Is there a plague of self-censorship in college?
Meaningful dissent necessarily entails confrontation and discomfort — and possible isolation.
In this newsletter:
(1) I share my column responding to a viral New York Times’ op-ed about an apparent epidemic of self-censorship across college campuses.
(2) Some links to some other writing I’ve done recently.
(3) What I’m reading.
What the New York Times' college cancel culture essay gets wrong about censorship
Here’s my article, published at MSNBC:
The New York Times opinion section published an essay from a University of Virginia student Monday about her dismay that students often censor themselves on college campuses to avoid controversy. Emma Camp’s thoughtful meditation on what it’s like to have unpopular political and social views in college is the latest entry into America’s ongoing cancel culture debate and, accordingly, it’s become a source of criticism and argument online.
As someone who held some deeply unpopular views on my college campus during the Bush era, I’ve experienced some of what Camp described and, arguably, worse. (More on that later.) But I would say I wasn’t being censored as much as I was experiencing the social consequences of taking positions outside my community's parameters of consensus. And ultimately I think it was a good thing: I learned that meaningful dissent necessarily entails confrontation and discomfort — but that there is dignity and strength to be found in steeling oneself in the face of overwhelming disagreement.
Camp touched on several different points in her op-ed, but her core argument rested on a 2021 survey of tens of thousands of college students finding that "80 percent of students self-censor at least some of the time" and 48 percent of undergrads "described themselves as 'somewhat uncomfortable' or 'very uncomfortable' with expressing their views on a controversial topic during classroom discussions."
The cited data is unpersuasive as proof of a plague of conformity for a couple of reasons. First, there are no historical comparison points. Is self-censorship something fundamentally new? Is it actually rising, as Camp implies? After all, some data from the past several years indicates that support for free speech among college students outpaces support among adults in general; that support for free speech is correlated with college education; and that free speech crises at colleges, such as a student-run plays being canceled because they're perceived by some as offensive, are, while troubling, rare events.
Secondly, it’s unclear if there’s anything inherently worrisome about data suggesting that students often censor themselves. Declining to speak completely freely is always going to be a general condition of social existence in the adult world. It’s a socially adaptive trait to say different kinds of things around different people, and everyone makes use of it all the time: People have different conversational ranges and understandings of what’s appropriate to talk about with family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, doctors, in-laws and bosses. And since by definition controversial viewpoints will repel and often inspire pushback from interlocutors, it makes perfect sense that there will frequently be situations where people will be hesitant to express them.
Camp argued that this self-censorship is driven by the fact that “the consequences for saying something outside the norm can be steep.” But she provided little evidence of severe penalties. The overwhelming majority of consequences she described in detail involved students feeling uncomfortable or unhappy about others disagreeing with them, sometimes en masse. A conservative student informed Camp that he enters “survival mode” when politics comes up and that “I tense up a lot more, because I’ve got to think very carefully about how I word things. It’s very anxiety inducing.” Camp herself described feeling “shaken” by her class getting angry at her for saying it's OK for non-Indian women to criticize the historical cultural ritual of suttee in India. Another student relayed the humiliation of enduring “a succession of people” disagreeing with her comment about sexism in media, discouraging her from speaking up in class. Camp also cites examples of students lowering their voices or shutting doors on campus to avoid drawing attention to opinions that stray from convention, and losing friends over her writing on free expression.
These kinds of anecdotes do not conjure up the image of a new culture of conformity and "public shaming" but rather the timeless reality of what it means to articulate unpopular opinions. I experienced this firsthand in college, and it was a critical learning experience.
For my undergraduate degree, I attended George Washington University, which, because it’s in the heart of the nation’s capital, attracted a great many students who trusted in and were deeply invested in the two-party political system. They touted their centrist positions as they vied for internships and access to Washington’s social networks, and were eager to work in government. As a leftist, I stood far outside the ethos of the student body and remained at odds with many students and student activists in both parties on issues of domestic politics and foreign policy during the George W. Bush era. It was a time when post-9/11 jingoism was still raging, and neoliberal governance was not viewed as a policy regime, but simply the natural order of the world.
