The Forum | Freedom of Expression

College and the Sounds of Silence

June 17, 2015 by Christine Ravold

Todd Gitlin recently wrote, “You are Here to be Disturbed” and “Please Be Disturbed: Triggering Can Be Good for You, Kids.” Professor Gitlin brings an important voice to the cause of free speech and academic freedom. His support is timely. Professors are finding themselves imperilled when they teach (or write about) almost anything, from history and literature, to gender studies. There is growing fear associated with teaching controversial subjects. Last year, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) reported, “discomfort is inevitable in classrooms if the goal is to expose students to new ideas.” Topics “associated with triggers… are likely to be marginalized if not avoided altogether by faculty who fear complaints for offending or discomforting some of their students.” Decades earlier, the Yale committee led by the late C. Vann Woodward admonished, “It may sometimes be necessary in a university for civility and mutual respect to be superseded by the need to guarantee free expression.” (The document is included in ACTA’s Free to Teach, Free to Learn.) But what C. Vann Woodward feared has indeed come true: the self-appointed guardians of sensitivity “make the majority, or any willful minority, the arbiters of truth for all.” Self-censorship and maintaining political correctness have become a habit for those who don’t want to become embroiled in conflict within their own community. The labels of hate speech, fighting words, triggers, and microaggressions, have become arguments for convincing people to censor themselves, lest they face more severe punishment by others. Professor Gitlin makes an important point; “Angst about fragility cuts across political lines and crosses campus borders. Shall we therefore stop talking about rape, lynching, death camps? Shall we stop reading the annals of civilization, which are, among other things, annals of slaughter?” The real academic will not allow these anxieties to limit the pursuit of knowledge. Our society can only profit when distinguished intellectuals like Professor Gitlin, advocate for, as he wrote, “freedom—not comfort.”


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