Safe spaces, academic freedom, and the university as a complex association

This is a transcript of a guest lecture I gave to a class on the philosophy of law taught by Andrew I. Cohen– who is, surprisingly enough, a whole different person from his colleague and our BHL coblogger Andrew J. Cohen, not just the same person with a Latinization of the initial– at Georgia State University, February 15 2016. It resembles a talk I gave at the University of Tulsa on December 8, 2015. It expands on a brief discussion on academic freedom and the university as a complex association in my book Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom.

This is an unedited transcript of spoken remarks; I haven’t fixed the spots in which a sentence got away from me and got a little garbled.

This is much too long for a blog post, of course. Sorry about that. But BHL seems like the right place for this to have a google-able existence.

I want to start off before I really get to what it is that I’m going to talk about, by referring to a passage in Lon Fuller’s Morality of Law which wasn’t in the portion of that book that I think that you read. Fuller examines the question of whether we should think of the rules of association as being relevantly part of the legal system. He takes as an example universities and how it is universities govern themselves, and asks a question: if someone is expelled from a university, are they entitled to something like legal due process? And more generally, should we think of the university’s legal system as part of a legal system broadly understood, which is to say observed. His answer is yes, and I will talk about why that is the case in a little while.
The example of a university rule that he offers is actually parietal rules; (does anyone even know that word means anymore)? Parietal rules were rules they had back in the old days concerning when male students could be in the dormitory rooms of female students and vice-versa, and it was, a very serious matter to make sure such rules were followed. It was a very important example of what would be an expellable offense, and example which I wouldn’t bother with now except for the fact that I am now in Atlanta and I am alumni of Brown University which expelled Ted Turner for violating parietal rules back in 1960 or so. Ted Turner never got his bachelor’s from Brown, it was an offense from which there was no readmission. That all changed very rapidly a few years after. In particular, I want to talk about whether the internal rules in a university that govern speech and debate should be thought of as legal in form.

As of last fall it became a very topical subject on college university campuses across the US with really important and controversial episodes arising around the limits of speech on college campuses. One of the central moments and something that I’m going to refer back to over the course of my talk was a confrontation that was caught on video between an African-American woman student at Yale, and one of the residential housemasters of the residential college were she lived. The residential housemaster had sent an email about the ability to wear offensive costumes on campus. The student was caught on video very aggressively saying to the housemaster who was also a professor: “I don’t want a debate; I want a safe space”. Over the course of my talk, I’m going to build up the case for what it is that she said which became one of the central instances of the discourse of last fall, about the idea that universities had become sites that were unfriendly to freedom of speech and there was something deeply wrong about the ways students were engaging with freedom of speech and with debate on campus. To a substantial degree I want to push back against that drawing in part upon tools from the philosophy of law.

I’m going to start with a strange kind of claim that freedom of speech is not a value of universities. Just as such. When I say universities, I’m not today going to be talking about the distinction that exists in American law between public and private universities. It is the case that American constitutional law treats public universities as being bound by the bill of rights as if they were government agencies and treats private universities with the amount of deference very near to what the Church gets that it is able to make its own rules. I don’t think that division makes complete sense and can’t support the weight that its being asked to bare and moreover it has the consequence if you think internationally or comparatively that outside of the US there aren’t any “real” universities left in the world because the US is the only country left that has a very substantial private university system.

But because I think real universities are really, rightfully, self-governing associations I think that it can’t be the case that the gradual change from public to private universities in the rest of the world has meant that there aren’t really any universities left, and I take that thought back to the US and say probably public universities here also shouldn’t be treated as if they’re just the DMV. They are meaningfully public, but they are also meaningfully self-governing institutions. So when I say that freedom of speech isn’t a value of universities, I’m not making a claim about the details of the first amendment, I’m making a claim about how universities ought to be able to govern themselves.

Under general principles of freedom of speech, under the rules of the first amendment as they govern the rules of the rest of society which I think are generally very good understandings of what the value of the freedom of speech is. Under such rules, you are allowed to lie. It’s a very clearly established norm of the first amendment. While certain kinds of commercial fraud aren’t allowable (you’re not allowed to put up a sign you’re selling sugar and sneak cocaine into it). In general, you’re allowed to lie and your ability to lie is protected by the first amendment.
For example, you are allowed to tell the following particular kind of lie: you’re allowed to publish a book that has your name on the cover that you did not write. You have a contractual arrangement known as ghostwriting where you pay the writer, the writer writes the book, you buy the writer’s services and if you are relatively thoughtful, you include the ghostwriter among the acknowledgements of the book and if you’re not you don’t. But one way or another, one you’ve paid the ghostwriter that’s all there is to be said. You can then put your name on the book, this is how very nearly all books written by American Presidents and Presidential candidates are published. Indeed, sometimes, as with JFK’s ostensible Profiles in Courage a book that the person didn’t write can win a Pulitzer. And the Pulitzer went to John Kennedy rather than Arthur J. Schlesinger who actually wrote the thing.

All of this is perfectly legal. It’s a lie! It’s a lie that Kennedy wrote the book, and there’s nothing objectionable about it from the perspective of the freedom of speech. On a university campus, if you submit written work in one of your classes that you paid someone else to write for you and you put your name on it, you get expelled. On a university campus, if I publish a piece of research that I didn’t write and I paid someone else to write and I put my name on it, I get fired. And appropriately so. That kind of misrepresentation which is fair game as a matter of freedom of speech is not fair game in terms of the structure of community of inquiry and discourse that is part of a college or university. It is one of the very worst offenses in a college or university.
There was a very conspicuous scandal of this in my home discipline of political science last year in which a graduate student got international coverage for a very high profile piece of research which purported to show that certain surveys structured in a particular in which the interviewers of the public opinion surveys told the interviewees that they the interviewers were gay, had a significant impact on whether the interviewees had relatively tolerant or relatively intolerant responses with regard to gay rights. The survey never happened, it was a fraud. This political scientist will never work again, and appropriately so. It’s a violation of the heart of the academic enterprise. None of which is to say that the heart of the academic enterprise doesn’t have some questions about free debate or free inquiry in it. But they are not well captured by the norms that we associate with freedom of speech or freedom of the press out there in the wider society or in the legal system of a constitutional democracy. In this I believe, universities are typical of association and associational life. I will now briefly take a detour into talking about churches and religions.

In a liberal democracy one has freedom of religion. One has freedom of religious speech, one has freedom of religious practice, you have the freedom to leave a church, join a new church, denounce them all, refuse to be part of any church whatsoever. What you don’t have is the freedom to go to your Sunday catholic mass, jump up in the middle, turn over the tray of communion wafers knocking them on the ground, shout “Hail Satan” and draw a pentagram on the pews. You’ll get arrested for that! “Well but it’s my freedom of religion to worship Satan”. That’s a freedom you have in your own basement. What about this?

Instead of doing it in the church, instead of committing trespass and vandalism, what if I just published an article in the newspaper denouncing the Pope as the antichrist and ending my little op-ed or letter to the editor with “Hail Satan”, and describing the communion sacrament as an act of barbaric ritual cannibalism that involves eating a poor man’s body. What if I did all that, and then went back to Church on Sunday? Well in some respects (it would take a little longer than one week), at some point the Catholic Church says to me: “what you are saying is incompatible with you remaining a Catholic in good standing.” At some point if it becomes well known enough that I’m doing this, I will be excommunicated.

“But why? I have freedom of religion; you can’t punish me for my religious beliefs!” That’s a categorical distinction. The state can’t punish you for your religious beliefs, the state can’t censor your op-ed that ends in “Hail Satan”, it can’t take down the pentagram that hangs from your house. The church isn’t the state. And when the church has rules about what it means to be a member of good standing of the church, that is an expression of freedom of religion, not a violation. Freedom of religion includes centrally, the freedom to come together and worship in common, according to norms and principles and rules that we worshipers all agree on together. That is, it includes the freedom to have a church, to have a denomination and that means something, that means there are limits, that there are rules, that there is a doctrine that is associated with belonging to this church.

Now there’s variation among churches about how institutionalised and how clearly written the rules are and I don’t want to spend too much time on things like that. Catholicism is an especially clear case because Catholicism is an overtly legalistic religion with some 1500 years of internal church law and with well developed judicial procedures governing things like excommunication. That makes it by the way very attractive for Fuller’s argument that we should understand the rules governing the internal associations as being part of the same prepositive enterprise that he thinks the activity of law is. The subjecting of human life should be known at predicable points. But that Catholicism is especially clear doesn’t mean that Catholicism is unusual in this. It’s just that in other kinds of churches, denomination or religions, the rules may be more decentralized, they might be more a matter of: “we in this community, we twenty people who form this community together, we have our understandings of where the boundaries are.”

Or it might be a matter of there being some particular teacher, doctrine, or school that you belong to and this exists within both Judaism and Islam. There are important traditions having to do with what teachers you follow and what scholarly interpretations of the religion you subscribe to. They don’t have the same centralized structure as Catholicism does. But insofar as you mean to be a Jew of this kind or Muslim of this kind, you are going to abide by the rules of this kind as are understood by this community. To be in a religion is to be in a community that has norms. As a citizen of a liberal democracy you have the freedom to reject the norms, but in rejecting the norms you leave. You don’t have the freedom of religion to not act like a member and remain a member. You don’t have the freedom of religion to denounce the religion and still demand that you fellow worshipers still treat you as if you’re one of them. That would violate their freedom of religion, which the freedom to engage in a kind of shared community of worship. This is the basic structure of rules governing the internal life of associations.

I now want to make reference to a distinction drawn by the British philosopher Michael Oakeshott in (among other places), a very influential essay on the rule of law as well as his book on human conduct. He distinguishes what he calls enterprise associations from civil associations. Enterprise associations don’t mean businesses, it’s not a narrow definition. Enterprise associations are associations with a purpose. We come together for the sake of some common enterprise. Whether that be bowling in a bowling league, playing baseball in little league, worshiping together, exchanging ideas about gardening, reading books together in a book club, or structuring inquiry into the nature of truth. All of those are enterprises. They are things for which we come together the better to be able to pursue a shared project in common. All of these are distinguished says Oakeshott form the civil association. The civil association has no purposes. And the civil association is a kind of categorical idealization of what a liberal or constitutional government is like. And in talking about how the civil association acts, he argues that the rule of law is characterized not by purposes, but by what he calls adverbial rules.

Adverbial rules describe not what it is people should do, but how they should do it. The easiest case is probably the case of the contract. In a free society, we are not ordered by the government to enter into any particular contract. We don’t have to sell to any particular buyer, buy from any particular seller, we don’t have to make any particular person our business partner, we don’t have to buy any particular person’s house we don’t want to. What does the rule of law say says Oakeshott? The rule of saw says: “if you want to make a contract, here is how you do it.” And the details of the rules vary tremendously, one kind of contract to another and one legal system to another. Do you need two witnesses? Do you need three witnesses? Do you need any witnesses? There are kinds of contracts that are characteristic of a whole lot of our commercial life today where a contract means you just click a button that says “I have read and agreed to the terms” (which nobody actually does). But when you click the button that says “I have read and agreed to the terms” you are entering into a legal contract. You are committing that you agree to the rules of the website. Do those count as contracts or not? There can be different details about all those kinds of things.

