While I strive for voluntary restraint rather than self-censorship, in practice some element of social pressure – and thus censorship – is probably inevitable. That doesn’t bother me as long as these occasional acts of self-censorship actually expand the space for discussion of ideas by softening the climate of fear on our campuses.
No students have protested my class expectations yet – and I’m honestly not sure what I would do if they did. But no matter how my mix of class norms and guidelines evolves, they will grow from experience, not just down from the abstract principles of academic freedom found in statements like Chicago’s.
Unfortunately, too many of the right advocating free speech have embraced a normless public square, one that celebrates violations as an antidote to canceling culture. Of course, Donald Trump, as usual, is the most prominent perpetrator. From the beginning of his presidency, Mr. Trump mocked the expectation that his speech would be “presidential.” But other conservative apostles of free speech have also enjoyed transgressions. For example, in front of a delighted crowd at the University of Houston, conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos told a protester something so rude that the Times won’t even print it. He said, “[expletive] your feelings.”
The libertine impulse of the right is partly driven by an American obsession with authenticity. This cult of authenticity — now fueling the populist turn of conservatism — says our public expression should not be mediated by social pressure. But public life – both on and off our college campuses – demands inauthenticity.
For all their faults, excesses and harm, proponents of “safetyism” on the left rightly reject this culture of transgression, understanding that normlessness cannot be a foundation for a community, not even a free one.
Before their Trumpian turn, conservatives more often assumed that a free people needed habits, customs, and norms that were civilized and integrate them in the social order. It was a basic principle that we called ordered freedom. Particularly in this age of anomie, conservatives need to re-embrace that tradition by thinking more about the kind of culture and social integration needed to a community of truth seekers.
That community needs safe spaces in our classrooms. So let’s stop resisting security and freedom. Instead, let’s develop and defend our own version of safe spaces. Truly free and open research in our classrooms depends on it.