• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

The end of argument

On both sides of the Atlantic, the cultural politics of higher education are undergoing a profound transformation. The values of experimentation, risk-taking and openness to new ideas promoted in the 1960s and 1970s have given way to a climate of moral regulation and conformism. University life has always been subject to pressures to conform, of course, and to submit to political and economic interests. However, until relatively recently, the main threat to academic freedom came from sources outside universities. Today it is no longer merely the illiberal media and intolerant politicians who call for dissident academics to be silenced or controversial speakers to be banned. Such calls are more likely to emanate from inside universities, and their most vociferous proponents are students, not faculty.

For anyone who believes that academic freedom and free speech are fundamental values that underpin university life, the casual manner in which these principles are being cast aside in Britain and the United States will come as a shock. Contempt for these freedoms is now openly expressed. A good example is “The Doctrine of Academic Freedom,” a polemic published in the Harvard Crimson, a student newspaper, in February 2014. The article depicted academic freedom as a barrier to the achievement of justice. The undergraduate author, Sandra YL Korn, displayed a chilling disdain for a value central to academic life, describing it as the “obsession” of a privileged professorial caste.

Explicit criticism of academic freedom is still relatively muted—at least compared to the increasingly shrill denunciation of free speech. Today, many campus activists argue that no one has the right to use words that offend others. Take Oxford University activist Niamh McIntyre’s call for speech to be moderated:  “This generation of students and activists is standing up and saying that for too long, men have spoken over women, trans and non-binary people, just as white people have spoken over people of colour,” she told Times Higher Education in December. “In some cases, they should shut up and listen. And sometimes, to the horror of certain academics and professional narcissists, this involves rethinking the right to speak at all times, for all people, on any topic.” “Rethinking the right to speak at all times” is a delicate way of suggesting that it is not a right.

Campaigns to ban invited speakers from campuses have been a feature of student politics for decades. In the 1980s and 1990s, there were frequent calls to ban representatives from the far-right (a demand known as “no-platforming”). But in the current climate it is not only right-wing extremists who are at risk of being silenced, but anyone espousing views deemed controversial. Recent student-led campaigns on British campuses have sought to ban speakers such as Maryam Namazie, an Iranian-born campaigner for secularism and human rights, and the feminist writer Germaine Greer. In October, the students’ union at Manchester University no-platformed the radical feminist activist and writer Julie Bindel. As is often the case with these bans, Bindel was to talk on the subject of freedom of speech.

The intolerance is not only directed at controversial political views. Student activism has been consumed by a moralism that seeks to regulate and micro-manage how people speak and behave towards one another. Historically, universities provided a platform for cultural experimentation. Today, by contrast, the instinct is to contain edgier forms of expression. Many student union activists have adopted habits more commonly associated with religious censorship. Stand-up comedy is one of their targets. The US campus circuit is highly lucrative, but such is the climate that some comedians, notably Chris Rock, have stopped performing at colleges. In a recent article in the Atlantic, other comedians revealed how they censored their acts to avoid offending sections of the student audience. Comedy is also a target in Britain. In February 2015, a gig by the comedian Kate Smurthwaite at Goldsmiths, University of London, was cancelled after some students objected to her views on prostitution.

Contemporary student protest is inchoate and often arbitrary. Almost anything is a potential target. At the University of East Anglia in September, a Mexican restaurant was stopped from handing out free sombreros on the grounds that these were racist. In November, there were complaints at Oxford University about the themes chosen for end-of-year balls at Lincoln and Magdalen Colleges. Lincoln’s New Orleans theme allegedly represents a form of “cultural appropriation,” while Magdalen’s look back to the year 1926 apparently reminds women and people of colour of their exclusion from the college in the 1920s.

Some protests have had more serious consequences. In October, the Intercultural Affairs Council, a university body at Yale, emailed students urging them to be sensitive about the cultural implications of their Halloween costumes. Lecturer Erika Christakis responded by sending her own message to students, suggesting that they don’t need administrators to tell them what costumes to wear. The ensuing controversy, combined with other racially charged incidents, led to angry rallies and the formation of the group Next Yale, which called for an end to the “intolerable racism” on campus. “I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain,” one student wrote in the undergraduate newspaper Yale Herald. Christakis has now resigned from teaching at Yale.

