Kids today, you know what I mean?

Catherine Rampall, of the Washington Post, lists five self-interest-based reasons allegedly liberal college students should listen to speakers who ridicule them to their face or allege blacks and Latinos are genetically inferior.  They’re solid, utilitarian reasons, taken right out of Mill’s On Liberty.

  1. You make a martyr of the protestee;
  2. You dull your ability to answer the arguments of the protestee;
  3. You force their ideas underground;
  4. Your jerkishness drives people from your cause;
  5. These techniques will be used against you.

This seems to be reasonable strategic advice. I do, however, have two concerns, one broad and one narrow.  The broad one concerns the tired narrative that we’re dealing with a real danger to democracy here; the narrow one regards reason #2: the idea that advancing learning objectives requires reciting reasons against the worst possible trollishness.

The broad concern: let’s remember that these are just kids–and a tiny handful of them at that. Kids say and do a lot of misguided things. Sadly, these particular things and these particular kids seem to make the news and then loom large in the minds of scolding commentators at our nation’s flagship newspapers. Have a sense of scale in other words. It’s not like they have managed to outlaw the teaching of basic science.

Second, to repeat something I said the other day (and something you can find discussed more eloquently by others here and here and here), the idea that you are somehow obligated to handle crazy objections can sometimes undermine free inquiry, rather than advance it. Clearly, the people who invite trolls aren’t learning anything–either because they’re too clueless to recognize trolling or, more likely, they just want to troll. Answering trolls, after all, takes up precious time that might be better spent learning about actual views on the table. This goes for everyone.

In the end, of course, strategic considerations might suggest these kids not scream so loud. But then again, they’re kids. They’re only just learning about strategy.


7 thoughts on “Kids today, you know what I mean?”

  1. Back in the early 1990’s, holocaust-denier Bradley Smith attempted to purchase large ads in campus papers around the nation, and then he and his organization would squeal about censorship and intolerance when he was refused ad space, when an ad sparked protest, or where student activists collected papers containing his ads before other students could get a copy.

    In a sense, when you exclude a Bradley Smith from your forum, you make a martyr of him — and in doing so, you perhaps should consider that he was not actually trying to persuade the few people who would see his ads, but was trying to make himself a martyr. His arguments were without merit, but he was not actually interested in a debate.

    Yiannopoulous seems to have become a phenomenon for one reason: he’s a provocateur. I have not heard him say anything that could be described as thoughtful or insightful. Instead, he appears to have been deliberatley provoking reactions creating controversy in order to cast himself as a victim of the censorious left — that seems to me to be pretty much what Bradley Smith was doing, but updated for the Internet and alt-right era in which being perceived as hated by the left is a formula for quick and easy profit.

    On the more “scholarly” front, even though Charles Murray knows that his book has been used for decades to put a scientific spin on bigotry, as I recall, his defense of his extensive innuendo about race and IQ in The Bell Curve is to point to a couple of sentences in the book that suggest that the nature-nurture question is not entirely settled. In his more recent work, Murry seems to be observing behavior that, for Black and Latino Americans, he implies to be the result of low IQ, and arguing that for the white poor and working class the issues are instead social, situational and societal. I can’t say that I’m surprised that some people object to his being invited to campus.

    I must thus ask, would Rampall make the same arguments in relation to somebody like Bradley Smith, or an overt white supremacist who wanted to argue that African Americans are intellectually inferior, as she does in favor of speakers like Murray and Yiannopoulos? If not, would she argue that the distinction to be mad is one of kind or of degree?

  2. Good points Aaron.

    I think I’m selling my position as the more practical one, but I don’t have any good practical advice other than maybe this: colleges should invite views that have some kind of currency by the standards used to hire their faculty. Being popular on Youtube is not a qualification for joining the faculty, so people will have to do better in their selection of speakers. This may include Charles Murray, but it’s not going to include rando Nazis, etc. If these people want to speak, there are plenty of places they can do so. No one is a martyr for not meeting a standard of rigor (though I guess they’ll claim they are).

  3. When the invitation is to speak at an official campus event, and more so when the event is one that most students will attend (e.g., commencement), campuses should hold themselves to a higher standard. While some speakers won’t meet a “prospective faculty member standard”, I think that some respect should be shown for the students who are, in effect, being asked to pay the speaker’s fees and expenses.

    Campus groups can reasonably be anticipated to invite a broader range of speakers. In the interest of comity, groups should avoid inviting speakers who are little more than trolls or rabble-rousers, but… as you say, these are kids. For the most part, campus groups do act responsibly such that, despite critics turning the spotlight on the exceptions, the overwhelming majority of campus speakers come and go without incident.

    Rather than playing the role of the scold, perhaps people like Rampall should support alternative approaches — you don’t have to try to shout down a speaker, and certainly don’t have to resort to violence, to make your point. If students who object to a speaker can pull it off, organizing a successful counter-event seems likely to be a better way to make their point. Campuses at which protest is more frequent could also try to provide some (non-patronizing) guidance about how to keep things peaceful.

    Rampall might also try to find space for a column to comment on students who invite people like Yiannopoulos to campus, and the effect that such invitations have on liberal students — after all, if liberals are the “snowflakes” she claims them to be, perhaps they should get a few moments of concern rather than a lecture about how they’re supposedly making “moderates” more conservative, or a suggestion that it’s somehow their fault that conservatives are engaging in speech suppression and intimidation.

  4. Hey Aaron,

    You’re certainly right about my impossible standard for guest speakers. I suppose I’ll abandon that.

    You’re also right about the concern for the “snowflakes” (God I wish that would go away). I’d have another concern. Perhaps all of these people who freak out at the idea some outrageous speaker won’t be treated politely should consider the issues that college students actually face as a group (and not just the sub-sub-class of privileged kids at Oberlin)–i.e., rising costs, diminished opportunities, etc. These issues are much more pressing and universal, besides they bear directly on the well being of a great number of them.

  5. Your last comment inspires me to go a bit off-topic, and lament the manner in which college education seems to be shifting away from an opportunity for intellectual growth in favor of becoming a form of trade school. I don’t want to romanticize “the good old days”, as college students have long wanted to know what sort of job and salary they might achieve after obtaining a degree. But rising costs and diminished opportunity seem to be pushing colleges to make decisions that are not necessarily good for society, such as reducing or eliminating humanities requirements as part of basic studies.

    The ‘snowflakes’ article you linked includes this passage: “Instead of coming out of college with ‘worthless degrees’ in philosophy and history, record low numbers are enrolling in humanities, a trend that’s been covered on this blog for years.” (Well, yeah, “worthless” degrees on their own, but if you put history and philosophy together you get something beautiful, right?) I appreciate the author’s use of scare quotes, but colleges and students perhaps should ponder what happens when students can graduate without having ever taken a class introducing even the basics of American government, where they have read and thought about literature simply as an exercise in changing or expanding the manner in which they think, or where (deity forbid) they actually overtly tackle subjects like logic, epistemology or ethics.

    Unfortunately, when it comes to what an opinion columnist is apt to write about, we’re going to continue to get new “kids these days” editorials about each new generation because… they’re easy to write, and there is always an audience ready to hear how the next generation is going to destroy our society with their (jazz…) rock music and their (pool halls… video games…) social media and low morals.

  6. Good points, Aaron. Some evidence seems to suggest people do very well with Philosophy degrees. You can even find articles to this effect in Forbes and the Wall Street Journal. But you’re right–the narrative suggests it’s a masturbatory waste of time.

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