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Campus Speech, Vaccines, and Eating Dirt

April 21, 2017

College campuses, once a bastion of free speech, have too often been transformed into luxurious enclaves that reinforce the previously held views of the students who reside and study there. Elite colleges and universities, UC Berkeley and Middlebury most recently among them, have shut down Ann Coulter and Charles Murray, speakers with views deemed offensive (see http://tinyurl.com/k624hzshttp://tinyurl.com/mc5ejbs).

This is sometimes accomplished with political pressure, and other times based on the fear (Coulter), or actuality (Murray), of physical force. (For a list of uninvited college speakers, see http://tinyurl.com/gq6xmtk). Free speech, once a core liberal value, has given way to a demand for intellectual safe harbors. 

 

In the old TV sitcom Will and Grace, the two best friends contemplate life without finding suitable romantic partners. They decide to parent a child together even though Will, Grace's best friend, is gay. Will extols the wonderful values they will instill in their child, stating "And we'd raise him with the values that were important to us. Respect for other people's opinions... except for, you know, ones that were different than ours." (Season 4, episode 24 http://tinyurl.com/kqdzb43).

 

The scenes on our college campuses are less funny (see  http://tinyurl.com/mc5ejbs). Some defend speech based on the marketplace of ideas metaphor, the best ones somehow floating to the top. I don't. It's too naïve. If Election 2016 has proven nothing else, it has certainly proved that. My argument instead combines an old saying with modern medicine. The saying: "You must eat a pound of dirt before you die." (see http://tinyurl.com/5tqgggg). The medicine: Vaccines. Vaccines introduce a small amounts of a virus into your system to allow white blood cells to develop antibodies ready to deploy if and when you are later introduced to a more threatening level of exposure. In addition to the compelling herd immunity, vaccines let us build our own natural defenses. (Mandatory vaccines solve a prisoners' dilemma by disallowing individuals the benefit of herd immunity without incurring the cost of the shared vaccine risk (see http://tinyurl.com/n3plxy6, especially chapter 4; http://tinyurl.com/lz9fnmj). Developing natural defenses to disease is vital, but we have to pace ourselves. We don't give vaccines all at once. 

 

Perhaps we actually each do consume a pound of dirt, but not at one time. The slow and steady dirt diet is nature's way, before, and separate from, vaccines of exposing us to germs, suffering small discomforts as children as we build up our defenses to fend off later, larger threats. A study once inquired if homes in Sweden in which parents used dishwashers or washed dishes by hand were less prone to childhood illnesses. (see http://tinyurl.com/ma2bahe). Hand washing won. The less sterile dishes apparently expose children to whatever tiny amounts of crud, rotted food, and germs slowly, throughout early childhood, help grow the body's natural defenses, like eating that well-paced pound of dirt. I await the Shark Tank entrepreneur promoting Back Teria: "Shh! Our dishwashing supplement secretly restores those essential germs to your shiny dishes!" (http://tinyurl.com/meuotx). A teaspoon of cinnamon is potentially deadly (see http://tinyurl.com/pfj9oxd). A smaller amount sprinkled on your cappuccino is delightful (see http://tinyurl.com/lnxfzrn).  

 

We live in a world replete not only with fake news, but with news silos. It is now possible to expose ourselves exclusively to sources that confirm our biases, insult our opponents, and coddle us, making us feel better, but undermining our capacity to deal with opposition or offense. Educated persons of my generation commonly read major media sources in print: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Newsweek, Time, etc. These published, vetted sources each had their slants to be sure, but each also included voices from the "other side." For many years, I toggled between CNN or NPR and Fox News, hoping for different spins on common stories. We were exposed not only to more carefully vetted sources (helping to develop a sixth sense in spotting fake news), but also to the deliberate juxtaposition of ideas. Facebook news feeds are not merely problematic for the failure of vetting, but also for presenting news selected by "friends," which too often implies like-mindedness. 

 

I do not doubt those who claim to be pained by the exposure to offensive ideas. Why should I? I certainly wouldn't think to question those who suffer an illness or condition resulting from a failure to be vaccinated, or children who suffer allergies to foods from which they have been "protected." No one can be blamed for not having experienced the temporary discomforts, producing later benefits, of consuming a well timed pound of dirt.

 

Our minds also develop defenses, cognitive antibodies if you will, ready to deploy when confronted with oppositional, even deeply offensive, ideas. Those who were paced, exposed, and slowly challenged, early and often, have developed the cognitive skills that make them ready for the fight, informed by actual knowledge, based on reading and evaluating the works of those whom they disagree. A Google search on what others have said about those we find offensive cannot give rise to a deeper understanding as the basis for meaningful engagement and challenge. Those who develop these skills early on are better for it. Those who didn't develop the capacity for engaging with oppositional ideas before college undoubtedly find the task more difficult once they are there. We can acknowledge that pain. But that does not diminish our obligation to encourage young women and men, rising adults, to endure, and not to run away or seek to shut it down. We have to start somewhere, and it never gets easier.

 

We all have our limits. Although in college I benefited from attending talks and enrolling in courses presenting viewpoints far different from my own, there are some speakers whose talks I would not attend. That's different, however, from seeking to silence those speakers. I deeply admire W. Kamou Bell, who in United Shades of America, has managed to perfect an art I'll call "disgusted engagement," the perfect coupling of curiosity and intense disdain (see http://tinyurl.com/hf5nqbs). I'm not suggesting we all rise to his level. But the true benefit of campus speech, and of free speech more generally, isn't the marketplace. It's personal. We are better as individuals when we are stronger. And we are stronger when we can thoughtfully confront opposition, and not just scream, hold up protest signs bearing downloaded slogans, and insist on finding ways to make it stop.

 

To be sure, the study offering objective measures showing Charles Murray's planned Middlebury speech was "middle of the road" is interesting, but as the study authors, Wendy M. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci, acknowledge, it is also potentially beside the point (see http://tinyurl.com/menm6pf). Planned speakers can and should be assessed based on what they've written or done in the past. Allison Stanger, the political science professor who invited Murray to Middlebury is a Democrat, and she extended the invitation at the request of her students who, having studied Murray's work, hoped for a robust forum, one that their classmates shut down (http://tinyurl.com/mc5ejbs). Of course not all proposed speakers should be invited. Excluding those with proven or credible allegations of sexual assault, workplace harassment, or other deeply problematic behaviors, is entirely appropriate, as is banning speakers who espouse racist, sexist, or homophobic views. W. Kamou Bell can interview KKK leaders, yet those interviewees would not be appropriate campus speakers. Still, we should not apply such exclusions so broadly that we deny access to all speakers whose views offend.  

 

The benefits of strengthening tolerance of oppositional ideas are enormous. This improves the prospects of a society whose leaders, and whose citizens, can meaningfully and thoughtfully challenge and confront wide-ranging ideas. A better electorate produces better leaders. But this has to start with listening, integrating, understanding, and willfully being challenged, especially in college. Anger is okay. Disgust is okay. Silencing opposition is not. The skill must cultivated early and often. Otherwise the harm is real. And we are all worse off. 

 

As always, I welcome your comments.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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