Although I aim for voluntary restraint rather than self-censorship, in practice some element of social pressure – and therefore censorship – is probably unavoidable. I don’t mind as long as these occasional acts of self-censorship expand the spaces for the discussion of ideas by softening the climate of fear on our campuses.
Luckily, no student has yet protested against my class expectations – and I’m frankly not sure what I would do if they did. But however my mix of classroom standards and guidelines evolves, they will grow from experience, not simply from the abstract principles of academic freedom found in statements like Chicago’s.
Sadly, too many right-wingers who advocate free speech have embraced a public square without standards, a square that celebrates transgression as an antidote to nullifying culture. Of course, Donald Trump is the most high profile offender, as usual. From the start of his presidency, Mr Trump scoffed at the expectation that his speech should be “presidential”. But other conservative apostles of free speech also reveled in the transgression. In front of a cheering crowd at the University of Houston, for example, conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos told a protester something so crass the Times won’t even print it. He said, “[expletive] your feelings.”
The right’s libertine impulse is partly driven by an American obsession with authenticity. This cult of authenticity – which now fuels the populist turn of conservatism – says that our public expression should not be influenced by social pressures. But public life – both inside and outside our college campuses – demands inauthenticity.
Despite all their errors, excesses and misdeeds, supporters of left-wing “safetyism” rightly reject this culture of transgression because they understand that the absence of norms cannot found any community, even a free one.
Before their Trumpian turn, conservatives more often presupposed that a free people needed customs, habits, and norms that civilized and to integrate in the social order. It was a fundamental principle that we called ordered liberty. Especially in this age of anomie, curators need to reintegrate this tradition by thinking more about the kind of culture and social integration needed to create a community of truth seekers.
This community will need safe spaces in our classrooms. So, let’s stop opposing security and freedom. Instead, let’s build and champion our own version of safe spaces. Truly free and open inquiry in our classrooms depends on it.