I always take care when criticizing the public writings of students at my own university. After all, I am on the same campus, may encounter the student, and, although I no longer teach, I’m cognizant of a perceived power imbalance that may intimidate students whom I criticize.
On the other hand, the ideas of a student who writes a public op-ed in a newspaper, as did one undergraduate in a recent issue of the Chicago Maroon (a student paper directed at the University community), constitute a fitting object for criticism—especially if you go after the ideas and not the student’s character. After all, the Maroon has a comment section, and our University is renowned for encouraging a give-and-take of ideas.
Ergo, I wrote a response to the editorial, for it was something that bothered me: an undergraduate who wanted to do away with free speech on campus because it supposedly propagates hate and white supremacy. Indeed, the student maintained that modern liberal education, as well as the Chicago Principles of Free Expression, were designed to buttress a status quo of bigotry (“By following the Chicago principles, the University effectively legitimizes and encourages students who may share similar bigoted ideologies.”) This is disturbing, for it seems to be the view of many undergraduates, and I’m not a little worried that one modern trend, especially on the Left, is to dismantle the traditional liberal ideal of free speech as enshrined in the First Amendment.
Today’s post demonstrates what you can expect when you criticize the ideas of an undergraduate of color. This morning I found a comment (posted here only) from one “Olivia.” The appended email was “firstname.lastname@example.org”, and the IP address indicates that it comes from—get this—Columbia University.
She’s literally 18 years old you fucking freak. You’re letting all these people attack a literal college freshman. A fucking teenager. You wrote an article entirely targeting this one girl and are encouraging her public critique as if she’s not EIGHTEEN. You put a student of color on the stage and are effectively putting her in danger and letting weird adult “intellectuals” villify [sic] and attack her. You’re a fucking weird, fully-grown white guy attacking an asian eighteen year old and saying her experiences as a marginalized person is [sic] not correct because of your dumbass views as a white heterosexual who doesn’t face oppression in those facets. You’re a fucking freak and I hope you rot in hell.
Note four points here. First, the commenter says not a single word about my argument, which was about the need to retain free speech on this campus and others. Ideas are no longer important: identity and power differentials are paramount. What was apparently “targeted” was a student, not her ideas.
Further, the commenter implies that I have no right to comment publicly on a publicly-written editorial because of a status and color differential. The woman was “a fucking teenager”, ergo she should be immune from criticism by someone older—and white. I would have thought that a student writer would welcome engagement with a professor, so long as it was a meaningful engagement in which the student’s ideas are taken seriously. When students arrive at college, they should be treated as adults and their ideas treated as adult ideas. That’s what college education is all about. Imagine a professor who deferred to the views of her students because they were young! Instead, though, I let “weird adult ‘intellectuals’ engage with the ideas” —exactly as they do in the comments section of the Maroon. (And what are “weird adult intellectuals”?)
Most important, the central point of the comment is an identitarian one: the subject was an “asian eighteen year old”. (I didn’t know how old the woman was, and I don’t really care.) Because of her identity and mine—as a “fully-grown white guy”—she should be immune from criticism. In a way, “Olivia”, as unhinged as he or she may be, is making the student’s point for her: I was engaged in “hate speech” and therefore should “rot in hell.” And no, I didn’t say that the student’s experiences as a marginalized person were not correct; the argument is about whether people should be censored for speech that others don’t like. That is an “idea”, not a “set of experiences”.
Finally, the writer claims that I have effectively “put the student in danger.” I’m sorry, but that’s ridiculous. If you feel “endangered” when someone criticizes your published ideas, then you shouldn’t publish your ideas in the first place, especially under your name. This is the conflation of “criticism” with “harm” that we see so often in arguments against free speech.
“Olivia”, in his/her intemperate and rude diatribe, inadvertently demonstrates many of the features of those who oppose free speech: some people have the right to censor others; that privilege depends on your position in the hierarchy of oppression, in which those on the lower rungs are deemed immune from criticism but able to criticize everyone “higher up”; that hate speech causes harm, which is reason enough to ban it; and, finally, it’s okay to completely demonize one’s opponents (“you’re a fucking freak and I hope you rot in hell”). That last bit reminds one of the criticism atheists get from religionists, which, I suppose, is what people like Olivia resemble. They are ideological fundamentalists.
It’s telling that “Olivia” from Columbia University won’t divulge his/her name. That’s yet another lesson: social media brings out the worst in people, especially when they are allowed to speak anonymously. Aggressive cowards hide behind pseudonyms.
I stand by my arguments in favor of free speech at The University of Chicago, and urge “Olivia” to learn how to debate ideas rather than identities.