The point of the rule of law in civil association according to Oakeshott is not to tell us what to do, it’s to tell us “whatever it is you want to do, here is how you do it”. Beyond the case of contracts and the extension of contracts that comes in associations when if you want to form a club, here is what you do. You fill out a piece of paper and you submit it to the secretary of the office, or you submit a piece of paper to a bank that allows there to be a chequing account that associated with the accounts so that the dues have an account that they can be paid into. None of that tells you what kind of a club to have. And very generally the structure of the law is to enable people to do the things that they wish to do, to follow whatever purposes they have. It is the precondition of that kind of rule of law.

The civil association itself, the government itself, must not have purposes of its own. It’s not trying for example trying to make us all Protestants. What It’s doing is its saying “if you want to have a church here is how you do it. Here is what it means to register your church as a tax exempt organization, here is what it means to get the religious exemptions that allow you to have meetings in a residential area where churches can very often have meetings when other kinds of organizations wouldn’t ordinarily be able to. It’s “here’s how to do it” not “here’s what to do”. This by the way has overlap with things that I think you did read including the discussion of secondary rules in H.L.A Hart’s The Concept of Law. But its long been thought (and I think this too), that Hart’s discussion of these kinds of rules is kind of confusing.

Hart thinks that a legal system is a system of primary and secondary rules. Primary rules tell you what to do, secondary rules tell us who in the system can make new rules and how. And most of that discussion is about things like constituting the legislature. You have a constitution that tells you: you have two houses in the legislature, who gets elected to the legislature, what the rules are governing the passing of a new law. And then he says sort of as an aside “well and a lot of private law like contract law seems sort of like this too”. Why does it seem sort of like this? Well because when you and I make a contract together, we are creating a new legal relationship between us, in creating a new legal relationship we are creating a new law. You give me $100, I promise that tomorrow I will give you my used bike. If I don’t deliver the used bike, then I’m in breach of contract and you can take me to court. I am now in Hart’s terms operating under a new primary rule. I have a duty to give you my bike.

Hart says “we should think of people entering into contracts as mini legislators all over the place”. Oakeshott’s discussion (although his prose is harder to get through), seems to me actually clearer here. We shouldn’t treat the ordinary stuff that private people do when they create new legal circumstances as if they’re really legislators. Let’s see correctly that that’s most of what law does most of the time. We all of us everyday enter into dozens or hundreds of new legal relationships. Every website whose terms you click you agree on, every shop you go into to say nothing of everything that you buy at every shop. In a sense, every person you walk past on the sidewalk and don’t hit in the face; that is, every time you refrain from the tort that could get you sued for hitting someone, those are in Oakeshott’s terms, ways of proceeding. If I want to proceed without committing torts, here is what I have to do.

But even if you omit those negative cases, we all of us all the time are engaging in legal transactions that are person to person. Most of us most days most of the time don’t have direct interaction with the official legal system if things are going well. That doesn’t mean things always go well and sometimes you have many more official interactions with the police and the legal system than we would want. But for anyone making their way through life and society, you have many more legal interactions with other private persons than you do with the official legal system. And that’s what Oakeshott thinks and what Hart makes it hard to see when he treats things like contract law as these sorts of strange anomalies.

One more example before I get back to associations, and that is wills. The state doesn’t tell me who I have to leave things to when I die. A will isn’t a contract, the would be recipient doesn’t have to agree. Legal systems have rules telling us “if you want to leave a will, here is what you do”, here is the standard form. In good low transaction cost legal systems you can sometimes download the form online or buy it at an office supply store and fill in the blanks. It’s better if you register with a lawyer and that makes it less likely that anyone can challenge it later on, but one way or another, declaring who your heirs are, declaring who will take care of your kids if you leave kids behind when you die, declaring who gets you property; those are all legal transactions that you’re entering into with people who may not know it yet. You can name people as heirs who have no idea. And what the law does isn’t tell you who, it just tells you how. Now back to the case of enterprise associations.

In Oakeshott’s terms the creation of associations is governed by the rule of law. The rule of law tells us, if you want to create a new university, if you want to create a new club, here are the forms, here are the rules. Whatever purpose you want to embark on together, here is how you do it. But then the associations once formed are in Oakeshott’s terms enterprise associations not civil associations. They have purposes. And in having purposes, they have substantive rules, they tell you what to do not only how to do it. Once you form a church the church tells you what you have to believe in order to remain a member in good standing. Part of the question for how we understand freedom of speech and freedom of debate on campus comes to whether we think that universities are enterprise associations or civil associations.

Once again I want to step back from whether that means public or private, governmental or non-governmental. Does the university have purposes like a church, or is the university open ended and purposeless like the government? And I want to suggest that it’s genuinely an enterprise association, though it is a complex association, that has rule of law elements in it. That is, it has moments of purposelessness but the moments of purposelessness are all structured toward the end that is the overall purpose of the institution. And here one last analogy with religious organizations. What I just said, about universities in their complex associations; that is true of the Catholic Church too. (Other religious denominations too but I’m going to focus on the Catholic Church because it’s nice and legally explicit). The church law says: If you want to create a new monastery, monastic order, or religious hospital; if you members of the church want to do something together to create a new association within the church. You are free to do so for any purpose that is broadly compatible with the church’s overall purposes and here is how you do it. Here are the forms to fill out.

The proliferation of the institutions within Catholicism, the orders of priests (like the Jesuits), orders of monks, universities, hospitals, all that stuff; that’s all inside the Catholic church. The pope doesn’t create them. The Church doesn’t order people to create them, it creates the legal structure according to which people can create them for themselves. Only insofar as they advance an overall sense of Catholic mission. You cannot create the monastic order devoted to the worship of Satan. But you can create monastic orders that have one set of rules or another: “we” take vows of silence, “we” take vows of extreme poverty, “we” take vows of shaving our heads, we wear special clothes, we don’t wear special clothes. We establish hospitals that doctor to the sick, we establish hospitals that only doctor to the poor among the sick. All of those things are things that people are free to create within Catholicism.

Catholicism is the prototypical complex association. When the university form emerged in Medieval Europe, it took on many of the same legal and structural features that the Catholic church had, and has been ever since that time a complex association. Part of what this meant for the universities in its earliest day was the organization into what were then called faculties. The faculties of theology, philosophy, medicine, and law. Some universities today would still call them faculties, some call them colleges, some call them schools, but the organization of the universities into different internal institutions devoted for teaching about and research into different areas of knowledge. That’s something the university enabled people to do from within. At a much later stage of the university’s development you then further fracture the faculties into departments and you make it possible for new departments to be created, new interdisciplinary programs to be created, new methods of inquiry, new lines of teaching.

The university doesn’t just as such say “here is what every class is going to be about”. The university says to professors to this day, if you want to offer a new class, here is the form you fill out. And the university doesn’t tell us what to research, it doesn’t tell students what to write their theses on; it says, if you want to do those things, here is how. That looks suspiciously like the rule of law, it looks suspiciously like purposelessness. But the university as a whole is an enterprise association not a civil association. It creates those things in limited domains for a well defined overall purpose which is the teaching and acquisition of knowledge. They don’t say: “here within the university if you want to create a new fast food chain here is how you do it”, they don’t say “if you want to establish a new church here is how you do it”. You might be able to create a student club devoted to those things but as far as the university is concerned, those are student clubs and you have a whole ecosystem of student clubs for the sake of enhancing the overall educational experience of student while they are at the school. But professors for the most part aren’t free to do things like create new fast food chains or churches on campus using university resources. But we are free to create new classes, and it’s complicated but we are free to create new departments.

Why? What is the purpose? The purpose of the university is organized, structured, teaching, and research. It’s organized into specified domains of knowledge. It treats students and professors as being jointly involved in that, and indeed the first universities in Medieval Europe were sometimes corporations or associations of students that hired professors, and sometimes corporations or associations of professors who sold teaching to students, and sometimes a hybrid. Who the founding members or shareholders of the university were varied from one university to another, but it was students of professors or both; creating a shared institution for the transmission of knowledge through teaching (research came later). The norms that eventually developed about how that proceeds, go under a specialized label that has meaning only really within an academic context, and that specialized label is “academic freedom”. It’s not the freedom of speech, it’s not the freedom to lie, to commit research fraud, to submit plagiarized work. It’s more than that though.

It’s not the freedom of a professor to stand in front of a class and say “have you heard the word of God as I best understand it? Let me preach to you for an hour”. Or “you all really need to vote for Bernie Sanders, his is the one true way for politics.” Those are considered to be violations of the nature of the university’s purpose. A professor does lecture; a professor does convey (in sometimes a very one-way direction). But the scope that a professor has to set the terms of the classroom are constrained by the subject matter of the organized class, and of the organized institution into which the class is situated which is characteristically a department which has an identity as a discipline. At the first approximation, the meaning of academic freedom is the freedom of both professors and students (researchers and those pursing knowledge), to be judged only according to what they do in the classroom or as researchers and only according to the standards of the discipline. What does that exclude?
One thing that it excludes is for us to evaluate students, or for the university to evaluate us at all for our political or religious opinions expressed off campus, outside the classroom, outside the academic world. This was part of the purpose of codifying academic freedom as a norm over the course of the late 18th and early 19th century (though there were precedents for it in the Medieval universities). When professors or students express controversial political views off campus and along comes what was characteristically some rich republican trustee who says “you need to fire that professor or expel that student because they said something left-wing in the newspaper.” The university points to this norm “that’s not how we do things”. If the philosophy student fails to be a good philosophy student on the terms of what it means to be a philosophy student: written work submitted in class, discussion in class, the inquiry into philosophy; then we can fail a student and it’s fine. If a chemistry researcher fails to be a good chemistry researcher: if they defraud in their research or they fail to do any research or fail to publish any research then they get fired. But we can’t, we don’t, we won’t, do so for extraneous opinions that aren’t to do with disciplinary business.

Now, who is it who judges what counts as being a good philosophy or good chemist? At first approximation this is “the discipline” which on a university campus means the department. We don’t expect the biology department to come tell the philosophers what good philosophy research looks like. They’re awfully bad at that kind of thing. At any research university that’s big enough and complicated enough there are big committees where the scientists, the social scientists, and the humanities professors all get together and we recount over and over again just how bad the scientists are. They just look at us over and over again and say: “but you’re making it up! Where is the experiment?” The good news is “you don’t have to understand how we do what we do, because we are self governing. We decide how we do what we do.”

The “we” here is an intellectual community. It is not every professor fends for themselves and every student fends for themselves. And so, while academic freedom robustly protects what happens in a classroom, it does not protect the freedom of the astronomy professor to one day decide that he is an astrologer and start teaching how it is you read your fate in the constellations. The community of astronomers has long since said: “that’s nonsense, that’s not the enterprise; and if you do that, you’re failing to be a good astronomer.” Could there be something like astrology taught in the faculty of religion? There could be. The astronomers don’t get to run the whole show, they get to run astronomy. The evolutionary biologists get to run evolutionary biology, and if the evolutionary biology professor stands up there and is suddenly a young earth creationist and says “God created all the species exactly as they are 6000 years ago” then the biologists get to say “you aren’t doing we what do” and will say: “we’re not going to hire you, we’re not going to keep you on, and we will fire you eventually if you insist on running your classes that way.”

