Silence U: Is the University Killing Free Speech and Open Debate? | We the Internet Documentary

Silence U: Is the University Killing Free Speech and Open Debate? | We the Internet Documentary

October 17, 2019 100 By Stanley Isaacs


[MAN] “Can I just make a suggestion? Can we just have a conversation?” [VOICES] No! The problem that they’re having is hetero-sexual white males have always dominated the space. [MAN] I’m actually gay.
[VOICES] Well, homosexual white males are like the top of the hierarchy.” [music] [ROB] This is Brown University, the elite Ivy League college famed for its radical student activism, wide-open curriculum that, yes, does technically allow you to major in Drum Circle Studies. It’s also my beloved Alma Mater. I entered Brown about a decade and a half ago, perfectly embodying that charming paradox common to newly minted adults. I’d never known less about the world, and yet somehow also never had more confidence in my opinions about it. The endless campus debates burned away a lot of the stupid stuck to my brain. But now that vital campus dialogue is being snuffed out. Brown has been overrun by this nasty censoring species of student activism, that’s overtaking college campuses across the country. [WOMAN] You need to get out! [ROB] Back in the fall of 2013, former New York City Police Chief Ray Kelly, was invited to give a lecture about his controversial Stop and Frisk policies. Protestors picketed outside, filled the lecture hall, and then they did this. [SPEAKER] Thank you all…
[STUDENT] Asking tough questions is not enough! [STUDENTS] Brown is complicit. If Brown won’t recognize it, then we must. [ROB] They shouted down administrators. [SPEAKER] It has to be a basic principle of this university that we allow for free speech. We are asking you to… [STUDENT] How many people do not want to hear Ray Kelly (students cheering) [ROB] They shouted down students. [STUDENT] Your inability to listen has quieted my voice… [OTHER STUDENT] Racism is not for debate!
(loud cheering) [STUDENT] Shut him down! [ROB] And then they got their way. [SPEAKER] I’m going to ask that everyone please leave the auditorium. (loud cheering from students) [STUDENT] They didn’t respond to our demand to cancel the lecture, so we cancelled it for them. [ROB] This is not the Brown that I know. This is students weaponizing victimhood to stifle debate. And things have gotten steadily worse since then. So I went back to campus to find out why. [music] [GLENN] A university ought first and foremost to be a place in which reason determines outcomes. [music] Not the ability to throw tantrums or fits. The people who perpetrate this act of tyranny are remembered in heroic terms at this university, and it’s held up as an example of student activism and as a positive thing! That’s an error, it’s a profound error. [LIZA] We all collectively, you know, need to just own, sometimes things don’t go the way we plan. And certainly in the wake of that, there was a lot of learning that happened. [WOMAN] I got called a white supremacist when I tried to go inside. [music] [ROB] Brown administrators did even worse than capitulate a year later. The writer Wendy McElroy was invited to be on the ConSci in a debate about whether America has a rape culture. Student critics framed McElroy’s opinions as a kind of mind violence. They set up one of those infamous Safe Spaces running videos of puppies, to protect themselves from her “really hurtful beliefs.” [CHRIS] The political majority on this campus believe that speech that disagrees with the inclusions of the left is in and of itself an act of violence. It becomes in this moral calculus, as warped as it may seem to outsiders, rational to shut down something like the Ray Kelly lecture. [ROB] University President, Christina Paxson, preemptively denounced McElroy in a school-wide email, and set up a competing lecture. [LIZA] There has been a lot of pain, and we wanted to create the kind of respectful, thoughtful climate that invites those conversations without harming individuals. [ROB] Whatever thin caricature student critics had constructed of McElroy was promptly shattered, by the actual content of her speech. [MCELROY] When I was 16, I was raped, and brutally so. I had a hemorrhage in my right eye that left me blind. I know the pain and the importance of violence against women, because I see half of the world because of it. North America is not a rape culture, and it is an insult to women who live in one that women here, with so much freedom and so much opportunity are trying to share the same status with them. [music] [ROB] Shortly thereafter, in a closed door faculty meeting, a small group of professors introduced a resolution that simply reaffirmed the section, in Brown’s own founding charter, on the value of the free exchange of ideas. That resolution did not pass. Leading the charge against it, a star professor named Tricia Rose, who said that even considering the resolution again would “extend the pain.” [GLENN] It’s not an argument. It’s a move of power. Not a move of reason. [ROB] Here’s an illuminating nugget about Tricia Rose. She has a lecture in which she literally has students pledge their loyalty to her politics. [TRICIA] I am not personally responsible for racism.
