What happened to free speech?

By Lucas Coughlin

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(Protesters, students and media fill Traditions Plaza during a press conference following the Concerned Students 1950 protest on Monday, Nov. 9 2015, in Columbia, Mo. Michael Cali/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

(Protesters, students and media fill Traditions Plaza during a press conference following the Concerned Students 1950 protest on Monday, Nov. 9 2015, in Columbia, Mo. Michael Cali/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

A few years ago, my uncle told me a story about his time in college that, in light of the recent unrest at various universities across the country, is particularly germane.

While he was an undergraduate student at Dartmouth University in the 1950s, the school invited a “scientist” of eugenics to give a speech. As eugenicists are accustomed to do, he held forth about the genetic inferiority of African Americans and the need for population control. According to my uncle, he gave his speech uninterrupted and when the time for questions came about his argument was rightly dismembered by some of the black members of the audience.

Once upon a time, colleges were places where ideas were set against each other, with the understanding that the stronger ideas would prevail in the minds of the public and the weaker ones would dissipate. To judge from the behavior of the protestors, that is no longer the case. Students today are interested only in their own ideas and have demonstrated a willingness to go to extreme measures to preserve ideological uniformity.  Safe spaces, trigger warnings and the like exist to stultify debate and to limit conversation about potentially disquieting topics. The anti-speech impulse that has manifested itself clearly in the recent protests at Yale University, the University of Missouri and Ithaca College is the logical extension of an ideology more interested in making itself heard than proving itself right.

What may have started as a movement with a laudable goal has become a microcosm of the problems with modern campus culture. To protest incidents of hate is hardly objectionable, but the bullying of journalists and the restrictions of speech that have come about are borderline fascistic.

The alleged incidents at Missouri – racist remarks made in the vicinity of the campus by locals and a swastika made of fecal matter found in a bathroom – cannot logically be blamed on the school’s president. Demanding his resignation shows that the protesters are interested primarily in punishing the administration. The way to go about dealing with racism is not to coerce school administrators into resignation, nor is it to intimidate reporters. And it is most definitely not to try to silence those who are interested in dialogue.

The obnoxious haranguing that the Missouri protests have devolved into and the frighteningly Orwellian speech codes being implemented are hallmarks of our mollycoddled generation. We are scared to take on ideas we oppose and more likely to retreat to a safe space or shout down our opponents than to engage with them. We are not brave for this, nor are we enlightened. We are risible.

What will the current crop of college students be remembered for? For finally defeating the menace of classic authors on the syllabus? For refusing to succumb to the oppressive, atavistic document that is the Bill of Rights? For winnowing down language to remove the possibility of dissent, for refusing to tolerate anything that could possibly construed as offensive, and for being utterly unprepared to deal with life outside of the university? That seems to be the direction we’re headed.

Every new generation that comes of age wants to change the world in some way, but the world that our generation seemingly wants to create is one where freedom is secondary to feelings. Count me out.

Lucas Coughlin is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]