When I was a child, I came home from school one day and told my father about an argument I had with a friend. I can’t remember what it was about, but I’ll never forget what Dad said. “When something goes wrong, the easiest thing to do is blame someone else,” he explained. “It’s much harder to ask what you did to make this happen.”
I’ve been thinking about Dad’s comment during the recent wave of Republican attacks on public education. Across the country, state legislatures led by the Republican Party have approved measures restrict what schools and universities can teach about race and gender. Leading the charge is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who banned Advanced Placement African American History for allegedly “indoctrinating” students. a new DeSantis-inspired bill in Florida it would limit tenure protections for college professors and prohibit them from teaching material “based on exploratory, theoretical, or unproven content” or describing American history “as contrary to . . . universal principles established in the Declaration of Independence”.
And if you don’t know what that means, join the crowd. All of these measures are abhorrent precisely because they are ambiguous and empower politicians like DeSantis to censor whatever they want. Anyone who cares about freedom, for teachers, professors, and students, should take up arms. I certainly am.
But I also believe that my fellow liberals enabled these attacks, by eroding freedom themselves. And you can’t protect it with one hand if you prevent it with the other.
Consider the speech codes of universities, which have mostly been enacted by left-leaning administrators. The Supreme Court has ruled such speech can only be restricted if it represents “a serious expression of intent to commit an act of unlawful violence against a particular individual or group of individuals.” But many university codes go much further. Carleton University forbids “verbal or psychological abuse”; State of California-Monterey Bay bars “any threat or action of physical, emotional or verbal harm in any form”.
So does that mean you can’t say anything someone would find offensive? Again, nobody knows. and that’s why so many teachers and students they are biting their tongues. They are not afraid of DeSantis or any other conservative leader; they are afraid that a liberal university dean or director of diversity, equity and inclusion will come after them.
And they have good reason to worry. A professor at the University of Augsburg was suspended after a student read aloud to his class a reading assigned by James Baldwin that uses the N-word. A professor at the University of Southern California was suspended for saying a Chinese word that sounded like the N.Y word a University of Illinois law professor was suspended for an exam question about a plaintiff named “n___” and “b___”. He didn’t spell the words, but he didn’t have to either; the students complained and he was removed from the course.
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So was a professor at Hamline University who showed her students images of the Prophet Muhammad in an art history class. She preceded the activity by noting, correctly, that Muslims disagreed with the pictorial representations of the Prophet. It doesn’t matter. A Muslim student took offense, so the teacher had to leave.
Undoubtedly, some professors survive this type of inquisition. Administrators at the University of Michigan Office of Institutional Equity spent several months researching student complaints against Phoebe Gloeckner, who showed allegedly misogynistic and racist images in his cartoon class. Ultimately, the case was dropped. But Gloeckner also decided to remove his own work from an exhibit on campus, lest it attract the attention of insulted onlookers.
And then there are the new words, which everyone is encouraged to say even if no one has yet been disciplined for not using them. Gone are the “Hispanics” or “Latinos”; the proper term du jour at our universities is “Latinx,” even though most Hispanics and Latinos neither approves nor recognizes it. The goal is clear: create a culture of coercion, where people on campus use the “good” words if they know what’s good for them.
Let’s be clear: There is no equivalence, none, between Republican and Democratic efforts to restrict speech in the classroom. To take the most obvious difference, the Republican movement has the power of law. I haven’t heard anyone on my side of the aisle suggest that saying the N word or showing pictures of the Prophet should be illegal.
But these campaigns come from the same place, even if they lack the same force. All censors believe that certain words and ideas are simply too dangerous and destructive to share in public. They just point to different things.
For the past decade, I’ve been warning my fellow liberals that their efforts to restrict free speech will one day backfire on them. Unfortunately, that day has come. Of course we must fight to defend our freedoms from Ron DeSantis and other Republican minions. But we also have to look in the mirror, as my father taught me, and ask ourselves how we contributed to the problem. We may not like what we see.
Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of “Whose America: Culture Wars in Public Schools”, which was recently published in a revised 20th anniversary edition of the University of Chicago Press.