free speech

This is the transcript of a talk I gave on ‘Free speech on campus’ at a conference entitled ‘Forever Young?’, exploring questions about universities, shifts in generational attitudes and the meaning of adulthood. The conference was held at Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, on 8 April 2017.


In February 2015, Zineb El Rhazoui, a Moroccan journalist at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, spoke at the University of Chicago Law School, having been invited by the French Society. It was a month after the mass killings at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, in which two Islamist gunmen shot dead 12 people, including nine journalists and cartoonists. El Rhazoui missed the editorial meeting because she was in Morocco. Islamic State placed her on a hit list, and forced her always to travel with security guards. Three accompanied her to Chicago.

To a packed hall, El Rhazoui gave an impassioned defence of freedom of expression and of Charlie Hebdo. In the Q & A that followed, a Muslim student, Aseal Tineh, responded by quoting back to El Rhazoui her claim that ‘Satire’s role is to criticise power and the powerful’. ‘You’re exactly right’, Tineh continued. ‘That’s what good satire does. But Charlie Hebdo is not good satire. What Charlie Hebdo does is delibeately, hurt, insult and smear the identities of the already marginalized and the already oppressed.’ ‘My question to you, ‘she concluded, ‘is why can’t I condemn the acts of terror and also say I am not Charlie Hebdo?’ Je Suis Charlie was the slogan used by many in solidarity with the slain journalists.

It was a strong comment and question. El Rhazoui was equally robust in her response:

Some people immediately after the event say they condemned, because it is very difficult for them to say ‘We’re very happy’.  No one will say that apart from ISIS. So they say ‘We condemn, but we are not Charlie Hebdo‘. Of course, not everyone can be Charlie Hebdo. Tariq Ramadan said ‘I’m not Charlie Hebdo’, we say ‘Thank you, we know you’e not Charlie Hebdo‘.   Today, being Charlie Hebdo means to die for a drawing, because of its own ideas, and because of a certain idea of freedom. And not everyone, excuse me, has the balls to die for their ideas. So, not everyone can be Charlie Hebdo


You say you don’t like the work of Charlie Hebdo. I don’t know if you read French or if you read Charlie Hebdo. But the ugliest caricature of Islam is given by those guys who killed my colleagues and not by any drawing.  The ugliest caricature of your religion is that given by the terrorists and you should feel anger against them, more anger than you feel against Charlie Hebdo.

Tineh jumped in at this point to insist ‘I am angry. I have already said I do condemn the acts. The fact that you feel threatened, and that you probably are threatened,  is a horrible thing and nobody would say that’s acceptable. But I also feel threatened. So I don’t see why I can’t say I condemn this but also say I will never be Charlie Hebdo and will never celebrate your work.’ To which El Rhazoui responded, ‘I have already said, you are not obliged to be Charlie Hebdo‘, but added also that ‘The people who’ve said “Je Suis Charlie” are not people who share all the ideas published in Charlie Hebdo. But I am Charlie Hebdo because I am unconditionally against what happened, I condemn this crime without any conditions.’

It was an electric exchange that brought out well two sharply different views, both about Islam and about Charlie Hebdo, and which in many ways embodied the essence of public debate. Both challenged the other, and both gave as good as they got. And, hopefully, the audience learnt something from the exchange. But the critics of Charlie Hebdo and of El Rhazoui saw it differently. The following week, an op ed piece in the student paper The Chicago Maroon, claimed that ‘El Rhazoui did not appear concerned about ensuring that others felt safe enough to express dissenting opinions’, and that the organizers and moderators had given her a ‘free pass to make condescending attacks on a member of the University, making it more difficult for other members who felt marginalized to freely voice their opinion without fear of dismissal.’

