How The University of Chicago Could Have Done A Better Job Defending Free Speech

The University of Chicago made the news last week with a strongly worded letter defending academic freedom. The heart of it was this:

Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own

Reactions were predictable. Critics of campus culture (usually, but not always, on the right) loved it; supporters of trigger warnings and safe spaces (usually, but not always, on the left) didn't.

I think it could have been better written. Here's how I would have framed the same paragraph.

Our commitment to academic freedom will govern our response to community concerns about course content and campus expression in general. The community should not expect us to require professors to give "trigger warnings," or to discipline them if they decline to do so. The community should not expect us to prohibit or "disinvite" speakers who offer controversial or offensive ideas. Members of the community should exercise their freedom of association to form groups with similar interests, goals, and values, but should not expect to transform classes or public spaces into "safe spaces" where expression they oppose is prohibited.

I like my version better for several reasons.

First, it's clearer that the University isn't telling professors how to teach their classes. It's unserious to say that you stand for academic freedom but then dictate to professors exactly how they can talk about their class content. I don't read the letter to say they are prohibiting professors from choosing to offer trigger warnings, but I think they could have been clearer. I personally find trigger warnings infantilizing in most academic circumstances, but I'm not the one teaching the class.

Second, I think my version offers a more honest and philosophically coherent approach to "safe spaces." As I have argued before, "safe spaces" are completely consistent with freedom of association when they represent a group of people coming together voluntarily to determine how they want to interact. They're a problem when people decide they have the right to intellectual manifest destiny — when they have a right to use safe spaces as a sword rather than a shield by telling others what they can say in public spaces like classes, quads, and dorms. "This club is a space for [group x]" does not threaten academic freedom or freedom of expression. "This campus/dorm/class/quad is a safe space and so this speaker/topic/speech should not be allowed" definitely is.

This is going to get me called (among other things) a pedant. Guilty, with an explanation. Pedantry on basic civic virtues is a good thing. Free speech legalism is a good thing. Rhetoric that blurs the nature of rights and encourages misunderstandings is bad — particularly when it comes from a university. If the University of Chicago believes — as many of us do — that the values of academic freedom and free speech are under assault, then it shouldn't encourage misunderstandings of those concepts just for the pleasure of rhetorically spiking the ball. If your proposition is that college kids should act like grown-ups, you can talk to them with a bit more complexity and accuracy.

Conservatives railing against "safe spaces" without nuance should remember that freedom of association — which conservatives are supposed to be fighting for — is about something very like safe spaces. You think college kids shouldn't be able to form their own "safe spaces" where they hear what they want? Fine. But remind me — why should campus Christian groups be able to control who can be officers based on sharing the groups' values? On the other hand, liberals insisting that this is all a talk-radio fabrication should take another look. The rhetoric of safe spaces is being used, widely and explicitly, as a justification for excluding contrary expression. These people — whether a small minority or not — believe that universities have an obligation to exclude views that they, subjectively, deem harmful. If you support that, you're not in favor of academic freedom or free speech.

In short, University of Chicago's letter was a little triumphalist, a little misleading, and a little too vague.

Last 5 posts by Ken White

Comments

  1. Wyrm says

    I don't have a problem with your "pedantic" version. That's nice, addresses the same points with clarity and politeness.

    Still, I also like the UC version for its refreshing politically-incorrectness that's too rare nowadays. It's short and to the point, and it doesn't try to manage those fragile egos that will have a hard time in a real world without "safe places".

    (I do think they should still make it clear that the "safe places" passage is about preserving freedom in public spaces, but that should be clear enough by contrast to the expectations of those same fragile egos.)

  2. Raucous Indignation says

    "This is going to get me called (among other things) a pedant. Guilty, with an explanation."

    I see what you did there!

  3. Quiet Lurcker says

    Sounds to me like on most college campuses these days, the inmates are running the asylum, even there in Chicago.

    And if these are our nation's future leaders, then all I can say is deity help us.

  4. IForgotMyName says

    Still, I also like the UC version for its refreshing politically-incorrectness that's too rare nowadays.

    Is political-incorrectness really all that rare nowadays? Maybe it was in the 80's or the early 90's, when the pendulum was way too far in favor of the PC crowd, but in the last few years at least, I've seen far more people using "I'm not politically correct" as part rallying cry, part badge of honor for the self styled oppressed conservative and the political maverick.

    I'm not a huge fan of excessive political correctness, but I've come to view the ostentatiously un-PC as I do hipsters, and to a lesser extent, geeks. Both are subcultures that partly define themselves by being outsiders. Their outcast status both part of their identity and their own self-worth–their ability to thrive despite being outcasts shows their ability, while their unwillingness to conform and their willingness to accept fellow outcasts demonstrates their strength of character. And historically, this was fairly true.

    Today though, I find it to be an annoying, self-serving, and largely false narrative of victimhood.

    Another thing I find frustrating about certain folks–including our next President–is that they don't seem to recognize the difference between being politically incorrect and being an ass.

  5. says

    I thought the UC version was too "in your face." It seemed to be playing to the un-PC crowd — or trying to rattle the PC crowd (which is another way of playing to the un-PC crowd) — rather than being a genuine explanation of policy.

    I think if I were writing that letter, I would have tried to show the benefits of the policy a little more. E.g., "Although everyone is encouraged to warn of potentially upsetting content as a courtesy to listeners, you should be prepared for classes and public events to raise issues you find disturbing, and you may of course raise disturbing issues yourself without fear of punishment. We will not prohibit people from speaking on campus just because their views are controversial or offensive, so you need not worry about the university administration blocking speakers you wish to bring to campus. The public places of the campus are not your "safe spaces" and you have no right to prohibit speech you oppose there, nor may anyone else infringe on your speech in a public place merely because they disagree with what you say or find it offensive."

  6. aebhel says

    It struck me as someone trying to be 'hip' and using language in a way that was… not exactly incorrect, but in a way that was liable to be misunderstood by the majority of his target audience. If nothing else, it was rhetorically awkward.

    For what it's worth, I think so-called 'trigger warnings' in the way they're currently used conflate two separate things: (1), reasonable accommodations for students with diagnosed PTSD who cannot engage with certain materials without experiencing panic attacks or dissociative episodes (in which case a trigger warning is going to be less useful than simply excusing them from that particular class and offering an alternate assignment), and (2), a practice of warning students when a particular lesson or reading is likely to contain material that most reasonable people would find upsetting. I can't speak for the former, not having PTSD, but the latter isn't exactly new; I remember my freshman psychology lecturer giving us a heads-up when we were going to watch videos of the Milgram experiments that they might be upsetting, and this was 15 years ago.

