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

A new term appeared among the American student community and the whole American academic community several years ago. I am talking about the word “microaggression”.  At first, it described insults and dismissals that non-black Americans inflicted on African Americans. Eventually, the term came to encompass any action or choice of words that initially were not meant to be an insult but in a certain context could be perceived as such. For example, the question “Where were you born?” may be considered as microaggression if addressed to an Asian or a Latino student in a university town. It allegedly implies that a person may not be an American citizen.  Gradually, universities adopt this new trend and make it part of their official policies.  It influences what professors can offer as a subject for class discussions. Among the “insulting” statements, one may find today the following: “I believe that the position should be taken by the most qualified person”.  The authors of The Codding of the American Mind believe that universities create a brand new culture, in which everyone should think twice in order not to be charged with lack of sensitivity, aggression, and something even worse. 

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“Trigger” is another term that has become superpopular among the American academic community. It refers to a signal that may provoke strong emotional feedback from an audience. Suddenly, all students began demanding from their professors to mention triggers before introducing the class to a “stressing” material. In 2013, a special commission was established. It published an online list of topics that required trigger warning. Moreover, professors received recommendations to avoid topics that could evoke emotional discomfort among their audiences.  As an example, the list included The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The reason was that it contained ideas of sexism and physical violence. Therefore, the students who had had such an experience had a right not to read it in order to avoid any psychological damage. The expansion of trigger mentioning led to unhealthy psychological patterns among those who did not have any post-traumatic disorders. This may be explained by the fact that people adopt fears and catastrophic thinking not only from their own experience but also from their social education. Lukianoff and Haidt state that the new American campus culture inflicts damage to science and the quality of higher education. What are the consequences of being in such a sterile environment for the students? 


Most clear-headed American professors consider such a situation absurd. This is a paradox, but today some academicians feel more comfortable in Russian universities than in their own places of employment in the States. The opinion expressed by Laurie Essig, Associate Professor of Sociology and Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies at Middlebury College (Vermont, USA), in her article Russia, Land of Free Speech in the journal The Chronicle of Higher Education is very interesting in that regard.

The article begins with the words “I’m back in Russia, where I can finally speak freely”. Then she explains: “Recently I met another professor from the Russian university where I teach. She, too, is well versed in American and Russian academe, and we found ourselves bonding over a shared sense that it’s somewhat easier to teach in Russia these days than in the United States. Both of us felt that there was less censorship in our Russian classrooms, less fear of angering students or administrators.” Professor Essig is not the most loyal person regarding Russia. However, today she feels more liberate at a Russian university than at an American one. 

Lukianoff and Haidt see the social media among the major reasons that American students are so intolerant and easily offended nowadays,: “Social media makes it extraordinarily easy to join crusades, express solidarity and outrage, and shun traitors. Facebook was founded in 2004, and since 2006 it has allowed children as young as 13 to join. This means that the first wave of students who spent all their teen years using Facebook reached college in 2011, and graduated from college only this year.” Those young people are the first true digital natives who grew up with iPhones in their hands. Their thinking and ethical principles are very different from the previous generations’. They have completely new skills: how to handle any computer technology, how to multitask, how to exchange news fast, and how to join groups in social media to support each other in conflicts. But they have very weak critical thinking of the kind that the Socratic method was based on.  

 Лори Эссиг

Today this way of thinking makes students outraged as mass identity has begun to prevail over personal identity. And this is a real catastrophe. Gustave Le Bon, a French social psychologist, admitted back in the 19th century that a personal intellect is stronger than the collective intelligence of a crowd. Lukianoff and Haidt stated that social media in particular changed the balance of power between students and professors. Students used to be afraid of being suspended for something they did wrong. Not anymore. Today professors are afraid of online flash mobs that may cause damage to their careers.  What is more important, a new idea, different from one from classical psychology, becomes more and more popular: people should avoid facing their fears and anything that may lead to emotional imbalance. 

Комфортная среда

The authors believe that adequate measures should be taken. Instead of shielding students from words and ideas that they will inevitably face in their lives, colleges and universities must do their best to teach young people to succeed in the world which is full of words and ideas they cannot control. The Federal Government should “release universities from their fear of unreasonable investigation and sanctions by the Department of Education… Universities themselves should try to raise consciousness about the need to balance freedom of speech with the need to make all students feel welcome… Universities should also officially and strongly discourage trigger warnings. Finally, universities should rethink the skills and values they most want to impart to their incoming students”. Universities should help to develop critical thinking. In order to do that, special training programmes should be put on the curriculum of the freshmen to teach them how to interact with other cultures, to participate in debates, and to defend their point of view.

Дебаты в ТГУ

I think, despite the fact that we have a rather positive communicative environment in Russian universities, the observations made by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt are essential for us as well. We do not face the issues they described in their article today, but they might become our problem in the future because of the influence of globalization and the social media. So we should move forward and analyze from time to time whether our policy and real life are well balanced regarding the interests of students and professors as representatives of different cultures and nationalities. We must think of the balance between the freedom of speech and the right of each person for psychological security. 

One of possible proactive measures against infantilization is creating environment for open dialogues with young people. Such communication should be based on the principles of  voluntary participation, the right to have and to express own opinions, recognition of only one type of power – a power of argument, and ethical practices in speech. TSU, being a classical and research University, has always succeeded in teaching critical thinking. The ability to define and to protect a point of view is an important advantage of our graduates. It is a foundation for conducting research. That is why we try to make our students feel both comfortable and capable of enjoying free communication with each other.