A state of cognitive dissonance.
College campuses have long been the birthplace of revolutionary social and political change. From the civil rights movement to the antiwar movement, students have led the way, engaging with ideas that were largely controversial, giving a platform for rational discourse, and creating immense societal value as a result.
It is no coincidence that students are the leaders of these movements. College, by its very nature, is designed to give students a platform to challenge norms, expound upon controversial topics, and grow intellectually. And this culture should start in the classroom.
For this reason, as I stepped onto UNC Charlotte’s campus in the Fall of 2013, I was most excited about the deep conversations I would have with classmates about political theory and current events. I expected to be greeted by other students who wanted to engage in a similar forum of open debate and professors that would value the opinions of their students and give them a platform for ideological inquiry.
I couldn’t have been more enthralled by the allure of the college experience and the culture of free speech that accompanied it. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The unfortunate truth is that America’s higher institutions of learning have become extremely hostile towards these ideals that they once championed. It seems as though America’s most coddled generation would happily trade in their First Amendment right of free speech for trigger warnings, safe spaces, and parental policies.
The right to speak freely is the right to offend.
I don’t want things which offend me to have power over me. This means that I must use my intellect to distance myself from the emotion of the argument. This means that I must view the argument in such a way that I can gain some insight from it, regardless of whether I agree with it or not, whether the argument is right or wrong, whether the argument is just or unjust.
There is truly something that can be gained from all arguments, even offensive ones. It is inevitable that some speech students encounter will be foreign, uncomfortable, offensive, and wrong. These situations are a perfect opportunity for open and honest discussion. Modern classroom culture has made it especially difficult to have these conversations, though.
With this being said, I believe that it’s important to make a distinction between the endorsement of the right of free speech and the speech itself. As a free speech advocate, I am very opposed to legitimate hate speech which targets minorities, for example. However, the conversation we have about hate speech and the conversation we have about the recent rise in trigger warnings and anti-microaggression policy are very different.
According to a Wall Street Journal report, which highlighted a survey conducted by the William F. Buckley Jr. Program at Yale which commissioned a survey from McLaughlin & Associates about attitudes towards free speech on campus, 63 percent of students favor requiring professors to employ “trigger warnings” to alert students to material that might be discomforting. Not only do they think professors should implement trigger warnings, they think that trigger warnings should be mandatory.
Advocates of trigger warnings don’t often dwell on the ramifications of instituting such policies, but the consequences are many. By putting red tape around certain topics that could be found offensive or controversial, we are in effect robbing students of a full and rich education. Often works which address colonialism, racism, sexism, etc. touch upon humankind’s most urgent issues – issues that college students as members of society should be wrestling with, not hiding from.
Furthermore, the rise in awareness is actually making students more sensitive towards arguments thrown around in class. Is encouraging students to ask “am I offended by this?” before they ask “how valid is this argument?” discouraging students from speaking up?
I’ve made it my mission to change college speech culture.
I have spent my college years thinking deeply, fostering a spirit of entrepreneurship within myself and debating with students who care about the important issues despite college speech culture, not because of it. I have befriended the students that embrace open and honest debate, I’ve joined extracurriculars that value free speech, I’ve had internships devoted to exploring new ideas, and now I am making it my mission to spread this culture that has so influenced me, to the place which it should begin: the classroom.
I’ve made the decision that if my school won’t champion the ideals of free speech, I will. And if you’re reading this I encourage you to fight the same fight.