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February 7 2018

Despite Rhetoric Endorsing Freedom of Speech, Academia Can't Handle Dissent

by Charlotte Hays

Amy Wax is the University of Pennsylvania professor who, with her coauthor, Larry Alexander of the University of San Diego Law School, stirred up a hornet's nest in academia when they advocated such retrograde ideas as getting married before having children, working instead of being idle, and avoiding crime and drug use.  These are highly unpopular ideas that fall loosely under the rubric of bourgeois norms.

Wax recently delivered a terrific speech at Hillsdale College. The topic was freedom of speech on campus. Referring to the controversy over the article she coauthored "(Paying the Price for the Breakdown of the Country's Bourgeois Culture,") Wax argued that, despite rhetoric espousing freedom of speech, the campus is in reality hostile to the exercise of  free speech:

There is a lot of abstract talk these days on American college campuses about free speech and the values of free inquiry, with plenty of lip service being paid to expansive notions of free expression and the marketplace of ideas. What I’ve learned through my recent experience of writing a controversial op-ed is that most of this talk is not worth much. It is only when people are confronted with speech they don’t like that we see whether these abstractions are real to them. 

The most controversial tenet in the article was that not all cultures are equal in terms of preparing people to become responsible adults. The original article contained this observation:

The culture of the Plains Indians was designed for nomadic hunters, but is not suited to a First World, 21st-century environment. Nor are the single-parent, antisocial habits prevalent among some working-class whites; the anti-‘acting white’ rap culture of inner-city blacks; the anti-assimilation ideas gaining ground among some Hispanic immigrants. 

As you can imagine, this provoked a barrage of outrage. For Wax, the ensuing storm of vitriol raised some issues about how dissent from accepted ideas is handled in academia. She writes:

It is well documented that American universities today, more than ever before, are dominated by academics on the left end of the political spectrum. How should these academics handle opinions that depart, even quite sharply, from their “politically correct” views? The proper response would be to engage in reasoned debate—to attempt to explain, using logic, evidence, facts, and substantive arguments, why those opinions are wrong. This kind of civil discourse is obviously important at law schools like mine, because law schools are dedicated to teaching students how to think about and argue all sides of a question. But academic institutions in general should also be places where people are free to think and reason about important questions that affect our society and our way of life—something not possible in today’s atmosphere of enforced orthodoxy. 

What those of us in academia should certainly not do is engage in unreasoned speech: hurling slurs and epithets, name-calling, vilification, and mindless labeling. Likewise we should not reject the views of others without providing reasoned arguments. Yet these once common standards of practice have been violated repeatedly at my own and at other academic institutions in recent years—and we increasingly see this trend in society as well.  

One might respond, of course, that unreasoned slurs and outright condemnations are also speech and must be defended. My recent experience has caused me to rethink this position. In debating others, we should have higher standards. Of course one has the right to hurl labels like “racist,” “sexist,” and “xenophobic” without good reason—but that doesn’t make it the right thing to do. Hurling such labels doesn’t enlighten, inform, edify, or educate. Indeed, it undermines these goals by discouraging or stifling dissent.

Wax and Alexander's original article was denounced in a letter signed by 33 academics. Wax remarks on this:

Of the 33 who signed the letter, only one came to talk to me about it—and I am grateful for that. About three minutes into our conversation, he admitted that he didn’t categorically reject everything in the op-ed. Bourgeois values aren’t really so bad, he conceded, nor are all cultures equally worthy. Given that those were the main points of the op-ed, I asked him why he had signed the letter. His answer was that he didn’t like my saying, in my interview with the Daily Pennsylvanian, that the tendency of global migrants to flock to white European countries indicates the superiority of some cultures. This struck him as “code,” he said, for Nazism. 

Well, let me state for the record that I don’t endorse Nazism! 

Furthermore, the charge that a statement is “code” for something else, or a “dog whistle” of some kind—we frequently hear this charge leveled, even against people who are stating demonstrable facts—is unanswerable. It is like accusing a speaker of causing emotional injury or feelings of marginalization. Using this kind of language, which students have learned to do all too well, is intended to bring discussion and debate to a stop—to silence speech deemed unacceptable. 

If you'd like to hear more from Wax, she will be on a Feb. 20 evening panel moderated by Dr. Sally Satel at the American Enterprise Institute. The announced topic is "Debate and Disagreement in Academia Today."

Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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