As mobilisations like these demonstrate, even the minutiae of campus life are now a target of scrutiny and political campaigning. This suggests that what is at work here is not so much a distinct political outlook as a readiness to be outraged. The sentiments and anxieties expressed by students are free-floating, but common to all the protests is a compulsion to cleanse the university of the values, practices, words and ideas that may serve as a source of unease and offence.

There was a time when campus radicals revelled in their status as militants and revolutionaries. In the 1960s and 1970s, radical students boasted of their power to change the world and often adopted lifestyles that are now characterised as risky and dangerous. Today, student protestors project a very different image, drawing attention to their status as victims and flaunting their sensitivity to offence. They frequently use therapeutic language and, most importantly, talk constantly about themselves and their feelings.

Take the case of Arushi Garg, the Oxford law student who criticised the theme of the Magdalen ball. “I felt uncomfortable with the advertising,” she told Cherwell, the student newspaper. “Obviously my demographic (woman of colour from a former colony that remains a developing country) makes me less likely than others to uncritically long for a past that privileged some more than others.” The implication is that this emotional reaction ought to be taken very seriously. The mere expression of such feelings counts as evidence that they must contain some essential truth.

For every demand that something be banned because it is offensive, there are hundreds of more low-level instances of students insisting that they should be shielded from discomfort. It is not uncommon, for instance, for American students to ask their professors to change course readings because they find them troubling or traumatising.

In 2014, Harvard law professor Jeannie Suk wrote about the difficulties that now surround the teaching of rape law in her department. Although her students are more interested in discussing gender and violence than before, they want to do so in a therapeutically regulated environment. Women’s student organisations frequently advise undergraduates not to feel under pressure to attend classes on the law of sexual violence, in case they find it uncomfortable. At Harvard, faculty in the rape law unit were asked by students to warn classes about topics that may “trigger” traumatic memories. One teacher, Suk reports, was asked not to use the word “violate” (as in “violating the law”) on the grounds that it was triggering.

There is now a cultural crusade to institutionalise the attachment of a “trigger warning” to any text that might unsettle a reader. Trigger warnings originated on the internet, attached to material containing particularly graphic descriptions of, say, sexual assault. In the last few years, their use has expanded into other mediums and to cover practically any topic. Supporters of trigger warnings argue that readers need to be forewarned that the ideas, views, images and attitudes they are about to encounter may make them feel uncomfortable or even traumatised. But feeling uncomfortable, disturbed or marginalised is a relatively normal part of everyday life and trigger warnings could be applied to just about any novel or poem.

Who could have imagined that students at an Ivy League college would denounce a professor for failing to use a trigger warning before a discussion of Ovid’s Metamorphoses? Yet in April 2015, a group of undergraduates at Columbia University did just that. They questioned the professor’s judgement in focusing on the “beauty of the language and the splendour of the imagery,” while failing to warn students about the description of rape and sexual assault contained in the poem.

When the debate on trigger warnings erupted in the US in 2014 many academics assumed that this censoriousness was just a passing fad. Today, however, the principle underlying the demand for trigger warnings—the need to protect students from discomfort and upset—has taken hold on both US and UK campuses. In the vocabulary of British student activists, “trigger warning” is a stock phrase on a par with “free education.” Students involved in a recent occupation at Goldsmiths announced: “Trigger warnings must be regular practice in lecture and seminars.” The preoccupation has gone so far that the National Union of Students now puts health warnings on its own publications. Here is an example from September: “This report carries a trigger warning for discussions of sexual assault and rape.”

Another key term in the vocabulary of campus crusaders is “micro-aggression.” First coined in 1970, the term was more recently popularised by Derald Wing Sue, a psychologist at Columbia. He defines micro-aggressions as the “the brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, and sexual orientation, and religious slights and insults to the target person or group.” Note that these indignities need not be the result of intentional behavior. Indeed, Sue argues that “perpetrators of micro-aggressions are often unaware” of the harms they inflict.

The focus on the unconscious or unwitting dimension of micro-aggression is important. People accused of this misdemeanor are not indicted for what they have done nor for what they said, and not even for what they think they think, but for their unconscious thoughts. It does not matter what a micro-aggressor intended—what counts is that someone claims that they were insulted or traumatised by their gestures or words. The denunciation of micro-aggressions has meshed seamlessly with the obsessive search for harmful gestures and words associated with everyday sexism and racism. Micro-aggression offers a moral resource on which the performance of outrage can draw.