Tineh herself took to the Huffington Post to accuse El Rhazoui of ‘endangering an already vulnerable population by communicating to the audience false reasons to hate an entire group’ by espousing ‘hate’ and being like a kickboxer with ‘Islam as her punchbag’. El Rhazoui’s implicit message, Tineh claimed, was that ‘I was not deserving of the same right to freedom of expression that she herself was exercising.’ She left the meeting with the ‘fear that I had become a walking target’.


I have spent some time setting out the details of the exchange and the aftermath because they get to the heart of much of what we are discussing. Why did Tineh, and other critics, imagine that El Rhazoui deemed them ‘not deserving of freedom of expression’ and was unwilling to ‘ensure that others felt safe enough to express dissenting opinions’? Because El Rhazoui refused to accept their criticism as valid and robustly defended herself against it. Disagreement was recast as the rejection of free speech.

Tineh felt it legitimate to denounce El Rhazoui as hateful and racist, but not for El Rhazoui to denounce Islam – and then imagined that it was El Rhazoui who was expressing ‘double standards’. And in a situation in which El Rhazoui was facing actual death threats, and nine of whose colleagues had been slaughtered in the most brutal of circumstances just a month previously, Tineh insists that it is she, Tineh, who ‘had become a walking target’, while acknowledging of El Rhazoui only that she had ‘probably’ been threatened. As the cultural critic Judith Shulevitz observed in the New York Times, El Rhazoui’s critics ‘had burrowed so deep inside their cocoons, were so overcome by their own fragility, that they couldn’t see that it was Ms. El Rhazoui who was in need of a safer space.’

What this exposes is the blinkered, self-centred, indeed narcissistic, attitudes that shape much contemporary discussion on speech and its limits. Free speech, from this perspective, requires not a robust exchange of ideas but the validation of my views. I should have the right to denounce anyone I wish, but criticism of my views is a denial of my free speech. Vigorously defending oneself against criticism is to deny safe space for one’s critics.

This is not, of course, how the critics of El Rhazoui view it. They imagine, to the contrary, that what they are arguing for is a more inclusive world in which all views are treasured, and that it is the El Rhazouis of the world who are narrowminded and exclusive. The breach between these two perceptions reveals the extent to which the meaning of concepts such as speech, freedom, harm and inclusiveness have transformed in recent years.

To make sense of the debate about free speech these days, one has also to understand a whole new language, too. Safe space. Trigger warning. Microaggression. No platform. Cultural appropriation. It is a language that describes a new social landscape of speech, a landscape that has transformed in recent years. What has changed in this transformed landscape is not simply the proliferation of restrictions on what can be said, by whom and in what fashion. It is also the reasons for which such restrictions are imposed.

From the historical origins of the debate on free speech, there has been an acceptance that certain forms of speech are harmful, and that certain forms of restrictions are necessary. But over the past few decades the notion of what makes speech harmful, and the circumstances in which it is so, has changed in two fundamental ways.

The first change is that speech has come to be seen as inherently problematic. In the past, while most accepted the need for restrictions, speech was seen as inherently good, the fullest extension of which was a necessary condition for the elucidation of truth, the expression of moral autonomy, the maintenance of social progress and the development of other liberties. Freedom of expression was seen not just as an important liberty, but as the very foundation of liberty. ‘Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties’, wrote Milton. All progressive political strands that emerged through this period were wedded to the principle of free speech.

Today, free speech is as likely to be seen as a threat to liberty as its shield. By its very nature, many argue, speech damages basic freedoms. Hate speech undermines the freedom to live free from fear. The giving of offence diminishes the freedom to have one’s beliefs r respected. Harm has come to be seen, not as it was in the past, as the occasional damage that might be done by ‘dangerous’ speech but as the everyday, constant effect of almost any kind of speech. Speech, therefore, has to be restrained by custom, especially in a diverse society with a variety of deeply-held views and beliefs, and censorship (and self-censorship) has to become the norm.

In fact, censorship has come to be seen as more than the norm. For many, censorship is a progressive act, a means of protecting the vulnerable. Restrictions on hate speech protect those facing racism or homophobia or misogyny. Restrictions on offensive speech protect the dignity of powerless groups. The use of trigger warnings protect the emotionally fragile. And so on.

