A National Review article, How to Censor Speakers on College Campuses, is subtitled “Oberlin students trying to censor Christina Hoff Sommers conflate speech and violence.”1 The writer, Charles Cooke, is talking about a speech Christina Hoff Sommers gave at Oberlin, which some Oberlin students protested.
By way of example, take a look at this farcical missive from the Oberlin Review, in which around 150 students at the college claim repeatedly that Sommers was coming to campus to present not a viewpoint with which many of the students vehemently disagree but rather an actual threat to student safety. Sommers, the signatories contend, is not an academic sharing her work, but a participant “in violent movements” and an accessory to “threats of death and rape.” The decision to allow her to speak, they conclude, “has real life consequences on the well-being of people.”
Why did they claim this? Well, largely because they know that it works. As Ace of Spades noted acidly yesterday evening, the “game” is rather simple: “If you claim someone is making you feel ‘unsafe,’” Ace noted “that sets in motion Title IX protections,” and, in consequence, “administrators are under legal peril if they do not act.” He is correct. Indeed, as progressives across the world have come to realize, the most successful way of getting speech banned or condemned is to propose that there is something inherently different about it — something that is so sinister and so mysterious that it is likely to cause both psychic and physical harm. Or rather, as one trumped little agitator named Lydia Smith put it, Sommers’s views are “super f[***]ing oppressive,” and they need to be suppressed.
1) This sort of pathetic bleating from conservatives who scream “censorship” any time a right-winger is protested or disagreed with is impossible to respect. (In comments, RonF posted a link to this funny YouTube video, making fun of Obies for whining pitiously when they encounter opposing opinions – but the criticism would be better applied to the National Review, if Cooke’s article is typical.)
2) Oberlin College – which I feel sure has more competent legal counsel than Charles Cooke or his friend “Ace of Spades” – gave no appearance of feeling itself to be “under legal peril.” At the very least, Oberlin administrators did nothing to prevent Sommers from speaking (Oberlin did distribute copies of their “general policies for dissent/protest,” but those policies – which seemed to have been followed by the protestors at CHS’s speech – protect Sommers’ speech, as well as the protestors’ speech). There’s no evidence that anyone at Oberlin did anything to prevent Sommers from speaking or being heard.
3) A lot of Cooke’s critique comes down to his magical mind-reading powers. According to Cooke, “they claim this” – that CHS is a rape apologist, that she contributes to a culture that has negative consequences, etc – because it serves progressives’ goal “of getting speech banned or condemned” and such claims are “the most successful way” of banning speech.
How does Cooke know the hidden evil motives of Oberlin progressives? Maybe they said what they said because they believe it to be true.
4) Let’s see what those students actually wrote in the Oberlin Review:
A rape denialist is someone who denies the prevalence of rape and denies known causes of it. Christina Hoff Sommers believes that rape occurs less often than statistics (those which actually leave out a plethora of unreported rapes) suggest. She also believes that false rape accusations are a rampant issue and that intoxication and coercion cannot rightly be considered barriers to consent. OCRL additionally failed to mention that she participates in violent movements such as GamerGate, a campaign that threatened feminists advocating against sexism in video games via threats of death and rape. […]
By denying rape culture, she’s creating exactly the cycle of victim/survivor blame, where victims are responsible for the violence that was forced upon them and the subsequent shame that occurs when survivors share their stories, whose existence she denies. This is how rape culture flourishes. By bringing her to a college campus laden with trauma and sexualized violence and full of victims/survivors, OCRL is choosing to reinforce this climate of denial/blame/shame that ultimately has real life consequences on the well-being of people who have experienced sexualized violence.
Cooke quoted out-of-context bits of that letter in a way that makes it seem like Oberlin students had actually accused CHS of being a violent threat to Oberlin students. But in context, the letter makes no such claim. For example, when they say that CHS’s speech has “real life consequences,” they are explicitly referring to a “climate of denial/blame/shame,” not to direct physical violence.
5) Cooke claims that Lydia Smith, who was also one of the signatories of the Oberlin Review letter, said that “Sommers’s views are ‘super f[***]ing oppressive,’ and they need to be suppressed.” This is a fucking2 lie. Here’s a fuller version of Smith’s quote, apparently speaking in character as a parody of CHS:
I have an opinion. My opinion is different from yours (read: ‘general Oberlin consensus’). PS my opinion is actually super fucking oppressive. My view silences people’s lived experiences. My view silences people’s realities. My view silences people’s trauma. But it’s different. In the name of free speech, you better give me the platform to speak.
Smith is making fun of the idea that CHS is owed a platform to speak. But Smith doesn’t advocate censoring CHS, or say that CHS’s views “need to be suppressed.” Cooke simply made that up.
6) The Oberlin protestors showed up; they posted signs outside the hall where CHS was speaking; they organized a counter-event; fifteen or so protestors sat in the front row with tape over their mouths; reports vary, but there may have been a few hecklers who shouted brief comments, but nothing that prevented Sommers from speaking or being heard.
None of that amounts to censorship. At all. In fact, that’s how free speech is supposed to work. Conservatives, contrary to what some of them apparently believe, do not have a free speech right to speak without opposition or criticism.
There’s a real problem – among lefties, among feminists, and among conservatives – of some people being so merciless and unforgiving of political disagreement that it creates a chilling effect on debate and free expression. But that doesn’t seem to have happened here. Oberlin college Republicans brought in Sommers to speak (presumably paying her $5000 fee out of their share of Oberlin’s student activity fund); she spoke; other students objected and held counter-events; according to Sommers, afterwards she went out for drinks with some Oberlin students, including some protestors, and had a spirited but civil disagreement.
Nothing here justifies whining about censorship.
- It’s possible that someone else at the NR, rather than Cooke, was responsible for the title and subtitle of Cooke’s piece. But I think it’s in keeping with Cooke’s piece, and in any case, it’s evident that someone at The National Review – either Cooke himself or his editor – believes that what happened at Oberlin was attempted censorship. [↩]
- Or “f[***]ing” if Cooke prefers. [↩]