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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. The scarcity of open exchange on college campuses, the necessity of so-called safe zones is a concern we examined recently with Suzanne Nossel of the PEN American Center. We resume that conversation today, how to liberate and protect discourse among millennials, as well as behavior, from the library stacks to the frat house.
Author of, “That’s Not Funny” my guest is Caitlin Flanagan, an Atlantic Monthly editor and contributor, who explored piercingly the avoidance and shielding of speech across American universities.
We both can testify to the rigidity of academia, and to the refusal on the part of certain administrators and students to take a joke or to upset the status quo. But recently, a battle against political correctness has given permission and voice to ad hominin assaults to otherize our fellow Americans.
Scholars have alleged university faculty are coddling the American mind. But is there not a dangerous tolerance for bigotry fueling these so-called microaggressions on college campuses? We’ll consider that today with Caitlin, who I welcome now. Pleasure to finally meet you.
FLANAGAN: Thank you. It’s great to be here.
HEFFNER: Where we draw the line was a question my grandfather always asked on this broadcast, which I inherited from him two and a half, plus years ago. Where do we draw the line when it comes to what is acceptable on a college campus?
FLANAGAN: It’s a hard question to answer because things have changed a lot. One of the big um, demands of the cultural revolutions on college campuses in the 60s, is, don’t treat us like children.
We’re 18 years old. We’re old enough to go to Vietnam. We’re old enough to be sent to Vietnam, therefore, we don’t want you to come into our lives and have a curfew for us or tell us what’s a dirty word or, or what we can or can’t do. We have a contract for an education with you, not for an upbringing.
Um, and so that allowed a certain kind of free speech to flourish ultimately, because the college understood they weren’t in loco-parentis relationship. Well, come forward 45 years, and the kind of students who go to college typically have a had a very different relationship to adults in their lives. They’ve typically been parented very closely through junior and senior year of high school.
I’m in my 50s, you know I rarely even saw my parents late at night. There was, I’m from the generation that, there was an ad that, ran, um, ‘It’s 10:00. Do you know where your children are?’ And the answer most of the time was, ‘Kind of.’
You know there weren’t any cellphones. We were kind of on our own and we were ready to go to college and be on our own. But now we’re in this strange middle ground. Kids are kind of asking to be parented by the colleges. They’re asking for safe spaces from the colleges. They’re asking the colleges to do things that we associate with, with middle school or high school.
Make sure that that student doesn’t say something that hurts my feelings. Make sure we have a common understanding of how we treat one another, things we associate with maybe a religious college or with high school or middle school.
But is it really appropriate? Can it be appropriate in the American university and college? That’s what’s really on the table right now.
HEFFNER: I’m so happy you mentioned in loco-parentis, because I went to Andover, college before college, which heeds that call. And as you point out, it is high school. It is boarding school. But in a sense, some of these students are asking for in loco-parentis at the university level. Is that not an expectation that should be granted in some sense?
FLANAGAN: Well of course the, the legal definition there is that the universities come in, going to come in in the place of a parent and have all the rights and responsibilities that a parent has. Is that appropriate legally after age 18, probably not, unless you’ve contracted specially with the college or university in the sense of a religious college. Um, but what we see is, that the kids are and they aren’t asking to be parented.
If we were to come in and say, boy you’re sexual conduct is really out of line here, even with consensual sex. You know that, that’s you’re being too permissive, you’re being too outrageous, you’re doing something with too many partners.
You know students would be aghast at that. I as a parent would be aghast if there was some anti, say anti-gay policy of gay sex on a campus. I would say that’s no way I would want my children to be brought up.
So in certain senses, they want more freedom than the kids in the 60s, and to do more kinds of things than they ever could have imagined. But on the other hand, when it comes to how we treat one another, what kind of things a professor might say to us, and they really have a relationship with their professors, that is, that they are the grown-ups. They should look after me.
They shouldn’t expose me to upsetting things, they should protect me from upsetting things. And therein lies the rub about education itself. It’s supposed to be upsetting. So it’s a really tough battle.
HEFFNER: I wasn’t alluding to necessarily the textbook definition…
HEFFNER: Of parenting, as much as, philosophically, this notion of, not a big brother or big sister, but a kind of civic virtue of having a code, a code that is not censorship, but a code that is sensitive, not censorship, but sensitive to a set of values.
So if you’re at a Jesuit institution, then that might be a different set of values, than if you’re at the University of Missouri. At a minimum, must we not be cognizant of the fact that institutions are going to have their own set of identities and their own appreciation of what morals may or may not be imposed upon…
I think in this larger conversation, we’re forgetting that this is an extremely diverse country with institutions of higher education that prize different things.