    I don't really see anything wrong with allowing people to psychologically prepare themselves for upsetting or graphic material, even in the context of a classroom; it just seems polite to me (and no more infantilizing, honestly, than MPAA ratings). Where it goes wrong is when the two are conflated, so that people who may just be disturbed or offended by a particular material expect to be accommodated as if they had a diagnosed mental illness such as PTSD. And it should (but doesn't) go without saying that 'a political stance I happen to disagree with' does not merit a trigger warning.

    I have my issues with aspects of PC culture, but in my experience, when someone says, "Political correctness is destroying America" or something similar, 99% of the time what they mean is "I'm a rude asshole who doesn't want to experience any social consequences for my rudeness."

  7. capnkrunch says

    IForgotMyName

    Another thing I find frustrating about certain folks–including our next President–is that they don't seem to recognize the difference between being politically incorrect and being an ass.

    This 100%. PC has become such a snarl word. Frankly, I think being politically correct is a good thing as long as you're not forcing others to do the same

  8. Chris says

    I find the general sentiment behind UC's letter to be important, but prefer your version. As with many situations, however, it seems that the UC letter is about pandering and signaling, rather than a commitment to the idea of being challenged.

    Evidence supporting this assertion.

  9. AH says

    You're right. Your version better conveys the message I think UIC was trying to convey.

    So to, I think when most people complain about "safe spaces," it's not clubs and student organizations making rules for conduct in their space and/or meetings that people have a problem with. It's when someone decides that a part of (I'm closer to UIUC then UIC, so I'll use an example from here) the Quad is their safe space. (the Quad is a large park-like space, only open to pedestrian traffic, bordered by a number of the different departmental buildings.)

    Both points may be pedantic, but I'm okay with some pedantry if it clarifies the message for people who don't understand what may seem obvious to some of us.

  10. AH says

    I apologise, I mistakenly said UIC rather than UC. You may now proceed to pour on your derision.

  11. Anon says

    The part of the letter I disagree with (other than the tone and framing) is its rejection of disinviting speakers as an option. I don't think a private university has an obligation to provide a platform for speakers regardless of their views, and students exercising their freedom of speech and freedom of association by demanding that a school (or student organization) not provide that platform for a particular person whose views (as it often is these days) they find morally objectionable seems reasonable to me. Unless I misunderstand and they're just saying they wouldn't bar someone from speaking in an official capacity, in which case fair enough.

  12. someoneinnorthms says

    AH @ 8:59. "Pouring" derision is such an apt description. I know this is far afield of the subject matter, but I just freaking love the verb "pour" when used to demonstrate what one should do with derision. You can't fling it or toss it or throw it. Derision is liquid, and I imagine it hot and little bit acidic–like warm bile.

    Now that I've said my piece maybe I'll finally be able to sleep.

  13. Cactus says

    I like the comment someone replied to me with last post, about how for most people it's not the correctness they oppose, but the politics. It's trivial to find examples all over the spectrum of thoughtcrime laws, a level far beyond student unions.

    I'd love for there to be a clearer distinction between anti-political-correctness which just ends up being a right wing clone and anti-political-correctness which actually pushes for freedom and is sadly far less vocal. But then again, whoever ends up as president is looking to cut back free speech, in different ways and for different reasons.

    It's not likely to change soon either, given that the public is currently outraged that an NFL player actually used his freedoms.

  14. Quiet Lurcker says

    @IForgotMyName–

    >>>Today though, I find it to be an annoying, self-serving, and largely false narrative of victimhood.

    Who is the true victim here? I put it to you, the PC crowd, by pushing for PC to begin with, self-identify as the victim in the story. Look closely, if you will, at some of the PC approved terms – African-American; small person; alternative gendered – the list goes on. Each term is intended to separate the speaker – or thinker – as not a member of a specific class which was or was thought to be at one time the victim of discrimination/offense/slight/other.

    These people are trying to force everyone else to conform to some preconceived notion in their speaking and thinking habits as the price of admission to the marketplace of ideas. To me, that makes everyone else the victims.

    As far as your comments about geeks are concerned, I doubt you could be further off the mark if you tried. Geeks as a class (an oxymoron, really, but the language is insufficient to the task) are no different than any number of other groups of people – doctors, lawyers, engineers, pilots, theologians, musicians – again the list goes on. A group of people who use language very specifically, sometimes in ways that the common speaker would not. Yes. Some of it is self-identification. Victimhood has nothing to do with it, and outsider status has nothing to do with it, either.

  15. Total says

    And if these are our nation's future leaders, then all I can say is deity help us

    Yeah, God forbid that they actively engage with their lives, have strong opinions about how the word should operate, and stand up and assert those values. Terrible qualities in a future leader.

  16. KeithB says

    PZ at Pharyngula pointed out the irony that the original letter seems to set out a safe space for invited speakers!

  17. ravenshrike says

    @Chris Evidence refuting your evidence. Abusing one's position to allow illegal trespass into a locked building is very much grounds for expulsion.

  18. John Thacker says

    It's not likely to change soon either, given that the public is currently outraged that an NFL player actually used his freedoms.

    People are outraged about celebrity comments all the time. I will be very annoyed if he actually gets fired for his comments (though, yes, I also think it should be legal for him to be fired for it), but surely the same rules about how free speech doesn't mean you can't be criticized for being offensive apply too. I feel like a majority or large plurality people agree with substantially all of the following propositions, at least in theory when divorced from specifics:

    1) People have the right to say what they want.
    2) Other people have the right to criticize them for what they say.
    3) Non-government actors have the right to go further and punish people for their comments by not wanting to associate with those people, ban them, etc.
    4) Despite 3), we prefer a society where norms keep such punishment rare
    5) Specific small groups organized around specific principles are an obvious exception to 4) and need the ability to enforce restrictions to allow minority viewpoints and ideas to have a place to flourish.

    In practice, however, people who believe all of these things in general will strongly emphasize one or the other based on the issue and idea being expressed, or who is doing the criticizing, or other factors. So A may in one case roundly mock people for talking about "free speech norms" should keep Brendan Eich from being fired but then get extremely angry about the backlash against Kaepernick.

    As I have argued before, "safe spaces" are completely consistent with freedom of association when they represent a group of people coming together voluntarily to determine how they want to interact.

    Unfortunately there are lots of "hard issues" where people can't really agree that groups of people are coming together voluntarily, especially when money is involved. Are the Little Sisters of the Poor "coming together voluntarily" when they don't want contraceptive coverage? The larger the group of people coming together is, the less voluntary it feels and the more it feels like an individual is somewhat forced to deal with that group. One florist in a large town who wants to serve certain kinds of ceremonies can seem like people coming together voluntarily whereas someone running the only motel in town does not. In a world where everyone uses Facebook or Twitter, it starts to feel more like a utility.

    Yes, feelings aren't the law, but over the years we've expanded the idea of what a "public accommodation" is; it's not beyond consideration that eventually the idea of "common carrier" or other concepts of what is public versus private could change, whether for good or ill.

