Is Free Speech on Campus Under Threat in Age of ‘Empathetic Correctness’?

Kevin Truong, Christian Science Monitor, July 30, 2015

Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis acknowledged she was being a little irreverent when she wrote an article about student-professor relationships.

“Forgive my slightly mocking tone,” she wrote in the article, “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe.” “When I was in college, hooking up with professors was more or less part of the curriculum.”

She was surprised, and a little amused, when she heard that students were lugging mattresses up to the college president’s office in protest of the article.

It became less funny when the professor, who writes about gender identity and sexual politics, was notified that an sexual discrimination complaint under Title IX had been filed against her, leading to a two-month investigation before she was cleared of all charges.

While Professor Kipnis says she does not want to be held up as a test case, many academic observers wrote about her story. Some called it a lesson on the cultural sensitivities that, some critics say, are increasingly turning college campuses into a free-speech minefield.

Take the “bias-free language guide” developed by students and staff at the University of New Hampshire in 2013. It found the use of the world “American” problematic because it didn’t recognize South America.

The guide was never campus policy, President Mark Huddleston told USA Today Wednesday after the guide went viral.

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What began in the 1990s as political correctness–a desire not to offend others–has now morphed into what one academic observer calls “empathetic correctness”–a desire never to be offended. Even celebrities have weighed in on the debate, with comedians Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher saying the environment at college makes it almost impossible to do their routines without someone becoming upset.

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Professors can feel disincentivized to bring up controversial issues up in class for fear of getting in trouble either with administration or with students that they may offend, critics say.

Liberty University Professor Karen Swallow Prior says she does not personally feel afraid to speak freely, but over the past few years she has observed a shift among students from the desire to not offend other people, into an effort to protect one’s self from being offended.

Professor Prior coined the term “empathetic correctness” to describe this phenomenon and used the classroom example of students refusing to read texts that challenge their own personal comfort.

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The shift toward a consumer-catered higher education system means resort amenities like rock walls and lazy rivers on campuses, says Richard Arum, a professor of sociology and education at New York University, but also in the rise of academic environment where student comfort is held up over open debate.

“Now, because you’re interested in catering to the 17-year-old, you’ve set up a system where the administration chooses to disinvest from academics and invest in students’ whims,” says Professor Arum. He traces the roots of the trend back to the 1960s, when the federal government started shifting funding from institutional grants to student grants–meaning that if colleges wanted those dollars, it needed to attract and keep the most students.

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“I think the Internet and social media does have something to do with it. It’s almost like it was communicable or catching,” says Kipnis, who works as a cultural theorist and wrote about the details of the Title IX investigation in another article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. “I mean that’s how culture works: Students learn to be more sensitive and more vulnerable because there’s this conversation about sensitivity and vulnerability.”

Recent media attention surrounding trigger warnings also may be an example. At first trigger warnings, which began on feminist blogs as a way to facilitate open discussion about sexual assault, were used with regard to material that had graphic descriptions of sexual violence. Recently, students and universities have suggested the notices on increasingly mundane curriculum, including literary classics like “The Great Gatsby.”

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