Are we really supposed to feel sorry for a college student who has the privilege and opportunity to publish an op-ed in the New York Times about self-censorship?
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Twenty years ago, my freshman seminar on law and order was abuzz: NYU students had planned a walkout opposing the impending invasion of Iraq, and if students wanted to participate, they’d have to abandon what was, for many of us, a favorite class. Before the walkout, somebody asked our professor whether walking out would really count as an absence. After all, wasn’t protesting war the right thing to do?
Our professor’s response was unequivocal: Yes, you’ll be counted absent. And no, I won’t give you an opportunity to make up your attendance grade because you should be prepared to experience consequences for standing up for your beliefs. Doing so, she said, would help us determine what we were really willing to fight for, and what we were only supporting because it was popular, convenient, or self-serving.
I remember being upset with this pronouncement. As a then-conservative student, I had wanted to leave class to counterprotest the walkout, considering myself a brave voice for the political Right on my liberal campus. It was one of the first times in my young and privileged life that an adult had not promised to fix something to my liking, to bend the rules to ensure my success, or to accommodate my needs. How dare.
But when it came time for the walkout? I stayed in my seat. I did not actually care enough about shouting down my fellow students and supporting the invasion of Iraq to sacrifice even a sliver of an attendance grade for it. Of course I didn’t see it that way then. At the time, I considered the whole thing unfair; I felt that I was being punished by having to make a choice between my politics and my academic performance.
Today, I am grateful that no one at the New York Times agreed to publish my precious, self-aggrandizing thoughts about it at length. I am referring, of course, to the recent Times op-ed penned by University of Virginia senior Emma Camp, who bemoans being forced into “self-censorship” by a university cancel culture that is hostile to “intellectual diversity and rigorous disagreement.” It is difficult to imagine taking to the pages of the Times to complain about censorship, but here we are.
Some examples of the ways in which Camp says that cancel culture has ruined rigorous intellectual debate at America’s colleges: Camp’s classmates have disagreed with her and said so; some students have lowered their voices when discussing offensive topics; and a Republican student has lied about his beliefs to avoid conflict at parties. More egregiously, suggests Camp, she herself was silenced after she spoke out against a rule concerning the size of signs allowed on UVA’s dormitory doors. The awful, censorious consequences? Camp “worked with” university administrators, who changed the sign-size rule to something more to Camp’s liking.
I wonder whether the Times op-ed editors aren’t hee-hawing behind Camp’s back, knowing that pushing “publish” on Camp’s nonsensical, even non-existent, arguments will make the student a laughingstock while garnering thousands of hate-clicks for the newspaper. It’s really just amazingly silly to whine that modern-day universities have ended “rigorous disagreement” because the University of Virginia did not bar other students from unfollowing Camp on Twitter after she published a widely criticized piece in the school paper, or somehow prevent Camp from feeling “uneasy” following a classroom discussion in which the room “felt tense” and people “shifted in their seats.” At some point, don’t professional, adult editors have a duty to young opinion writers to ask that they demonstrate some facility with logic and evidence before throwing them into the fray? It surely would have behooved someone—anyone—to ask Camp: If you felt uncertain of your views after a strong disagreement with your peers, might that be an example not of “self-censorship,” but of precisely the type of intellectual growth that results from fierce debate? Might it simply be that you feel less passionate about your beliefs because they are changing?
But we cannot write off Camp’s premise as merely the blind and blushing self-obsession of youth. She’s largely regurgitating claims made by critics of cancel culture who complain—often, as Camp has, in our national and legacy publications—that silencing and censorship have gone too far. For example, Camp quotes a politics professor named Samuel Abrams, who says he was also victimized by cancel culture because he wished that more of his colleagues at Sarah Lawrence College had signed the school president’s public letter of support for Abrams, upholding his tenure after he published his own Times op-ed about a lack of intellectual diversity in academia. (These complaints are always about a lack of conservative intellectual diversity, as if it is an accident that conservatism, fundamentally rooted in the preservation of the status quo at best and perpetuation of oppression and marginalization at worst, is not exactly teeming with bright new ideas and fresh thinkers.)
