This post was authored by Austin Henshaw
President Obama recently spoke out again against the current culture on college campus that has students attempting to shut down speech they don’t agree with in the name of inclusion, including promoting campus wide “safe spaces” from controversial ideas, disinviting speakers from campus, and creating a chilling environment towards campus discourse with the promotion of “trigger warnings.”
Obama, in a Dec. 15 exit interview with NPR, touched on his feelings regarding the current state of discourse on college campuses. NPR’s Inskeep asked if President-elect Trump had a legitimate point that “political correctness in this country has gone too far.” Obama, stuttering for a bit (as usual), conceded that this was a “tricky,” issue, and that “the definition of political correctness is all over the map.”
Obama stated, “When there’s broad disapproval that’s expressed when somebody uses a racial epithet or somebody makes a derogatory comment about women” he wouldn’t consider that to be political correctness gone amok, just “good manners,” a sentiment shared by the majority of people. He then gave his own definition of political correctness as “a hypersensitivity that ends up resulting in people not being able to express their opinions at all without somebody suggesting they’re a victim. If our social discourse and our political discourse becomes like walking on eggshells, so if somebody says I’m not sure affirmative action is the right way to solve racial problems in this country, and somebody’s immediately accused of being racist, then I think you have a point.”
Obama offered some advice following his statement on political correctness: “My advice to progressives like myself, and this is advice I give my own daughters who are about to head off to college, is don’t go around just looking for insults. You’re tough. If somebody says something you don’t agree with, just engage them on their ideas. You don’t have to feel that somehow because you’re a black woman that you’re being assaulted.
Obama’s rhetoric in the past has been critical of the current state of campus discourse, insisting that people who have disagreements should engage in the battle of ideas, rather than simply making meaningless platitudes and refusing to engage with the opposition. This may be due in part to his previous experience as a student protester speaking out against the apartheid in South Africa.
In a “This Week” November 2015 interview with ABC host George Stephanopoulos, Obama lamented about “militant political correctness” being a “recipe for dogmatism.” He told Stephanopoulos “I think it is entirely appropriate for student in a thoughtful, peaceful way, to protest what they see as injustice or inattention to serious problems in their midst…The issue is that while these young people are getting engaged, speaking out, that they aren’t also listening…I don’t want [my daughters] to think that a display of your strength is simply shutting other people up, and that part of your ability to bring about change is going to be by engagement and understanding the viewpoints and the arguments of the other side.”
In September 2015, Obama responded to a student at a town hall event in Des Moines, Iowa “I’ve heard of some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative or they don’t want to read a book if it has language that is offensive to African Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal toward women I’ve got to tell you, I don’t agree with that, either. I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view.”
While Obama’s rhetoric towards campus free expression has been strong these past couple of years, one wouldn’t be blamed if they thought of his words as meaningless platitudes, considering the Obama administration’s policies.
I’ve already covered the negative effects Obama’s administration has had on the campus climate in regards to Title IX and sexual assault which have been lambasted by civil liberties groups like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), and constitutional law professors from multiple institutions across the country. In May of 2013 the Department of Justice and Department of Education joined together to mandate colleges enforce unconstitutional speech codes, in violation of the First Amendment. Under those codes, innocuous comments could be considered punishable by the university, having negative consequences for student freedom of expression and their educational careers.
When it comes to the exchange of ideas on campus, Obama’s words have been strong, but his actions run contrary to his rhetoric. It remains to be seen how President-Elect Trump’s time in the Oval Office will impact campus discourse, but let us hope he at least repeals Obama’s previous actions, even if he doesn’t follow his rhetoric.
Author’s note: For those wishing to learn more about the campus freedom of expression debate, I’d highly recommend the book Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate by President of FIRE Greg Lukianoff. FIRE also offers a Guide to Free Speech on Campus, which would be beneficial for campus administrators and professors to read.