This performance of outrage is a central feature of the moral crusade against micro-aggressions. There are micro-aggression websites where “victims” air their grievances. Often these show individuals holding signs on which is written a message of defiance against the micro-aggressor. In 2014, students from Oxford copied the “I, Too, Am Harvard” campaign, which highlighted the perceived slights and insults suffered by black students. On the “I, too, am Oxford” website, students from ethnic minorities are photograped holding a small whiteboard. One reads, “Wow your English is great! Thanks—I was born in London.” Another: “All the post-colonial and other critical theories you study does NOT entitle you to speak for me or over me.”

The main value promoted by these protests is that of safety, and the implicit aim is to turn universities into “safe spaces”. The idea of safe spaces emerged with the women’s movement, which sought to create an environment in which women could cultivate their collective strength. In recent years, the notion of safe space has become part of a strategy that aims to shield students from ideas and influences that might make them feel uncomfortable. When they call for creation of a safe space, students are demanding the creation of a kind of moral quarantine.

Although student protest today often uses the touchy-feely language of therapy, it possesses a powerful authoritarian impulse, too. The politicisation of feelings and emotions is often unrestrained and vindictive, and the demands to ban speakers and humiliate transgressors who fail to fall into line is anything but touchy and feely. Recent campaigns for a safe space at the University of Missouri seemed more intent on forcing administrators to enrol in a shaming session than in ensuring students’ own safety. At Goldsmiths in early December, members of the Islamic Society disrupted a talk by Maryam Namazie and condemned her for violating their “safe space”.

It would be too easy to blame students for the infantilisation of campus life. But their preoccupation with feelings and emotions is the direct outcome of the kind of child rearing and schooling they received as children. Inadvertently, the socialisation of young people has led to the cultivating of their sense of vulnerability. The value of safety now enjoys an almost sacred status outside the academy, so it is not surprising that higher education has internalised the preoccupations of wider society.

Since the 1990s, the belief that undergraduates are biologically mature but emotionally fragile has taken hold among university administrators and academics. Well before the invention of the trigger warning, campus administrators developed codes of conduct to regulate behaviour. Campus life, which was relatively unregulated in the 1970s, gradually became reorganised around the principle of safety. Risky behaviour and experimentation were regulated by new codes of conduct. The idea behind these codes was to protect students—not just from others, but also from themselves. By the turn of the 21st century, the belief that students were a uniquely vulnerable group disposed to trauma and psychological illness had gained cultural authority.

From this point on, universities increasingly adopted practices traditionally associated with the clinic. Sensitivity training, mental health initiatives and the raising of awareness have become an integral feature of campus life. I was involved in radical student politics in the 1970s. I first realised how much the world had changed since then in 2004, when it was reported that Alan Heesom, the dean of arts and humanities at Durham University, had sent a memo to staff announcing that they would need to get approval from an “ethics” committee if they wished to lecture on topics that might offend students (these included euthanasia, abortion and witchcraft).

Heesom’s memo, which demanded that appropriate notice be given to students before lecturing them on sensitive subjects was a few years ahead of its time. Today, every university in the UK has adopted rules of conduct or codes of practices that convey the same message: the student must not be offended. Such codes insist that staff and students should be sensitive to the feelings of others in their use of language.

Is it any surprise that the culture of insulating students from offensive or disturbing ideas has become so pervasive that it has been embraced by sections of the undergraduate community itself? The infantilisation of undergraduates has succeeded to the point that now it is the turn of the students to demand that they be protected from the risk of disturbing thoughts.

Yet academic integrity demands that students are challenged and sometimes confronted with views that they find disturbing and offensive. Feeling exposed, insecure and, yes, uncomfortable is part of the intellectual adventure we undertake in the quest for knowledge. Academics, therefore, should stop treating undergraduates as if they are children who need protection from difficult or controversial views, while students should stop playing the offence card and grow up.

Contact me

If you want to get in touch or keep updated with my activities, either email me, connect with me on LinkedIn or follow me on Twitter.