  19. Argentina Orange says

    @Anon

    The part of the letter I disagree with (other than the tone and framing) is its rejection of disinviting speakers as an option. I don't think a private university has an obligation to provide a platform for speakers regardless of their views, and students exercising their freedom of speech and freedom of association by demanding that a school (or student organization) not provide that platform for a particular person whose views (as it often is these days) they find morally objectionable seems reasonable to me.

    That's a pretty hideous attitude, it seems to me. It seems like you are advocating either 1) that a university must be an intellectually/morally homogenous place, or 2) that the university should be playing the role of arbiter between (and therefore giving the official stamp of approval to) different student groups.

    If Student Group A uses its budget to bring a speaker to campus, under what possible non-goodthinkful paradigm should Student Group B have any say about it? Imagine if there were one the same campus (for example) a BDS group and a B'nai B'rith chapter. You seem to be actually advocating that whichever of these groups can get the administration on their sides should be able to veto the other one. This seems reasonable to you? How about expelling students for wrongthinking?

  20. GregR says

    The debate over 'trigger warnings' to me is a big weird. I simply do not see the issue with them.

    I once guest lectured on a case I handled that dealt with some extremely disturbing child sexual abuse issues, including video evidence of the damage to a 3 year olds anal cavity, which was taken during surgery to repair some internal bleeding. This was serious stuff involving the repeatedly raping of a 3 year old with house hold objects. The class was for PH.D. psychologists specializing in child abuse and the topics covered were important for them.

    Before starting the lecture I gave a 'trigger warning' preparing the students about what they were going to see, and the material we were going to cover. I guess I could have just jumped right in, but when covering material as disturbing as this I felt preparing the students was a good plan. It didn't mean I didn't cover it, or was backing off showing them what I felt they needed to see. But it did mean allowing them a few minutes to prepare for it.

  21. IForgotHisNameToo says

    As a piece of arrant pedantry, I'm OK with the university stating "we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’." I don't particularly want or need the university to condone what I do with a private space, whether it's a Womyns Safe Place or a No Gurlz Alowd club. They aren't saying they will CONDEMN it, just that they won't license it officially.

    But I agree that this point could be clearer.

  22. Dude says

    This is not related at all to the topic, but I could not find a technical contact for the site. Is it deliberate that everything looks bold? It's not quite as bad as all caps, but it's strange.

    I don't know if this is a function of my updated Chrome browser, or something you guys did on your end.

    –A Loving Fan

    P.S. Ken, please have my baby!

  23. Ingot9455 says

    A 'trigger warning' is for 'micro aggressions' – things which do not aggravate normal people but might aggravate someone with a special sensitivity. Sadly, it leads to everyone claiming a special sensitivity so as to have a weapon to police speech.

    GregR's example of the graphic details of criminal anal rape of a three year old is material that should be genuinely disturbing to all. It does not require a 'trigger warning' but instead, a perfectly honest 'warning.'

  24. orgoman says

    @GregR

    "The debate over 'trigger warnings' to me is a big weird. I simply do not see the issue with them.

    I once guest lectured on a case I handled that dealt with some extremely disturbing child sexual abuse issues, including video evidence of the damage to a 3 year olds anal cavity, which was taken during surgery to repair some internal bleeding. This was serious stuff involving the repeatedly raping of a 3 year old with house hold objects. The class was for PH.D. psychologists specializing in child abuse and the topics covered were important for them.

    Before starting the lecture I gave a 'trigger warning' preparing the students about what they were going to see, and the material we were going to cover. I guess I could have just jumped right in, but when covering material as disturbing as this I felt preparing the students was a good plan. It didn't mean I didn't cover it, or was backing off showing them what I felt they needed to see. But it did mean allowing them a few minutes to prepare for it."

    I think the difference is what would trigger an "average person." I'm very sure that the vast majority of the populace would be upset by those images, and a heads-up on that would be most appropriate. On the other hand, I recently saw a review of a NY Times Crossword puzzle that objected to the appearance of the word "Nagasaki" as it could be triggering to some people. The clue to the word made no mention of WWII or nuclear weapons, but this person felt that, with no evidence mind you, some hypothetical resident of a country 5000 miles away could receive a psychic jolt. This is the sort of nonsensical "trigger warnings" that, in my view, are merely virtue signaling at it's most extreme and incredibly annoying to the vast majority of people.

  25. Mark Z. says

    KeithB: " the original letter seems to set out a safe space for invited speakers!"

    Has this not always been inherent in the concept of invited?

  26. KeithB says

    No. You can be invited to a roast. You can be invited to debate a creationist at a church event…

  27. Argentina Orange says

    Yanno, I always respected the University of Chicago after they turned their football stadium into a nuclear reactor.

    Kids these days, thinking they're geeks…

  28. KeithB says

    It was a room *under* the stadium and they used the football team to carry the cans of uranium.

    (from Rhodes "Making of the Atomic Bomb")

  29. Lisa Clews says

    I do not get the hate against trigger warnings. They're intended as a heads-up to people with serious mental health issues like PTSD. They're a courtesy warning: "Hey, some of the material contains scenes of sexual assault/racism/homophobic violence etc. Based on your knowledge of you, judge whether or not you can cope with that. If you can, great. If you can't, talk to the professor about whether this is something that can be worked around, or if it would be better to choose a different subject". Something to help you judge whether or not you want to consume the content. Honestly, why is that a problem?

    The "real world" does come with trigger warnings. Movies, video games and TV shows have ratings. Books have blurbs. Blog and Facebook posts have SPOILER! warnings. What the hell are these, but advance notice of the content? Why are they there, if not to help us judge whether or not we want to go ahead and consume that content? What is that, if not a trigger warning by a less-contentious name?

    Some people insist any content that triggers them personally should be banned for everyone: that's dumb, restrictive of free speech and a perversion of academic values. Not the fault of trigger warnings, and not something that can or should be solved by removing them. If one loon starts agitating to ban all chocolate that's not nut-free because they're allergic to nuts, it's not a good solution to remove the nut allergy alerts from all chocolate bars. A good solution is to point out the nut allergy alerts to the loon, then laugh at them and tell them to harden the fuck up.

    Consider the content of your subject, and ensure that any contentious material is included for valid intellectual or educational reasons. Consider what the options are if that content causes a mental health crisis in a student. Put a trigger warning in the syllabus so students can judge for themselves whether or not to take the course. Anyone complains, you're prepared to argue your case. This is basic intellectual rigor.

  30. Jon Marcus says

    @IForgotHisNameToo: You're incorrect about the definition of "condone". Saying "The university does not condone X" means considerably more than "The university will not license X". To condone something is to approve or allow it. E.g. "The university does not condone the use of illegal drugs."

    That's what the word means, even though it's obviously untrue: a University with a Hillel, a "Campus Crusade for Christ", College Republicans, and an LGBTQ office clearly does condone and officially support the creation of safe spaces.