Posters for Tomorrow Chen Yue Se

This leads us to the second fundamental way in which the understanding of harm has changed: the appreciation of what it is that needs protecting from harm. Traditionally, speech was seen as harmful if it damaged the social or moral order. Hence censorship to curb speech deemed to be a threat to national security, religious authority or moral convention. Today, what most worries the new generation of censors is damage not so much to the social or moral order as to individual well-being.

It is true that protection of the social order remains a key aim in much regulation of speech. One only has to look at the way that the so-called war on terror is used to curtail freedom of expression. Outside of Western liberal democracies, the defence of the state and of public order remains a primary goal of censorship.

In the West, however, and in particular in universities, a plethora of new restrictions aim to protect not the social order but the mental and cultural wellbeing of individuals. Their target is not the subversive but the offensive. And where in the past, the elite sought to prevent the masses from having access to, or promoting, ideas considered dangerous, today the call for censorship is regarded, or at least often presents itself, as a movement from below, aiming to protect the vulnerable and the powerless from the potentially  harmful effects of hazardous ideas.

This was well expressed in a recent email sent by six academics at Wellesley College, near Boston, who all sit on the college’s Commission for Race, Ethnicity and Equity, objecting to certain kinds of speakers being invited to speak on campus. According to the academics, too many speakers ‘impose on the liberty of students, staff, and faculty at Wellesley’. Such speakers cause ‘distress’ and ‘injury’ and force students and staff to ‘invest time and energy in rebutting the speakers’ arguments’ in order ‘to affirm their humanity’.

The only speaker named in the email as causing distress to students is the feminist cultural critic Laura Kipnis, who has caused controversy with her argument that academia’s approach to regulating sexual conduct, and Title IX, in particular, harms students, including female students. When she was invited to Wellesley, three students posted a video entitled ‘Shutting Down Bullshit’ challenging her ideas. They should not have felt the need to do so, insist the academics. The organizers of her talk could, and should, have ‘anticipate[d] that these ideas would be painful to significant portions of the Wellesley community’, and so not invited her in the first place.

Nor should one question whether the ideas of a speaker like Kipnis really do cause distress and injury. The only people qualified to ‘adjudicate’ whether speakers’ words are harmful are the ‘students [who] tell us they are in distress as a result of a speaker’s words’. The ‘injuries suffered by students, faculty, and staff’, are however felt by all. Such injuries, the academics tell us, ’are not contained within the specific identity group in question; they ripple throughout our community and prevent Wellesley from living out its mission.’


Two years ago I spoke at a conference on free speech at Wellesley. My talk was entitled ‘Free speech in an age of identity politics’, and I argued that ‘In plural societies, it is both inevitable and important that people offend the sensibilities of others’. I fear that is the kind of idea, and I am the kind of speaker, that the Wellesley academics find objectionable.

In the Wellesley email is contained most of the claims that make up the new landscape of free speech on campus. All ideas are potentially harmful because all ideas can cause pain, injury and distress. Only those who feel distress or suffer injury can decide whether an idea or a speaker is harmful. Speakers who cause distress, or organizers that allow such distress to occur, are guilty of ‘bullying’ the ‘disempowered’. To question any idea that an individual deems central to their sense of identity is to impugn that individual’s humanity. Students should not have to spend time and effort challenging ideas that they find distressing.

These claims raise interesting questions. If distressing ideas do not have a place in a university, and all ideas are potentially distressing, what ideas can a university teach? If I, as a Creationist, say, find the teaching of evolution distressing, should my biology professor stop teaching it, so that I don’t feel injury or pain? How do we know that an idea is distressing if we cannot hear it? What is a greater assault on my humanity – listening to Laura Kipnis’ ideas or being told that I am too fragile to be able to be able listen to her ideas without being harmed? What if I claim that being forced to listen to academics describing my ideas as harmful distresses and injures me? If it is an undue imposition on students to force them to challenge ideas with which they disagree, what is a university for?