Those aren’t violations of freedom of speech or freedom of religion. Those are the self governing associational freedoms of these communities of inquiry. Why have that? Well because inquiry requires taking some steps for granted and building on it. The ability to have a high level debate in chemistry requires you have all kinds of basic and intermediate level stuff that everyone agrees on. “We’ve done this work, this has been proven, now we’re at the next step”. That doesn’t mean that in the university community those basic things are immune to challenge. A lot of what happens in interdisciplinary programs on university campuses is that people from different disciplinary frameworks will encounter one another’s basic assumptions and challenge them in (sometimes) interesting and productive ways.

It’s only “sometimes” interesting and productive. People need to be open to understanding why other disciplines are the things that they are. They need to not just sit there and say: “where is your experiment?” They need to be willing to learn how the other discipline does things and why. But in a well structured program there can then be learning from going back to basics. But that can’t be the normal enterprise though, that can’t be what we do every day either as students and teachers or as researchers. We have to be able to make progress on the assumption that we are going to take certain things for granted.

Academic freedom is the core meaning, the core institutional life, of freedom of debate and freedom of inquiry in the university setting. And one thing that’s notable about academic freedom as I’ve just labeled it is that it creates safe spaces. The people who are doing the work on an ongoing basis be they students, teachers, or researchers, don’t have to spend all day every day answering the challenge: “where are your experiments?”. That get’s boring and is unproductive. If I as a political scientist want to do some research if I want to make some intellectual progress, I have to not be constantly harangued by the biologists or the chemists saying: “It’s not a real science you know”. By the third time, there is nothing new to learn, it’s going to get in the way of our ability to do what we are doing. The same by the way is true of the metaphysicist in a philosophy department who says to the physicist: “Well you know that your assumptions about the nature of reality are really up for contestation.” It’s really hard to argue with and the physicist replies: “Get out of my way, I’m trying to get some work done!”

What is that? That’s a way of separating out universities into partially separate communities in which different lines of inquiry, different kinds of work can be done among people who share certain assumptions in common. That does not mean that any of those communities are internally spaces without debate. Every good classroom, every good department, every good discipline, is a space where debate happens. We get together and argue about the new high level stuff that we are trying to understand. We ask each other hard philosophy questions, hard political science questions, hard chemistry questions, but they’re hard as understood within the context of that intellectual community. Those safe space moments are most of our day, but they aren’t all of it.
There is value in having moments of interdisciplinary challenge and good universities do try and create settings in which that kind of thing can happen. And sometimes, whole disciplines can be really shaken up from the outside. Those interdisciplinary moments of contact can bring really important assumptions to light, they can show that there should be better arguments about them such as when neurology and philosophy come into certain kinds of arguments about the structure of the human mind and what it is for humans to think, or when economics began to really appreciate the study of law over the past two generations by calling into question assumptions made by legal scholars about where law came from and how law works. The interdisciplinary questions can shake the assumptions in ways that are intellectually productive. But that still can’t be, no matter how valuable it is, the normal business most of the time. The normal business most of the time has to be “we, doing this kind of work, according to these norms, and we evaluate each other according to these norms.” The philosophy professor evaluates the philosophy student as to whether the paper is a good philosophy paper. The philosophy department evaluates the philosophy job candidate as to whether they would be a good philosophy professor. And the philosophy department evaluates the current philosophers as to whether they are still doing that and acting as good philosophers. The moments of challenge have to be the exception; the safe spaces are the rule.

Why do we need safe spaces? We need safe spaces for a few different reasons. One of them is intellectual. Inquiry is hard. Research, teaching, and learning, require building blocks. And if you are never allowed to put one set of blocks down, you will never be able to move on to the next level. An intellectual world in which we are always doing nothing but challenging one another’s basic assumptions gets very boring very quickly because no progress is possible. You can never build on what you’ve already learned because you’re never allowed to take for granted that you’ve learned it. That requires communities and times and spaces that distinguish themselves from one another. I do go to committee meetings with scientists on them, and we do sit around talking about for example: “should we tenure this professor, are they acting as a good biologist?” That’s fine. When I leave the committee meeting and I go back to teach my students or write my books, if the biologist followed me back to my office shouting at me “well but you’re not a real science you know”; it’s annoying, it’s boring, and it stops me from getting any work done. In order to make any progress, we need to be able to step back from those moments of challenge and go deeper. That’s one reason we need safe spaces.

Another reason is that that kind of thing is psychologically and emotionally draining. Adults commenting on university students from off-campus will often say “there is a real problem with students not understanding that their ideas should be up for challenge all of the time.” But nobody who lives off of a university campus lives that way. We go home at the end of the day. It’s not just that I walk out of my meeting with the biologist and don’t let the biologist follow me and say “it’s not a real science”. It’s not just that when I go back to the political science department I don’t have my quantitative political science colleagues harassing me and asking “where are the hypotheses?” It’s not just that among my political theory colleagues I don’t let them harass me all day saying “what you’re doing is kind of a strange mix of normative and empirical inquiry, where is the philosophy?” I hear all of those questions at different times in my intellectual life, but at some point I go home. You can’t do that all day every day, not if you take those challenges seriously or not if people get in your face beyond some minimal level. Because I’m a tenured professor I can actually just close my door if someone is getting on my nerves and that serves to give me my own safe space in its own way. But if I’m actually going to be listening and to hear the arguments they make, I need it not to be all day every day.

Now there is something wonderful about life as a student at especially a residential university. Where it’s possible to go though a year or two of “all day every day”. There is a great deal of romanticism of American popular depictions about university life of “the dorm room bull session”. Where you stay up all night talking to your roommate arguing about the meaning of life, (with or without chemical enhancements). And that’s great! Once or twice. By the third night in a row it’s getting old, and if by the third night in a row your roommate doesn’t want to let you go to sleep and says “No no! We are just getting to the good part! Let’s argue some more!” You have to have some ability to say “Enough. No we haven’t found the ultimate answers yet, maybe tomorrow.”
There is a limit to what we can do mentally, psychologically and emotionally. The more seriously we take the challenges, the sharper that limit is. If the things other people said to me were just noise, if I screened them out the way you do in a foreign country where you don’t understand the language, or on public transportation where you might screen out other people’s conversations; you can do a fair amount of that. But if I’m actually listening to every argument everyone is making, I wear out faster and faster. And while at 18 or 19 in the dorm room you have more energy than I do, you wear out too.

The arguments about freedom of speech that arose on American college and university campuses last fall, very many of them invoked the language of safe spaces. This is a language I’ve been using in a very unfamiliar or atypical way to describe classrooms, disciplines, and departments. I’ve been putting it in that context in order to make clear that communities of inquiry and debate depend on the ability of participants to sometimes go back, among the people who relatively agree with one another, and get some work done. Or, to get out of the circumstance of argument and debate entirely and take some time off. Notice that those are separate. There is one kind of space that you need when you tell your roommate “enough, it’s been three nights in a row and I’m exhausted.” That is you saying “I as a person need to recharge”. There is also “we as people doing something together, need to be able to have debates that are just among ourselves, to get some work done”. Both of those, I think are important features of student life that tend to get significantly underappreciated in the arguments as they unfolded last fall.

A great deal of student life in a university as a complex association is self organized. Most universities have some provision for students to form clubs and associations. Now the clubs and associations have the structure of being prepositive enterprise associations: “we get together to do this thing together” whether that thing is ultimate Frisbee, Dungeons and Dragons, reading French literature together, or exploring the religion or culture background we have in common. Students associate. And students associating isn’t the same as students separating completely. Its students engaged in the right kind of business that universities are dedicated to which is that sometimes we have the really high level arguments. Sometimes we argue with each other about the most basic of questions, the most fundamental of assumptions. But sometimes, we just have work to do.

So when students for example form campus political organizations, the student Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians or Socialists; those aren’t associations free from debate. Some of the time, all they do is debate. You get together and you argue about tactics, about which candidate you prefer in the primaries, about mid level principles, about fundamental assumptions. “We Democrats, what do we believe? We Libertarians, what do we believe?” And we argue about it over and over, night after night. What you don’t do in a student political community, is let in the person who is going to rant at you and say “You’re Democrats, don’t you know that Democrats are Socialists and trying to bring down America, and let me shout at you for a while about how unpatriotic you are.” It’s boring, it’s unproductive, and it stops people from getting work done in a way that is structurally very similar to the way in which a university discipline needs to be able to protect its intellectual space from other disciplines.

That doesn’t mean that you don’t want some moment in university life where the members of different political clubs get together and argue. It doesn’t mean you don’t want some sort of publicly organized debates where those kinds of questions will get hashed out. It means the association, the enterprise association of the student Democrats, or so on, are allowed to say “shut up, go away, we have work to do here. This work is our structure of debate, it’s our argument at the next higher level up. We aren’t just engaged in a basic assumption level defence of saying ‘no, being a Democrat isn’t being a traitor.’”

That’s part of what the student associational space offers. The ability to engage in new intellectual inquiry that is self organized among students. It doesn’t have to be about politics, religion, or philosophy. The student Dungeons and Dragons club also doesn’t welcome the person who walks in and says “you know this is all really dumb right? You know it’s all make believe right?” “Yes, we know, get out, you’re wasting our time.” It doesn’t mean there won’t ever be a moment for that person to say that it’s all make believe (as if that’s some interesting thing to say), but that time is not at the club meeting.

But the other part of safe spaces matters in student life too. It’s not just the mode of inquiry and structure of debate among the association together, but also the ability of one person to recharge. That’s something that can be especially fragile on a university campus, precisely because student life can be such a 24-hour exercise; especially at a residential university where you have dorms that throw everyone together. It means you have great conversations that challenge people’s fundamental assumptions, but it also means it can get old and tiring. You need to have the ability to step back.

The controversy at Yale, arose because the master of a residential college sent around an email arguing with the university’s stated policy on offensive Halloween costumes. The students in the residential college said that there was a problem in having that being circulated from the official master’s email address speaking as master of the college, given that that residential college is their dorm. When the student protestor was caught of video saying “I don’t want a debate I want a safe space”, I think it is almost certain that what she was saying was not “I want all of Yale to be an environment in which my feeling are protected.” She was not saying “I don’t want there to be debates at Yale.” She was saying “this place, this residential college, this dorm that you are the faculty member associated with, this needs to be a place where I can go catch my breath.” Under the circumstances of the kinds of debates that characterize multiethnic/multiracial universities in American life, very often it may be the case that there are racially tense and fraught debates that happen over and over and over again. At a large majority white institution like Yale, it can be the case that from the perspective of any given white student saying “well I think everyone should be admitted to university on their own merit and we should abolish affirmative action.” That’s the first time they’ve every had that conversation and they’re really into it. It is never the case at a large majority white institution like Yale that for any given African American student it’s the first time they’ve heard it. And when the African American students say “we want a moment in our day, we want a space on the campus where we can step back”. They aren’t saying “we want to shut down debate on campus.” They’re saying something that is perfectly within everyone’s range of reasonable emotional and psychological needs: “Stop boring me with this argument about whether I belong here or not, I have work to do.”

None of that is to say that there are no live questions about freedom of debate and freedom of inquiry on campuses, and nothing that goes too far. One of the other big controversial moments in those debates last fall arose at a Missouri university when student protestors held a very large sit-in meeting in the centre of campus. They asked that members of the press not enter into the center of campus unless they affirmed that they agreed with the group’s goals and strategies. When a student reporter tried to walk into the center of the event without saying that he was signing up for the group’s fully stated goals, a professor shoved the student reporter and said “I need some muscle over here to help me physically prevent this reporter from getting into the campus.”