    @Ingot9455: what's the difference between a "perfectly honest warning" and an (imperfectly dishonest?) trigger warning?

  31. Jerry Leichter says

    UC's original is a manifesto. It starts right out with "Our commitment", making it clear that this is the university speaking for itself. It follows up with a classic rhetorical construction, three (the magic number for such things) examples, in parallel form, each starting with "we do not". This is an incantation, meant to be spoken more than written (even though it was issued in written form). It's the university proclaiming, directly and unambiguously, where it stands.

    The purpose of a statement like this is to make a strong statement, to put a stake in the ground. It appeals to both emotion (by its hortatory style) and reason (with its explanations).

    Ken's form is more expository. It tries to establish reasonable limits; as such, it acknowledges both sides. If spoken, it would come across as a lecture, not an inspirational speech. It's not going to stir people to action. As such, it's not a "better written" form of the original; it's not a replacement for it; it's simply not the same thing. (See what I did there? :-) ) It's a different kind of writing, serving a different purpose.

    As writing, I prefer the original. Given the tumult of last year, it probably serves a useful purpose. As reasoned argument, Ken's version wins.

    BTW, the nitpicking about exactly what constitutes "trigger warnings" or "safe spaces" is all irrelevant to the original statement. That statement assumes we all know, in our guts, what it's talking about, even if we may have trouble explaining it exactly. And, frankly, anyone who claims there's uncertainty about what kinds of things UC is saying it will not accept is being disingenuous. Everything in the world is ambiguous if you look closely enough, but the fact is we generally communicate with each other successfully, even about complex concepts like "trigger warnings."

    Yes, when it comes time for the lawyers to write official rules and policies, it becomes necessary to squeeze out as much of the ambiguity as possible. But that's not what UC's statement is about.

    — Jerry

  32. Noscitur a sociis says

    I find the general sentiment behind UC's letter to be important, but prefer your version. As with many situations, however, it seems that the UC letter is about pandering and signaling, rather than a commitment to the idea of being challenged.

    Evidence supporting this assertion.

    I agree that there are serious reasons to question how much the letter accurately describes Chicago's position — the school appears to have an officially sanctioned LGBT safe space, FIRE documents some disturbing examples of suppressing student speech, and invited speakers were repeatedly disrupted over the last academic year. On the other hand, I think Tyler Kissinger is a poor example of the school's putative hypocrisy since 1. he was in trouble not for his speech, but for helping protesters break into a locked building and 2. he didn't actually appear to suffer any consequences for it.

  33. ravenshrike says

    @ Lisa Clews

    I do not get the hate against trigger warnings. They're intended as a heads-up to people with serious mental health issues like PTSD.

    The majority of 'triggers' are not directly related to the mention of the type of event itself. Indeed, they can be as innocuous as things like the smell of freshly mown grass. More importantly, avoidance of triggers for anyone that actually has them during their daily life outside of times when being distracted would be dangerous is not good and in many cases outright bad for a person's mental health. In fact, that's the reason for the original concept of a safe space. It was a place a person could RETREAT to when the triggers and stresses in their daily life became too overwhelming. It was not in any way, shape, or form meant to be the default state of their surroundings. Thus, the VAST majority of people today clamoring for safe spaces are not only completely trivializing PTSD itself because they sure as fuck don't have it, but they are also creating an environment which at best halts improvement of the condition and at worst exacerbates it severely.

  34. Richard says

    Quiet Lurcker wrote:

    Who is the true victim here? I put it to you, the PC crowd, by pushing for PC to begin with, self-identify as the victim in the story. Look closely, if you will, at some of the PC approved terms – African-American; small person; alternative gendered – the list goes on. Each term is intended to separate the speaker – or thinker – as not a member of a specific class which was or was thought to be at one time the victim of discrimination/offense/slight/other.

    These people are trying to force everyone else to conform to some preconceived notion in their speaking and thinking habits as the price of admission to the marketplace of ideas. To me, that makes everyone else the victims.

    That's not how I think about political correctness at all.

    I think that referring to people as anything other than the term that they would choose for themselves as an act of disrespect. You're basically saying, "You're not worth enough effort for me to even consider your wishes in how I refer to you." And you know what? That, in itself, is fair enough.

    I'm sure that Donald Trump would choose to be described as a successful businessman. I would prefer to describe him as fifty gallons of bullshit poured into a forty-gallon barrel. That's certainly not a politically correct description of him, but I make no pretense of respect for him.

    The people that bug me are the people who, for example, use hateful words to describe people different than them, and then turn around and claim that they respect those people. If you're going to be openly hateful, own it. If you want to claim to not hate the people you refer to, then the least, the very least, the absolute minimum you can do to show them respect is to refer to them by the name that they would choose to refer to themselves using.

    One further note: an insult always has two edges. It cuts the person being insulted, and it also cuts whatever the insult compares its subject to. So, if you insult someone by calling them "gay," you're not just saying that a person is insult-worthy; you're also saying that any people who are homosexual are themselves insult-worthy (which is why I insulted Trump by likening him to bovine excrement; the object of comparison is unlikely to be harmed by the comparison). So, even though I think that The Donald shows a disturbing lack of intelligence, I would never use a certain r-word to describe him, because I don't think "learning disability" is, or should be, an insult.

    I don't want to control the way you think or speak. I just want you to be sure that if you're being disrespectful, you're doing so out of actual malice, and not a mistaken impression that there's nothing offensive about what you're saying. I prefer to direct my own malice at the actually-hateful instead of at the offensively-oblivious.

  35. M. Alan Thomas II says

    Let me ask a pedantic question about trigger warnings. You can consider this something of a facial vs as applied question, if you like.

    Granted, we both would dislike certain implementations of trigger warnings, for various reasons. But are you—and, if you care to opine, is UChicago—suggesting that students who need an accommodation for an ADA-qualifying disability like PTSD should be refused that accommodation, even if that accommodation is being privately forewarned regarding certain subject matter in order to allow them to prepare themselves for it or, if absolutely necessary, request an alternative assignment?

  36. M. Alan Thomas II says

    To clarify, I think we both dislike certain implementations (as applied), but is the fundamental concept of providing accommodations for disabilities inherently flawed (facial)?

  37. GemmaM says

    Yeah, the changes you've made aren't pedantry. UChicago's letter genuinely does read to me like an absurd rant against a weird blend of the problematic and the harmless; your version is perhaps the only piece of writing "against" trigger warnings and safe spaces that has ever made me do a bit of a mental fist pump.

    Like, I'm normally a bit of an SJW but that clear formulation that you've given makes me want to stand up and cheer. Why can't all defences of free speech be like that instead of wasting words on "oversensitivity" and "coddled millennials" as if caring about things was something to be ashamed of?

