George F. Will: On campus a freedom from speech

George F. Will

George F. Will

WASHINGTON — Yale’s president, Peter Salovey, dealt with the Crisis of the Distressing Email about Hypothetical Halloween Costumes about as you would expect from someone who has risen to eminence in today’s academia. He seems to be the kind of adult who has helped produce the kind of students who are such delicate snowflakes that they melt at the mere mention of even a potential abrasion of their sensibilities.

Salovey gave indignant students a virtuoso demonstration of adult groveling. With a fusillade of academia’s cliches du jour, he said the students’ “great distress” would be ameliorated by “greater inclusion, healing, mutual respect, and understanding” in the service of — wait for it — “diversity.” But of course only diversity that is consistent with the students’ capacious sense of the intolerable.

Salovey said he heard their “cries for help.” The cries came from students who either come from families capable of paying Yale’s estimated $65,725 costs for the 2015-16 academic year or who are among the 64 percent of Yale undergraduates receiving financial aid made possible by the university’s $25.6 billion endowment. The cries were for protection (in the current academic patois, for “a safe space”) from the specter of the possibility that someone might wear an insensitive Halloween costume. A sombrero would constitute “cultural appropriation.” A pirate’s eye patch would distress the visually challenged. And so on, and on.

Normal Americans might wonder: Doesn’t the wearing of Halloween costumes end at about the time puberty begins? Not on campuses, where young adults old enough to vote live in a bubble of perpetual childhood. Which is why Yale was convulsed by a mob tantrum when, as Halloween approached, a faculty member recklessly said something sensible.

She said in an email it should be permissible for someone to be a bit “obnoxious,” “inappropriate,” “provocative,” even “offensive.” She worried that campuses are becoming places of “censure and prohibition.” And she quoted her husband, Master of Yale’s Silliman College, as saying “if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended.” Aghast, one student detected “coded language” that is “disrespectful,” and others demanded that the couple be evicted from Silliman.

The students who were scandalized about nonexistent costumes live enveloped in thick swathes of university administrators competing in a sensitivity sweepstakes. They strive to make students feel ever more (another dollop of Salovey rhetoric) “valued” rather than “disrespected” and in “pain.”

What kind of parenting produces children who, living in the lap of Ivy League luxury, revel in their emotional fragility? One answer is: Parents who themselves are arrested-development adolescents, with all the anxieties and insecurities of that developmental stage. They see themselves in their darlings.

Emma Brown, who writes about education, recently told Washington Post readers about Julie Lythcott-Haims’ new book “How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare your Kid for Success.” Lythcott-Haims, former Stanford dean, suggests parents pay attention to their language: “If you say ‘we’ when you mean your son or your daughter — as in, ‘We’re on the travel soccer team’ — it’s a hint to yourself that you are intertwined in a way that is unhealthy.”

But whatever responsibility attaches to the parenting that produced those brittle Yalies, a larger portion of blame goes to the monolithic culture of academia. Where progressivism reigns, vigilant thought police will enforce a peace of wary conformity. Here is why:

If you believe, as progressives do, that human nature is not fixed, and hence is not a basis for understanding natural rights. And if you believe, as progressives do, that human beings are soft wax who receive their shape from the society that government shapes. And if you believe, as progressives do, that people receive their rights from the shaping government. And if you believe, as progressives do, that people are the sum of the social promptings they experience. Then it will seem sensible for government, including a university’s administration, to guarantee not freedom of speech but freedom from speech.From, that is, speech that might prompt its hearers to develop ideas inimical to progress, and might violate the universal entitlement to perpetual serenity.

On campuses so saturated with progressivism that they celebrate diversity in everything but thought, every day is a snow day: There are perishable snowflakes everywhere. The institutions have brought this on themselves. So, regarding the campuses’ current agonies, schadenfreude is not a guilty pleasure, it is obligatory.

Email: georgewill@washpost.com

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