Lukianoff's Ashes

What a Candid Postmodernist Might Do to an Atheist's Book Exposing Campus Censorship

Good evening! As Vice President of the Office of Intellectual Diversity, I'd like to welcome you all to this year's annual, campus-wide Book Burning.

I'll get things started with the latest book from that perpetual pain-in-the-whiteboard, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE (how fitting!). It's called Unlearning Liberty, written by the organization's president, Greg Lukianoff. His subtitle is Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate. As you can imagine, he laments campus censorship, student indoctrination, and legal intimidation, which he says are pervasive on college campuses, yada yada yada.

His evidence? In 2007, Valdosta State University undergrad Hayden Barnes protested the decision of the college president, Ronald Zaccari, to build two parking garages on campus. Barnes posted on Facebook a collage that included the phrase, "No Blood for Oil," under the heading, "S.A.V.E.—Zaccari Memorial Parking Garage." The average person might not see a threat of violence against Zaccari there, but it's perfectly clear if you consider how the word "blood" is juxtaposed with the word "memorial." Trust me. Anyway, that's the reason Zaccari gave when he rightfully and permanently "administratively withdrew" the hooligan without a hearing.

Lukianoff spends the whole book trying to drum up sympathy for weasels like Barnes, who think they can say anything and then hide behind the First Amendment. Another weasel is Keith John Sampson, a middle-aged student and janitor at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis. In 2007, that guy was actually reading, in a public place, a book, Notre Dame vs. the Klan, that showed white hoods on the cover!

Well, naturally, some of his co-workers were deeply offended, and the university found him guilty of racial harassment, again with no hearing. So Sampson went to the media with some cockamamie excuse about its being a history book he was reading that was critical of the Klan—as if that mattered. If it's offensive, it's offensive, and everyone has the right not to be offended.

Lukianoff's Carping

I myself was scandalized by the critical tone Lukianoff took when describing an exemplary Residence Life program at the University of Delaware that was designed to get students to think as they should about race, sex, ideology, and politics. True, it was a mandatory program, but it's totally unreasonable to expect students to come to the correct conclusions on these crucial issues just by going to class. Society is just so oppressive, and so many students were never taught how their gross prejudices really do cause serious harm. (Yes, all white people are, in fact, racists.)

Delaware's program included floor meetings and one-on-one sessions with RAs that not only helped students experience stereotyping for themselves, but also trained them to become environmentally conscious, to explore their sexuality, and to "recognize the benefits of dismantling systems of oppression." The goal, wrote one administrator, was to "leave a mental footprint on their consciousness." Lukianoff could only tastelessly point out that the villain in George Orwell's 1984 used a similar phrase. Total coincidence, of course.

Anyway, why anybody would object to a friendly heart-to-heart about his latent homophobia is beyond me, although it was prudent of the folks at Delaware to keep the program quiet. When word got out about it in 2007, the university president had to suspend it, but it was warmly recognized afterwards by the American College Personnel Association. And colleges all over the country have similar programs in their dorms, though regrettably, most are voluntary.

Lukianoff also writes that most people think campus speech codes ended in the 1990s, when the courts struck many of them down. But more than half of the country's top 360 colleges still have speech codes. And the others just brought them back as "harassment policies." Speech policies are limited to actual speech, but a harassment policy fits just about any situation. Rhode Island College has one that bans "actions or attitudes" that threaten another's welfare. Nice. All you need to bring a charge against someone is to catch him eyeing you with a faintly critical expression. Other programs forbid teasing, insulting—anything that's "insensitive."

Lukianoff's Howler

But as I was saying, Lukianoff complains that American colleges have been producing students that neither understand liberty nor care much about it. Colleges teach students, not to think critically, but to think censoriously and to make outrage their weapon of choice. He says that if students have gotten used to diversity police peering over their shoulders, have adjusted to a politicized, self-serving redefinition of tolerance and civility, and have seen their campus activism limited to "free speech zones" about the size of a gazebo, then, after graduation, they won't be much concerned about other people's free speech rights.

And this, he claims, has terrible effects on the culture. It creates, he says, an atmosphere that stifles debate, supercharges ideological divisions, polarizes politics, promotes groupthink, and encourages people to have an unreasonable certainty about complex issues.

Naturally, he blames people like me for all these "problems." He claims that college administrators don't care enough about free speech and that we like having the power to take down people who criticize us. That's why I fell over laughing when he went on to say that we're the solution: "If higher education would live up to its highest function" by teaching students how to think critically and how disagreement can lead to greater insight, "it could revitalize itself and, in turn, renew the national discourse." I can't imagine why he thinks that university administrators would even consider dismantling a system we created.

His bigger problem, though, is that he thinks we're hypocrites, and that shows that he really doesn't get it: of course we understand those old arguments about how free speech is necessary for progress and the search for truth; we just don't believe them. We set up speech codes because free speech is not the engine of social progress; it's the enemy.

Lukianoff's Illusion

Lukianoff imagines (but never quite says) that we're all individuals seeking some Truth outside ourselves. But that's such a modern notion, a holdover from the days when people worshiped "Reason." Our constructivist philosophy teaches instead that, by their choices and actions, people and societies create their own truth. There are no moral or spiritual absolutes before which everyone must genuflect. Even physical "realities" are up for grabs, as quantum physics shows.

Therefore, we seek, not Truth, but Fulfillment through Affirmation. That's why hurtful comments, especially critical attitudes about abortion and homosexuality, are so offensive and must be stamped out.

All of life is about power, and language is merely the tool that some people use to impose their will on others. Our goal is to help people make their own choices, so they can feel good about themselves. But they can't be truly free to make choices as long as they're constrained by all these troublesome notions about truth and morality and whatnot. Thus, all our efforts go into dismantling oppressive power structures that maintain these fictions.

And that, in turn, justifies a certain amount of, well, what some would call censorship, especially of conservatives—Christians in particular, and all others who claim that truth exists and that they can know at least some of it. After all, those people are just protecting racism, sexism, homophobia, and everything else we despise.

Lukianoff doesn't seem to understand this. So it's hilarious that he calls our exercise of power self-serving and imagines we'll be ashamed of it. Why? We're just living out the implications of our philosophy.

So even though Lukianoff identifies himself as an atheist of the political Left, we're still going to burn his book. Onto the pile it goes!

Anyone else have a book they'd like to contribute? •

From Salvo 25 (Summer 2013)
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teaches journalism at Patrick Henry College and is on staff at WORLD Magazine.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #25, Summer 2013 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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