It matters that it’s the center of campus, it matters that it’s a great big common outdoor space. You can ‘t under normal circumstances take over common space and make it private. That’s not to say what some people accused the student protestors of which is that there is never a moment for protesters to get together and talk tactics. And the protestors have a legitimate reason for wanting to get together and talk tactics without reporters shoving microphones in their faces, or tape recording any idea that anybody has. When you’re brainstorming, you want to be able to say things among a group of people who are engaged in the same enterprise as you, without having that idea being the thing that your name is going to be given to as a national press story. But, when the space is a common university space, then you are leaning over into something that says: “now we are trying to define the university itself as being immune to challenge and debate.” And professors roughing up student reporters is a bad sign. It’s a clear sign that something had gone too far, and been too extreme.

There are other moments on university campuses to compare. Universities sponsor speakers. Often that means that the student clubs sponsor those speakers using funds that the university helps the student clubs raise from the whole student body. Sometimes university departments bring speakers to campus, and sometimes the university as a whole will. The moments when speakers get protested, those are harder and more complicated moments for thinking about freedom of speech.

Insofar as we think it is good for the educational lives and experiences of students that student associations can self-form and can decide for themselves what speakers that would like to bring to campus. As far as we think that student clubs can contribute to the educational vision of the whole institution, then there is a real problem if those speakers are genuinely prevented from being able to speak. There have been moments like that, but actually not very many. There is a very different kind of case that gets talked about by the off campus critics of universities that arises in every late spring.

Universities like to have outside speakers who will speak at graduation ceremonies. Often the universities give honorary degrees to these people and often the universities give a whole lot of money to these people in addition to the honorary degrees. This isn’t student self organized, this isn’t a moment of debate. Routinely universities ask that when student clubs or university departments bring people to campus that those people have some dedicated question and answer time, and after all there are lots of different student clubs, and lots of different departments, so lots of different speakers say lots of different things. When the university picks one person, who will go speak to the captive audience of everyone who wants to get a degree or at least every one of you who wants to get your diploma; you’re all be sitting in the audience, passively, because there is no big Q&A session that is going to cover all the ten thousand people in attendance, and we are not just letting this person speak. We are honoring them. Honorary degree, that word actually matters. Honorary degrees are the highest honor that universities can pay to people who aren’t themselves part of the university community. What protestors say of some particular honorary degree recipient, some particular speaker, is that that person is dishonorable, that person is not worthy of being honored. And that person has said things or done things in the rest of their life that we students or professors would consider it to be offensive if you were to make us sit there and passively treat them as if they were honorable. Whether that’s because they said something offensive, said something controversial, held public office and did acts in public office that we don’t approve of; any of those are fair game for people to say: “we don’t want this person on that stage.”
Every spring this happens, and every spring the off campus critics of American university life will say “look the students are censors! Look the students are a bunch of left wing dogmatists who don’t ever want to hear a challenging idea! Look universities are no longer sites of free inquiry and free debate!” Well a graduation speech isn’t a moment for free inquiry and debate. If a student organized speaker, the club speakers, the departmental speakers; if those speakers can come, and those lectures can happen, even though they happen with protestors standing outside, but if those lectures aren’t disrupted then the university is acting as a site of debate. And students or professors at a university if they’re trying to take full advantage of the experience, they’ll make sure to sometimes go hear lectures and talks by people whose ideas will challenge them. And they’ll ask questions, and argue, and they’ll organize another speaker to get another viewpoint. The attack on student life in particular as being opposed to free inquiry, and being opposed to freedom of speech, that centers on these moments involving graduation speakers and honorary degrees. That’s a way for off campus people just not to get what it’s like at a university. Universities as a complex association are deeply linked to their enterprise. Universities are not purposeless civil associations, they are devoted to structured, learning, research and inquiry of particular kinds, organized around serious intellectual communities to create questions that channel debate in productive ways, and then have moments of debate across. And for the most part, not perfectly, not every time, but for the most part, universities do a much better job of doing that then they are these days being given credit for.

Correction: It has been pointed out to me that I misspoke about Yale. The master of Silliman College, Nicholas Christakis, who was the person confronted in the video, was not the author of the e-mail being protested. His wife, Erika Christakis, the associate master of Silliman, was. I’m not correcting the text; there are undoubtedly other mistakes that I made in these spoken remarks, and I want to leave the transcript as is. I’ll of course correct it when and if I adapt this into a written piece. I welcome further corrections in comments.

  • whjke33

    “I think it is almost certain that what she was saying was not “I want all of Yale to be an environment in which my feeling are protected.” She was not saying “I don’t want there to be debates at Yale.” She was saying “this place, this residential college, this dorm that you are the faculty member associated with, this needs to be a place where I can go catch my breath.”

    I believe she thinks that too. But of course the criticism is that her dorm room, or club areas, or friends room, or any number of places in the dorm are (and should be) ‘safe spaces’ implies that the headmaster shouldn’t send such a simple, reasonable email. Should her ‘safe space’ extend to his email? Of course the response is: No. Too bad. Sorry,No. She can go to her friend’s room, she can put in headphones, she can ignore people, she can lie in her bed, she can go to a private room, she can talk in a common area, she can even create a filter on her email to prevent incursions into her ‘safe space’. In fact she can personally create an existence which has 97% ‘safe-space’ in which she can ‘go back and tune out’ in her day-to-day with very minimal work (if any at all). Her safe-space has always existed, and is under no threat. In fact she is trying to expand it outside of the realm of acceptability to encroach on the rights, moral permissibly, pragmatic reasons, and university concerns of the headmaster to send out such an email.

    If she thinks such an email has removed any portion of her ‘safe place’ that wasn’t there before, then she is just wrong. If she wants to expand her safe place into her headmaster’s email, she’ll have to show why this significantly hinders her safe space. But of course she cant, because it hasn’t, and it shouldn’t. And her feelings do not change this fact of the matter.

    • conjurehealing

      I do not think you understand what Levy wrote here elucidating the idea of “safe space”, nor what happened at Yale. A dean of one of the residential houses wrote an open email letter that questioned University policy. This was found to be objectionable by *a number* of students *who lived at said residential house*, with at least one student reacting with rage and frustration, as seen in a partial video of a confrontation between the dean and the student. How is this not understandable? Everything else is conjecture and speculation. Full stop.

      • whjke33

        Actually I think it’s YOU that’s missing the point here. In fact, im not sure what could be ‘conjecture and speculation’ unless you identify it. So no full stop, in fact let’s go to the facts and claims:

        Regarding Yale:
        First of all it wasn’t ‘a dean’ it was Erica Christakis, which is a lecturer in childhood education. Secondl there is nothing that forbids housemasters to send such emails, in fact, yale is in full support on keeping both in their current positions:


        Third, the email itself really isn’t saying anything against university policy, in cat she ‘lauds the goals’ to not offend. It was not telling the students to do anything, only to reflect on the nature of offence. In fact, the entire impetus of the email was because other students were offended that the email she was responding showed that universities had become ‘places of censure and prohibition’. (Whose offence matters more, those offended by the original email or those offended by Christakis’?)


        None of these above is ‘conjecture and speculatin’.

        Regarding Levy’s piece:
        But all this really is besides the point. Levy is writing characteristics of universities legally and socially in an argument for why such a ‘safe place’ would exist. Indeed, I agree with him: we shouldn’t having people constantly harassing us. But I’m addressing his point above:

        “She was saying “this place, this residential college, this dorm that you are the faculty member associated with, this needs to be a place where I can go catch my breath.”
        “Stop boring me with this argument about whether I belong here or not, I have work to do.”

        Now it turns out it doesn’t matter even if the letter was completely against university policy. The point Levy was making, was not, as you say, that the letter was against university policy, it was, as I said, that she expect that the housemaster be an ‘advocate’ for her, and retain the integrity of her ‘safe space’. This is the point I’m addressing. And it turns out whether the letter was against university policy really is irrelevant. She has no reasonable expectation of her email being a safe place, and certainly not enough to suppress the very measured email from Christakis. Now I’m questioning what is ‘conjecture and speculation’ in this case, these are values-based arguments. I can’t really ‘speculate’ on the moral arguments. (Well if I can, then it’s no worse than when you do.)

        I can understand that these students reacted with rage the same way i can understand how some men react with rage when a woman breastfeeds, or some people react with rage when someone wants to build a mosque blocks form ground zero. I can certainly understand people having these feelings. I can even understand other unrelated things like racism and bigotry. I can understand where these things come from, in the sense that I can give you reasons why they are offended. But in these cases, the point is that this doesn’t mean someone cant (or shouldn’t) send a measured email such as the one from Christakis on rights, policy, etiquette, moral, or ‘safe space’ grounds.

        • conjurehealing

          Did you miss something here? Yes, the associate master is an administrative functionary, and as a contingent faculty member, she would have the status of a dean. Her email was a direct, offensive response to a letter concerning guidelines from numerous – and much more experienced members of the dean’s office at Yale – about problematic Halloween costumes. Her “measured email” was completely disrespectful and dismissive of the concerns of these members of the University staff, saying that it was not her “business” to “control” the students. How in anyway is that a measured or appropriate response for the associate Master of a residential college at Yale, whose PRIMARY job is to be “responsible for the physical well being and safety of students in the residential college, as well as fostering and shaping the social, cultural, and educational life and character of the college?” But of course, on racist, uninformed grounds you take the side of a white woman against legitimately aggrieved young students of color, who only seek a semblance of safety in a hostile environment – as Yale can be. This I know from experience. You have nothing more to say in the matter.

          • whjke33

            Well it’s certainly not any ‘dean’ the way most people use it. I can’t find a single piece of information to the bio, to any of the reporting on the issue. Please point me to ANY reference where she is called a ‘dean’, and I will gladly concede the point. If you can’t do this, then clearly she is a ‘dean’ only in your definition of one, but no one else’s.

            So at this point it just comes down to what different people call ‘offensive’. I’l link again to the email and you tell me where it’s ‘disrespectful’ or ‘dismissive’. In fact, I also challenge you to find how this is a ‘offensive response’ to the actual dean’s office at Yale:


            Seriously, point to something specific. Because at this point your argument above could almost equally be used when a headmaster sends out an email about being conscious about taking offense when others do yoga if they university were to ban it:


            But here’s the key to offense, that makes the entire thing so difficult: can you point to something that is not just based on your own opinion? Maybe something to do with popular opinion, or language, or anything outside of your own interpretation, because at least she claims she wasn’t trying to offend. Maybe it’s your inference and not her implication. Now go ahead and tell me what SPECIFIC parts are offensive of that email. And just as a warning, I’m going to go through examples of men getting offended at people breastfeeding, at those offended of Mother Treasa made of dung, of those offended that Obama didn’t wear a flag pin, of those offended of those who wear toe rings, of those offended of those that a mosque is built by their houses or ground zero.

            I have no doubt that YOU are offended. But unless you can give me something more than ‘I am feel offended’. People are offended all the time, that doesn’t necessarily mean anything more than they are offended.