Heated debates with other students over the nature and morality of capitalism were a routine occurrence for me. In one class, some students regularly rolled their eyes when I raised my hand, and it was common to be rebuked by a succession of people. At guest lectures, I was sometimes booed for passionately disagreeing with speakers. When my activist friends and I engaged with the mainstream student body on a range of issues, it could quickly get acrimonious.
And the social costs were real. Someone I considered a friend spat at my feet and declined to speak to me ever again after we clashed over how to fight Islamophobia and neoconservatism on campus. A budding romantic relationship went cold after a disagreement about the Iraq War. At a peaceful protest alongside other leftie activists against an Israel Defense Forces war criminal, I wasn’t just jeered; I was physically assaulted.
I did not perceive the unpleasant pushback I experienced as aimed at silencing me or encouraging me to self self-censor. Rather, I viewed it as a function of clashing with other people’s value systems on questions that often had life-or-death stakes and were tied to fundamental questions of human liberty. Yes, there are mindless conformists out there, and the thoughtlessness of pile-ons from such people can grate. But the primary reason that my dissent from mainstream opinion on campus was contentious was because of the moral substance at play — we were involved in real confrontations over what’s right, what’s wrong and what must be done to make the world more just.
And this is what I would ask Camp to reflect on — the impossibility of avoiding the chance of isolation while engaged in serious dissent. A world in which every topic under the sun can be discussed entirely dispassionately and with equal regard for every opinion doesn't exist. First of all, societies are held together by norms, and challenging them will always generate friction. Second, most issues that inspire passion in college debate tend to do so because of their political and moral content — and it only makes sense that these issues can drive people apart. If people actually believe in what they're saying, then debate will necessarily make some people dislike each other.
My activist and debate experiences in college could be challenging and painful at times, but mostly they invigorated me. I learned to hold my own against a crowd — a prerequisite for becoming a free thinker, and it certainly helps if you go on to become a journalist. While expressing my niche views did result in the end of a few friendships, it also opened me up to others — people whom I got along with based on overlapping worldviews or based on a shared interest in debate despite some disagreements. I learned, too, the value of sometimes setting aside political discussions and reveling in all the other dimensions of interpersonal connection.
None of this is to say that there are no reasons for concern about intellectual conformity, free expression and public shaming in our culture in our age. I, myself, am a critic of some of the punitive aspects of our public culture online and tribalism in debate, and in years past I have reported on what I found to be concerning incidents of anti-free speech ideas on college campuses. But complaints of a culture of self-censorship as illustrated by discomfort with being piled on in class don't seem to meet the threshold for worrisome.
There is no arena in which dissent from consensus on the big questions of the day won’t cause some discomfort and even isolation. That isn’t censorship. That’s the price of having one’s own opinion.
Some more writing from recent weeks
Why calling Tucker Carlson a “traitor” misses the point: “For some activists, lawmakers and commentators, Carlson’s decision to minimize Russia's imminent invasion and push back against critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin meant he was siding with Russia against the U.S. But that’s a misread. Carlson isn’t in favor of Russia over America or angling to aid Russia in dominating or controlling the U.S. — he wants the U.S. to be like Russia. And in accordance with paleoconservative and white nationalist principles, he has an aversion to foreign interventionism so American militarism can grow at home. Carlson's ideas are dangerous and must be fought, but loyalty rhetoric misses the real problem. Furthermore, the traitor insult is one that could derail the quality of our national debate at a critical time. Setting Carlson aside, there is great risk in associating opposition to war with betrayal of the republic.”
Joe Biden talking crime with Eric Adams is bad news for police reformers: “By spending a day with Adams chatting about crime and outlining his strategy to crack down firmly on gun violence with increased funding for law enforcement, Biden telegraphed to the country that he thinks Adams is on the right track. For anyone who cares about the fulfillment of police reform efforts that lost steam after a spike in the national homicide rate in 2020, that should be concerning — Adams’ record so far suggests the Democrats are not just retreating from already inadequate reform efforts but in fact tacking to the right.”
What I’m reading
Some interrogations of John Mearsheimer, one of the most hotly debated scholars of the moment: Mearsheimer and the dark origins of realism (New Statesman); Why John Mearsheimer Blames the U.S. for the Crisis in Ukraine (New Yorker).
The Sex Scene Is Dead. Long Live the Sex Scene. (New Yorker)