuine debate, where even uncomfortable opinions can be encountered and everyone can learn from their differences. Of course — where there is no risk of formal power being exercised — that knife should cut both ways: it should mean not just that students be open to learning from the disagreeable opinions of their professors but also the other way around.

The question we should be asking is why these fights have been so bitter. Laura Kipnis’s collision with sexual-assault activists at Northwestern was another high-profile example; print versions of the debate have been equally nasty, touched off by features like “I’m a Liberal Professor and My Liberal Students Terrify Me.” The issues occasioning the controversies are not equivalent. Yet in these conflicts and others, both sides see themselves as progressive, desiring a more just campus and society. Both support Black Lives Matter and want their universities to be more inclusive; both include self-characterized feminists. Why have their arguments been framed as contests in which only one side can win?

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