The Right for Offence vs. the Freedom of Speech at Universities (Part I)

A very important event took place at our University on October 7, the election of the Chairperson of the Joint Council of Students. The Council’s members are representatives of various students' communities – educational, art, sports, and volunteer. It used to be a closed election only for the members of the Council. The new law on education allowed us to make it open to all TSU students. The election was held. Anna Zhukova, a third-year student, has become the Chairperson of the Council. Now she is going to represent students and defend their interests in all spheres of university life. Youth is getting involved in creating the policies of the campus and we are very happy about it. However, it is necessary to realize that developing such policy is a complex process that requires a lot of work.

The situation at leading western universities in the past three years showed us that we should not blindly copy the experience of our international colleagues. The dominant model of a university as a “supermarket” where students “buy education services” provoked people to see it as a place of consumption where “customers are always right”. Such an attitude did not meet resistance and became a main principle on which the modern western campus policy stands, especially in Western Europe and the US. What is even worse, it led to total infantilization of students. For us, this is a road to nowhere.

What I am talking about is serious policy changes that have taken place at leading western universities. It was impossible not to notice them. By changes, I mean the advent of restrictions and bans on various aspects of business and interpersonal communication. Naturally, they were adopted with good intentions, such as the intention to protect multicultural university environment from any manifestations of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other types of politically incorrect phenomena. According to their new policies, campuses had to become a safe place. Especially for those who, for different reasons, felt more vulnerable because of past experience. You might think that such changes were supposed to meet nothing but encouragement. However, in real life they have led to some very unpredictable results.   

It is particularly interesting to consider the experience of the United States in the matter, as the changes the system of American education has undergone over the last 60 years are tremendous. The world still remembers Dorothy Counts and her act of bravery. This fifteen-year-old African-American girl for the first time in African-American history attended an all-white school. She was abused and harassed by other students, while teachers and school administration pretended that nothing was happening. It all took place in North Carolina in 1957. 

Дороти Каунтс

And now we are in November, 2015.  A young African-American student is yelling at Nicholas Christakis, author of the famous Connected. The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, and the head of Silliman College that she attends: "In your position as master,” she says, “it is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students who live in Silliman. You have not done that. By sending out that email that goes against your position as master. Do you understand that?!" The reason why she is so mad, at first sight, is ridiculous: Professor Christakis and his wife Erika, who is also a professor at Yale, allowed themselves to cast doubt on the letter from the administration of Yale with recommendations on appropriate Halloween-wear. The letter emphasized that even though the College had always been a liberal place for people to express themselves, inclusivity had been also appreciated there, students should avoid dressing themselves in certain ways that may be regarded as offensive by people of other races, sexual orientation, and gender. Therefore, black, yellow, and red make-up, feather headbands, turbans, and similar wear were considered inappropriate.

Николас и Элла Кристакис

Erika and Nickolas believed that such forms of imposed control are harmful as they lead to infantilization of students. Their advice was to look away or express true feelings if one does not like a costume and finds it offensive. Erika wrote about it in her open letter . Students protested against the letter in response. A wave of negativity and threats was raised in social networks.  Students started collecting signatures for the dismissal of the Cristakises. As a result, the couple “voluntarily” left their positions at Yale.

   Йель _угрозы Кристкисам 

Several similar cases that took place from 2013 to 2015 inspired Greg Lukianoff, the president  and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist, to write their article The Coddling of the American Mind . According to the authors, “something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities”. They “turn campuses into 'safe spaces' where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. And more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally. You might call this impulse vindictive protectiveness. It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.” To express their opinions on how difficult it is today to teach young people, professors need to use nicknames. Stand-up comedians do not perform on campuses anymore because students do not understand their jokes. 


Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt state: “…there is a broad ban in academic circles on 'blaming the victim,' it is generally considered unacceptable to question the reasonableness (let alone the sincerity) of someone’s emotional state, particularly if those emotions are linked to one’s group identity. The thin argument 'I’m offended' becomes an unbeatable trump card.” The authors believe that the measures taken by the government over the last several years support this tendency: “…in 2013, the Departments of Justice and Education greatly broadened the definition of sexual harassment to include verbal conduct that is simply 'unwelcome'. Out of fear of federal investigations, universities are now applying that standard—defining unwelcome speech as harassment—not just to sex, but to race, religion, and veteran status as well. Everyone is supposed to rely upon his or her own subjective feelings to decide whether a comment by a professor or a fellow student is unwelcome, and therefore grounds for a harassment claim. Emotional reasoning is now accepted as evidence.” It is hard to imagine how difficult it is today for American professors to communicate with their students or simply perform professionally.

to be continued