  38. Encinal says

    The rhetoric of safe spaces is being used, widely and explicitly, as a justification for excluding contrary expression.

    I read the first link, and I don't see how it supports your position. Where are "safe spaces" mentioned? A group claimed that Milo is offensive. I don't think it's all that radical idea that there is such a thing as being so offensive that it is legitimate to ask a that a university bar them from speaking. Shouldn't the real issue be what is alleged to be offensive, and whether it is offensive? Isn't it rather odd that, at least as far as the article mentions, this information isn't given in the petition?

  39. Rick H says

    @Encinal

    I don't think it's all that radical idea that there is such a thing as being so offensive that it is legitimate to ask a that a university bar them from speaking. Shouldn't the real issue be what is alleged to be offensive, and whether it is offensive?

    This presumes that "offensiveness" is an objective concept, not an emotional label applied by individual humans to all sorts of expression. That is not the case. Its use depends on personalities, politics and many other contextual factors, including many flat-out disingenuous ones that have been invoked often on college campuses over the last decade.

    What is offensive to me is not necessarily offensive to others. Given that views often oppose each other, how would campus authorities quantify the proper level of collective outrage? Currently it seems to be solely the loudest, most strident drama queens who are privileged to set such policy at large colleges.

  40. Argentina Orange says

    @Encinal

    I don't think it's all that radical idea that there is such a thing as being so offensive that it is legitimate to ask a that a university bar them from speaking.

    During your lifetime, it used to be the case that the idea was not only radical but antithetical to the mission of a university.

  41. MLA says

    @GregR:

    "The debate over 'trigger warnings' to me is a bit weird. I simply do not see the issue with them."

    I teach medieval literature. If I had to warn my students about everything they could possibly consider "racist," "sexist," "homophobic," "ableist," "transphobic," "transmisogynistic," or "Islamophobic" under penalty of discipline, I would never be able to teach my course material again. Such warnings tell my students that it's okay to judge Augustine, Bernard, and Aquinas without even having tried to engage with them first, which is the diametric opposite of what my class aims to accomplish.

    It all comes down to what Ken said in a previous post about safety as sword vs. shield. I don't know a single professor or instructor who would mind if, for example, a student who had recently had a near-death experience asked to be alerted if we were going to discuss drowning in class. But the day I have to issue a blanket "sexism" warning on the Confessions because some administrator thinks none of my students can deal with the culture clash otherwise will be the day I resign.

  42. IForgotMyName says

    @Quiet Lurcker:

    Who is the true victim here? I put it to you, the PC crowd, by pushing for PC to begin with, self-identify as the victim in the story.

    Then you would be wrong. First, acknowledging the imprecision of terms, I will stipulate that when I say "the PC crowd" and "the SJW crowd," I refer to only a certain subset of people who engage in the worst examples of that behavior. It's facially evident that they don't self-identify as the victim. They self-identify as the hero of the story (which is precisely what makes some of them really, really obnoxious). They believe that by intervening on behalf of some victims, they elevate themselves.

    Look closely, if you will, at some of the PC approved terms
    – African-American; small person; alternative gendered – the list goes on. Each term is intended to separate the speaker – or thinker – as not a member of a specific class which was or was thought to be at one time the victim of discrimination/offense/slight/other.

    You don't want me to look too closely, because then your argument falls apart.

    You're right about one and only one thing: The term "African-America" makes me very cognizant of the fact that I am not an African-American. And if "the PC crowd" were advocating the use of the term African-American instead of an all-inclusive term such as American, then your argument that "the PC crowd" is intentionally separating the speaker from the "victim class" would have some support.

    Unfortunately for you, facts don't support your assertions. In practice, people were already using terms to describe black people that–as you would say–"is intended to separate the speaker – or thinker – as not a member of a specific class which was or was thought to be at one time the victim of discrimination/offense/slight/other." Where "the PC crowd" comes into the story is when they object to which terms are being used. Personally, I was 100% behind the PC crowd when they said the N-word was offensive, and they completely lost me when they objected to calling people black, and I don't care enough to backtrack and try to find exactly where they lost me.

    You're basically trying to convince everyone that calling people "African-Americans" creates a sense of class separation that didn't exist when we were calling them negroes, coloreds, blacks, or n*gger.

    The same goes for all the other terms. I've never seen any self-styled "PC" person argue that "alternately gendered" should be used instead of "person." I've seen them argue that it should be used in terms of transvestite (apparently negative connotation?), homo (cross dressing doesn't imply sexual orientation), or cross-dresser (personally don't see why this one is offensive,) terms which already emphasize "otherness."

    Same with small person.

    These people are trying to force everyone else to conform to some preconceived notion in their speaking and thinking habits as the price of admission to the marketplace of ideas. To me, that makes everyone else the victims.

    To the extent that any of "the PC crowd" is advocating some sort of government sanctions against thought crime, I completely condemn that sort of behavior. Outside of that, what you're describing is no different than what you or I do. That is to say, when someone says or does something contrary to how we think people should be in the marketplace of ideas, we don't take them seriously. We criticize them. Maybe we try to convince others not to take them seriously. That is not, as you believe, we are perpetrating a crime in which everyone else is a victim. We are in fact engaging in activity that is the very core of the marketplace of ideas.

    You seem to misunderstand the marketplace of ideas the way many people misunderstand the free market of actual goods and services–it's not really free. It's free from coercive government influence, and people are free to TRY to participate in the market however you want, but it is not free in the sense that you are entitled to participate on your terms, and everyone else is expected to engage with you whether they want to or not. Some ideas suck. Sometimes the people espousing them suck as well.

    In the end, the only power the PC crowd has to exact any sort of "price of admission" is that it can try to convince people that you suck because you call them "the blacks." If you can't convince those same people that you don't suck, that the PC crowd is wrong, and that you're worth listening to, then you're not failing to pay a price that the PC crowd has unfairly imposed on you–you're coming to the marketplace of ideas with a product that nobody wants to buy at the price you're charging. All the PC crowd did was write a bad review.

    As far as your comments about geeks are concerned, I doubt you could be further off the mark if you tried. Geeks as a class (an oxymoron, really, but the language is insufficient to the task) are no different than any number of other groups of people – doctors, lawyers, engineers, pilots, theologians, musicians – again the list goes on. A group of people who use language very specifically, sometimes in ways that the common speaker would not.

    Can you be more specific? You say I cannot be more wrong, and yet this doesn't really articulate any specific points on which I am wrong. You make a vague assertion that geeks are no different than a number of professions–by the structure of your argument, I assume you expect me to infer some specific similarities among those groups that you believe proves your point. Unfortunately, the first thing that springs to mind is the differences. All the groups you name are professions–while there is an element of choice in what profession you enter, the main reason those groups associate is to make a living. Geeks (and I acknowledge, the term of nebulous, and the more detail you want to go into, the less consensus you will find on what exactly a geek is) are largely a subculture centered around socialization and shared interests.

