Thursday, October 22, 2015

Trigger Warnings and Comfort Zones: Grow Up - A Personal Manifesto on Academic Freedom in the University

The Academy is abuzz about trigger warnings and comfort zones. Some students and faculty don’t want to be offended or “harassed” by whatever may be offensive to them or might trigger unpleasant memories. They demand at the minimum trigger warnings before the presentation, if not bans in advance, or repercussions afterwards. The demands almost always come from the left, the same left, which has barred commencement speakers such as Candoleezza Rice, Christine Lagarde, and Ayaan Hirsa Ali, who they found offensive. Conservatives are often the butt of campus hostility from fellow students and even faculty and administrators. They tend to complain only when a professor has academically penalized them for their political beliefs. However, some conservatives are increasingly taping classes in which the professor’s leftwing indoctrination passes for education. These tapes can be embarrassing to the professors. Professors at universities, such as Boston University and Michigan, have said incredibly intolerant statements about conservatives and Republicans. They find Republicans offensive. These professors claim protection, as they should, by Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech. Their universities honor their rights to say these intolerant remarks. Their intolerance is protected. Ward Churchill was terminated at the University of Colorado for vicious remarks made outside the University. The academic fraud never should have been hired, much less tenured, but was ironically terminated for academic misconduct. The Caucasian passed himself off as Native American to take advantage of Affirmative Action, certainly not the last to change identity (Check out Senator Elizabeth Warren). Steven Salaita’s problem at the University of Illinois is an anomaly because he was between contracts when his offensive remarks were publicized. Thus, the University of Illinois had the opportunity to say goodbye prior to Board of Trustees approval of his contract. Today’s University is supposed to be a Cathedral of Learning, not indoctrination. That works both ways. The Supreme Court has clearly held that constitutionally protected speech can be uninhibited, robust and wide open (New York Times v. Sullivan). Thus the highly offensive hate mongers of the Westboro Baptist Church have 1st Amendment protections of free speech. Liberals and administrators were outraged a few years ago when Young Republicans sponsored campus bake sales with the prices varying by color in an attack on Affirmative Action. That was obviously highly offensive to some. But it is also protected speech on a controversial subject, Affirmative Action. It’s called Freedom of Speech. Free speech can be vigorous. It may be repulsive to some. Students have protested the American Flag because it is a symbol of American imperialism and oppression. Mayor Bill De Blasio removed the portrait of George Washington from Gracie Mansion, the Mayor’s residence. Others, especially on issues of abortion and gay marriage, oppose religious groups. That’s both Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Religion. Administrators have tried to block distribution of copies of the Constitution. Check the words of the Constitution. It’s called “the free exercise of speech.” Education should not be about what to think, but how to think. Education should open the mind, not close the mind. The issue is not trigger warnings and comfort zones. It is about Free Speech and Academic Freedom. It is an attempt in a different guise to revise the unconstitutional Speech Codes of a decade ago. It is an attempt to impose political correctness on the campus. It is an attempt to intellectually ban if not burn books, including some of the world’s greatest books. It is purely an attempt to muzzle speech. I understand students may suffer from PTSD after a sexual assault. No woman should go through that. I feel for students with psychological problems. I also recognize that many students have been earlier taught in their education and upbringing that they are members of a discriminated against minority. I feel for them, but blame someone else for their state of mind. People obsessed with racism, sexism, homophobia, and victimhood will find sexism, racism, homophobia, and victimhood everywhere, often where it does not exist. I am not a psychotherapist. I teach law. I teach students not necessarily what to think, but how to think. I must, to some extent, get them out of a comfort zone. I will use strong language, repulsive to some, to make a point. Teaching does not always involve nuances and politically correct speech. It involves reality. I want law students outside their comfort zone. I want them to realize that life in general and the daily practice of law in particular are not going to be exercises in the “warm and fuzzy.” Life is often not fair or just. The daily practice of law “in the trenches” can be gritty, “take no prisoners” brutal combat. Litigation can be a blood sport with rules of comity and practice often ignored, shaded or violated. The practice of law is not the practice of political correctness. Life as a lawyer will often be uncomfortable. Racism and sexism raise their ugly little heads. No merit badges are awarded for losing. I object to sometimes being introduced with lawyer jokes, but I suck it up. It comes with the territory. A backlash is rising in the Academy against trigger warnings and comfort zones. Professors see censorship at work. They see their careers threatened despite academic freedom and the First Amendment. They are worried about “trigger happy” administrators and human resources personnel punishing them. They recognize that the Department of Education is pushing universities to act. By “they” I mean the liberal professoriate is reacting. A committee of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP, of which I am a member – not the Committee) has written a report against the use of trigger warnings. The committee wrote: “The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual.” The question for society is one of tolerance or intolerance. Do we have a civil society in which we respect opposing views, differences in beliefs, and different practices, or do we worship at a cult of liberal correctness? My university, Chapman University, just adopted a Statement on Free Speech, modeled on one recently promulgated by the University of Chicago. It states: “Because Chapman University … is committed to free and open inquiry in all matters, it guarantees all members of the University community the broadest latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn. The University fully respects and supports the freedom of all members of the University Community to engage in robust, uninhibited discussion and deliberation on any and all topics. “Of course, the ideas of different members of the University community will often not coincide and may quite naturally conflict. It is not the proper role of the University, however, to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive. Although the University greatly values civility, and although all members of the University community share in the responsibility for maintaining a climate of mutual respect, concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable these ideas may be to some members of our community.” No trigger warnings, no comfort zones in my classes.

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