Of Free Speech and Trigger Warnings

novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline (1894-1961)

Any threat to free speech, or the imagining of a shadow of a hint of a threat, puts writers on guard in the U.S., protected as we are by the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Even though that Amendment states “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech,” we have enacted sensible abridgements that balance other rights. These include fraud, child pornography, speech that incites lawless action, knowingly false statements of fact (such as falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing panic). Copyright, on one hand a right authors cherish because it puts food on the table, on the other hand is an abridgement of free speech. (No, you may not perform my play without permission.)

Don’t run off yet; I have not pulled out a musty law school paper. One troubling aspect of America’s troubling trend of increasing polarization are efforts on multiple fronts to chip away at free speech. In this week’s blog I’m standing my watch at the ramparts.

In March the conservative political scientist Charles Murray went to Middlebury College in Vermont to give a talk. The students who had invited Murray thought a discussion of ideas in his 2012 book Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010 would be interesting in light of Trump’s election. Murray, 74, is a fellow at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute. He is a controversial figure because his 1974 book The Bell Curve linked lower socio-economic status with race and intelligence. At Middlebury hundreds of students shouted him down, preventing his speech in an encounter that turned violent and injured a faculty member.

Nearer to home, Evergreen State College, 60 miles south of Seattle, was closed for several days in June as protests over racial issues turned violent. A biology professor, Bret Weinstein (as it happens, a liberal), was maligned and threatened because he wrote in an email “on a college campus, one’s right to speak – or to be [present] – must never be based on skin color,” as a response to the suggestion by African-American students and supporters that white students and faculty vacate the campus for a day. Whatever violence did occur (sticks and bats and $10,000 of property damage were reported), it became exaggerated by social media. Evergreen’s president wrote, “As we took steps to de-escalate conflict on campus, Twitter feeds blew up with misinformation.” An Evergreen student told the Washington Post that there had been “a breakdown of civility, a breakdown of willingness to communicate and find common ground.”

These shameful incidents at Middlebury and Evergreen are a microcosm of a breakdown in the larger society and particularly in our political discourse. Incivility and an unwillingness to tolerate, let alone actually hear, differing views are hardly restricted to college campuses these days. Nor are the amplifying and distorting effects of social media.

If there is a coherent intellectual foundation for the recent campus protests, it is likely to be found under the rubric of “intersectionality,” a term I didn’t know two months ago. Coined by the legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, the theory posits that all discrimination is linked (“intersects”) because it is rooted in power structures that foster inequality for all minorities. Prejudice piles atop prejudice. There can be no distinct struggles against prejudice because class, race, gender, sexual identity and other signifiers are bound together by an oppression that is institutional and systemic.

Trigger warnings, which are intended to forewarn readers or listeners of content that might traumatize them, are another trend on college campuses. This trend has gained currency during the same period that our society has become more polarized. The adjacency is perhaps not coincidental. We have become less tolerant and more fearful of differing views, regardless of their source – politician, teacher or a book, play or film.

Even though college is now some 45 years behind me, I can vividly recall two books that knocked me off my feet. The bleakness and pessimism of Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s novel Journey to the End of the Night roused (triggered, if you like) those conditions in me, and they hung around for a long time. Céline, through his art, forced me to question my own views of reality and human relations. His take on life depressed me but at the same time I was thrilled to be learning what a giant, complex world it was out there, so much vaster than my own humble, circumscribed background.

The other book was Anna Karenina. I was studying late at night in the student union building at the University of Washington. Few students were around as I was finishing Tolstoy’s lengthy novel for a class assignment. When I came to the scene where Anna, having decided her situation is hopeless, is going to jump under the train, I was so scared that I had a minor panic attack. Tolstoy’s brilliant artistry had me standing beside Anna at her moment of suicide. I recall an impulse to go find the professor until I realized his office hours probably didn’t include midnight.

While Tolstoy had me scared shitless, as I might have put it that night in the student union building, not all that far removed from my fear and panic were admiration for what a remarkable writer Tolstoy was and a recognition that this was a reason I was privileged to study at a university.

The esteemed literary scholar Stephen Greenblatt recently wrote an essay in New Yorker magazine about his experience as a Jew from a humble background attending anti-Semitic Yale University in the early 1960s: “I wouldn’t turn away from works that caused me pain as well as pleasure. Instead, insofar as I could, I would pore over the whole vast, messy enterprise of culture as if it were my birthright, including what was toxic in it, as completely as possible. I’m now an English professor at Harvard, and in recent years some of my students have seemed acutely anxious when they are asked to confront the crueler strains of our cultural legacy. In my own life, that would have meant closing many of the books I found most satisfying. . . What you inherit, what you receive from a world that you did not fashion but that will do its best to fashion you, is at once beautiful and repellent. You somehow have to come to terms with what is ugly as well as what is precious.”

A youth navigating the wobbly threshold from adolescence to adulthood is not well served by being shielded from life’s ugliness in an academic environment nor by not having their views challenged. They will be challenged by the ugly, the immoral, the venal every year of their life from here on out. Being exposed to it in college is not cruelty; it is preparation and even inoculation for the ugliness that assuredly lies ahead. If you doubt me, go find a copy of Journey to the End of the Night or its sequel Death on the Installment Plan and let Louis-Ferdinand Céline explain.

P.S. The Dramatists Guild Legal Defense Fund, in concert with Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC) and Actors’ Equity Association (AEA), is presenting a program titled Banned Together across the country during Banned Books Week, Sept. 24-30. The program consists of readings and songs from plays that have been subjected to censorship in the U.S. The Seattle  performance, which I am helping organize, will be presented at ACT Theatre the evening of Monday, Sept. 25.

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