FLANAGAN: Well you raise a great comparison, say a Jesuit institution or even more typically in America, in terms of these kinds of, of rules imposed by the university, say a Christian university, versus a big public university.
A big public university in America, particularly in some parts of America are extremely diverse. Now we’re looking for a code to which all these different people can, can ascribe and can follow. Is there really going to be a code which, um, an extremely you know progressive feminist can be on the same page as somebody whose maybe religious beliefs are in extreme conflict with hers? What kind of code?
And I think the old idea of the code that we maybe associate with sort of an earlier America, 1950’s America, proper speech, proper behavior, was also deeply embedded in a culture that was just riven by racism and by oppression of women and all kinds of oppression. So we’re trying to say, can we find a common code that has some of the hallmarks of earlier codes and earlier parts of American society?
But could that code cover all of us, even those of us at the very margins? Could we all find a code we could agree to? I think that’s going to be very very difficult. And to ask a college or a university to then enforce it, there’s really no mechanism for that that doesn’t begin to take away individual rights and stud-, of students. And that’s where the problem really is.
HEFFNER: You were telling me before, you have two youngsters who have started college, uh, twins, two different institutions…
HEFFNER: Um, based on your reporting on the ground and your sense that these young people are failing to take a joke, unable to take a joke, um, which, which is something that a number of comedians who hit the comic lecture circuit, say, Jerry Seinfeld namely, Bill Maher also, do, do their experiences comport with, so far, what you’ve found?
FLANAGAN: Well what I find about this generation in general, is that they truly are, I mean, I do, people joke about this generation, I’m very, I, inspired is kind of a corny word, there’s something very good about these kids.
They really are trying to understand one another. They really are very interested in accepting all kinds of kids that would have been very marginalized. I mean I went to college in the South. There were all kinds of sort of, normal range of human behavior that would have been really marginalized in the south in the 1980’s.
I think these kids really want to show respect for one another. But then if you bring in a different idea to them, a conservative idea, let, let these kids, you know my kids, like most kids are, you know in their group are very progressive, um, very liberal, very opinionated…
If some kid says something, even admits that they’ve even voted republican outside of our current Trump and Clinton race which is extreme, but if a kid admits that, there’s always talk afterwards, ‘Did you hear, did you know?’ that they are really intolerant of um, conservative ideas, and the conservative kids really feel that.
And that pushes them to sort of balkanize into fraternities often, and into sororities often, not always. Some of the progressive schools have progressive sororities. But, it’s adding to this sort of level, where you have all these safe spaces, the frat guys have their safe space that we’re all sometimes troubled about.
You know other kids have their safe spaces. So have we really built a common culture? Or have we instead forced everybody to separate from each other?
HEFFNER: I think the latter. Right? The latter is the present environment. Um, the kind of behavior that’s been exposed that you’ve written about too in the frat culture, sometimes borders on criminal. Um, how do you reintegrate?
That, that seems to be the key, to model the example from the south that you identify. How do you reintegrate into a uniform mindset? You may not have a uniform code ever.
HEFFNER: But a uniform mindset so that the kind of behavior that is typified in the frat, is different from what is, has become normally understood as criminal…
FLANAGAN: There are criminal activities that take place at some fraternities. There are some fraternities that are extremely upstanding outfits. But we have really, if you, I think this is gonna be a major issue in college campus in the next ten years, if you walk through jut a college campus, and I imagine, what if I were a straight white male and I was walking through, and I would see many, many, many signs about toxic masculinity and a lecture on that, a reading about something else about, you know the problems of the cis-gendered white male and how they’re you know, oppressive and patriarchy,
and I might agree with all of that, certainly as a woman, sort of, very happy to see women rising ever higher in our culture, that it is the time for others to get their turn as well, but if you were a straight white male, you would start to say, number one, what am I doing here?
And guess what, men are be-, fewer and fewer numbers of men are going to college. Is it in the best interest of the country to have a larger and larger number of men not educated, not college educated? I would say it’s probably not.
Certainly we’re seeing what happens when you have a great group of young white men that aren’t educated and may not you know, they may not find that, best calling, you know they may fall into a feeling of really being left behind, an a great surge of anger, so we should have them in college.
We shouldn’t have them dropping out of college. And uh, so I think that we need to sort of think about the fact that true free speech on college is the code. That’s the code that we have to adhere to. And we’re not adhering to that.
