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

The vilification of controversy on college campuses

Controversy and robust argument used to be a fundamental feature of a first-class university education. In contrast today, many universities are committed to turning their campuses into a controversy-free zone. Universities have become so uncomfortable with controversy that they have drawn policies designed to regulate, risk manage it and sometimes to ban it altogether.

California State University in Los Angeles exemplifies the tendency to subject someone who is deemed a “controversial speaker” to the practice of risk management. Its policy, adopted this summer, allows CSULA to perform a “risk assessment” of a “controversial” event. Speakers and meetings assessed as too risky can be risked-managed out of existence. This use of the technique of risk assessment has the advantage of allowing administrators to claim that their decision to shut down a meeting has nothing to do with curbing the exercise of free speech.

University guidelines portray a controversial speaker or event as inherently risky and dangerous. From this perspective, the mere hint of controversy requires the raising of the alarm. Student organizations at Cornell are informed that they must register an event “which may be considered unusual or potentially risky.” But what makes an event risky? An ostentatious display of firearms? The availability of hard-drugs? The only example that is offered of a risky event is one that is addressed by controversial speakers! So what turns controversy into an unacceptable risk is the communication of contentious ideas.

In university publications, controversial speakers are treated as if they are carriers of an infectious disease. The title of a Xavier University publication — Controversial Speakers and Events: Strategies For Risk Management — highlights the negative manner in which contentious exchanges and public disputes are portrayed by campus administrators.

The main reason why controversy is depicted as a risk with negative consequences is because a genuine no-holds barred debate is likely to offend someone either inside or outside the meeting. Offending words are increasingly treated as a cultural crime on the grounds that they threaten the well-being of students. Protecting students from offensive words has become something of a moral crusade. Quarantining the university from offense is now a widely endorsed practice. That is why controversy is so readily interpreted as a health risk that constitutes a danger to the well-being of an academic community.

The idea that controversy and debate are risky is not new. What is novel is the conviction that controversy is far more harmful than beneficial. So instead of providing an opportunity for the clarification of ideas and for intellectual advance, controversy is presumed to threaten to people’s self-esteem and mental health.

Not so long ago controversy was celebrated as a vital element of a dynamic intellectual environment of higher education. In the current era, a controversial view is often regarded as a likely to be unpleasant, offensive and possibly extreme and hateful.

The transformation of controversy into a source of harm exercises a formidable influence over the conduct of campus life. It justifies arguments for safe space and for banning controversial speakers. Through the use of the neutral language of risk assessment, the illiberal content of censorious policies need not be made explicit .

In many instances, the subjugation of controversial ideas to the practice of risk assessment provides legitimation for banning debates, speakers, and words.  Take the case of Maryam Namazie, an ex-Muslim campaigner against intolerance, who was banned from speaking at Warwick University in England. In the aftermath of banning her, the students’ union justified its action through a language that would have done any risk manager proud. It boasted that it blocked Namazie’s invitation “because after researching both her and her organization, a number of flags were raised.” The union’s statement added “we have a duty of care to conduct a risk assessment for each speaker who wishes to come to campus.”

The use of the vocabulary of risk management to ban speakers and events serves as an example of Orwellian Doublespeak.  It treats the question of freedom and free speech as if it was a minor technical issue rather than a political one. Thus university administrators can play the game of declaring their unswerving support for free speech in the abstract while relying on the techniques of risk management to curb it in practice. So while Emory University’s ‘Speakers Policy’ asserts that the institution is a “staunch upholder of academic freedom” and “supports and encourages the exchange of ideas,” it also reserves the right to “withdraw” an “invitation to speak” when the administration “foresees a reasonable risk of violence or substantial disruption of the operation of the University.”

In England, “controversial” speakers tend to be banned on the grounds that they represent a risk to security. There is growing evidence that security is also being used in the United States to justify the cancellation of meeting and the banning of speakers. Last month, Newman University cancelled a talk by Kansas Supreme Court Justice Carol Beier after anti-abortion activists mobilized a campaign to oppose her visit. Also last month, the conservative activist, Ben Shapiro was prevented from speaking at DePaul University in Chicago due to so-called security concerns.

Not so long ago, many undergraduates took the view that going to a meeting or an event that was not controversial was pointless. It was the buzz of a verbal free-for-all that captivated the attention of students.  They listened, applauded and sometimes violently objected to points with which they disagreed. But they also got an education in democracy.

Sadly, students today are discouraged from exposing themselves to controversy and robust hard-hitting arguments. Instead of providing opportunities for cultivating independent thought, the risk-averse policies directed at controversial speakers encourage passivity and conformism. And that’s bad news for a society that takes its freedoms seriously.

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