            But let’s review how far you’ve retreated from the original point:

            * The headmaster said nothing offensive in the email, as interpreted from many people other than you. (But of course, feel free to make your case that actual dean’s office was offended, or give a picture of the proportion of those who were offended. As far as has been said so far, we did know some students were offended, but we don’t know much more.
            * EVEN IF it is offensive to more than a small number, it was completely consistent with university policy.
            * EVEN IF it was inconsistent with university policy, she did not violate the woman’s safe space any more than it was already violated by the internet and email in general.

            But let’s do debate the nature of offence. But the original point still stands.

          • King Goat

            I wouldn’t say the email was disrespectful, but it was a bit obtuse. Campus organizations sent out an organization urging Yale students to be thoughtful about how the celebrated Halloween, suggesting, which I think should be obvious to anyone smart enough to get into Yale (or any college for that matter) that costumes like blackface are, you know, thoughtless. The woman, who’s position seems like a faculty RA, then heard from some students who were upset by having to read a suggestion that blackface and such is indeed thoughtless, then writes her email wringing her hands over political correctness and what business do we adults have censoring these kids etc., etc., Her thesis on that kind of thing just seemed obtuse given the email she was responding too was such a reasonable, mild expression of common sense.

            Now, had she expressed these thoughts as a faculty member in a class or in her research I’d say she she should be totally protected by academic freedom and free speech. But she did this as head RA of this dorm, the student’s well being and social peace were part of that job, so the criticism seems a bit warranted.

          • whjke33

            Have you read her email? Her email really is also a ‘reasonable, mild expression of common sense.’ And I’m certainly not the only one to think so:


          • Sean II

            Indeed. That’s one of the reasons why Yale makes such a clean experiment.

            The idea of triggering, safe spaces, etc. is at least debatable when you’re talking about, say, a law class where the professor is obliged to describe the various elements of the crime for rape, forcible sodomy, sexual assault 2nd, etc, but does so in a clumsy, crude, and insensitive manner. Hell, even in med school – otherwise one of the least coddling experiences known to humanity – they give a few trigger warnings here and there, at least in the early going.

            But this…this was one tiny little suggestion, fully explained and carefully phrased by someone who is an expert in the art of gently challenging young people to develop and strengthen themselves, and in response people freaked the fuck out.

          • King Goat

            It’s funny the way Sean tries to frame this as the usual ‘logic vs. the feelz’ narrative (generalizing being his tendency even beyond race/ethnicity I guess), when the controversy really started when, according to Christiakis, some students got upset in response to the big meanie suggestion that, you know, blackface is considered a big faux pas, and asked Christiakis to respond to them.

            Again, Sean would like to squeeze this into a larger anti-academe narrative, but imagine if in most any big corporation in the nation the H.R. department sent out a memo hoping employees enjoy the Halloween office party but asking them to not be thoughtless cretins by dressing up in, say, blackface. And imagine that some high level manager wrote back, copying to everyone in the company or their division, a treatise hand wringing about ‘censuring’ people’s costume choices and advising, say, black employees to try ‘getting over it’ if they come to the party and find people in blackface. Do you doubt that that person would get some serious pushback for that (probably summarily canned)?

          • King Goat

            Yes, I’ve read it, and no, I don’t think it was a reasonable, mild expression of common sense. Writing a hand-wringing treatise in response to an email suggesting that blackface is a offensive and thoughtless strikes me as seriously obtuse. That kind of obtuseness strikes me as something warranting serious questions about her fitness to serve in a role for which social and cultural sensitivity is a pre-requisite (note, if she said these things in her role as teacher or researcher I’d find her response to be obtuse as well, but not troubling).

          • whjke33

            But that is your interpretation of her email, but nothing in the text actually supports that interpretation. What language did she use that made it necessarily ‘hand-wringing’ and not ‘cautioning about overreacting’. What makes you think she is responding to blackface per se? Her email never mentions blackface at all. She is responding to the offense that some students took to the original email that Yale was becoming a place of ‘censure and prohibition. She is arguing against the extremes:




            against a ‘young girl dressing up as mulan’ of her ‘purchasing a sari’. She never mentioned blackface once. She says she ‘lauds the goals’ of ‘avoiding hurt and offense’ but she cautions against the ‘exercise of implied control over college students’. She also says she’s not talking about the offense angle per se (she lauds the goals after all), but rather the issues surrounding ‘developmental stages of childhood and young adulthood’ and that she is speaking as a ‘child development specialist’. She says she worries about the ‘slippery terrain,’ and that universities seem to be becoming places of ‘censure and prohibition’. She cautions against the ‘transfer of power’ to those ‘above’.

            If an email went across saying that some fliers shouldn’t be distributed on campus (such as White power fliers), and some students were worried that these rules might be pushed too far, and she responded saying, ‘yes that’s good, but let’s be careful of the extremes,’ I don’t think that’s unreasonable at all.

            Which is why I, the original students who complained to her and prompted the email, much of the faculty at Yale:


            and large swaths of the American public, find it 100% reasonable, mild expression of common sense. If she’s talking about Mulan and saris, why do we assume she’s talking about Blackface? But of course we can, and will, go back and forth over and over about our opinions on whether or not the email was reasonable. But the only things outside of our opinions we have to go on is an appeal to the public of whether they think the email was a ‘mild expresion of common sense’ (and I think I have that on my side), or the text itself (also on my side).

          • King Goat

            It seems obvious to me that you either haven’t read the original email that she was responding to or you have and are intentionally trying to not refer to it, probably because you know that is was a really mild expression of common sense to which writing a treatise about whether ‘censure and prohibition’ were being imposed is an obtuse overreaction. If you hunt it down (admittedly, it’s MUCH harder to find the original email, it hasn’t been plastered all over the internet by conservative think tanks, media outlets and bloggers like the second one has, which might have something to do with your ‘most people think the email was fine’ argument ad populum) you’d see that *it* expressly references blackface (so to ignore that and write about Mulan or sari’s is a bit too obtusely cute on Christiakis’ part).

          • whjke33

            Actually I have read it several times. But the reason I’m not referring to it, is we are talking about Christiakis’ email, not that one. It pretty much doesn’t matter what was in the original email. Good or bad, some students expressed concern, right or wrong, that they feared censure and prohibition. So she desided to make her own opinion on the matter. It pretty much doesn’t matter what was in the email. This is what she was considering in terms of someone speaking at ‘developmental stages of childhood and young adulthood’ and that she is speaking as a ‘child development specialist’. It really isn’t addressing the reasonable concerns in that email, but her own worries on the matter that such reasonable concerns could be taken too far, which is itself reasonable.

            The thing is you’re are imposing an ‘obtuse overreaction’: if you don’t view it as responding to blackface, but rather as a concern that anything can be taken too far to the extremes (which is the intent of the letter, among a few others), it really isn’t as bad as you think it is. This is your interpretation, but not its intent, and not in the actual text. It is completely acceptable to bring up these points. She never mentions blackface, she need not mention blackface, it is completely acceptable for her to say, “Hey what they said is right (esp about blackface), but let’s just be careful because things can be taken too far and I have some students that are concerned about that.” This is 100%, absolutely reasonable to the extreme.

            “Far from being a message of ‘censure and prohibition’ it simply notes that ‘Halloween is also unfortunately a time when the normal thoughtfulness and sensitivity of most Yale students can sometimes be forgotten,’ deplores ‘some ”

            See you’re doing it again. The reason you don’t see this the way so many others do, is because you are inferring things in the email that do not exist, that are not part of the text. She is not responding to the idea that anyone should put on blackface at all (indeed nothing in her email suggests that she is). In fact, returning to the text, she says ‘ American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition.’ What do you think ‘it’ refers to? It’s certainly not the original email, so why you would say she used the phrase ‘censure and prohibition’ to describe that ‘message’. Again, she is not talking about what you think she is talking about, and it’s your interpretation, not what is in the actual text, which gives you this completely wrong impression.

            ‘ What in the world in such a message responded Christiakis’ response?’

            I think you just answered your own question. Isn’t it strange that she would respond to something so reasonable? I agree. Because she is not talking about that email. In fact we can go back to the text:

            ‘ is also an occasion for adults to exert their control… I wonder if we should reflect more transparently.. institutional exercise of implied control over college students’ ‘ And the censure and prohibition come from above’

            Translation: we are talking about other concerns here than the idea of wearing blackface…

            ‘I don’t wish to trivialize genuine concerns … I know that many decent people have proposed guidelines … I laud those goals..’

            Translation: I agree in the goal of any guideline such as saying people shouldn’t wear blackface

            “It seems to me that we can have this discussion of costumes on many levels… But I wanted to share my thoughts with you from a totally different angle”

            Translation: we could talk about free speech, or offense, but let’s not talk about that email at all, I would like to bring up some non-blackface related points

            ” It was as if she was responding to some other actual instances of ‘political correctness’ run amok and not what was in front of her. ”

            Yes exactly. Since students approached her about the worry of ‘political correctness run amok’ (if that’s what it was), she decided to talk about a different point, not the idea that someone should be able to wear blackface. Where you are going wrong is insisting that any email sent by anyone requires that it never make tangential points. This is a huge fallacy.

            “Christiakis herself and those students who felt so ‘frustrated’ by an email *asking* them to be *thoughtful* and, you know, don’t run around in blackface..”

            I think there’s enough oversensitivity to go around. In particular, those that threw all literary criticism and common interpretation out the window with an extra-textual interpretation that she must be blackface-supporting rather than maybe we shouldn’t use the powers ‘above’ to police things like mulan costumes and saris.

            ” sprawling from one broad sociological musing to another”

            Exactly. And if you could only concentrate on that, you would see that her biggest falut was that she was verbose and on a high-horse about her opinion of development, and it really had nothing whatsoever that was blackface-supporting about it.

          • King Goat

            When judging whether a response to something is overwrought or obtuse of course you have to reference the something that message is a response to. Responding to a completely mild and reasonable suggestion that people be thoughtful about their Halloween costume choices and steer away from things like blackface (which every educated, heck even uneducated adult in our culture is considered horribly racist) with a long, rambling sociological essay about ‘censure and prohibition’ and how perhaps a little naughtiness is OK for college students is the very definition of overwrought and obtuse. The fact that she never mentions blackface, which was specifically highlighted in the message she’s responding to, and instead talks about children (when this was sent to college age adults) pretending to be Mulan actually reinforces how obtuse (which means slow to understand, in this case to understand that it’s the original letter was not talking about children playing Mulan or censure of speech, but about ‘hey, can we all be thoughtful adults enough not to show up to parties in blackface?’) she was being.

            It seems your defense of her response is ‘well, she wasn’t talking about that email at all!’ Is that a defense? If you and I were talking and I said ‘hey, I notice some people wear blackface to Halloween parties. What the hell is up with that? I’d like to think people could be more thoughtful than that’ and you responded with a long speech about how maybe political correctness on campuses has gone to far and how as a child you liked to dress as Mulan, but which ignored the topic of blackface, I’d find that strange, and yes, obtuse. If what I said embodied, as you say, such an overwhelmingly reasonable point, what’s up with the tangent? Can’t you just say ‘yeah, wearing blackface is pretty messed up?’ What prompts the launch into a tangent? I confess I’d think, what, you can’t just agree that blackface is condemnatory, you have to deflect that with some handwringing about whether people are too touchy and college administrators too protective? No one was talking about that!

