“Words are supposed to hurt. That’s considered a legitimate way of fighting things out. And what did it replace in the historical scene? It replaced actual violence.
Words are supposed to be free so we CAN actually fight things out, in the battle place of ideas, so we don’t end up fighting them out in civil wars. If we try to legitimately ban anything that can hurt someone’s feelings, everyone is reduced to silence.”
– Greg Lukianoff, president of Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and author of Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate
Next Tuesday evening, Mr. Lukianoff is coming to speak with our students at Harvard and I’m hoping we’ll have a lively debate. But I’m a little worried we won’t. Let me explain:
Last week, I was sitting in the dining hall with a table of undergraduates when a student became agitated and began to make increasingly provocative comments about financial aid recipients and his/her resentment of people who get a “free ride” at Harvard. I could see the discomfort on the other students’ faces; some of them were financial aid recipients themselves (most, I would wager) and I watched as they stared at their plates and let me and a graduate student do the talking. I put on my ‘educator’ hat and tried to validate the angry young person’s feelings of despair about graduating with a huge debt but also to suggest that everyone in a place of privilege like Harvard is essentially getting a ‘free ride,’ financially and in every sense. I told the student that the cost of educating an undergraduate far exceeds tuition, anyway, and we all made it to Harvard not only through pure blind luck but also through the hard work, sacrifice, and priorities of untold people – parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, wealthy donors – as well as a particular constellation of factors (government policies, cultural practices, historic traditions, contemporary redresses of historic traditions, and on and on and on) that happens to favor “us” at this moment in time and not “them.” And surely this resentful young person was given a rather luxurious choice to attend Harvard and assume the financial debt (which will be more than paid off by the steady employment and higher lifetime wages that an Ivy league degree will provide). Whew! My hearty defense was exhausting.
None of this had much impact and the student grew increasingly incendiary, and finally stormed out of the dining room. The remaining students looked stunned and embarrassed, and I felt myself moved to soothe them, even to reassure them that I wasn’t trying to be an apologist for the insensitive student when I honored his/her feelings of frustration. The next day, I felt compelled to ‘check in,’ about how they were all feeling. I spoke with a couple graduate students about how to respond “as a community” to such hurtful assumptions about financial aid recipients. The episode nagged at me for days and I noticed that many people – even those not involved – wanted to talk about it. The issue grew in dimension and took on a new, and more dramatic, flavor.
I know the students had their reasons (all legitimate) for not “engaging.” They wanted to avoid additional pain and hassle, no doubt, and concluded that ignoring the oafish remarks was the best strategy. But later it occurred to me that the real cost of being silent – under the guise of respect or fear or just expediency – is the way the silence actually amplifies the hurt over time. It dignifies and privileges the hurt and somehow mutates it, makes it stronger.
Later, it occurred to me how TOTALLY INSANE this was! It seemed like this amplification — not the initial injury itself – is what really hurts. I felt like such an enabler and wanted to go back in time and say, “Listen, a student expressed a view that seemed ignorant and obnoxious. Yes. Take a deep breath. Use your words! Make your case. Fight back. Tell her to fuck off, if you must. But engage.”
And then we can move on. The episode was uncomfortable – and continues to be uncomfortable – in part because we let it hang in the air, invisible but stinky. The students didn’t push back and this surprised me. In my day, somebody would have pushed back, hard, and the conversation would have escalated. People would have grown angry. Others might have joined in. We may have had more time on our hands to have arguments back then, compared to today’s over-programmed students, but I also think the culture was different. People were expected to get agitated and to be able to tolerate being agitated.
Several years ago, I read an article somewhere (lost in the mists, I’m afraid) about the increasing civility of kids “these days.” They’re not as obnoxious and aggressive as my generation. They let things go, or brush them off with irony. At the time I thought: Bravo for you guys! You’re so much more mature than we were! But now I’m not so sure.
Words are what make us human. They’re really all we have and we need to use them more authentically, even when they cause trouble. Violence has declined over the last few decades, and thank god for that, but we can’t live in a totally sanitized world devoid of injury. I’m worried that young people are so afraid of hurting, or being hurt, that they’re just retreating to their corners, allowing themselves to be divided into ever-smaller and more segmented identity groups. Technology enables this, of course. There’s no real ‘broadcasting’ anymore, so it’s easy to live in an echo chamber and not even know it.
Last semester, a lot of Harvard folks freaked out over a satiric flyer that was mocking the practices, such as sexual assault and bigotry, of all-male exclusive social clubs on campus. Some people – very, very smart people — literally didn’t understand that it was satire. Others claimed they ‘got’ that it was satire but insisted nonetheless that the language (“Seriously… no fucking Jews allowed” etc.) was simply too hurtful to tolerate.
This is bullshit. College students need to figure out how to push back with each other a little more. And people like me need to stop enabling the fear and anxiety associated with mere words. Do I need to state the obvious: a healthy democracy depends on the free exchange of speech. Be offended. Get hurt once in a while. Make your case. And then go on with living your life.