Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Chicago Statement

It’s amazing to me that Kathleen Parker’s piece in the Chicago Tribune is now already nearly three years old for it is still highly relevant. It starts with the striking line, “Trigger warning: This column will include discussion of ideas that may conflict with your own.”[1] In it Parker calls attention to the fact that on many college campuses nowadays the mores of group identity trumps, you’ll pardon the triggering expression, freedom of thought, or at least qualifies it (which de facto trumps it).

What I mean by “the mores of group identity” can be redacted actually quite fairly, I think, to a groupthink mentality. I shall never forget, when I, a mere novelist and blogger, happened quite by accident (at the invitation of my philologist friend) to be in attendance at a major research university when a newly elected provost, i.e. chief academic officer, was giving his inaugural address to great applause and raucous approbation. In his speech he called for a more tolerant, more politically correct atmosphere than had occurred under his predecessor, one where there was “more groupthink” (sic!) and thus fewer ideas coming from individuals. He bandied about the word transparency. He used the word new several times, often in front of words like “initiatives,” and then, just for good measure I imagine, added words or phrases like transdisciplinarity or polymorphous vantage points. I wasn’t quite sure about the former term, and was (and remain) completely lost on the latter.

Of course this was many years ago now, and maybe he really used different words than these, but whatever he really said, it was more or less in such a vein, at least as far as I can recall all these years later. I am pretty sure of one thing, though: he advocated, more than just obliquely, for the community standards to usurp any possibly offensive ideas—ideas that did not conform to the community’s notions of what was acceptable. I don’t know for sure what he meant by that, but from the tone of the rest of the meeting, which was really more of a political rally, I imagine that he meant that such an offensive idea might be expected to come from someone on the “far right.”

Now before I go on, let me say that the far right, like the far left, often expresses some ideas that are to my mind unbecoming. If fascists, Nazis and racists represent the far right, then I am as disgusted as the next man (or, rather, as Prime Minister Trudeau would say, the next people[-kind]).[2] And nobody likes hearing Nazis talk, especially when they are running for congress in Illinois in 2018.[3] Wow. But to say they haven’t the right to have their bad opinions or to express them—well, that’s a “wow,” too. In fact, one could cogently make the case that simply removing bad ideas doesn’t make them go away. It could make them worse. Al-Qaeda was more destructive when it was bunkered in caves than when it was out in the open where it could get shot. Simply suppressing bad ideas doesn’t allow you to construct positive alternatives to them, to address their underlying concerns constructively and with a view to the common good.

Where I am I going with all this? To Chicago, I think. Not the Chicago Tribune, with which this piece began, but to the “Chicago Statement,” which seems to me the most sensible statement since that of President Everett Piper of the Oklahoma Wesleyan University who said to a student who was complaining being victimized, “This is not a daycare. It’s a university.”[4]

All coddling aside, here is the Chicago Statement, written by Geoffrey R. Stone, Professor and former Provost, taken directly from the University of Chicago’s website:[5]

Eighty years ago, a student organization at the University of Chicago invited William Z. Foster, the Communist Party’s candidate for President, to lecture on campus. This triggered a storm of protest from critics both on and off campus. To those who condemned the University for allowing the event, University President Robert M. Hutchins responded that “our students . . . should have freedom to discuss any problem that presents itself.” He insisted that the “cure” for ideas we oppose “lies through open discussion rather than through inhibition.” On a later occasion, Hutchins added that “free inquiry is indispensable to the good life, that universities exist for the sake of such inquiry, [and] that without it they cease to be universities.”

This incident captures both the spirit and the promise of the University of Chicago. Because the University is committed to free and open inquiry in all matters, it guarantees all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn. Except insofar as limitations on that freedom are necessary to the functioning of the University, the University of Chicago fully respects and supports the freedom of all students, faculty and staff “to discuss any problem that presents itself,” free of interference.

This is not to say that this freedom is absolute. In narrowly-defined circumstances, the University may properly restrict expression, for example, that violates the law, is threatening, harassing, or defamatory, or invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests. Moreover, the University may reasonably regulate the time, place and manner of expression to ensure that it does not disrupt the ordinary activities of the University.

Fundamentally, however, the University is committed to the principle that it may not restrict debate or deliberation because the ideas put forth are thought to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. It is for the members of the University community to make those judgments for themselves.

As a corollary to this commitment, members of the University community must also act in conformity with this principle. Although faculty, students and staff are free to criticize, contest and condemn the views expressed on campus, they may not obstruct, disrupt, or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe.

For members of the University community, as for the University itself, the proper response to ideas they find offensive, unwarranted and dangerous is not interference, obstruction, or suppression. It is, instead, to engage in robust counter-speech that challenges the merits of those ideas and exposes them for what they are. To this end, the University has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.

As Robert M. Hutchins observed, without a vibrant commitment to free and open inquiry, a university ceases to be a university. The University of Chicago’s long-standing commitment to this principle lies at the very core of the University’s greatness.

In these politically correct, trigger-warning-ready, safe-space-provided, coddling times in which we live, the Chicago Statement seems to me to be a good kind of wow.

[1] Kathleen Parker, “The ‘Swaddled Generation’ and the Suppression of Ideas,” 21 May 2015: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/ct-free-speech-college-campuses-trigger-warnings-20150521-story.html

[2] “The questioner ended by asking Trudeau to look at laws surrounding the charitable status of religious organisations, saying: ‘Maternal love is the love that’s going to change the future of mankind.’ To which Trudeau replied ‘We like to say ‘peoplekind’, not necessarily ‘mankind’, because it’s more inclusive.’” Quote taken from the article of 7 February 2018 in The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/feb/07/justin-trudeau-apologises-joke-personkind-viral

[3]https://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2018/02/08/cnns_alisyn_camerota_vs_holocaust_denier_running_for_congress_in_illinois_youre_a_nazi.html

[4] https://www.okwu.edu/blog/2015/11/this-is-not-a-day-care-its-a-university/

[5] https://freeexpression.uchicago.edu/page/statement-principles-free-expression

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