          • whjke33

            “When judging whether a response to something is overwrought or obtuse of course you have to reference the something that message is a response to.”

            Agreed. Which is why I’ve provided probably 10 times the quotes as you ;).

            Responding to a completely mild and reasonable suggestion that people be thoughtful about their Halloween costume choices and steer away from things like blackface (which every educated, heck even uneducated adult in our culture is considered horribly racist) with a long, rambling sociological essay about ‘censure and prohibition’ and how perhaps a little naughtiness is OK for college students is the very definition of overwrought and obtuse.

            1) The email was not just about black-face, it had much more substance, more points, and there was an entire context around the email which you seem to completely ignore. but 2)) This is YOUR definition. Can you point to any poll, linguistics text, or anything outside of what you think that it is necessarily obtuse to say ‘yes of course no one should wear blackface, but I’d like to discuss other issues that surround expression on campus.’ Do you think she is in favor of blackface? What gives you that impression?

            “The fact that she never mentions blackface, which was specifically highlighted in the message she’s responding to, and instead talks about children (when this was sent to college age adults) pretending to be Mulan actually reinforces how obtuse (which means slow to understand, in this case to understand that it’s the original letter was not talking about children playing Mulan or censure of speech, but about ‘hey, can we all be thoughtful adults enough not to show up to parties in blackface?’) she was being.

            No. It supports YOUR misinterpretation. It was 100% completely reasonable to discuss an opinion.

            “It seems your defense of her response is ‘well, she wasn’t talking about that email at all!’ Is that a defense?”

            Absolutely. If I’m correct, then you have no case. Her reasoning, her impetus, her actual response, and the text itself was prompted by students concerned about the policing and she is making a different point

            “If you and I were talking and I said ‘hey, I notice some people wear blackface to Halloween parties. What the hell is up with that? I’d like to think people could be more thoughtful than that’ and you responded with a long speech about how maybe political correctness on campuses has gone to far and how as a child you liked to dress as Mulan, but which ignored the topic of blackface, I’d find that strange, and yes, obtuse.”

            If the speech started with, “Yes, first off let me say blackface is absolutely horrible, and I don’t want people doing it, and I am very sympathetic to the plight of minorities on campus when they see things like this, would you like to talk about this more because I have a side concern that does worry me, but I’m happy to talk about this more if you want and show you my solidarity and concern? No. Ok, here’s my concern…” Then no there is NOTHING wrong with that. Now granted she didn’t do this, but she CERTAINLY didn’t act like your example above. I can see if you shoehorn a case like the one you had above and make that person a racist then of course it would come off as obtuse, but that’s all on you and your interpretation. Here’s the situation much closer to the facts, text, subtext, context, and everything that you seem to ignore:

            * If you said ‘hey I have some informal rules I’d like to stress so as to prevent a whole range of behaviors (and let me use the word blakface one time out of 595) in the vein of creating a ‘safe space’

            * a third party came both of us and said ‘We hate blackface just as much as everyone, but 1) this shouldn’t be policed by top-down rules and 2) there is a risk of a slippery slope

            * I responded with “I too agree with the goals of the rules and I don’t support blackface either, but from a development standpoint the top-down rules are worrisome, because….”

            This is 100%, absolutely, obviously reasonable to the extreme and I am dumbfounded you can’t see this. I mean what do you not understand about this? Why do you insist on taking the entire thing out of context, concentrate on one word out of 595 (yep there are 594 words that are NOT ‘blackface’, require strict standards for emails that have never existed, and refuse to even acknowledge that it is possible to respond to students worried about effects of policy instead of word out of 595 when there was an entire context and probably 100 other points that could be made. The reason you can’t see this is you take what actually happened, and what she really said, and construct the worst case scenario based on one particular part of an original email and run wild with it out of context and outside of the text of the response. Your interpretation is just that: your interpretation. And it’s wrong It wasn’t meant the way you think it was, the text doesn’t support it, most people don’t read it that way, she doesnt even believe it, it violates all common understandings of polite discourse of issues and ignores 99% of the contextual, textual, and subtextual information. Basically all you ahve is a word and a reaction. You can’t really point to anything in the text, all you can do is assume and make an emotional reaction. This isn’t rational in the least.

            Here’s another example:

            * You say, “We’ve had one problem with blackface at a party before, we are implementing a bunch of rules to makes sure no one does this again”

            * I say, “Some of those rules have some bad effects, surly we could change some”

            * So the answer is ‘OH my god how can you support blackface!”?

            Or what is it? Is it ‘Why are you semi-supportive of blackface?” Or is it, “Why don’t you care about black people!?”, What is it?

            It boggles my mind you can’t see something so obvious.

            “If what I said embodied, as you say, such an overwhelmingly reasonable point, what’s up with the tangent?”

            It’s all right in the text.

            “Can’t you just say ‘yeah, wearing blackface is pretty messed up?'”

            She actually did that she is completely supportive of the goals of the original email. What makes you think she supports blackface?

            “What prompts the launch into a tangent?”

            1) The students that came to her about the tangent 2) the fact that this came from the administration 3) and her status as educator to explain a possible ‘different take’ on the matter from the developmental angle

            “I confess I’d think, what, you can’t just agree that blackface is condemnatory, you have to deflect that with some handwringing about whether people are too touchy and college administrators too protective? No one was talking about that!”

            Of course they were. The reason for the email was being prompted by OTHER students. It’s the first sentence in the text. Have you actually read the email she sent and do you understand the context? But here’s the thing EVEN IF it wasn’t, it doesn’t matter. If she sent a email that said “Let me just say, blackface is horrible and should never be done, but I just want to caution about the rules we make because there is a slippery slope here we should be aware of”. Are you crazy and you find this ‘obtuse’, or do you find this acceptable and her major crime is not prepending a warning that she is not in favor of blackface? Or is it something else? Haha, I can’t believe I am explaining something so obvious.

            So there’s a classic libertarian argument (sorry making a little tangent, I hope that’s ok with you 😉 )about getting rid of racism and I think Rand Paul makes it. It’s something like, the free-market is intolerant to racism by nature, there are bad effects of having the state impose laws to try and rid society of racism, we should let the free-market do the work–that’s the best way. So I hope you wouldn’t think that rand paul ‘just can’t agree that racism is condemnatory’, he’s just saying it’s not the best way to do things.

            There’s another case that was recently decided:


            It wasn’t that the supreme court ‘just can’t agree that’ the horrible things the Westboro Baptist Church was saying was ‘outrageous’. It’s that they don’t think that this is how you create social change and rid ourselves of these horrible acts.

            And so it was for this email.

            You seem to think that the original email just said “blackface is bad”. You do agree if the original email said “blackface is wrong, and we should expel anyone who does it” it would be acceptable to say ‘no we shouldn’t expel people’, this would be fine? Or would the reaction from you be “Oh my god how can you support blackface!” This is how crazy you sound. It’s ok to discuss other parts about the email yes? Well here’s one: the very fact that the email was written by the administration. This, and how this relates to development, and the fact that students brought up issues with her (these along with 99% of everything else you don’t seem to even consider) is what she is talking about, and the very fact that the administration sent this and other students were concerned about either it being a top-down imposition. This was one of the most reasonable, even-handed emails about her own opinions of top-down policy and the effect on students (though clearly a soap-box for her research) and something we should be aware of. Why you abandon common interpretation, common sense about discourse, 594 words other than blackface, the fact that the other students approached her, her support of the goals of the original email, her context that she would just mabye, please, explain another take on things that might be worrisome, and the very

          • murali284

            Actually, the original email is quite bad in that equates wearing a turban or sari* with wearing blackface. The response that, you know, you shouldnt freak out if you see people in the former is on point and appropriate.

            *The only people who would freak out at others wearing a sari are 1) traditionalists who freak out at people wearing it wrong (but that cuts across race. Many Indian girls don’t know how to tie it well either and 2) A younger generation who thinks that people of other races wearing saris (when they themselves try so hard to avoid doing so) makes them look bad.

    • Sean II

      Actually there’s no reason to think the speech-controlling ambitions of shrieking girl and her supporters were ever limited to Sillman.

      The simple fact that a nationwide movement grew up around her, aiming to chill speech and enforce orthodoxy on campus, suggests it was always something more than “I need a place to relax between classes”.

      I agree with your other points, just not with your stipulation of that one.

      • whjke33

        Well that this is a nationwide phenomenon (actually it’s been going on for a long time, and this Yale incident really create anymore of a ‘movement’ than what had already existed), doesn’t mean that it necessarily needs to be anything more than defining or redefining ‘safe place’. The sociological changes have caused college students to have various ideas: Vietnam protests in one era, in anti-apartheid anti-sweatshops in others. I certainly think most of these ‘safe spacers’ are largely wrong in a lot of their ideas, but there doesn’t appear to be some conscious movement people getting offended far too easily and many people agreeing that the university adopt a policy that the activists want (like anti-sweatshops). For whatever reason, an interpretation of various ‘social justice’ tenants have taken hold among youthful college students (as the campuses have more diverse ideas as the demographics of the culture changes, I could see some people wanting to tune out a continual philosophy class. But I doubt we are anywhere close to that level yet. Safe places are pretty safe already. My guess it’s driven by various modern-age media, but it’s not entirely different than the roommate that is influenced by the first reading of the Fountainhead–college students will glom onto ideas, often with little thinking of the whole picture. Moreover, the backlash against things like police shootings have made everyone hypersensitive to issues of race, and I’m sure there are other influences. All this is to say, if there is some sort of enforcement of ‘orthodoxy’ it certainly isn’t intentional, it’s just what kids seem to do these days (motivated by things they read/see). But if you do have links of something more nefarious (please no Alex Jones), I would certainly love to read it.

        • Sean II

          The evidence for orthodoxy on campus is overwhelming. Take any measure you like: student opinion polls, faculty political affiliation polls, spending time on an actual campus, the fact that FIRE never runs out of cases, numerous books on the subject, etc.

          Also…you seem to be conflating the idea of “orthodoxy” with that of “conspiracy”. Best I can make out, that was the meaning of your Alex Jones comment. You seem to be saying “bring me proof or conspiracy, in order to back up your claim of orthodoxy”.

          But those aren’t the same concept at all. The fact that there is no conspiracy on campus has nothing to do with the presence or absence of orthodoxy there. Indeed, most great outbreaks of orthodoxy are spontaneous. But that doesn’t make them any less orthodox.

          • whjke33

            You claimed that that a ‘nationwide movement’ was ‘aiming’ to chill speech and enforce orthodoxy more than just ‘safe spaces’.

            That greater orthodoxy exists doesn’t mean any ‘movement’ is ‘aiming’ to that end. Orthodoxy can be the secondary effect of normalizing environments for all types of people. As soon as you start banning hate speech and making people take whiteboards down off their dorm room doors because someone wrote the N-word on it, you are getting closer to orthodoxy, but this doesn’t mean that anyone was ‘aiming’ for an orthodoxy or ‘aiming’ to ‘chill speech’. Which is why I asked for links for something more nefarious, because your wording evokes the idea of someone fighting to suppress speech and fight for orthodoxy for the sake of speech suppression and the creation of orthodoxy (i.e., ‘aiming’)

            Now if you mean that this movement has beliefs that have bad effects on speech and the flow of ideas, I agree. But I don’t see how this is inconsistent with what I wrote above (actually I don’t see how even speech-suppressing intentionality is even inconsistent; though I did write it fast).

