The Yale University Student Handbook has a beautiful passage that talks about what a college campus should be: a place where students have “the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable.” What more perfect arena is there for probing the limits of thought and conversation than a college, right? Bright young minds, lots of coffee and leisure time, vast bodies of knowledge ripe for exploration …
And administrators lurking behind every well-manicured shrub, waiting to pounce on students who actually try to “discuss the unmentionable” these days. That’s what the College Republicans at Fordham University learned when they invited Ann Coulter to their campus to speak.
Don’t get me wrong. Coulter is disgusting. In a petition to bar her speech, Fordham students cited “the immense bigotry, xenophobia, racism, misogyny, homophobia, and other forms of intolerance that she has displayed in her books, interviews, and otherwise over the course of her career.” I know, I know. It’s a little confusing. The students say vile things about her in an attempt to keep her from coming there to say vile things.
But the contradiction didn’t stop Fordham University president Joseph McShane from taking his young Republicans out behind the shed for a hiding (figuratively speaking, of course; no one is allowed to actually hide anyone anymore). He sent out a campus-wide email noting, in part, “To say that I am disappointed with the judgment and maturity of the College Republicans … would be a tremendous understatement.” The Republicans rescinded their invite to Coulter. Winners all around, right?
Wrong. When did we become so afraid of words—so timid about their use, so fearful of their power? Is Coulter spewing vile invective going to raise welts or fracture bones? No wonder our political structure’s broken down. So Coulter’s mean to gay people, tells lies about wife beaters, and denigrates Muslims? Why not just say, “Oh, shut up, you idiot” and move on?
There’s an organization based in Philly, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education—a.k.a. FIRE—that calls out colleges and universities for silly speech codes and intellectual cowardice like that displayed by President McShane. Its president, Greg Lukianoff, was profiled in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend. Lukianoff says the definition of “harassment” in college conduct codes is now so overly broad that “literally every student on campus is already guilty.” At Western Michigan, it’s considered harassment to have “a condescending sex-based attitude.” Huh? Tufts University also prohibits “sexist attitudes”; at Northwestern, you violate the campus Internet-use policy if you send messages administrators find “annoying.” FIRE’s website offers dozens and dozens of examples of similarly misbegotten speech codes, campus policies and censorship attempts, which it works to overturn. It’s a fight worth having, even—maybe especially—if you make your living from words.
The most exciting thing about college for me, back in the day, was the barrage of words coming from every direction—from professors, from administrators, from demonstrators, from speakers, from singers, from fellow students, from the workers who cleaned our bathrooms. It was a four-year Tower of Babel; it was a place to learn to engage and argue and support your arguments, not a place where discussions got closed off before they even began. Lukianoff argues that’s what an appearance by Coulter would have provided to Fordham: “A better attitude about open debate and discussion,” he suggests, “is to have controversial speakers come to campus and see what surprising and interesting debate that will almost necessarily produce.” Instead, to protect against the possibility of hurt feelings, conversation got shut down. How that’s anybody’s idea of an education is beyond me.