    Yes. Some of it is self-identification. Victimhood has nothing to do with it, and outsider status has nothing to do with it, either.

    This sounds like the beginning of a "No true Roman" speech. Personally, I find it presumptuous to speak for what the universal, true geek experience is (with the implication that anyone who doesn't experience things the same way doesn't belong.) All I can say is that for a large number of the people who self-identify as geeks and participate in cons and other community activities, the subculture was a community where they felt they could find acceptance for their quirks and their non-mainstream interests. Please look through some of the many, many posts out there about sexual harassment at conventions and in the geek community in general. One point that comes up quite often is that many in the community feel reluctant to condemn harassers (particular in situations that are arguably in a grey area between social awkwardness/creepiness and harassment) because of their belief that the geek community should be a home for outcasts.

    As I mentioned in my previous post, I don't think this experience is universal, and as a parent who has passed on a few of my interests, this makes me pretty happy. But as someone who grew up when gaming geeks were tabletop gamers, I can tell you that your experience isn't universal either.

  43. IForgotMyName says

    @MLA

    Such warnings tell my students that it's okay to judge Augustine, Bernard, and Aquinas without even having tried to engage with them first, which is the diametric opposite of what my class aims to accomplish.

    Just to play devil's advocate, is this really true? If saying "this book may come off as kind of sexist to modern eyes" to your students before they read the book is "telling them that it's okay to judge… without even having tried to engage with them first," what exactly are you teaching in your class? Do you just walk into class, assign some reading, and don't give any lectures until they've all done the reading?

    In every class I've taken involving any kind of literature, the professor actually said stuff to us before we finished the reading. (I think it's in his job description.) Whether it's information about the period contemporary to the work, commentary about the place of the work in the wider context of related literature, or background about the author, the professor always said something, and no matter how careful you are to be neutral, sometimes a bit of your own opinions and judgments creep into what you say. That doesn't teach that it's okay to prejudge without engaging. It just teaches that the work is substantial enough that educated people have taken the time to judge it–in other words, that it's probably a work worth reading.

    Even without a supposedly learned professor in the mix, students will almost never in their lives be exposed to a work without being exposed to some "prejudgment" about it. Every historical work of note comes with scholarship and articles and widespread opinions from random people you know. Every new work comes with reviews and marketing and again widespread opinions from random people. You say that telling students anything about a book before they read it is teaching them it's okay to prejudge the work? I say that trying to sequester them from everything about the book before they read it is teaching them that you believe they're too stupid and too spineless to form their own opinion of a work in the presence of even the tiniest outside influence.

    I don't know a single professor or instructor who would mind if, for example, a student who had recently had a near-death experience asked to be alerted if we were going to discuss drowning in class.

    But what if it was a book that depicted drowning? Would you mind giving that student a warning because you were morally opposed to teaching him that it's okay to prejudge a book just because it includes a drowning?

    But the day I have to issue a blanket "sexism" warning on the Confessions because some administrator thinks none of my students can deal with the culture clash otherwise will be the day I resign.

    In your position, I would try to fight that policy and do everything in my power to convince them they're wrong about students and that their policy is detrimental to the business, until they either fix things or fire me. Hell, I'd fight even harder because in your position, I probably couldn't be fired.

    You're in a unique position to influence young minds and counter precisely the sort of misguided attitude you seem to be concerned about, and you're saying that as soon as those attitudes gain any sort of traction (i.e., as soon as the fight gets hard), you intend to walk away. Sounds a bit like enlisting in the military and asking for a clause that let's you be discharged in the event we enter a war.

  44. Encinal says

    Rick H

    This presumes that "offensiveness" is an objective concept, not an emotional label applied by individual humans to all sorts of expression.

    Nonsense. That's both presumptuous and a false dichotomy.

    What is offensive to me is not necessarily offensive to others.

    Sure. Some people think anchovies taste good. That doesn't stop me from saying that anchovies taste awful.

    Given that views often oppose each other, how would campus authorities quantify the proper level of collective outrage?

    Same way I decide not to eat pizzas with anchovies, without being paralyzed by the haunting worry that someone somewhere thinks that they taste good. Those people can eat anchovies. I don't. Seriously, what's so complicated about this? Just because there's an element of subjectivity, how does that somehow translate to no one being able to come to a position on the issue?

    Argentina Orange

    During your lifetime, it used to be the case that the idea was not only radical but antithetical to the mission of a university.

    Come on. Universities have been acting against speech since there have been universities. California even passed a law (Penal Code section 626.4.) in 1969 saying that universities can kick off of campus anyone who is "disruptive".

    Consider the Least Convenient World. There is a neo-Nazi who is planning on giving a speech declaring that Jews are demons who have taken human form, have no souls, are all involved in a world-wide conspiracy to slaughter Christians, and that the proper response is to kill them before they can kill us. A group starts a petition asking that this person not be given a platform to speak on campus. Would it be legitimate to dismiss this group as "using safe spaces as a sword"? Would in be "antithetical to the mission of a university" to treat this person any different from anyone else?

  45. Argentina Orange says

    @Encinal

    California even passed a law (Penal Code section 626.4.) in 1969 saying that universities can kick off of campus anyone who is "disruptive".

    Interestingly enough, "disruptive" is not the same thing as "offensive."

    Consider the Least Convenient World. There is a neo-Nazi who is planning on giving a speech declaring that Jews are demons who have taken human form, have no souls, are all involved in a world-wide conspiracy

    Did you mean neo-Nazi, or N.O.I.? Because I have actually heard such speakers give this exact speech on campus. Yes, I am old, but "probably psychotic crackpot/street preacher/political fanatic/brain-fried hippie yelling at students from the quad" phenomenon was a normal thing. Sometimes students gather around to yell/jeer back. Sometimes they would hurry past them on their way to class. NEVER did any of them collapse into a sobbing fetal position or call the cops. I guess Korean War vets and Vietnam Vets just never got PTSD at the same rate as today's college students?

    A group starts a petition asking that this person not be given a platform to speak on campus. Would it be legitimate to dismiss this group as "using safe spaces as a sword"?

    Absolutely yes. It's bizarre that you think otherwise.

    Would in be "antithetical to the mission of a university" to treat this person any different from anyone else?

    Yes, yes it would. Especially if it was an invited speaker being paid for by a student group's budget.

  46. Encinal says

    Interestingly enough, "disruptive" is not the same thing as "offensive."

    In this context, it is.

    Yes, yes it would. Especially if it was an invited speaker being paid for by a student group's budget.

    But the student group's budget comes from the school. Why is it "antithetical to the mission of a university" to say that some speech is so offensive that it will not be eligible for school funds? The mission of a university is to educate students, not to subsidize bigots.

  47. Argentina Orange says

    @Encinal

    In this context, it is.