          • Sean II

            Venerable old doctrine: when someone keeps producing outcome X, and especially when they expend energy pursuing it, it’s fair to say that person aims at outcome X.

            When a bunch of people do it, it’s fair to say there’s a movement aiming at outcome X.

            Not sure what part of that is supposed to be controversial.

          • whjke33

            I don’t think you understand the criticism: The idea that they (students) are pursuing it (orthodoxy/hindered free speech) per se is what is one of the most controversial things one can say about this issue, and why I wanted links to something more nefarious.

            So you’re saying that these students WANT less free speech, per se? That they WANT to establish a greater orthodoxy, per se? That all they really care about is speech suppression, and as long as speech gets suppressed, they believe their ‘aim’ is succeeding?

            So if I go and ask any of them, “So you want to suppress speech, right? That’s your ‘aim’? And you want to establish a more orthodox system, that is also your ‘aim’?

            So do you: 1) think they will say ‘yes’ to these statements? 2) think they will lie and ‘no’ but their main ‘aim’ is to ‘chill speech and enforce orthodoxy’, but they won’t admit it, but that really is their aim. Or is it 3) something else?

            If 2) can you provide a non-Alex Jones link that shows their real intention is merely to ‘chill speech and enforce Orthodoxy’, and that there really is no other motivation.

          • Sean II

            Really bizarre standard you’ve created there. You seem to think that a person must want to suppress speech solely for its own sake, in order to be described as wanting to suppress speech.

            Nope, that’s bullshit. The concept “I want to suppress speech in order to protect people’s feelings” contains the concept “I want to suppress speech”.

            If you can’t see that, I can’t help you.

          • whjke33

            Well I would argue that your words say this. You’re the one that said it was their ‘aim’. I’m saying that we can approach these people and ask them “Ok, we can create your ‘safe spaces’, as long as you increase the number of unorthodox speakers and free speech on campus, and the number of underrepresented viewpoints, and money going to the clubs of said viewpoints, would you be ok with that?”

            My guess is that some would go for this. So in this sense their true ‘aim’ would be satisfied and overall speech and heterodoxy would increase. This shows that speech suppression isn’t their ‘aim’ at all. It is a trade off they want to make in some circumstances for other values.

            Now I don’t agree their true aim (avoiding confrontation in their dorm lives) is a good trade off with speech, but I wouldn’t straw-man their claims as ‘speech suppression’ any more than I would claim that libertarians are for ‘chilling help for the poor’ (if it turned out that the emperics show that welfare got worse in a libertarian world), the legal system is for ‘chilling justice for victims’ (because of the strong standard of ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’) and people are ‘chilling welfare to the american worker’ (by allowing immigration).

            Their ostensible ‘aim’ is not to suppress speech, their mental reasoning is not an ‘aim’ to suppress speech, the outcome distinction between them and someone whose actual ‘aim’ is to really suppress speech is very different. These people may not want to suppress speech if it can be avoided, when asked, they would say they wish there was a better solution, and if given a situation in which their goals are met and overall speech on campus increases, they may even go for it.

            Yes I think you can strawman them in a way that shoehorns the trade-off, secondary effect of their real motives into an ‘aim’ to ‘suppress speech’, but I certainly wouldn’t do that, lest any trade-off I make be strawmanned in the same way.

          • Sean II

            You don’t understand these kids at all. For one thing: if you just ask, they’ll flat out TELL you they don’t care about free speech. Polls clearly show them among the least concerned groups for that particular value.

            But more importantly, look at their behavior. It’s not that they don’t want to hear a talk on this or that heterodoxy. It’s that they don’t want anyone and especially not their peers to hear it.

            How do we know this? Because time and again you see them “coming to the nuisance”.

            They do things like this: some fuckin puny little club of college Christians will book some bullshit 50-seat room in the most remote part of campus for some barely-famous conservative speaker who elsewhere opposes gay marriage, and these guys will protest the invitation as though the speech was going to be blasted into every student’s room by a Pinochet-era sound truck. They act like the mere whisper of these thoughts anywhere on campus will barge like thunder into their ears.

            That’s coming to the nuisance, and they do it all the time.

          • Libertymike

            On the evening that John Derbyshire was scheduled to speak at Williams, I had to attend a deposition in nearby North Adams and had secured the consent of my wife to hang around in NW Massachusetts after the depo for the purpose of possibly seeing Derbyshire’s speech that night (I assumed that the affair would be open to all).

            Damn, I wanted to encounter some nuisance that night. But, alas, we learned that Williams is the National Review of the academy.

          • whjke33

            Well I’m not sure what polls you’re referring to. It is true that Millennials are more ok with limiting offensive speech about minorities:


            And it turns out that race is odd-man-out in this country. Attitudes on speech are more tolerant, but speech from racists hasn’t budged:


            But I couldn’t find any polls saying they were ‘least concerned’ about speech broadly. According to the general social survey, the youngest cohort usually beats almost all other cohorts for allowing the liberties of other groups except for things concerning race (and they still usually beat the 65+ even with race).

            But these polls are about young people in general, not the people at Yale (or people supposedly ‘chilling speech’). Good luck finding a survey about what they believe. There’s not much data on that that I can find. Personally I think they certainly attack certain kinds of people (e.g. Ben Shapario), but my guess if you asked them if they would protest more classes on libertarianism or anarchism or any numbers of subjects by a non-polarizing, disintrested professor, they would go for it.

            But more importantly, look at their behavior. It’s not thatthey don’t want to hear a talk on this or that heterodoxy. It’s that they don’t want anyone and especially not their peers to hear it.

            I certainly think they would allow more heterodox and contraversal ideas explained in a course setting. But they want their values represented in the university when people come to speak on their campus, which is staunchly anti-racist and anti-anything that offends them. I think Levy says this. They think that by letting these people speak the university is honoring them or supporting them in some way. I mean SOME line is reasonable: I would probably protest if Hitler himself wanted to speak, so most of us have a line. I think their line is way too far in favor of protest, but so far it’s been certain types of people, things they perceive as racist, and that it’s on the university campus. I would be curious to see what they think about speech more generally. But we can’t really distinguish it at this point, because just because they want a given outcome on a university campus, doesn’t mean they want to restrict speech broadly. It’s hard to disentangle the ‘anyone’ idea anyways. If they want to shut down a speech on campus, of course they won’t let their peers see it. There’s no middle ground there. Now if a peer said, I’m going to go watch that new Denish Desouza movie, I doubt they would slash their peer’s tires so they couldn’t go see it.

            So we don’t really know what these people believe about speech because there are no real polls and all we see are their acts which may be reflective of other ‘aims’ than the suppression of speech per se. It’s completely possible that, when polled, 70% of them said, “Let’s let David duke, Farrakhan, the KKK etc etc etc speak as much as they want in books, on the Internet, on tv, on radio, and on stages, but not on OUR university. This university represents OUR values. I don’t care if heterodoxy and free speech is tripled in every way i disagree with, but not on my home.” That is entirely possible.

          • Sean II

            Fatal flaw in that comment: you act as though being “ok with limiting offense speech about minorities” means that a person really likes free speech except, you know, just for this one tiny little area of exception.

            Dead wrong. For one thing, their list of minorities is enormous. It includes everyone who isn’t a cisgender straight male of Euro ancestry. For another their threshold for offendedness if very low, and above all, fluid. Saying “you people” to describe a group of people is, for instance, considered a big deal. Describing people who wish to keep their birth genitals as “normal”, that’s fighting words.

            But most importantly, the same tribute could be paid to all previous censors. They all love free speech, just not when it’s offensive to Christ, or El Presidente, or the troops at the front, or whatever. How comforting.

          • whjke33

            “Fatal flaw in that comment: you act as though being “ok with limiting offense speech about minorities” means that a person really likes free speech except, you know, just for this one tiny little area of exception.”

            Well the data seems to bear that out at least at the margins in the general social survey, or at least no more than those who are 65+. Moreover it certainly is born out of my experience with some of these people.

            Yes, I think some of the people you describe do exist. I’ve some of them as I’ve dealt with MANY college-aged students over the years. But I’ve also met people who have a much more reasonable take on free speech (the same people what would be concerned about ‘safe spaces’, that certainly haven’t moved from ‘small’ to ‘big’ over the years). Now, I’m not sure what proportion of ‘more reasonable’ and radical are among these groups, but unless you have a survey, I’m inclined to think a ‘whole bunch’ of them (however you want to define that) are not so radical. Do you have any polls to show, say, what percentage think saying ‘you people’ is a big deal? Some of these people are batshit crazy, but there is at least a portion of them that are concerned about speech as much as you don’t want to believe it.

  • Sean II

    Levy’s the type of dude who, if you told him kids like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, would respond with something like this:

    “Of course we are all familiar with the narrative that depicts children eating and appearing to enjoy the food preparation known as a ‘PB&J’. But what if this morning we set aside 43 minutes to push back against that stark, unimaginative interpretation of the facts, and argue instead that kids do not actually like peanut butter & jelly sandwiches?

    First…[involved discussion of ‘peanut butter’, why it is a misleading and problematic concept, being a paste rather than a true butter, its source ambiguously poised on the still unsettled boundary between nut, legume, and oil crop].

    Second…[intrepid journey into the etymology and ultimate meaning of ‘jelly’, challenging the reader to ask whether a mere preserve with no gelatin – that is, no ‘jell’-atin – content can in fact be called a jelly, in a world where fructose tolerance is ‘complex’ and socially constructed].

    Third…[impressively erudite digression into the origins of the sandwich, which was born from the need of medieval peasants to salvage stale bread, so that it is indeed debatable whether anything without a crust can even BE a sandwich, complete with gratuitous quote from the Vicomte de Condiment, lesser known contemporary of the Earl of Sandwich].

    Fourth…[some other argument of the form: ‘we all know this word means that, but what if instead it had some other meaning that I just carefully engineered to make this point? You know…even though no one ever intends that meaning, and I plan to discard it once the point is made.’].

    Fifth…[scathing expose of the way the PB&J emerged from the bloody legacy of American military adventurism, it being one of the easiest foods to make with the ingredients of a Vietnam-era ration kit].

    Sixth…”and so you see, if you merely dispute the existence of peanut butter, deny the identity of jelly, cast doubt on the definition ‘sandwich’ and any other word that gets in the way, then taint the name of whatever’s left, well it turns out no one – adult or child – has ever wanted a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”

    • Jod

      Sorry, Sean, but yours is an unnecessarily anti-intellectual response. Levy is making an important point about the difference between universities and civil associations.

      • Sean II

        It’s a parody. It may well be unfair in point of degree. Parodies usually are.

        But why should it be anti-intellectual to prefer arguments that don’t depend on forcing the novel re-definition of words? This post depends on taking the now common term “safe space” and re-fashioning it to mean “that thing we all do when we stipulate certain priors to focus a discussion for practical reasons – e.g. in a class on Benthamite ethics we don’t usually let ourselves get dragged into a debate about whether philosophy is worth anything to begin with, because…ain’t nobody got time for that”.

        Problem: that’s not what “safe space” means when anyone else uses it.

        (Yeah, I know…he later re- re-brands the term to also mean “that quiet we all seek when we need to recharge”. But that’s just a second count in the indictment, because “safe space” doesn’t mean that either.)