And until you adhere to that, there’s no common code we can throw out into a public university.
HEFFNER: Except if you have my guests Michael Roth of Wesleyan University…
HEFFNER: And Mitch Daniels of, of Purdue who are clarion calls for that kind of civility. And not again, not necessarily a code but a mind set that can be adopted by disparate institutions, but we’re going to battle this out.
FLANAGAN: Well let me ask you this.
FLANAGAN: What’s life like for a conservative republican at Wesleyan?
HEFFNER: We’ll ask Michael Roth that.
FLANAGAN: OK good.
HEFFNER: But while we do…
FLANAGAN: I’m sure they have a club. [LAUGHTER]
HEFFNER: Well they engage in the kind of tactics that, it’s been reported, of a heavily isolated, insulated group think that resorts to tactics. And I have friends, family, my producer…
HEFFNER: Um, so I know what goes on there. Instead of, uh, reverting to the kind of civil discourse, there is the tendency for pent up aggression. And that’s and that’s the problem, but we’re gonna, we’re gonna duke this out…
FLANAGAN: OK. Alright.
HEFFNER: A little bit, only in so far as I know that we probably have a major disagreement about my alma matter, Harvard who came under scrutiny. Drew Faust, the dean, who is the relatively new dean of the college, who instituted a policy, um, that disbanded, was an effort to disband, the private final clubs, um.
And I was probably one of the few Harvard alums who wrote to the dean, and said, that was profound courage what you did, because having lived through Harvard, what I understand as the evolution of the American consciousness in this realm is towards pluralism, towards an end to discrimination and segregationist tactics, not just black and white…
HEFFNER: Jew, Christian, Muslim. But I, but I honestly thought that he was making a stand that reflects the social network depiction of Harvard’s final clubs, and not the final clubs that may have existed when Kennedy and Roosevelt were involved, as real leaders.
And what was the controversial part was that they um, are withholding nominations for Rhodes and other scholarships from student leaders who are part of the final clubs, in an effort to reintegrate their lives into the body politic. Now, tell me why I’m wrong.
FLANAGAN: I don’t know that you’re wrong. But I would say that it was very interesting that the only politically um, feasible way that they could do this was to say that all single sex clubs of its kind had to be eliminated, which meant of course that the women’s, all women’s final clubs and sororities had to be disbanded.
And the women of course marched and said, we’re women and we really need a place that’s gendered. You know Harvard University was made for men, it’s still a very male place. We need our place, and particularly at a time when there’s a lot of sexual assault on campus.
We need a place that’s all women and we can feel completely safe. So are you comfortable with crushing those as well?
HEFFNER: I’m not comfortable with crushing any independent…
FLANAGAN: I’m sorry, crushing, I’m sorry, eliminating the single sex entry requirement of these clubs.
HEFFNER: I don’t know. I don’t know. I think you have a fair point, in, I think that that was the most legitimate response to the dean’s action, and to be determined, because his policy may fail. I, um…
FLANAGAN: What I would say about Harvard…
FLANAGAN: You know I’m sure nobody in my family, throughout the years of Flanagans would have been admitted to such a club. We didn’t go to Harvard. Um, but my feeling is, and I’m sure a lot of very distasteful things go on there, but it’s a private club, it’s on private land.
Harvard doesn’t have the right to say that its students can’t um, join the Sierra Club or the local library, public library. I don’t think it should.
HEFFNER: There is an incredibly viable, legal argument against the dean’s position. I grant you that. But let me…
FLANAGAN: But it’s, it’s a legal argument. That makes it sound like it’s a dry piece of legislation…
FLANAGAN: You know it’s, it’s based in the freedom of association, which of course is an applied right from the freedom of assembly…
HEFFNER: Fair enough.
FLANAGAN: And these are profound and important American, um, beliefs and laws that hold us together at the constitutional level. So I don’t think we can ever start, now granted, I wish, if Harvard had the balls…
FLANAGAN: They would just say, we’re a private institution. We’re gonna throw you out if you join the club. It has, entirely within its right to do that. But they’re so cowardly, they’re so politically correct that they have to find this way to finesse it.
So instead of just saying, this is ridiculous. This is incredible sexist, and it, it’s somewhat less racist now but it has a long tradition of privileging these white, Christian male, rich guys who go on to become investment bankers, we want no part of it. We’re private. That’s it. Join it, you’re out, entirely within their rights.
Don’t play cat and mouse and pretend you’re following the Constitution and deny these kids the chance to get Rhodes scholarships. So I think it was cowardly.
