In response to an article in The Wall Street Journal by Harvey Silverglate titled “Liberals are Killing the Liberal Arts,” I sent my family a four-paragraph email vehemently responding—but maybe not in the way you would expect.
The article addresses the negative reaction toward a recent panel held at Smith College entitled “Challenging the Ideological Echo Chamber: Free Speech, Civil Discourse and the Liberal Arts.” Silverglate goes on to berate the evolving academic culture of censored speech in the pursuit of sensitivity.
As a current senior at Miami University (the one in Ohio), this is something I am very familiar with. Miami students and some organizations recently held protests over keynote speaker George Will because of his controversial opinions on sexual-assault protocol. I was really proud of my university for holding their ground and going forward with Will’s lecture despite widespread protests. I thought the Farmer School of Business Dean Matthew Myers said it best:
We value the open conversation in a respectful way and want to ensure that all voices are heard. The most important thing that a University can offer is open discourse. We want to take advantage of this wonderful opportunity to address an incredibly prevalent issue on Miami’s campus.
I couldn’t agree more. The most important thing a university provides its students is the broadening of opinion through exposure to the unfamiliar opinions of others. I’m not saying that I agree with everything (or anything) that George Will said, but I am saying my university has the obligation to provide me with the opportunity to hear the full and uncensored dialogue.
The discussion around George Will and the WSJ article reminded me of something my brother said when we were younger while discussing the motivation of Hitler and World War II. He said something along the lines of “Most bad deeds are done with good intentions.” I fear we’ve evolved into this hypersensitive society where in an effort to protect one another’s feelings (really an effort to protect our egalitarian self-image, but that’s another discussion), we’ve rendered the skill of processing complex emotions obsolete. As a result of “trigger warnings” and censorship, academia isn’t protecting my emotional well-being; instead, they are stunting my emotional development by telling me I don’t have the capacity to process controversy with a level and unbiased mindset. With all the best intentions, we are telling our youth they don’t have to grow up.
As someone who loves to write, I often wonder why we afford some words so much power over us. It feeds into another lesson my mom instilled in me: People want things to be black and white when in reality the world is grey. You have to be able to read into the intentions of one’s actions in order to judge and understand them effectively. Obviously, blindly hurtful language should not be encouraged in either academia or (for lack of a better description) “the real world.” But we must ask ourselves if this language is being used with malicious intent or in an effort to engage serious and insightful discussion.
In the same vein I’ve often wondered why certain female-associated words are weighted in a way their male counterparts are not. Why is “cunt” the worst word one can say, when you can say “dick” on TV? (Oh, no—should I have included a trigger warning for those words?) Couldn’t these “liberal” organizations focus on desensitizing society to patriarchal word associations (among a plethora of other problems) rather than deprive the next generation of their ability to speak freely and therefore learn more effectively? Instead of working to remove offensive “triggers” from discussion, shouldn’t we focus on removing our quickly offended mindsets?
It all thins down to yet another lesson from mom—nobody has the power to make you feel anything, because you’re in charge of your own emotions.