The Greek Tragedy of Campus Censorship
Most American universities have eliminated the once common requirements that their students study the ancient Greek classics, such as the plays of Sophocles and the Homeric epics. Whatever the reasons for this change, a highly unfortunate byproduct of it is that a startlingly small number of people on campus seem to understand the fundamental risks of what the Greeks called hubris: excessive pride or arrogance. And one of the main places this becomes apparent is in the relentless yet doomed attempts to banish so-called “hate speech” from campus.
In the wake of the Tuscon mass shooting last month, a vast array of commentators immediately jumped to the conclusion that “hateful rhetoric” must have been behind the crime, or at least influenced it. As it turns out, accused shooter Jared Loughner appears to have been motivated more by his own mental illness than any particular outside stimuli (seriously, the guy had a skull shrine in his backyard).
Yet this revelation did not challenge the underlying assumption made by many in politics and the media that we would certainly be better off if violent rhetoric, hate speech, or other “extreme” forms of expression could be silenced. One got the feeling that the First Amendment was an obstacle that somehow needed to be overcome in our quest for a peaceable society.
This kind of thinking is rife on university campuses, and unlike in society at large, most universities actively ban speech that is protected by the First Amendment in an effort to create a more benign campus environment. While this is unlawful at public universities and generally deceptive at private universities (most of them promise free speech but fail to deliver), the effort to ban “bad” speech has widespread support on campus among administrators and even students.
For instance, a student article in the Tufts Daily last week defended Tufts’ decision to declare a conservative newspaper guilty of “harassment” for two articles (a parody of affirmative action and a list of unpleasant facts about Islamic regimes), by saying that “[t]he idea that more speech can be used to combat hate speech operates on the assumption that all speech is equal. That is unrealistic.... [T]the call for more speech [to combat hate speech] places an undue burden on those targeted by hate speech to be constantly acting in their own defense.” Indeed, the student author seems downright terrified of freedom of speech, saying, “Hate speech rather degrades a person's humanity, worth and sense of self.... [F]ree speech policies merely institutionalize the ability of people to hurt others.”
At North Carolina State University, the existence of a “Free Expression Tunnel” on campus has led to similar efforts by students to eliminate “hate speech.” After a group of students painted the entire tunnel black to protest racist comments written about President Obama last November, a movement began to find some way to regulate what was written on the tunnel walls. The student government took a survey on whether it should create a student group to “keep up” the tunnel (which could only mean monitoring and eliminating “offensive” speech from the walls).
Thankfully, a majority of N.C. State students rejected this idea, but the student government is leaving open the possibility of supporting such a group in the future.
One of the many shocking things about these efforts from a historical perspective is the level of hubris required for students or administrators at an American university to believe that banning the expression of “hate” will somehow keep hate off of campus. Even if you accept the premise that having the authorities silence hateful speech will somehow lead to less hate in real life (a premise I certainly do not accept and will address in a future column), the fact is that the record of regimes of censorship is a record of failure.
In the Soviet Union, for instance, copy machines were seen as such a dangerous threat to the state (because of how easy they would make the spread of dissident ideas) that the state controlled all of them. There was even a specific agency for this purpose that was run by the ruthless KGB. Nevertheless, dissident ideas still spread through techniques like Samizdat, in which forbidden volumes were copied by hand and passed from person to person. Those dissident ideas still exist; the Soviet Union does not.
In 1964, the shah of Iran banished the dangerous cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and banned his works. However, his followers taped his sermons and smuggled them into Iran, leading to his popularity among a rising generation and ultimately setting the stage for the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The shah was exiled to Egypt and soon died, and now the Islamic Republic of Iran, which engages in even more censorship than the shah’s regime (it notoriously shut down phone lines and texting during the 2009 demonstrations, driving Iranians to communicate over Twitter), faces regular convulsions from a restive populace. More recently, Egypt shut down the Internet during the demonstrations against its strongman, Hosni Mubarak. Now Mubarak is gone, while the Internet has been turned right back on again.
Of course, college campuses are not Iran, Egypt, or the Soviet Union (although in some cases, students caught in the Kafkaesque nightmare of campus “justice” could be forgiven for making some pointed comparisons). They certainly have nowhere near the resources necessary to eliminate all exposure to “bad” ideas. So what makes the campus censors think that anything they can do will actually be effective in eliminating hateful or offensive beliefs from our colleges and universities? If students want to hear criticisms (hateful or substantive) of President Obama, affirmative action, or Islamic regimes, all they need to do is turn on the TV, go to a computer, pull it up on their iPhone, or pick up a newspaper. There is certainly nothing that is being said on campuses that isn’t being said in the larger society.
The truth is that the push to punish “hate speech” isn’t really about making campuses hate-free. It’s about exercising raw power rather than persuasion in order to tell people what kind of thinking is right and what kind of thinking is wrong. At Tufts, if you want to take on affirmative action or Islamic extremism, the campus censors demand that you do it their way, or (preferably) no way at all. Do you think you can make a better point using the tools of satire? Too bad, and you’re a harasser if you don’t go along with the demands of the authorities -- or the mob.
At N.C. State, the point of exercising the power to censor is, if anything, even creepier. It’s hard to imagine an N.C. State student walking through the Free Expression Tunnel, seeing a scrawled message referring to President Obama as the “n-word,” and being persuaded to think worse of the President rather than to think worse of the scribbler. Instead, the goal is an almost ritualistic desire to do something to purify the campus of its perceived sins. Rather than address the real issue of racism on campus, the wannabe censors wish to apply a band-aid solution that merely covers up potential problems. It may make the censors feel better, but it does precious little to actually improve the lives of minority students. It just warns the racists to keep their heads down and keep their racist behavior secret. It’s hard to see how that helps anyone but the racists.
In the ancient Greek tragedies, hubris always led to a bad result for those afflicted with it. In the case of the campus censors, that could be an expensive lawsuit, personal liability, or simply a campus culture where students are afraid to speak their minds and, as a result, end up with an impoverished educational experience. And how much progress has been made? Speech codes have been around since the 1980s, and a generation later, those in favor of censorship still call our campuses a hotbed of racism and sexism, and call for still more speech restrictions. There’s another (non-Greek) word for the kind of behavior that is defined by trying the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result: insanity.