It is really difficult to talk about some of this with a straight face. Especially in light of the fact that there are ongoing attempts—successful to varying degrees—to genuinely silence rigorous intellectual debate and academic thought, such as the Wyoming Senate’s recent proposal to shutter the state university’s Women’s and Gender Studies program because conservative politicians feel the curriculum is “extremely biased.”
To recap: An attempt to dismantle the University of Wyoming program—an actual example of an actual governmental entity’s express attempt to censor academics for their intellectual work—has not been widely taken up as a cause by the “cancel culture” crowd. Instead, “cancel culture” and “censorship” are, apparently, when your colleagues don’t adequately celebrate your criticisms of them publicly, or when university administrators don’t prevent classroom debates from making students feel “uneasy.”
Cancel culture critics don’t only want freedom from consequences. They are going farther than that. They want a mandatory celebration of whatever they say, by anyone they say it to or about. How else can we describe someone who believes their peers should be forced to stay friends and friendly with them, even if they find their ideas intellectually baseless, offensive, or simply boring? What other way is there to understand a student who believes she has been censored when her university worked directly with her to change a policy per her demands, or a professor who complains that the colleagues he insulted have not done enough to celebrate him?
Tweeting his support for Camp’s piece, Abrams wrote that students should be allowed to share their views “without fear.” Alright — but which students? Because when you’re talking about people’s lived experiences of oppression, marginalization, and abuse at the hands of the most privileged, “fear” is not going to manifest equally for everyone. Are we talking about students of color who should be able to acknowledge the literal existence of racism without fear, whether or not it makes their white peers feel “discomfort”? Or are we talking about making sure young men in Wyoming aren’t threatened by a feminist studies class? Does it not create a culture of fear on campus if trans students worry they’ll be subject to attacks and abuse from transphobic peers in the name of “intellectual diversity”? Whose fear do we take seriously—and who do we expect to remain perpetually afraid?
I have to think that my NYU professor who vowed all those years ago to count an absence as an absence, reasons be damned, would today be attacked by the likes of Camp and Abrams as illiberal, even censorious, for not ensuring that any student who walked out of her class could do so without consequence. I can imagine her being condemned, even investigated, for not rewarding or celebrating students for leaving her classroom—especially if she didn’t make some kind of special exception for students with conservative beliefs.
Also, that professor? She was and is one of this country’s leading critical race theorists, in many ways a trailblazer in the field. It is no accident that critical race theory and theorists have come under attack by right-wing politicians and those very same cancel-culture critics who seek not to expand rigorous intellectual debate but to (further) comfort the comfortable by shielding them from the consequences of their actions and the experience of defending—and perhaps even changing—their beliefs. (I’ve chosen not to name the professor here, because, unlike wannabe victims of “self-censorship” and “cancel culture,” the ability of teachers to engage in academic and intellectual work related to racial injustice without being afraid of losing their livelihoods actually is under threat.)
That professor taught me more about the rigorous intellectual project of interrogating my own biases and standing up for my ideas during one week in November 2002 than I had learned in the 19 very comfortable years running up to it. It was only in not being accommodated and assuaged, in being forced to feel uneasy, unheard, and unsatisfied, that I grappled with what I truly believed in, and how far I was willing to go for those beliefs. All over a single absence in one college class.
And so I sat there at the conference table, watching half my classmates march out of the room to join the protests in the streets downstairs. I steamed, thinking how unjustly we were being treated, about how I’d heard other professors were letting their students take a free absence, or canceling class entirely. I realize now that what I was experiencing wasn’t really anger at my professor, and it certainly wasn’t unjust treatment—it was anxiety and shame within myself, because I hated to admit that I suspected my peers who opposed the war probably had a point, or else I’d have taken the absence to debate them in the street.
I am immensely grateful that no one saved me from that pain and embarrassment, or tried to implement a university policy that would have sought to preserve my comfort at the expense of the development of my own moral and intellectual character. Students today deserve that, too, even as “cancel culture” critics try to wrest it away from them.
Perhaps people with offensive, bigoted, and outdated ideas ought to be afraid to give those views their full-throated support in any and every venue. Perhaps students who would demean and mock their classmates with half-baked wankery should learn to survive feeling “uneasy.” Perhaps there should be social consequences for offending people. It seems a small price to pay for that rigorous intellectual debate, no? Or are these deeply held principles around intellectual diversity and rigor not so deeply held after all?
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