    Um, no? An invited speaker, barring any malfeasance on the part of said speaker, cannot be disruptive. They are the program. The disruption would be coming from people who do not want to program to take place. You are duckspeaking.

    The mission of a university is to educate students, not to subsidize bigots.

    So you're fine with "bigots" speaking if they are unfunded? Of course you aren't. As long as you, or someone who shares your values is the one in charge of determining who qualifies as a bigot.

    Mumia Abu Jamal was a commencement speaker on at least two different college campuses after he was imprisoned for murdering a cop. If there is any campus speech that could plausibly be considered "mandatory" that might be one. And if there is any behavior that could be universally considered offensive, murder would probably count. And yet MAJ wasn't "no platformed." How things have changed.

  48. Lulex7 says

    While I know this will likely be unread because I'm a comment pleb, I do think the philosophical coherence is slightly off because you presume choice matters over value and that only muddies the rights discussion further.

    Rights exist because not all choices are acceptable (moral–mostly physical–harms). This complicates the discussion above twofold. First, yes, U of C could actually be more aggressive. Abstractly, academic freedom requires–at the outset–ideas are not considered harms. It's antithetical to academic freedom to say or suggest ideas are moral harms (harms against others) because that would be a legitimate reason under a analysis of rights to cause state coercion. Thus, a teacher giving blanket warnings is directly opposite of academic freedom and liberalism because it invites–quite correctly–the slippery slope of saying academic discussions on Israel are antisemitic and should be banned on campus. Afterall, the use of trigger warnings assumes ideas cause harm to others.

    Choice automatically doesn't mitigate this abstraction either. Education is not a consumer product where students simply pick what they want and should be warned of potential hazards, even if society deems those hazards as misplaced. Supposedly, from what I've been told, education is a historical curation of works that give knowledge about a subject. If a teacher were to not only tell students that ideas are harms, but also they can shield themselves by not reading essential works, it seems we are nowhere near academic freedom from the teacher's vantage point and committing a moral action against a students education for their own illiberal (but perhaps rightfully empathetic) reasons.

    Students do have ethical choices though. They can still, as you point out in your reframing, ask for trigger warnings and argue about ideas being harms (it's not an absurd idea, just counter to equality). But teachers don't have that luxury if they take academic freedom seriously because of the abstraction pointed out earlier. They can be sympathetic, but it's an illiberal choice–it is not academic freedom. We are muddying what rights are about, if we don't have that distinction because our value rights (speech/association) are about competition harms: harms society must accept as non-harms to have equality of choice.

    Second, flowing from my first argument, the right to association exists because it again–like all liberal rights–assumes association, and the ideas for that association, are not a harm the state should be able to coerce. Safe spaces–like trigger warnings, microaggressions, and hate speech laws–are aimed, intended or not, at saying liberalism is wrong and these 'rights' are actually legitimate harms the state should eventually coerce.

    Can students choose to do illiberal things on campus and make these bad arguments? Yes, but can the administration or professors support/help this while suggesting they adhere to academic freedom or believe in a larger coherent system of equal individual rights–no.

  49. Lulex7 says

    And just a quick follow up because I may have overstated the case a bit. The warning in class is illiberal, but the degree of infringement is very weak to the students. Most students likely won't care, and I feel that's why it's so easy to gloss over it's philosophical meaning and stamp 'choice' on it. Blocking speakers is a much stronger offense to the ideal and banning books/discrimination seems the height of damage to the principle. These degrees matter because they heighten our involvement, but they all rest on the same moral argument and hence why the slippery slope isn't a fallacy.

  50. Encinal says

    Um, no? An invited speaker, barring any malfeasance on the part of said speaker, cannot be disruptive. They are the program. The disruption would be coming from people who do not want to program to take place. You are duckspeaking.

    1. The context was universities kicking someone off campus for being "disruptive", not invited speakers. You are the one duckspeaking.
    2. An invited speaker absolutely can be "disruptive" to the orderly operation of the university, which is what 626 refers to. You seem to be interpreting this as "disruptive to the speech", which is not what 626 refers to, and indeed would be rather silly.

    As long as you, or someone who shares your values is the one in charge of determining who qualifies as a bigot.

    It's values all the way down.

    Mumia Abu Jamal was a commencement speaker on at least two different college campuses after he was imprisoned for murdering a cop. If there is any campus speech that could plausibly be considered "mandatory" that might be one. And if there is any behavior that could be universally considered offensive, murder would probably count. And yet MAJ wasn't "no platformed." How things have changed.

    I'm not clear on what point you think you're making here. However, I will point out that supporters of Jamal generally claim that he is innocent, making the controversy one of facts, not values.

  51. MLA says

    @IForgotMyName, I think you know perfectly well that none of what you have just described is related to the issue at hand. Yes, of course I give my students background information about the topics we discuss. That's very different from being told that I have to warn them about someone else's subjective judgments of it because it might traumatize them otherwise. All of my students, of all colors and genders and creeds and various other protected or unprotected statuses, have been capable of grasping "people viewed the world differently in this time" and not a single one of them has ever broken down sobbing in class because Augustine was mean to him. They don't need their overzealous schoolmates to protect them.

    And I signed up to teach literature. I didn't sign up to fight ideological battles, and I'm not interested in using my classroom to do so.

  52. IForgetMyName says

    @MLA

    I think you know perfectly well that none of what you have just described is related to the issue at hand.

    Your lecture style is brusque. Almost abrasive. I like it! (Edit: I realize this could sound sarcastic, but it's not. My favorite professors were the ones who knew their material, loved it, and weren't too worried about sounding like an asshole to make lectures engaging.)

    And there are (at least) two issues at hand. One is a matter of public opinion/administrative oversight telling you how to teach your class. And you're right, what I described is unrelated to that. Probably because I was more interested in the second issue, one that was raised by you and not the original article.

    That issue, just to be clear, is the quoted text where you discussed the importance of avoiding conveying "prejudgments." While I understand the sentiment, I disagree with your implication that however you do things is free of any sort of priming, deliberate or not.

    Yes, of course I give my students background information about the topics we discuss. That's very different from being told that I have to warn them about someone else's subjective judgments of it because it might traumatize them otherwise.

    So you're okay with making your own choice to warn them about someone else's subjective judgments of it? Or to select elements of "background" to emphasize that pushes your personal judgment of the work? I don't disagree with that view. If you're promised academic freedom and get administrative meddling, I'd be frustrated as well. But like I said before, we're not discussing that issue, but rather the validity of your assertion of the existence of, I dunno, some sort of ideological purity. You assert that the professors are serving pure water, that students need completely unadulterated water to learn properly, and the administrators are forcing professors to add salt at the behest of the evil SJWs. I disagree only with the implication that the water was ever pure to begin with, that the dichotomy you imply really exists. To me, the difference isn't salt versus no salt, but rather one of degree (and also who gets to decide.)

