Challenging the Benefits of Censorial Culture
“As Aristotle said, ‘It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.’”
By Tim Philbin, College of the Holy Cross
Halloween has always been rather an edgy holiday.
For one night, society allows itself the luxury of pushing barriers and inciting a little controversy. Practical jokes are played, ghoulish costumes are donned and fun is had by all.
That is, except at Yale.
As October 31st approached at that prestigious Ivy League institution, some students felt that some of the more controversial costumes—ones that make fun of racial stereotypes, for example—should be forbidden by the university administration.
In response to this plea, Erika Christakis, a lecturer on early childhood education at Yale, wrote an e-mail to the students living in Silliman College (one of Yale’s residential colleges) explaining that perhaps it was not the role of the Yale administration to micromanage exactly what its students wore on Halloween. After all, college is supposed to prepare students for adult life, and in the real world, there are no professors to shield you from controversy.
The student response was sudden and vitriolic.
A mass protest erupted. This video of a student shrieking at a professor that she wanted a “safe space” went viral. Students clamored vociferously for the administration to restrict their right to free speech.
This culture of protest was not limited to Yale. It has spread like a virus across the country.
To see this for yourself, all you have to do is simply observe the veritable tidal wave of demands made by students who wish to radically change the way civil discourse is conducted on college campuses: students at Guilford College have demanded that their professors publicly confess to being racist; students at Amherst College have demanded that their President condemn students who put up “All Lives Matter” posters; students at Wesleyan harassed a war veteran and fellow student after he wrote an unpopular op-ed.
Let me be clear: There are serious problems on college campuses that need to be redressed—some of the reported incidents at Mizzou come to mind. I don’t mean to trivialize them, but censorship is not the solution.
All of these various protests seem to be rooted in the notion that the college experience is essentially about being comfortable. College is a place to call home, a place to be who you are without fear of negative consequences.
Let’s get something straight.
College is not about being comfortable. College is not your home. College is not a consequence free zone. College is a place for learning and growth.
But what does that mean? What is “learning and growth” all about?
The truth is that it’s fundamentally about being uncomfortable.
No one likes to put their opinions out into the public forum to be challenged. It can be upsetting, because in order to do so, you have to do a very scary and difficult thing: Come to terms with your own ignorance and admit that you might be wrong. It is written into human nature to avoid this admission; from the Pharisees of the New Testament to the congressmen on Capitol Hill, example after example emerges of human beings fleeing from their own ignorance into self-delusion.
A good education trains this impulse out of us. It makes us constantly open to the fact that we might be wrong. To be educated is to live in one’s ignorance. College should be about training the mind to be open to alternative points of view, and to give it the tools to examine these points of view in a systematic and critical manner that allows one to arrive at truth. As Aristotle said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” A good education should be about openness to ideas, not their exclusion.
The benefits of such an education are, in my view, not only mental but spiritual. The realization that there is more knowledge in the world than I could possibly ever know is daunting, frightening and exciting all at the same time, but more than any of those things it is humbling. In coming to terms with my own ignorance, I come to terms with the fact that I am an infinitesimally tiny speck of dust in comparison to the grandiosity of the Universe.
In other words, I gain the ability to get outside of my own experience and lose my ego.
Given this understanding of what a good education consists of, this protest culture that values comfort over truth can only be described as a virulent form of close-mindedness. It reeks of selfish and unrighteous indignation. When its opinions are challenged, it does not respond with reasoned argument or thoughtful commentary, but rather with vitriolic personal attacks and ironic cries of oppression, for they are the ones who seek to oppress and silence those who disagree with them.
If you don’t believe me, take this example. Last February, a conservative columnist by the name of Ben Shapiro gave a talk on diversity at California State University Los Angeles. In response, a group of students who disagreed with his point of view barricaded the entrance and refused to let anyone enter the venue. Those who managed to get in were only able to do so through a hidden back entrance before it too was barricaded. The talk was then intermittently interrupted by protestors who attempted to shout over Shapiro’s speech. Later, they would call for the resignation of the university’s President for allowing Shapiro on campus. For more details, you can read this news report.
Let me be clear: I disagree with Ben Shapiro on almost everything. But if he gave a talk at my college, I would be sitting in the front row respectfully listening. Even if there is no common ground between us, I would nonetheless be willing to at least hear him out.
College cannot adequately prepare students for the rest of their lives if it is just one big “safe space.” The fact is that life is not always easy. Almost every day, you will encounter opinions that run counter to your own, and if the only response you have to that situation is to throw a temper tantrum, you will lead an unhappy and difficult existence. The only reasonable response is to remain open to the opinions of others, to always be willing to say you were wrong, and to remember the vastness of your ignorance.