• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

Review: Free thought under siege

Rancorous trends such as microaggressions, safe spaces, trigger warnings and intellectual intolerance have taken hold at universities with breathtaking speed. Last year’s controversy over Halloween costumes at Yale led to the departure of two respected faculty members, and this year made the fall festival a flashpoint of conflict at campuses across the country. The recent explosion in the number of university administrators, coupled with an environment of perpetual suspicion—the University of Florida urges students to report on one another to its “Bias Education and Response Team”—drives students who need to resolve normal tensions in human interaction to instead seek intervention by mediators, diversity officers, student life deans or lawyers.

As Frank Furedi compellingly argues in this deeply perceptive and important book, these phenomena are not just harmless fads acted out by a few petulant students and their indulgent professors in an academic cocoon. Rather, they are both a symptom and a cause of malaise and strife in society at large. At stake is whether freedom of thought will long survive and whether individuals will have the temperament to resolve everyday social and workplace conflicts without bureaucratic intervention or litigation.

Mr. Furedi, an emeritus professor at England’s University of Kent, argues that the ethos prevailing at many universities on both sides of the Atlantic is the culmination of an infantilizing paternalism that has defined education and child-rearing in recent decades. It is a pedagogy that from the earliest ages values, above all else, self-esteem, maximum risk avoidance and continuous emotional validation and affirmation. (Check your child’s trophy case.) Helicopter parents and teachers act as though “fragility and vulnerability are the defining characteristics of personhood.”

The devastating result: Young people are raised into an “eternal dependency.” Parenting experts and educators insist that the views of all pupils must be unconditionally respected, never judged, regardless of their merit. They wield the unassailable power of a medical warning: Children, even young adults, simply can’t handle rejection of their ideas, or hearing ones that cause the slightest “discomfort,” lest they undergo “trauma.”

It is not surprising to Mr. Furedi that today’s undergraduates, having grown up in such an environment, should find any serious criticism, debate or unfamiliar idea to be “an unacceptable challenge to their personas.” He cites a legion of examples from across the Western world, but one Brown University student perhaps epitomizes the psyche: During a campus debate, she fled to a sanctioned “safe space” because “I was feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs.”

The new demands for “balancing” free speech with sensitivity and respect have several unifying themes, according to Mr. Furedi. One is that they are based on the subjective sensitivities of anyone who claims to be offended. If words can cause trauma and are almost akin to violence, an appeal to health and safety guarantees that “the work of the language police can never cease.” Microaggressions, by definition, are committed unconsciously and without intent. Since “it is almost impossible to refute an allegation of microaggression,” the author views them as the ultimate “weaponisation” of offense-taking. Emory University students, for instance, demanded redress for their “genuine concern and pain” after seeing the name of a major presidential candidate written in chalk on campus, an incident proving “that in a world where anything can be triggering, people will be triggered by anything.”

There is a “beguiling” appeal to well-intentioned calls for civility and respect, Mr. Furedi says. After all, “sensitivity is an attractive human feature and essential for minimising conflict.” He cites the Chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley’s seemingly benign exhortation that “we can only exercise our right to free speech insofar as we feel safe and respected.” Yet Mr. Furedi convincingly demonstrates that, by ranking liberty on par with or subordinate to other values, “the deification of the commandment ‘Do Not Offend’” transforms fundamental liberties into liberties “contingent on other people’s sensibility.” Freedom becomes a “negotiable commodity” that inexorably will be bargained away.

Ironically, Mr. Furedi observes, for a movement that claims to be driven by concern for individual empowerment, respect and autonomy, the new campus values actually represent an astonishingly pessimistic and condescending view of the ability of human beings to deal with the basic challenges of life. They are premised on the “supposition that people lack the intellectual or moral independence to evaluate critically the views to which they are exposed.” As a practical matter, the notion that human dignity mandates protection from the pain of “hurtful” speech is “possibly the most counterproductive” rationale for constraining freedom; “people acquire dignity” by learning to deal with “the problems that confront them,” not by relying on the “goodwill” of an administrative elite.

Throughout history, the impulse to censorship has been driven by political or religious zealotry. In the 21st century, Mr. Furedi posits, speech suppression has assumed the mantle of mental-health therapy. But policing actual speech and books is not sufficient. In today’s environment, no matter what you say, it is exclusively the “individual who is hurt or offended . . . who decides what you really meant.” Thus people’s inner lives and imputed motivations, even unconscious ones, have become “legitimate terrain for intervention” by authorities. In an unprecedented twist, students themselves are agitating for the imposition of campus thought control.

Academic freedom is not an academic matter, Mr. Furedi reminds us. It “has a vital significance for the quality of public life.” A generation of litigious college graduates, seeking protection from new ideas and afraid to take any risks, is an ominous glimpse into the future of our public life.

Mr. Shuchman, a New York-based investment fund manager, is also chairman of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

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