The Root of Self-Censorship

Marina Ziemnick

CounterCurrent: Week of 3/13

If you spend any time on Twitter, you likely heard about the New York Times guest essay published last week that gave the academic community an opportunity for self-reflection. (Did it take that opportunity? Of course not.)

In an article titled “I Came to College Eager to Debate. I Found Self-Censorship Instead.,” Emma Camp, a current senior at the University of Virginia, writes about the “strict ideological conformity” that has defined her college experience. She explains that “hushed voices and anxious looks dictate…many conversations on campus” and that “students of all political persuasions hold back—in class discussions, in friendly conversations, on social media—from saying what [they] really think.”

Emma provides more than just anecdotal evidence for her claims. She cites a College Pulse survey of over 37,000 students at 159 colleges in which 80% of the students admitted to self-censoring at least some of the time and 48% said that they were “somewhat uncomfortable” or “very uncomfortable” expressing their views on a controversial topic in class. 

Many on the left were quick to point to Emma’s past internship with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and her upcoming job with Reason as evidence of her supposed affiliation with the conservative right, but Emma is, in fact, a self-described liberal. The views that she fears speaking aloud are fairly vanilla and even typical of left-leaning students: she describes asking questions of her gender and sexuality professor in a low voice and uneasily criticizing ritual suicide by Indian widows in her feminist theory class. 

Emma’s efforts to signal her support for pro-choice policies and anti-racism initiatives were not enough to stave off the fury of the progressive arbiters of acceptable discourse. The Twitter backlash came nearly instantly, and a host of critical articles reacting to the piece soon followed. Some expressed their disappointment with the New York Times for publishing the piece; others (Nikole Hannah-Jones included) gleefully pointed out the irony of writing about censorship in a large outlet. 

In this week’s featured article, National Association of Scholars President Peter Wood describes the oppressive ideology that leads students to self-censor any views that may prove unpopular. Emma highlights a real problem, he says, but she only sees part of the picture. The stifling atmosphere on college campuses stems from the notion of “academic justice” that radical progressives use to justify silencing dissent. We must recognize the root of the issue in order to have any hope of combating it. Dr. Wood writes: 

Today’s campus is effectively ruled by those who present themselves as champions of something like “academic justice.”... they see no need to tolerate opinions that differ from their own superior and supposedly “just” views. They trample on dissent gleefully and are full of righteous indignation towards anyone who would venture even a slight divergence from the prevailing dogmas of the left. …

Speaking up, as Camp writes, takes courage, and if too few speak up, it may simply be reckless. It will take more than speaking up to defeat today’s Korn-topia. It will take an awakening to the real nature of the “social justice” ideology on which this censorious regime is founded. That in turn would require a fundamental reorientation of our colleges and universities that have fallen under the spell of a false ideal. When Camp realizes that, she will know what to do next.

Emma’s article started an important conversation, but it offered neither the full story about nor the antidote to the oppressive atmosphere on college campuses. In order to have any hope of preserving academic freedom and ideological diversity, we must address the toxic ideology at the core of campus censorship head on. Only then can students and professors begin to speak and research freely.

Until next week.

CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’ weekly newsletter, written by Communications Associate Marina Ziemnick. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.

Photo by Aaron Josephson, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

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