The new conception of harm and of speech is both shaped by, and has helped shape, fundamental shifts in social conceptions of three issues: the character of the university, the transition to adulthood, and how we understand ourselves as humans. I want to look at each of these issues, in reverse order as it were, beginning with the changing relationship between speech, harm and the human condition.

The debate about what we are able to say to each other, and what we are able to hear from each other, is intimately entwined with the kind of beings we imagine humans are; and linked in particular with two aspects of our humanity: the degree to which humans can be considered autonomous moral agents, and the consequences that flow from our social existence.

To argue for the widest extension of free speech is to see humans as autonomous moral agents, and as bearing responsibility for their actions because each is directed, to some degree at least, by considerations, desires, conditions, and characteristics that arise from their self and are not simply imposed externally. From this perspective, all (adult) individuals possess the capacity to express political and moral views and to act upon them. All individuals are responsible for their views and actions and are capable of being judged by them. And all individual have the competence to listen to others’ views, to respond to them, and to bear the consequences of that response.

The consequences of our existence as social beings is that free speech matters for the listener as much as it does for the speaker; and that it is only through engagement with each others’ views that our sociality finds expression. Free speech, in other words, gives substance to the sense of ourselves as both autonomous moral agents and as social beings whose moral agency becomes manifest only in relation to others – and provides a link between the two.

The new landscape of speech codes embodies a significantly different view of the human condition. Ideas such as safe spaces, trigger warnings and microaggressions emerge from the belief that human individuals have limited intellectual and moral resources to evaluate critically the ideas and values to which they are exposed; that they are often too fragile to be able to hear, and to challenge, odious or distressing ideas; that human sociability is rooted not in our ability to engage with each other but in the partitions we erect to save us from having to engage with each too much.

This idea of the human condition as one of being fragile and vulnerable, and with a diminished moral agency, has been exacerbated by another key development of recent years: the rise of what sociologists call the ‘therapeutic society’ or ‘therapeutic culture’. These phrases have come to describe a society in which social problems are increasingly regarded as psychological ones, and social change viewed more through the medium of individual therapy than of collective action.


In the 1960s the American sociologist and cultural critic Philip Rieff coined the phrase ‘the triumph of the therapeutic’ to describe the way that psychiatric ideas had become part of the common coin of everyday life. Since then a series of very different thinkers on both left and right, from Thomas Szaz to Christopher Lasch to Russell Jacoby to Frank Furedi, have explored the ways in which a therapeutic sensibility has come to be means through which people mediate their social relations.

For Rieff, therapy had taken the place of religious faith. For many of the more recent thinkers the therapeutic sensibility has come to fill the place created by the erosion of the social. The influence of many of the mediating institutions of social life – from trade unions to religious organization to political parties – has waned in recent years. The informal social networks, whether of family or of friends, that used to provide both meaning and support have often eroded too. People experience society in a far more atomized fashion. At the same time the old barriers between the public sphere and the private sphere have become highly porous.

Theorists of therapeutic society suggest that today people find meaning and affirmation in settings that are both more individualized and more public, from self-help groups to self-disclosure TV, from professional therapy to social media. One of the consequences of these shifts, they argue, is to exacerbate the sense of the individual as weak and vulnerable, of the world as a dangerous place and of other people as potential threats.

Linked to the emergence of the therapeutic society has been the rise of identity politics. In recent decades, ‘identity politics’ has been associated with the left, and with struggles against racism and women’s oppression and homophobia. Its roots are, however, long and reactionary, stretching back to eighteenth century Romanticism and to the counter-Enlightenment. These early critics of the Enlightenment opposed the idea of universal human values by stressing particularist values embodied in group identities, most notably those of race and nation.

