It is the mass psychology of our times: victimization. It is ubiquitous. It is an affliction of desire, one suffered by anyone who dons a victim’s badge – liberals and conservatives, men and women alike. It is fiction masquerading as fact. It feigns suffering in the hope of attaining sympathy. It is the triumph of desired perception over verifiable reason. It is group-thought, which means it bears little relation to actual thinking. And it trades in a portrayal of the individual not as self-determined but rather as group-manipulated.
“Victims” can be abled or disabled, religious or non-religious, poor or well to do, young or old, or those on the ideological Left or Right. They are all “survivors”; they all seek our sympathy. True to the supposed affliction, the resulting sympathy is either disingenuous or delusional, if only because what prompted it was either disingenuous or delusional.
This trend towards victimization diminishes our capacity to feel real sympathy for real victims. Yes, rape is real; true, violence is deplorable; and, of course, actual threats are never to be tolerated. Any civilized society worthy of the name must roundly condemn such acts. But when the demands for our sympathy or outrage become unthinking, when what prompts them is political ideology, something is lost. That something is authenticity, which alone can summon the true habits of the heart. Being sensitive, however, does not mean being sensational. We do not need to close our minds in order to open our hearts.
The mantra of victimization invites caretaker tyranny. In such a culture, these caretakers demand protection against the forces of evil, not real evil but one fabricated to suit the mindset of helplessness. In a world populated by the helpless, the forces of good must take action. For example, at Brown University a “safe space” was created to comfort any college student victimized by the trauma of a campus debate on sexual assault. But safe houses are not enough; there must be sanctions. Rules must be set in place to assure an atmosphere of compulsory calm. Tongues must be silenced; books must be cleansed; and events must be scrubbed to prevent anything that might trigger any kind of offense. George Will recently tagged it “sensitivity censorship.” True, but it is censorship in the service of a false sensitivity, one divorced from reality.
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And that is where the First Amendment comes into play, which brings me to Catherine Ross’ Lessons in Censorship: How Schools & Courts Subvert Students First Amendment Rights (Harvard University Press, 2015). It is a sobering book . . . for those who wish to be sober. It is a mind-opening book . . . for those willing to be open-minded. It is a revealing book about judicially sanctioned censorship . . . for those willing to listen. It is a plan for instructive action . . . for those willing to act. And it is a call to liberty . . . for those wishing to be free.
When reading this well-argued and well-researched book, what struck me most was this: When it comes to student speech, the conservatism of the Burger, Rehnquist and Roberts Courts helped to inform the censorship championed by the cheerleaders of victimization. Ever since the Warren Court’s 1969 Tinker ruling, the cause of student free speech has been a losing one. Merely witness the adverse rulings in Bethel School District v. Fraser (Burger Court: 1986), Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (Rehnquist Court: 1988), and Morse v. Frederick (Roberts Court: 2007), and all of the countless lower cases (documented in Ross’ book) that have followed suit.
Point of Clarification: The cases just mentioned all involved high school students, whereas my earlier reference to the Brown University mentality involved college students. And while courts have regularly sanctioned censorship at the secondary level, censorship at the college level has been routinely disapproved by lower courts thanks to litigation brought by FIRE, the ACLU, the Student Press Law Center, and the Center for Campus Free Speech.
That said, the thread that weaves its way through the fabric of both lines of cases is this: The Supreme Court’s post-Tinker rulings – save for Rosenberger v. University of Virginia (a 1995 religious funding college campus case) – suggest two things. First, the authority of school officials to regulate student speech is vast. Second, any asserted justification for censorship will be deemed credible. Thus understood, the governing norm for school administrators is one spawned by what might be called protective paternalism (or maternalism, if you prefer). Such paters protect everyone; they are the caretakers of our time. Such paternalism, rooted in the secondary school cases, has carried over into the college realm and informs much of the administrative thinking there. The mindset of these school principles has become that of college administrators. In the process, that same kind of thinking shapes the minds of the impressionable young.
What is lost in the mix is education in what it means to live in a society governed by the principle of free speech. Schools, as Professor Ross reminds us, are “training grounds for citizenship,” places where the value of free speech may be taught as a “counterweight to the voices demanding censorship of ideas that might upset some people.” Such education is neither education in victimization nor education in subservience. Rather it is education in toleration and liberty. To be sure, real abuses of freedom betray real freedom. Civility is important. Still, as Ross counsels us time and again, liberty must not be held in perpetual pause by school officials either enamored with their power or charmed by the idea of being caretakers of pseudo victims.
Turn the pages of Lessons in Censorship and you will discover what it means for students to think freely and how courts have fashioned baseless arguments designed to squelch such thinking. Open this book and you will be introduced to the kind of nuance (buttressed by considerable research and documentation) that grasps “the importance of keeping discipline for student expression within constitutional limits.” Consider the points made in this book concerning insults, hate speech, and bullying, and you will walk away with a more informed idea of what kinds of speech do real harm (and thus may be regulated) versus the kinds of speech that do not (and should thus be tolerated). Take heed of what is set forth in this book about school officials extending their disciplinary powers off campus so as to become would-be parents, and you will fear for freedom. There is, to be sure, more, but that is for you, the reader, to discover.
Lessons in Censorship is a book that should be read and discussed by school officials at all levels of education. It is a work that should be poured over by school board officials and lawyers who represent school districts and college campuses. And its message should carry over into the memoranda and briefs that lawyers file to inform judges. It is too important a book to be left to academics unless they use it as a teaching tool in educating students about the importance of free-speech liberty.
To return to my beginning: The cult of victimization, so prevalent on our college campuses, is grounded in a system of secondary education alienated from the principles of free speech. It takes leave from the the very principles that teach self-reliance, toleration, and the importance to meet, expose, and contest every brand of bigotry designed to diminish our humanity.