HEFFNER: Caitlin, I knew this was gonna be a lively exchange,
HEFFNER: Which I wholeheartedly embrace. And at the same time, while we dispute what, what might be cowardice…
HEFFNER: And cowardly, in the context of a frat house or a final club, if a student were to be using the N-word in a way that was inciting violence, uh, I sat in on a broadcast not long ago, that I was at Wright State, speaking to some students who were openly using that kind of derogatory language about members of their student body and the President of the Untied States…
FLANAGAN: What was this university?
HEFFNER: This is a public university in Ohio. I am…
FLANAGAN: That’s disgraceful.
HEFFNER: It is. It is. And so, I mentioned this on a broadcast not long ago, to those of you who tune in regularly to our program. I’ve been talking on many college campuses myself about a vicious cycle of incivilities, the incivility of bigotry, the incivility of obstructionism, the incivility of political correctness…
Because I’m all with you on the fact that the basis of civility is progress, civilization, actually functioning, speaking to each other, what I talk about, disagreeably agreeing, right, as opposed to agreeing to disagree, which I think is…
FLANAGAN: That’s good.
HEFFNER: Which I think is totally, totally outdated. But I’m mentioning this because, there is a difference to say, in the context of safe zones, right?
HEFFNER: That I’m going to, as your instructor, permit a student in the context of a class, to use the N-word, right? Or to discuss the legitimacy of using words like that, which would be an anomaly, right? The shocking response that you revealed to my example of that word being used.
There’s a difference between that and a discourse about the effectiveness of affirmative action policy.
HEFFNER: Right? There’s a difference between the personal and the policy.
HEFFNER: And that I think, and tell me if I’m right, is where we can dissolve this tension.
FLANAGAN: Well in terms of a classroom, I think we kind of, you know that famous first page of, um, ‘The Great Gatsby,’ when Nick Caraway talks about the fundamental decencies? I think beyond all of this law and, and debate, is this idea that there’s a fundamental sense of decency that we do all understand.
So that if I were teaching a class and a person used the N-word in that way, I’d tell the person to leave the classroom. And I’d probably have a lot of um, I’d have a lot to deal with with the administration, but I’m not gonna teach a class where somebody uses that word.
Now if somebody wants to discuss something else, of course I’m going to allow them, but I think we’re gonna have to see, um, we’re gonna have to see a kind of courage I think, on the part of people within universities, and it’s a hard time to be courageous that way. What we don’t talk about so much, is that is used to be that 70 percent of professors on college campuses had tenure.
So I can throw you out of the class for using the N-word and you can’t hurt my career. You can’t hurt my job. But colleges have changed that. Very, very few professors have the right to really stand up for the things they believe in. And so you have a very wet sand going on.
HEFFNER: Because of abuse on the part of those professors that was indoctrination? Or why?
FLANAGAN: Most people would say it’s part of that financial reason, that the more adjuncts you, you pour into, obviously the real abuse of tenure was kind of didn’t really care about students anymore and weren’t publishing and they just had a job for life.
But really, now that we have more and more adjuncts coming into the college, um, who don’t have to get, benefits and don’t have to be promised jobs for many years, and do have to insure, their entire livelihood depends on the fact that the kids like them, otherwise they won’t get their job extended next year, so they’re likely to agree with the kids on everything. The kids are just 18 or 19 years old. They don’t know anything yet.
HEFFNER: So be uncontroversial, it’s the key to security in the profession.
FLANAGAN: Oh definitely.
HEFFNER: So, there are definitely…
FLANAGAN: And by…
FLANAGAN: Uncontroversial, we mean extremely progressive and accepting of the ideas…
HEFFNER: Do we?
FLANAGAN: Um, most college campuses I would say yes. In most fields of study I would say.
HEFFNER: Because, taking a stand, like you just said…
HEFFNER: We need more courage in the classroom, is not necessarily synonymous with a progressive or liberal bias.
FLANAGAN: Right, but colleges do tend to be, you know most, I mean, I’m the daughter of a very, you know, almost radical, political guy, so I certainly in all of his, I mean, granted I grew up in Berkeley, but, most college professors in the humanities are progressive, most.
HEFFNER: What was, you think, over the last few years, the most egregious example of that kind of administrative, um [LAUGHTER] abuse, whether it’s in the form of political correctness you would say? Some people have used the word ‘femi-nazi’ about administrators.