Radicals rejected the Romantic view of culture, adopting instead a universalist perspective. From the struggle against slavery to the anti-colonial movements to the battle for equal rights, the aim was not to protect one’s own special culture but to create a more universal culture in which all could participate on equal terms.

In recent decades, however, the universalist viewpoint has eroded, largely as many of the social movements that embodied that viewpoint have disintegrated. The social space created by that disintegration became filled by identity politics. As the broader struggles for social transformation have faded, people have tended to retreat into their particular faiths or cultures, and to embrace more parochial forms of identity. In this process, the old Romantic cultural arguments have returned, but now rebranded as ‘progressive’.

In the past, free speech was regarded as the foundation of liberty because of the acceptance of a universalist vision of political norms and moral values. From this perspective, the importance of free speech is that it creates the conditions necessary to think through problems, whether political, social, moral or personal. The conditions necessary to expand one’s own horizons, to understand the viewpoint of others, to open our own viewpoint for challenge, to be able to engage in the kind of political and social dialogue that can help create a more universal language of citizenship.

From the perspective of identity politics, on the other hand, free speech, the ability to expand and universalise experience, to question that which is seen as unquestionable, can often appear as a threat. And censorship can provide a means to shore up the broken barriers, and to exclude unwanted, unacceptable or threatening views and values.

freedom of speech

Once, progressive politics was rooted in the notion that every human being was capable of deploying his or her practical reason or moral sense to live an authentic live as an individual. It was a belief that helped anchor in the modern world the idea of moral autonomy. The politics of identity has appropriated the language of authenticity to describe ways of living that are true to the supposed characteristics of distinct social groups. This in turn has led to the demand that one must respect different beliefs and cultures as authentic ways of being for different people.

The demand from identity is that we should respect not just the person qua person but also his or her beliefs, because those beliefs are essential to anchor one’s sense of identity and self. It is a demand that undermines individual autonomy, both by constraining the right of people to criticise others’ beliefs and by insisting that individuals who hold those beliefs are too weak or vulnerable to stand up to criticism, satire or abuse.

It is at this point that the politics of identity enmeshes with the embrace of the therapeutic society. ‘When movements for social justice felt thwarted’, the sociologist Kathleen Lowney, observes, ‘they settled for constructing new collective identities.’ The aim of progressives, she argues, ‘switched from seeking dramatic social change to forging a new psychic acceptance of self.’ In this fashion, identity politics laid the ground for the contemporary obsession with the self.

Consider the concept of ‘safe space’. Over the past half century it has moved from meaning a protection against physical harms to a shelter from cultural and psychological harms. What makes a space safe today is that it provides for the affirmation and protection of an individual’s identity. As Betty Jo Barrett, Associate Professor of Women’s Studies at the University of Windsor notes, ‘from the perspective of the students, safety in the classroom is defined by an uncritical acceptance of students’ contributions, both on the part of their professors and their peers.’

A safe space, in other words, is a place of safety from challenge. This was the belief at the heart of the criticism of Zineb El Rhazoui. It was at the heart of the Wellesley College email. A safe space is usually presented as an inclusive space. As one defence of safe space put it, it is ‘ just a place where people don’t need to fear being silenced because of who they are or what they have to say’. But as the controversy over the Zineb El Rhazoui and Laura Kipnis cases revealed, a safe space cannot include everyone. El Rhazoui and Kipnis, and their views, are explicitly excluded from the safe space.

Where free speech creates an open forum for all views, a safe space is inclusive only of views that are deemed not to be threatening, and that will validate other views within that space. The space of free speech includes all, but refuses to validate all. A safe space validates all within, but excludes any that refuses to accept all views as equally valid. In reality, then, it is the space of free speech that is truly inclusive, and the safe space that seeks to exclude.

