Is Emma Camp Correct That College Students Silence Themselves?Roundup
tags: free speech, academic freedom
Claire Potter is Co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar and Professor of History at The New School for Social Research.
Today’s post is what we might call a “reaction” piece, but it isn’t a hot take: I think about censorship and free speech all the time. But do remember if you leave a comment (and I hope you do!) that the author of the op-ed I am responding to is a young person. So while the odds are that she will never see this post, don’t be cruel. And since I am always happy to see our group of readers expand, do share:
Free speech undergirds democracy. I am uncompromising on this point and dislike being distracted by concocted hysteria about free speech. All the same, a guest essay in the New York Times by Emma Camp engaged me. Camp, a senior at the University of Virginia, argues that students and faculty on her campus so fear disapproval from peers that they default to self-censorship. As a result, beliefs contradicting the dominant, politically-correct ideology can only be conveyed in hushed tones and behind closed doors.
And, of course, in The New York Times.
Yet this isn’t just a story about self-imposed limits on free speech. As she presents it, Camp’s account of her four years at Virginia is one of ongoing disappointment and fear. “Each week, I seek out the office hours of a philosophy department professor willing to discuss with me complex ethical questions raised by her course on gender and sexuality. We keep our voices lowered as if someone might overhear us,” she begins, making an ordinary exchange of views in a faculty office sound like a black market deal in Pyongyang.
But it is not just a few students who are suffering from these fears:
Hushed voices and anxious looks dictate so many conversations on campus at the University of Virginia, where I’m finishing up my senior year.
A friend lowers her voice to lament the ostracization of a student who said something well-meaning but mildly offensive during a student club’s diversity training. Another friend shuts his bedroom door when I mention a lecture defending Thomas Jefferson from contemporary criticism. His roommate might hear us, he explains.
If surveillance and punishment through correction and shunning are not bad enough, Camp describes the stolen dream of what college might have been had intellectual terror not dominated the campus. “I went to college to learn from my professors and peers,” Camp continues.
I welcomed an environment that champions intellectual diversity and rigorous disagreement. Instead, my college experience has been defined by strict ideological conformity. Students of all political persuasions hold back — in class discussions, in friendly conversations, on social media — from saying what we really think. Even as a liberal who has attended abortion rights protests and written about standing up to racism, I sometimes feel afraid to fully speak my mind.
Because you can never be far enough left on a college campus to avoid being the target of groupthink, right?
I want to stipulate two things. One is that Camp is an excellent writer, and she has a future in this biz. She demonstrated that she could run with the big kids, and the fact that Camp is being dragged on social media right now is unfortunate, if only because she did something ambitious and succeeded.
However, Thing Two is that Camp does not appear to be afraid to speak her mind.
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