The rising tide of censorship on university campuses

If we cannot listen to one another, there is no point in speaking


censorship universityTORONTO, Ont. Oct. 19, 2016/ Troy Media/ – What’s the best way to handle an idiot?

One way is to tell the idiot to shut up.

The best way is to let the idiot speak. By speaking, the idiot reveals his idiocy – to the audience and to himself. With newfound self-awareness, the idiot may, we hope, strive to be more than an idiot.

In recent years, universities have become places where idiots are told to shut up. Even worse: non-idiots are being shut up.

The methods used to shut people up – to close discussion – have names, like “no platforming” and “trigger warnings.” Both methods supposedly protected students from offensive ideas.

Trigger warnings caution students about course material that might “trigger” bad feelings in students.

“No platform” denies so-called offensive speakers a platform from which to speak. This usually entails forcing universities to cancel public lectures or using protests to shut down live events.

In some schools, trigger warnings and no platforming have been taken to their logical – and troubling – extremes. In the United Kingdom, archaeology students have been excused from learning about history because gruesome historical facts might “trigger” discomfort. And speakers of all sorts – from Israeli scholars to feminist speakers to comedians – have been shut out of campuses across North America.

These forms of censorship are becoming a regular occurrence. Like all censorship, they signal an illness in our society. Despite what free speech advocates say, the illness is not a disease of the mouth – an inability to speak. It is a disease of the ear – an inability to hear. We don’t lack for places to speak, not with the abundance provided by the Internet. What we lack are people who are willing to listen.

Against this backdrop, I’d like to propose a mandatory course for every student in Canada: a course in how to listen.

I don’t mean a course in critical thinking. We have enough of those already. And I’m not talking about reading courses, although reading is a form of intense listening. (For the record, we should have more reading courses.)

I mean a course in listening, in hearing, in opening our ears and minds. We could call it a course in credulity or a class in civility. We could call it an education in faith – faith in our tradition of thought.

Ours is a powerful tradition. It is a tradition that says we can, through discussion, persuade opponents to our point of view. And we can also, because we seek truth, be persuaded to discard the faulty beliefs we hold. We can change ourselves through words, not violence.

Our tradition is powerful because it says we are open to ideas, accepting of intellectual diversity, mentally agile and courageous. We are skeptical yet willing to believe. We will find the right way through discussion; the good will win. And bad arguments, like dirty snow banks, will dissolve when exposed to sunlight and rain.

We are losing this tradition because we see it in action so rarely.

We will not find examples of heightened discussion in the political sphere, not as long as we let the Donald Trumps of the world speak for us. Nor will we find productive discourse in the sewage firehose of social media.

Where we should expect to find it is in our universities.

In an age of debased public discourse, universities should stage public debates and discussions on the most rancorous issues of the day. Public debates and discussions should happen weekly or even daily. Certainly more often than the once-in-a-while named lectures at some schools. Attendance at a certain number of these public discussions should be mandatory for undergraduates.

Universities should use these debates to model for students how to engage in difficult, sometimes heated discussions. They should teach students how to speak their passions and, more importantly, how to listen to others.

Because if we cannot listen to one another, there is no point in speaking.

Robert Price is a communications and professional writing instructor at the University of Toronto.

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