The notion of a safe space as protection from challenge raises other issues, too. In 2104 a student group at Brown University organized a debate about campus sexual assault between the feminist Jessica Valenti and the libertarian Wendy McElroy, a critic of the notion of ‘rape culture’. Fearing that the debate would be too upsetting for some, a ‘safe space’ was set up, equipped with cookies, colouring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as counsellors. One of the students who helped set up, and make use of, the safe space, went to listen to the debate at one point, but quickly returned to the safe space. ‘I was feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs’, she said.

The insistence that one should be spared the agony of listening to views contrary to one’s own ‘closely held beliefs’ has considerable resonance today. As a student leader at Oberlin College, Megan Bautista, told a New Yorker journalist, while ‘there’s something to be said about exposing yourself to ideas other than your own, I’ve had enough of that.’

This is a viewpoint that explicitly rejects the notion of humanness embodied in the classical view of free speech. It deprecates the importance of engagement as a means of cementing our sociality, and hence of expressing our moral autonomy. To insist that ‘I’ve had enough of exposing myself to ideas other than my own’ is to replace sociality with solipsism.

The very shift from ‘I disagree’ to ‘I am offended’ as a response to ideas that trouble or distress marks a growing disdain for social engagement. ‘I disagree’ invites an argument. ‘I am offended’ closes down debate. ‘I disagree’ expresses a willingness both to listen to others and to scrutinise our own beliefs, an openness to accommodate others and to change ourselves. ‘I am offended’ entitles one to protection from criticism and judgment.


The consequences both of celebrating vulnerability, and of the refusal to engage with the world as it is, was exposed by Anthony Kapel ‘Van’ Jones, the African American activist and author and former advisor to President Obama. In a discussion with David Axelrod at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics, he insisted that ‘I don’t want you to be safe, ideologically. I don’t want you to be safe, emotionally. I want you to be strong. That’s different.’ To embrace safety and vulnerability, Van Jones insisted, is to refuse to challenge iniquity. ‘My parents’, he observed, ‘marched. They dealt with fire hoses. They dealt with dogs. They dealt with beatings. You can’t deal with a mean tweet? You are creating a kind of liberalism that the minute it crosses the street into the real world is not just useless, but obnoxious and dangerous.’ ‘I want you to be offended every single day on this campus’, he concluded. ‘I want you to be deeply aggrieved and offended and upset, and then to learn how to speak back. Because that is what we need from you in these communities.’

Implicit in Van Jones’ argument is the claim that if the generation to which Van Jones’ parents belonged had adopted the same attitude as today’s students we may still be living with Jim Crow laws. It is only because they saw themselves as agents of change, willing to engage, often at great mental and physical cost to themselves, with ideas and laws that were not just distressing but brutal, that today’s generation have safe spaces to shield them from ‘viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs’.

Similarly with trigger warnings. The concept of ‘trigger warnings’ began in the 1970s in the treatment of people suffering from great trauma, initially Vietnam vets. Through such treatment emerged, too, the concept of the ‘post traumatic stress syndrome’, or PTSD, which embodied the idea that for certain people the memory of a trauma always exists, lying just below the surface of consciousness, ready to be triggered. A ‘trauma trigger’ was an experience that was not in itself frightening or traumatic, but which helped trigger that underlying traumatic memory.

This idea was subsequently taken up by feminists. Feminist bloggers, in particular, would often preface a discussion about rape or sexual assault with a warning that the material following the warning may trigger a post-traumatic stress reaction in women who had been raped or assaulted.

Whether trigger warnings are useful even for those who have suffered great trauma is a matter of much debate among psychiatrists. Today, though, they have been vastly extended to cover not just great trauma, but to cover any material that might be upsetting or might make someone feel uncomfortable. Among content for which trigger warnings have been demanded, according to one list, are references to

misogyny, the death penalty, terrorism, drunk driving, how much a person weighs, racism, gun violence, drones, homophobia, PTSD, slavery, victim-blaming, abuse, swearing, child abuse, self-injury, suicide, descriptions of medical procedures, corpses, needles, discussion of ‘isms’, slurs (including ‘stupid’ or ‘dumb’), kidnapping, dental trauma, discussions of sex, spiders, insects, snakes, vomit, pregnancy, childbirth, blood, slimy things and holes.

