We more senior parents are somewhat removed from the modern-day stresses our adult children and grandchildren are experiencing. (see my post last week) That list did not include one of the most pernicious stresses: A cancelation and self-censorship culture, particularly on college campuses. You may know all about it but I had only the vaguest of notions until a recent visit to an adult son and his family brought the threat of "canceling" or public shaming into focus.
During my visit we were talking, casually at first, about social media and its effects, how social media platforms are touted as free speech forums but do some of the postings go too far in that direction? The conversation veered into social media and its role in self-censorship and, in effect, a loss of free speech. Now we were talking about whether the threat of being the object of a social media storm keeps students from expressing non-mainstream opinions.
I asked a grandson, who's a rising senior in college, whether he felt free to express his opinion in classrooms or socially on campus. He answered without hesitation: He did not. It was too dangerous. It could cost him friendships and his social standing.
Was he over-reacting? Was his experience an anomaly? I turned to Google and it didn't take much of a search to see that he was smack dab in the mainstream.
Two years ago, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, reported the results of a survey of nearly 20,000 undergraduate students from 55 colleges and universities.
60 percent of students have at one point felt they couldn’t express an opinion on campus because they feared how other students, professors or college administrators would respond.
A year later a 2021 survey from College Pulse and FIRE of some 37,000 students at 159 colleges reported an acceleration of a negative atmosphere on campuses:
80 percent of students said they self-censor at least some of the time.
48 percent of undergraduate students described themselves as “somewhat uncomfortable” or “very uncomfortable” with expressing their views on a controversial topic in the classroom.
66 percent said it is acceptable to shout down a speaker to prevent them from speaking on campus, and almost 25 percent said it is acceptable to use violence to stop a campus speech.
In a 2022 essay for the NYTimes, a University of Virginia senior wrote that self-censorship at her college was common. Among the points she made about the situation in the classroom were these:
--Backlash for unpopular opinions is so commonplace that many students have stopped voicing them, sometimes fearing lower grades if they don’t censor themselves.
--Criticism can quickly transform into public shaming, thereby stifling learning.
--She asks: "Is it brave to risk your social standing by saying something unpopular? Yes. Is it reasonable to ask college students ...to solve this problem independently? No."
--Her conclusion: "My college experience has been defined by strict ideological conformity. Students of all political persuasions hold back — in class discussions, in friendly conversations, on social media — from saying what we really think.
As parents, what advice do we have for our college students or our adult children who are the parents of these students? Do we repeat the homilies we believed in our day: Speak up. Be rigorous in debate. Explore the ideas of others. How else can we reach a ground of common understanding? For those of us who've ventured out of our pandemic-created cocoons, we're learning that such words may be true but they no longer apply.
It feels odd to hark back to a U.S.President who failed to rise to meet the moment, but in a 1928 presidential campaign speech, Herbert Hoover talked about “ 'the American system of rugged individualism' — the notion that America was a place of free markets, individual thought and a dogged skepticism of state-imposed conformity."
Work of art: Rodin's The Thinker