    To assert a need to "avoid prejudgments" and not recognize that you can't help but convey some prejudgments is naive, and does a disservice both to the subject and to your students. When you realize it's happening, you can try to limit or control how you may be coloring their experience before they open the book.

    Also, nobody asked you to fight any ideological battles. But if you truly enjoy teaching literature, and you sincerely believe "their way" of teaching literature undermines the practice, shouldn't you, well, if not fight, at least not run away at the first sign of someone who disagrees with you. I suppose trying to be non-ideological is in a sense an ideology, but if you sincerely believe what you've been telling me, then it's more about doing your job the way you think it's meant to be done.

  53. Paul says

    First, it's clearer that the University isn't telling professors how to teach their classes. It's unserious to say that you stand for academic freedom but then dictate to professors exactly how they can talk about their class content. I don't read the letter to say they are prohibiting professors from choosing to offer trigger warnings, but I think they could have been clearer. I personally find trigger warnings infantilizing in most academic circumstances, but I'm not the one teaching the class.

    I disagree. I don't think it is unserious. I think rather the opposite, it is deadly serious.

    The reasoning behind trigger warnings is that people should be shielded from traumatic past events, which maybe invoked inadvertently through text or subject material. The reasoning for that claim is that they will be better off, and will better deal with their ghosts. In short trigger warnings offer therapeutic value.

    No serious academic can pursue such an outcome with evidence to support the idea. This is a basic tenant of being an academic. If you want to just spout any old shit that pops into your head, well then, the street corner is a beckoning.

    a basic tenant of being an "academic" is that one submit to reason and logic.

    Trigger warnings can only be supported by an appeal to "academic" freedom, as opposed to just spouting shit, if both of the above premises can be satisfied. They cannot. No serious psychologist claims that avoidance is the best way to deal with PTSD, in fact the standard treatment is exactly the opposite.

    Therefore, As there is no evidenced based reason to deliver trigger warnings, the university of Chicago is with in their rights to tell woo pedlars to fuck off in so many words.

  54. Jeanne T says

    As a former graduate student in both the Anthropology and Sociology Departments at the University of Chicago, I cannot believe that anyone takes seriously what any administrator of the school says.

    Why is the University of Chicago suddenly deserving of a good ranking for its training of undergraduates? Is it because Elaine May, Mike Nichols and Susan Sontag–evidently undergrad alums–have come into favor?

    Is it because graduating undergrads have harkened to former university president Hugo Sonnenshein's plea that some of them and go to law school or to Hollywood rather than get doctorate degrees? That was Hugo's plea in the university press in the mid-late 1990s when the university's credit rating was downgraded. Is that a proper response to a credit downgrading? Did Sonnenshein get rid of any of the many sinecure faculty positions held by profs with fat salaries who never taught? No.

    When I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, a former registrar or Stanford University and then interim president of a small university in the Midwest told me that her school in Milwaukee had a consortium to form a response to the need for having a good compliance policy for the Americans With Disabilities Act.

    The consortium looked at the University of Chicago and found that its policy regarding Americans With Disabilities Act compliance was facially discriminatory.

    What did the policy say? It said that the school had ice at certain times of the year and that it couldn't be held accountable for those who needed help because they were mobility impaired.

    I found this strange. Why? Right before I got to the University of Chicago in 1995, gay law students had taken the university for a ride. The housing policy was in favor of same sex living quarters. So, evidently, was or were a campus policy or policies for health insurance–non-married partners qualified for coverage.

    What does this have to do with free speech? Back to Mike Nichols, Elaine May and Susan Sontag. Those folks are literate and evidently capable of thinking on their feet. The undergrads that I studied with and those that I taught as a teaching assistant, however, were illiterate. They bragged about the university and also about being from places in the rural Midwest where one of the favored pastimes for high school students was to make potato shooter bombs to blow out car windows. They couldn't spell anymore than they had any common sense or manners. They came from places like Deep Springs boys school in California where they had bedded each other and faculty wives as high school students. Still another undergrad student that I knew came from Florida and could not kick his heroin habit at the university. Then there is the undergrad–another Floridian–who talked her parents' involvement in organized crime and who had an affair with someone at the Pentagon when she interned there.

    Interesting fare? Sort of. The kind of fare, at least for me, that told why the school had a totally uneven track record on legal rights. After all, those kind of students can't be counted on to even out legal coverage, so to speak, for the disabled as well as gay students. Can they?

    Then there is always the Anthropology faculty social scientist named Ray .F–a purported expert of the Eastern band of Cherokees and, when I was at the university, the only North Americanist in the entire Anthropology Department.

    Ray F. apparently did research primarily in Oklahoma and not with the Eastern Band. Despite having been given in recent years an honorarium from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to deliver a speech on a Cherokee subject–something that Ray F. probably got owing to his having lobbied for recognition of the North Carolina based Lumbees in Washington, D.C. some years ago–guess what?

    Ray F. knows nothing about Cherokee history–and this despite the University of Chicago's purported excellence in historical anthropology.

    Does Ray F. know how the Cherokee of old got to be such excellent tacticians and strategists during the treaty wars in which Cherokee moved about Arkansas, Georgia and South Carolina?

    Does this purported Native American expert know about Cherokee descent laws of inheritance of tribal stature by appointment and by descent and not just by blood alone?

    Does he know why on the Dawes Rolls the Cherokee and other tribes are known as the "so called civilized" natives?

    Was Ray F. in the North Carolina mountains in the mid 1960s for a national tribal event that featured a snake being born and flying and making an infinity sign several times as it flew about? An event at which supernatural events took place in front of the press, who got into trouble for snapping pictures as a sort of Jeff Goldblum snake turning –like in the movie "Fang"–took place? Was Ray F there to see the Cherokee and other native children being taught the real meaning of "E Pluribus Unum" on the back of a coin as the snake that was born flew in infinity signs and all hell broke lose in those mountains? No. I was. I am here to tell you first hand not to listen to any of the anthropologists at the University of Chicago if they want to put forward Ray F. as a good Native Americanist.

    Nor does Ray F. know about Cherokee myths from South Georgia that have the last real native Cherokee being born of a snake and a dog and coming of age in a world in which in the U.S.A. there will one day be no native tomgue.

    Nor does Ray F. know about Cherokee myths regarding what some in South Georgia call "famine time." Nor does Ray F. know about South Georgia Cherokee arson or scalping.

    All of this is food for thought for those among you who wonder, as do I, why the University of Chicago–a place that is supposed have free speech and to be a school (according to its own sociologist and former Dean of Students of the College, Andrew Abbott) where one doesn't have to apologize for being in the social sciences rather than in the hard sciences–has garnered the attention that it has. And by that, I mean as some sort of bastion of free speech; as a place where civil rights are to be taken seriously; or, finally, as a place where any sort of serious academic inquiry takes place.

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