After which all you can say is, ‘Wouldn’t it be easier just to put a trigger warning on life itself?’

The reason that writers or academics or activists deal with issues such as racism or colonialism or misogyny is that these are real issues in the real world. One may be able to protect students from such issues in the seminar room. One cannot protect them in the world outside, where such issues confront all of us without any warning signs attached. In the real world, all of us are forced, indeed in my view, morally obliged, to confront issues such as those of racism and homophobia and misogyny.

At the same time, trigger warnings, like regulations against the giving of offence, reinforces the idea that women or those from minority communities are inherently vulnerable, weak and ‘Other’. They help, in other words reinforce the very stereotypes that undergird the worldview of bigots.

Posters for Tomorrow Gutiérrez Lucia

Safe spaces and trigger warning are not simply about shielding people from the real world. They are also about a reluctance to act as adults. The distinction between fully engaging with the world, and shielding people from having to fully engage, is also the distinction adult and child. Children are those whom we deem not robust enough or sufficiently capable of exercising independent judgment to be treated as autonomous moral agents. So we protect them in a way we would not an adult. The age of consent, for instance, embodies both a right for an adult and a protection for minor.

This leads us to the second shift in social perceptions I mentioned: that in the way in which we frame the relationship between childhood and adulthood. Sociologists and psychologists have noted for some time the change in the social meaning of childhood over the past generation. I am of a generation in which as a child it was common to go off and play unsupervised by adults. Such ‘free range’ childhood has became less common, as more restrictions have been placed upon children in the name of safety, literally in the sense that the distance from home that children are allowed to play has severely declined decade-by-decade.

As the psychologists Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt put it in a much discussed essay on ‘The Coddling of the American Mind’, ‘Children born after 1980 – the Millennials – got a consistent message from adults: life is dangerous, but adults will do everything in their power to protect you from harm, not just from strangers but from one another as well.’ The psychiatrist Abilash Gopal has observed, perhaps as a result, ‘a parallel between the behaviour and psychological distress I see in the overparented child and the growing number of college students with sensitivities and demands that seem disproportional to reality.’

This inevitably has transformed the relationship between universities and students. Eric Posner, law professor at University of Chicago, suggests that ‘students today are more like children than adults’ and given that they ‘are children, then they should be protected like children’. And herein is revealed the third shift that I mentioned: that in the character of the university.

The role and function of universities has, of course, changed hugely in the centuries since their origins in eleventh-century Europe. They began as church-defined institutions akin to a guild. Today, they are often more like businesses catering to knowledge consumers.

The perception of students has also changed enormously over the centuries. Students were rarely seen fully as adults. After all, their role was to be taught to think, and authority rested largely with their teachers, to whom students had to show deference. But neither were they seen as children. They could be taught to think, and to be taken to new worlds in their imagination, precisely because they were not children. A university was a place in which one could become an adult by being challenged, by having one’s conceptions of the world questioned, by discovering how to interrogate power, by learning how to make an argument and to defend it from criticism.

While universities taught students to think, traditionally they also taught them to conform to defined social norms, regulating everything from clothes to gender relations. Much of that changed in the 1960s. The anti-authoritarian wave on which a host of protest movements surfed, from opposition to the Vietnam War to support for civil rights, from feminism to free speech, helped transform both society and university. Deference to authority gave way to contempt for authority. Students began to resist attempts by university authorities to regulate their social and political life, viewing such regulation as a violation of their autonomy.

Today, we seem to have returned to a pre-1960s era. ‘Moral instruction and social control’, Eric Posner observes, ‘have been reintroduced to the universities after a 40-year drought.’ Except it is not quite that. The old forms of regulation were a means of inculcating those regarded as future members of the elite with the norms seen as vital for maintaining moral and social order. Today’s regulation seeks to shield individuals from the shock of ideas they find painful or distressing. Just as the notion of ‘harm’ has changed, so has the character of the regulation of such harm.