        • King Goat

          Of course a young black woman saying she wants a safe space in reference to her *dorm’s faculty residential adviser sending everyone in her dorm an email ‘rebutting’ the idea that blackface is a thoughtless Halloween costume* can’t be what Levy says it is, something concerned with wanting a personal, private area to not debate the virtues of allowing blackface and such, that’s just too incredible to believe. So he must just be making up wacky meanings for words.

    • conjurehealing

      That is not especially clever or interesting. The author doesn’t deserve this kind of insult and thoughtlessness.

      • Sean II

        Okay, then say what that important point is. You don’t need to defend it, just show the point is capable of being framed into a clear, non-trivial statement.

        • conjurehealing

          “…the point is capable of being framed into a clear, non-trivial statement.”
          I believe that is already what the author spent *great* time and effort doing. This piece is certainly non-trivial and clearly written and would reward more than a brief perusal.

          • Sean II


            You know the piece states an important point, but can’t say what it is? There just isn’t any shorter string of words that could possibly capture the idea?

    • jtlevy

      This is the transcript of a 90-minute talk. I wouldn’t have chosen this topic for that venue if I didn’t think there was a substantial amount to say about it, and that some complexity was called for.

      I will say that, unusually, I got a laugh out of Sean II’s comment.

      In linking to the piece on twitter this morning, I did come up with the following short formulations:

      tl;dr (1)– freedom of association is prior to freedom of speech.

      tl;dr (2)– A complex association is a nested series of safe spaces, but safe in a plurality of ways.

      tl;dr (3)– a psychologically plausible picture of persons under pluralism won’t involve debating everything every minute.

      • Sean II

        I actually thought you might laugh, and I’m glad you did. Most people who have a recognizable style are able to forgive a little parody of it.

        My responses are:

        1) Flat disagree. Free association and free speech are both individual rights. If a gang of individuals can form an association and start hunting down speech to suppress, then call “priority!” when the suppression victims protest, that would make the second freedom meaningless for everyone but cabin dwelling hermits. Especially when the first gang is ALSO attacking their freedom to associate separately.

        2) See my other comments. You’re crowbarring an exotic definition of “safe space”, so that it comes to mean “any discussion bounded in any way, for any reason”. That’s just not what it means in the world around us. The safe spacers want to bind discussion in certain particular ways, and for one very particular reason…which has nothing to do with the reasons that usually divide, say, one academic discipline from another.

        3) Of course not, but so what. This is all Motte, no Bailey. Of course we don’t start each day by rexamining the debate between geo- and heliocentrism. Of course we just take that for granted and watch the sun “come up”. But Jacob…this doesn’t get you anywhere near the idea that it’s normal and healthy or even minimally defensible for university students – those who know least about what is debatable and what is established in life – to demand they be shielded from whole fields, whole topics, whole traditions of thought, along with an ever growing and arbitrary list of words.

  • geoih

    I find it amazing that so much space on this blog is devoted to talking about academia (let’s have another article about adjuncts). The church of the nation-state certainly does like to talk about itself.

  • JohnThackr

    This speech seems to make a very firm argument that the recently vetoed Georgia mini-RFRA law (which applied only to defined “faith-based” complex associations, and not even to the generalized sort of bakers, florists, etc.) is absolutely appropriate and should have been signed. (As distinct from, say, the recently signed NC laws.)

  • JohnThackr

    Is it also thus equally acceptable and preferable to ban discussion of ending legacy preferences, athletic preferences, and donor preferences, as those also imply that some current students should not be present?

  • Sean II

    Having tried parody, let me give clarity a go. Imagine three cases:

    1) Student in an anthropology class says “forget the lecture today, instead let’s have a debate about whether this whole discipline is bullshit!” The professor say “No, we’re not doing that. If you want to trash Anthrolopogy there are whole departments that would love to hear. But in this one, we assume the subject is worth studying, and sorry bud, you bought that assumption when you signed up.”

    2) Student in a biology class keeps interrupting to demand more evidence for the germ theory of disease. After two such distractions the professor say “That’s enough from you, kid. We kinda settled that debate 200 years ago, and we need to move on.”

    3) Proffessor in Statistics mentions, by way of explaining tail effects in a normal distribution, that the 30 gap between men and women on the math SAT will yield a massive disparity at the right extreme. A few students gasp as if he just uttered an obscenity. The next day he is confronted in the quad by group of student claiming to “feel threatened” because “their right to exist in that class is being directly attacked”. The day after that he learns a petition is being circulated to call for his dismissal.

    Jacob’s main argument seems to be: take another look at 3); is it really so different from 1) and 2)? And do we not tolerate speech restrictions in cases like 1) and 2).

    My straightforward reply: Of course 3) is different. When people confine a discussion for reasons of relevance, one can predict the range of confinement, and know that it is not arbitrary or infinite. One can know that a line exists, and see roughly where it is. But when someone claims the right to confine a discussion based on private feelings, no such limits can be predicted. The person can claim any feeling he likes, at any time. If given the right to turn that feeling into a veto, the threat to speech is arbitrary and theoretically infinite.

    Also, the range of threatened consequences is different.

  • Adam Minsky

    Say what you will about the Left of previous generations, but they did contain an element of heroism. Can anyone imagine Emma Goldman, Eugene Debs, A. Phillip Randolph, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or even Abbie Hoffman prattling about “safe spaces”. These folks made a point of going into area and situations that were decidedly “unsafe”. The collegiate Left appears to want the excitement and glory of “fighting the good fight”, without the slightest scintilla of risk, opposition or intellectual ,to say nothing of physical, challenge.

    • Sean II

      Something to that, I think. Here’s an uber-simplistic theory of American politics, 1995 to present:

      The Left and the Right each had one golden moment as the good guys, and each came to be defined by the narrative of that moment. For the Left, it was the the Civil right movement. For the Right, it was the Cold War.

      Problem: both wings have spent the past 20 years staging awkward and farcical re-enactments of their big moment in history. The Right seeks existential threat bogeymen and starts wars. The Left gins up an endless series of crusades against bigotry. The Right looks foolish because its bogeyman are not, in fact, existentially threatening. The Left looks foolish because, having run shy of actual bigots, it is now forced to hunt witches and snipes.

      • Adam Minsky

        Yours is certainly an arresting and thought provoking theory. It does seem as if though the Left ,in this instance, has been more adept at capturing the imagination of the young. I don’t know if there are many youthful conservatives who want to refight the cold war. By contrast, as the term “New Jim Crow” makes clear, many adolescent Leftists consider their struggle against “institutionalized racism” as a continuation of the March on Selma. They can be both physically and intellectually cocooned while imagining themselves to be metaphorically walking across the Edmund Pettis Bridge.

      • wsmy1981

        I like this, but you are talking about the global mainstream culture. On campus, I doubt that Prof. Levy, or many of his lawprof colleagues, think that the Cold War was heroic.

  • wsmy1981

    I don’t share Prof. Levy’s rather idealistic hope that Jerelyn Luther (the Yale student who berated the Yale college master about her need for a safe space) is willing to allow free speech in other sectors of the university, but I could be wrong. There’s no evidence on this issue either way, so let each believe what he hopes. But it is quite clear that the students at Emory protesting against Trump 2016 chalk signs on campus do not intend for there to be free expression–at least not pro-Trump free expression–anywhere on campus. In fact, I don’t see any evidence anywhere that Prof. Levy’s theory about different spaces for different purposes on university campuses in any way guides the enforcers of political correctness. Can someone give an example in which enforcers of leftist orthodoxy explicitly and avowedly permit speech which they find offensive to exist in some particular sector of the academy?

    For instance, to examine a case drawn from real life: imagine that a student at Yale, in a private email to friends, stated that it was possible that lower black IQs have a genetic basis. And imagine that one of the recipients of the private email forwarded it to Ms. Luther. Does Prof. Levy seriously contend that Ms. Luther would either (i) say that free expression is the rule for private emails or (ii) complain that the person who forwarded it to her had invaded her “safe space”? Surely it is much more plausible that Ms. Luther would complain about the writer of the original private email, and that the authorities at Yale would announce that the email constituted an offense of some kind and was being investigated. They might even discipline the student who wrote the original email. Or they might do nothing, except promise to investigate, until the matter died down. It is vanishingly unlikely that any dean at Yale would explain that freedom of expression is the rule in private emails, and that there is simply nothing to investigate.

    • Sean II

      You’ve grasped of the reasons why I responded specifically by making fun of the post.

      You read Levy’s long and complicated argument…then you look at the hysterical shrieking child in that video…then you look back at Levy’s uber-nuanced take on pluralism and freedom…then you look at the girl shrieking “it is not about creating an intellectual SPACE…IT IS NOT!!!” and “why the FUCK!!! did you accept the position!?!”…then you look back at Levy’s erudite post, and think: “Yeah, riiiight. This is really all the poor girl wanted to say.”

      It’s funny, because of the obvious mismatch. Young Jerelyn is clearly incapable of understanding, much less making, an argument like the one in this post. Had Levy sprung into the quad to mediate that day, he would have got through about half a minute of his subtle preamble before she decided he wasn’t taking sides clearly enough and screamingly told him to shut the fuck up.

  • No_Rush

    “What you don’t do in a student political community, is let in the person who is going to rant at you and say ‘You’re Democrats, don’t you know that Democrats are Socialists and trying to bring down America, and let me shout at you for a while about how unpatriotic you are.’

    Clearly, the type of student asking for “safe space” from ideas like the Master of Silliman is making an argument based upon neutral principles and the respect for the freedom of all to associate with those that they choose. That’s why, when the Christian Legal Societies at law schools around the country are asked to amend their rules or bylaws such that non-Christians can have leadership roles, she was at the forefront of those objecting. Practicing Christians who want to associate with each other have rights too, no?

    Once you’re done laughing at the image of that young lady ever holding such a position, you can see the problem with Levy’s argument. The student isn’t asking for a space that is safe for everyone. She’s asking for a space that is “safe” for those who agree with her. Levy’s argument rests upon a straw woman student–which is probably a microaggression against something, maybe straw.

  • wsmy1981

    Let’s try another hypothetical. (As ever, all hypotheticals are based loosely on real life cases.) A group of students decide to have a tequila party in their own dorm room. At the party, some of the students wear sombreros. Informers–they seem to play a big role in modern university–alert the administration to this offense. Now you might think a student’s dorm room is a “safe space” for that student, but you would be very wrong. The adminstrators react swiftly, and expel the offenders from campus. Because freedom of association and safe spaces are only for the right people. There’s no safe space for crimethink in Levy’s university.

    Note, BTW, that there isn’t an actual written rule anywhere saying you can’t wear a sombrero unless you are ethnically Mexican. As Levy says, rule of law concepts do not apply to a university, because freedom of association includes the right to arbitrarily determine transgressions and exclude transgressors.

  • Anon

    I’ll care about free association arguments for left wing controlled spaces when you allow all-white spaces. Otherwise its just a transparent attempt at grabbing even more political power.

  • RJMA3

    What’s the purpose of this lecture? What knowledge was the speaker trying to offer? I see a lot of words. I see a sum total of zero interesting ideas. I assume someone was paid for this.

    Do better.

  • Reginaldo Estremera

    So much for the first amendment and a commitment to it.

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