(students echo) [TRICIA] Or in fact any other vast form of structural oppression. (students echo) [TRICIA] Even though I very likely benefit personally from some aspect of it. [ROB] Many students in last year’s freshman class received an orientation pamphlet, that denounced data and statistics as structures of oppression, and matched the unsafe spaces on campus, among them this historic lecture hall, because its portraits of white former university presidents constitute microaggressions. And guess who the administration picked to give the opening convocation address. [TRICIA] I’m not sure I went to the equivalent of this when I was a first-year, at Yale, but it’s different there. [ROB] Professor Rose showed them that a string of fashionable jargon, is indeed an acceptable substitute for an argument. [TRICIA] We have used in the post civil-rights era the ideology of the illusion of color-blindness, as the rhetorical vehicle for the maintenance and development of a system like the prison-industrial complex. [ROB] Now, the excesses of Brown’s activists obscures some legitimate grievances. Most importantly, of course there’s such a thing as privilege. I’m it’s distilled essence! I’m the product of a plush Los Angeles private school. I’ve never suffered racist slights. I didn’t have to take on a single cent in student loans. The Ivy League was originally built by and for people like me. And activists are right to demand that it evolve to better accommodate students that don’t share my advantages. Last fall, Brown unveiled the multimillion dollar plan that, in part, did just that. And here’s how student activists thanked them. They stormed the President’s office and shouted down the provost. [PROVOST] Can I just make a suggestion, I’m sorry… [STUDENTS] No. No. Why do you think you get to run the conversation? [PROVOST] No no no! I’m sorry, I just wanna, can we just have a conversation? [STUDENT] The problem that they’re having is hetero-sexual white males have always dominated the space… [PROVOST] Well I’m gay. [STUDENT] Well, homosexual white males are the top of the hierarchy. [ROB] This is not a grand battle against institutionalized injustice. This is an addiction to indignation. [ROB] That same semester, Brown’s student newspaper published a pair of columns which, essentially argued that European colonialism generated some economic benefits for Native Americans. These columns made easy tinder for another explosion of student outrage. [STUDENT] We begged this university to hold the BDH accountable. [STUDENT] We should not have to be in pain for you to do something. [ROB] The paper’s editors buckled, retracting one of the columns and denouncing both as racist. [ROHAN] Essentially it’s a climate of censorship. What you say has to conform to our sort of worldview, and if it doesn’t, then you’re a racist. [GLENN] If you talk about what happened in 1492 in a particular tone, then you’re out of bounds! Then you’re making the environment impossible. Then you’re exercising a kind of power that needs to be countered by limiting what you say. [ROB] Brown’s top administrators implicitly encourage this censorship. [ROHAN] The administration says that The Herald has rightfully owned the harm they caused, you’re saying that The Herald caused harm by publishing a dissenting and unpopular opinion. And that is the norm that you are expressing to the community. [LIZA] There were people that were really, that are really, continue to be, traumatized, that continue to be concerned and in really deep ways. [GLENN] If you’re an indigenous person and someone says the Indians didn’t get their land stolen, if it had been left for them, they’d still be living in poverty today, if somebody says that, something like that. The answer in every case is to take the offender to the intellectual woodshed. Which is to say, to refute what they just got through saying. To point out how it’s silly, ahistorical, superficial, and without ethical foundation. That’s what the university is for, the university is there to teach people how to do that! They preempt that process of education with a capitulation to the presuppositions of adolescents. We will have abdicated our responsibility and not deserve the pay. [ROB] It’s perfectly natural for college students to think they have all the answers. The university system was specifically designed to puncture that warm womb of pure certainty. One of my favorite articulations of this point comes from a university administrator named Ruth Simmons, who called learning “the antithesis of comfort.” Oh, and who’s Ruth Simmons? She’s the former president of Brown University. [music] [ROB] Born into back-breaking poverty in the Jim Crow South, Ruth trained as a professor in French Literature, and served in the administration of several elite colleges before being appointed president to Brown. She was the first black president of an Ivy League University. [MAN] Why does a tenant farmer’s kid decide to study French Literature? [RUTH] Ahh, ahh. Because everything belongs to me . There is nothing, there is nothing that is withheld from me simply because I’m poor. [ROB] The semester right before Ruth took over the right-wing provocateur, David Horowitz, had taken out an ad in the student newspaper criticizing reparations for slavery. Incensed student activists stole all the copies. That controversy was still simmering when Ruth came to campus. Did she justify this censorship by denouncing Horowitz as an agent of oppression? Whose very existence constituted an erasure of her struggle? No. She insisted Horowitz be invited back to speak. I was there. So was Ruth. She sat in the front row. [RUTH] The collision of views and ideologies is in the DNA of the academic enterprise. We don’t need any collision avoidance technology here. Thank you very much. [music] [GLENN] University’s foster an environment where the exchange of ideas can lead to deepening of our human understanding. These institutions are a fragile but precious achievement. This idea that ‘We are going to shut you up because we don’t like what you’re saying,’ that’s the enemy of this achievement. That’s what’s at stake.