The debates around such issues have largely focused on universities, and on generational shifts. But the deprecation of free speech, the disdain for social engagement, the desire for protection from challenge – these are not changes visible simply on campus. They express much wider social changes, and changes not confined to a particular group or generation. Mine is a critique not of a ‘snowflake generation’ but of a more censorious society.

Posters for Tomorrow Casale Maurizio

The social changes that have helped create the new landscape of speech are also the social changes that make this landscape particularly troubling. There has perhaps been no period in recent history in which the need for social engagement and robust debate has been more urgent. Societies have become fragmented, even tribalized. Broader political, cultural and national identities have eroded, traditional social networks, institutions of authority and moral codes have weakened, and people’s sense of belonging has become more narrow and parochial.

The politics of identity has exacerbated this process of social disaggregation. The frameworks through which we make sense of the world are defined less in political terms than in cultural terms, less as ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ or ‘socialist’ or ‘communist’ than as ‘Muslim’ or ‘white’ or ‘American’ or ‘black’. And even when people talk of ‘liberal’ or conservative’, these are seen as cultural identities as much as they are political viewpoints. Fear of the Other – whether that be migrants, or Muslims, or the ‘deplorables’ of the working class – dominates much political discourse.

There is much talk, too, of a ‘post-truth’ age. Yet, what is striking about the contemporary period, as the historian Daniel T Rogers has suggested, is not that there are no truths, but that it appears saturated with ‘truths’. The trouble is, many of these ‘truths’ have little more meaning than ‘this is what I believe’ or ‘this is what I think should be true’. ‘The very idea of politics as an act of deliberation’, Rogers observes, ‘by which people with inevitably different desires and starting positions must work something out, must find their way to a destination that none may have imagined before, is devalued.’ On issues from globalization to global warming, all sides cling to their view as the ‘truth’, refusing to engage with ‘alternate’ views. We seem to be living in an age of myriad truths, each sliding past one another without contact, the purveyors of each refusing to discuss or even acknowledge any other ‘truths’.

In this new social landscape, the last thing required of us is that we cover our eyes and ears, shield ourselves in a safe space, and refuse to expose ourselves to ideas other than our own. We need, rather, in both society and in the academy, to open ourselves up to robust, difficult, even confrontational debates, to test each other’s ideas and show ourselves willing to be uncomfortable as we ourselves are tested. We need, all of us, to grow up.


The images are all from a ‘Posters for Tomorrow’ competition on freedom of expression.


  1. Bravo. Well said. An elegantly reasoned response to a phenomenon that bewilders me and, I think, many of my generation (definitely NOT a Millennial!)

  2. Les

    Kudos! This is a masterful essay! As far as the transition to adulthood goes, the only thing that I could add is to say that here in the States, we’ve been subject to increasing kinds of infantilization ever since Disneyland opened.

  3. Unfortunately this censorious ideology has escaped the campus and run riot in popular culture.

    Tonight’s Coronation Street had a five minute monologue deprecating free speech and promoting ‘safe spaces.’

    Coronation Street is the highest rated soap in the U.K. and it was used to dish out naked propoganda.

  4. Infantile- as in infans, speechless, inarticulate- is the right word. It’s almost as if students want to trade the ultimate safe space- their mother’s breast- for the tender buttons of their alma mater, i.e. nourishing mother.
    Meanness aside, few of the students have the imagination to see how counter-productive this strategy is:
    it makes the students look infantile, gives your opponents extra publicity, makes it easy to cut giving or funding, and reduces political events to therapy sessions- big group hugs. I’m sure many businesses track these articles and say: “don’t recruit at this college, or if we do, push them through an additional round of intensive interviews.”

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