Ivory Tower Blues

The concept of free speech has become a political football, something neither the Left nor the Right appears to believe in as a foundational value any longer. James Kirchick explains why this bodes ill for our country’s future.

The journalist James Kirchick is no stranger to political heterodoxy. He has worked at The Hill, the New York Daily News, and The New Republic and is currently a columnist for Tablet and a correspondent for The Daily Beast. Throughout this career, he has advocated positions out of favor with the intellectual fashions of the day. So it should come as no surprise that he has taken up the cause of free speech.

This concept, once a powerful driver of bipartisan action, has in recent months and years lost favor on both the Left and the Right. The prevailing sentiments seem to align with abandoning both legal protections for and social norms safeguarding speech in order to gain political advantage.

For Kirchick, this is cause for serious concern. “I worry that we are entering a world where there are information silos and people are completely unable to have a common set of facts,” he told us in an interview. “Usually this is applied to the Right with Trump and the way he talks. That's definitely true. But I do think that there is a left-wing reality silo. I experience it a lot myself, and I think there are a lot of other people in my life who are similarly politically situated — center Left, maybe slightly center Right — who also feel that our media institutions are becoming increasingly unreliable. I see fewer and fewer media institutions that can appeal to a broad cross-section of the American public. And that's what worries me.”

One of Kirchick’s special focuses is campus life, where this phenomenon seems to be particularly powerful. Indeed, his concerns are such that they moved him to mount a campaign for a seat on the board of the Yale Corporation — the body that helps govern the policies of his alma mater. His campaign was unsuccessful but that does not, as Kirchick points out, blunt the sharp reality of his worries.

He referred to one of the most high-profile campus incidents, which occurred at Yale: the massive student outrage provoked by an email from a professor about Halloween costumes. The professor in question, Erika Christakis, responded to a note from the university about costume guidelines — which Kirchick points out was “something that had never been done when I was a student” —  with an email to her students saying, in Kirchick’s words, “I think you're old enough to decide what Halloween costumes you can wear, and if you don't like a costume that one of your peers is wearing you can ignore it, or you can perhaps engage in conversation with them and tell them why you don't like it."

"For writing this email," Kirchick says, "she was denounced by over a thousand students who took to the streets in protest. The university capitulated to these students, and Master Christakis's wife resigned her positions at the college. This enraged a lot of alums. We thought that the Christakises had been treated poorly. We thought that the university was not standing up for the principle of free speech.”

That event, in 2015, seems like it took place in a different political epoch. But the social changes that birthed this atmosphere have been brewing for a long time. The genealogy of those changes is also a subject of interest to Kirchick. He cites the work of two thinkers on this subject: the NYU psychologist Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, president of FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a group that monitors violations of the civil rights of college students).

The Coddling of the American Mind,” says Kirchick (referring to a book jointly written by Haidt and Lukianoff), “really goes into detail on iGen — basically younger millennials, people born in '95.” The book tracks, he says, changes in parenting that centered around “notions of safety, of being sheltered. This goes all the way to whether or not you let your child play in a playground by themselves at certain ages. You have parents becoming more coddling." And he draws an explicit connection here with the “notion that words can equal violence — something that I think is taken more seriously on the Left now. It's being taught in high schools.”

He notes that the rise of social media has played what he calls “a huge role. There was no Twitter when I was at Yale. We had Facebook, but it was just starting."

He also points out a change in the governing philosophy of many top-level universities in America. They no longer see their students “as charges,” says Kirchick, but rather as customers. This has numerous implications. One of the most troubling, Kirchick argues, is familiar to “anyone who has worked in retail: the customer is always right.”

This has become almost ubiquitous. “So when you look at a place like Chicago," Kirchick says, "it stands out as unique. They developed the Chicago Statement. This is a letter that's sent to all incoming freshman instructing them that 'There are no micro-aggressions on this campus, there are no trigger warnings for classroom readings, there's no safe spaces, and speakers will not be disinvited due to student protest.' That's very rare. When you have a bunch of students shouting at a professor, calling him names and cursing at him — 20 or 30 years ago those students might have been suspended, if not expelled. Now they're catered to and told that they're victims. That the pain that they're suffering needs to be not only acknowledged, but indulged."

“We've lost the sense of adversity,” he adds. "I refer back to an experience I had when I was a freshman at Yale. The Afro-American Cultural Center invited Amiri Baraka, the poet laureate of New Jersey, to speak. Baraka had written an infamous and anti-Semitic poem saying that the Israeli government knew about 9/11 and told Israelis in Manhattan not to go to work that day. He was invited to speak at Yale, and he was invited to read this poem. He then took questions. I was in the audience. And it was really horrifying to see him getting a standing ovation. I got up and I asked him, ‘Are you actually here saying that these claims are true? And do you have evidence for it?’ What I didn't do was shout at the professors who invited him. I didn't try to prevent him from speaking. I went to the event, I sat in the back, I took notes, I asked a question, and I wrote a column about it for the Yale Daily News. It was an educational experience. So, if I could do something like that as a 19-year-old freshman, I don't see why students now can't deal with (of all things) potentially offensive Halloween costumes.”