Um, I wouldn’t label it, but I’m wondering in the case of, barring Halloween costumes at Yale, um, there, you know, the the the name of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton offending um, people of color so much that they want to rename the institution, um…
FLANAGAN: It offends me as a white person [LAUGHTER] so…
FLANAGAN: I was all for that [LAUGHTER].
HEFFNER: And so these are, again, just like we were talking about universities…
HEFFNER: There are different creeds, and there are different creeds of offensive rhetoric and there’s a scale. So, we’ve talked a little bit about what that scale might mean. But what were some of the examples of, or an example that was most egregious to you, to say, this is not how conduct should be on a college campus?
FLANAGAN: It’s about people losing jobs because they said things that were considered incorrect. For example, Laura Kipnis, um, professor in Chicago, wrote an essay about, have sexual assault laws gone too far on college campuses.
And suddenly this was seen as an assaultive kind of essay, that she’d published in a, in a journal. And um, her tenure was seriously considered being pulled. Another example would be, um, you know, the, every year colleges invite certain people to speak, you know, be it Condoleezza Rice, be it Hirsi Ali, they are controversial figures. They are women of tremendous achievement and accomplishment, women of color, women whose ideas and experiences are, I think, are very valuable.
And whatever, that the university invited them. And the students decide, we disagree with what they say. We’ll be violated if they say it at our campus. You have to uninvited them. I think that’s a terrible…
HEFFNER: What is the measure of someone who is uninvitable?
FLANAGAN: Someone is uninvitable if the students are angry. That’s that, that’s [LAUGHTER] [UNCLEAR]
HEFFNER: No I know that’s the reality on the ground. Right, it’s a pretty low threshold…
FLANAGAN: What I, what I…
HEFFNER: But I’m saying…
FLANAGAN: Well I’ve never seen…
HEFFNER: What’s a legitimate?
FLANAGAN: Well I’ve never seen, oh what’s a legitimate threshold?
FLANAGAN: Boy that’s a good question. I mean…
HEFFNER: We could spend a whole nother half hour on that,
HEFFNER: But, but tell me, what is, what is the legitimate…
FLANAGAN: Right, I mean certainly if you were gonna have like, you know, someone who is avowing racism, avowing anti-Semitism, if that’s part of their, you know, that’s part of their career.
HEFFNER: But does it have to be overt? Because that, that is what the students protest. They tend to protest something that is not explicit, but this notion that Condoleezza Rice’s actions contributed to the death of people of a certain faith. So there’s an extension of logic there. It’s not usually…
HEFFNER: Explicated in that way.
FLANAGAN: Yeah the, the general, the general thrust of these disinvitaitons is that these people are associated either with conservative political um, administrations, or with anti-Muslim ideas. Um, and if anybody in the world has the right to sort of describe their personal experience with an extreme Muslim ideology, it would Hirsi Ali, you know, um, and who’s saved many women from, you know, extreme genital mutilation, so, it’s a, it’s a very, it’s a time that grown-ups need to step in.
HEFFNER: I mean isn’t it enough to say that we’re all flawed to some degree and we haven’t arrived at the answer to the question really, what flaws make it impossible to legitimate that invitation. But that’s really the question, isn’t it? What…
FLANAGAN: Well I guess we go back to Cardinal Newman, and what’s the idea of a university? And the idea is that it should you know, elevate us to sort of our highest state of understanding things. And if we can’t even allow ourselves to hear ideas that challenge us, then, we, then we’re just limiting ourselves. What’s the point of going?
HEFFNER: And that, there lies the rub, because some would say anti-Semitism is an idea. Some would say racism is an idea. But we challenge, you in your answer to where that threshold is, seem to say, there are certain ideas that can’t be legitimated.
FLANAGAN: Because they’re not legitimate ideas. I mean there’s [LAUGHTER]
HEFFNER: But can we, I, I’m trying for our culture…
HEFFNER: Because I think this is critical to solving this political correctness problem, to call them out for what they are, not just bad ideas, but they’re not ideas, disqualify them as ideas.
HEFFNER: How do we do that?
FLANAGAN: I mean I don’t know…
HEFFNER: Come back. Come back.
FLANAGAN: Your, you have a good question, because my knee jerk reaction immediately to, to that, even that concept of anti-Semitism is so profound that I can’t even [LAUGHTER] think of anybody rationally taking it as a worthwhile idea that should be discussed, as a [LAUGHTER] potentially good one.
HEFFNER: Caitlin, this has been fun. Thank you for being on the program.
FLANAGAN: You bet. Thanks.
HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind.
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