Today the NY Times published an opinion piece by a senior at the University of Virginia named Emma Camp. Camp’s basic argument is that her college campus has become a place where students learn to self-censor out of fear of becoming a punching bag for progressives eager to call out other students in class.
In the classroom, backlash for unpopular opinions is so commonplace that many students have stopped voicing them, sometimes fearing lower grades if they don’t censor themselves. According to a 2021 survey administered by College Pulse of over 37,000 students at 159 colleges, 80 percent of students self-censor at least some of the time. Forty-eight percent of undergraduate students described themselves as “somewhat uncomfortable” or “very uncomfortable” with expressing their views on a controversial topic during classroom discussions. At U.Va., 57 percent of those surveyed feel that way.
When a class discussion goes poorly for me, I can tell. During a feminist theory class in my sophomore year, I said that non-Indian women can criticize suttee, a historical practice of ritual suicide by Indian widows. This idea seems acceptable for academic discussion, but to many of my classmates, it was objectionable.
The room felt tense. I saw people shift in their seats. Someone got angry, and then everyone seemed to get angry.
If you’re not familiar with suttee (or sati) is the ancient practice of women throwing themselves onto a funeral pyre for a deceased husband. It was outlawed by the British nearly 200 years ago but in 2006 the Associated Press reported that it was still revered by some Indians in rural areas. The idea that such a loathsome practice would be considered off limits to criticism except from Indian women is absurd and a good example of the left’s obsession with race going too far. Later in the story, Camp describes a progressive friend who was piled on in class for disagreeing with the professor’s take on “Captain Marvel.”
This anxiety affects not just conservatives. I spoke with Abby Sacks, a progressive fourth-year student. She said she experienced a “pile-on” during a class discussion about sexism in media. She disagreed with her professor, who she said called “Captain Marvel” a feminist film. Ms. Sacks commented that she felt the film emphasized the title character’s physical strength instead of her internal conflict and emotions. She said this seemed to frustrate her professor.
Her classmates noticed. “It was just a succession of people, one after each other, each vehemently disagreeing with me,” she told me.
Ms. Sacks felt overwhelmed. “Everyone adding on to each other kind of energized the room, like everyone wanted to be part of the group with the correct opinion,” she said. The experience, she said, “made me not want to go to class again.” While Ms. Sacks did continue to attend the class, she participated less frequently. She told me that she felt as if she had become invisible.
Of course being shunned in class isn’t the end of the world but the fact that even something as trivial as the politics of Captain Marvel is treated as something on which actual discussion is discouraged shows you how far this has gone.
The response to this opinion piece has been, predictably, unhinged. I saw people on the left complaining about it before I even read the piece.
Dear NYT — I've given up asking myself why every college student with a certain kind of beef gets to bellyache in your pages for a couple thousand words. But, given current events, an editor might have suggested that writing "I have been brave" re: a dorm-sign beef is a bit off.
— Charles P. Pierce (@CharlesPPierce) March 7, 2022
Nikole Hannah Jones did a whole thread about it. This is just the end of it.
I also do not understand the notion that you are so afraid to speak up about your views that you write about them for your school newspaper and now you write an entire opinion piece in the NYT. But sure.
— Ida Bae Wells (@nhannahjones) March 7, 2022
My friend Jeryl Bier did a round-up of other reactions on his site. I think this one probably takes the cake for the most extreme reaction. Just accuse the author/editor of racism based on the photo.
It does not escape my notice that the backdrop for this photo is the site of the infamous neo-Nazi tiki torch rally on August 11, 2017, and it should not escape your notice, either.https://t.co/bIYEbOcFFQ
— Emilite Gorcenski (@EmilyGorcenski) March 7, 2022
But some people noticed how tone-deaf the critics sound. The young author claims students are self-censoring for fear of leftist scolds and the professional leftist scolds all come out without being asked to say that the NY Times shouldn’t have published her story and or to attack the author.
Interesting to see how an article is posted on free speech and the responses from some *very smart people*(tm) is basically twitter-shaming the young author without a hint of insight. https://t.co/pE4voKi7EK
— Chris Ferguson 🐉 (@CJFerguson1111) March 7, 2022
The comments on the piece are a similar mix. The top comment is one claiming that “At bottom, her complaint is that her opinions are socially unpopular.” That’s not really it but thanks for trying. What Camp is actually describing is a college campus where people are afraid to speak for fear of being put on blast by a very vocal left-wing contingent that enjoys punishing anyone who disagrees. Plenty of other readers understood that:
I don’t know whether the backlash this piece has inspired is ridiculous or depressing. The truth is that anyone who has spent time on a college campus in the last few years knows what this author is talking about. There is an ever-narrowing range of permissible opinion, and any apparent divergence from it risks serious social repercussions. No one really speaks their mind, except those who are most religious in their adherence to the favored ideology. I taught a university seminar recently where students repeatedly thanked me– in private– for putting tough questions to guest speakers. The students were afraid to challenge the speakers themselves– not because they were afraid of them, but because they were afraid of the other students in the room. And the truth is that even I pulled a lot of punches for exactly the same reason.
It’s fine for debate to be heated. It’s even fine to judge people based on the opinions they hold and express. But when almost no one feels like they can really speak their mind without being punished for it, something really has gone wrong.
I relate to this article one million percent. I graduated in 2015 from an undergraduate program that was meant to be constant debate on theory and ideas and I never felt like I could speak up and debate ideas in class freely. It led to very boring discussions that revolved around talking about this discussion and how it should be conducted rather than actually talking about the theories and reading we were there to discuss! There was also very open disrespect for professors that weren’t considered progressive enough (these were already quite progressive people).
Anyway, the author has clearly struck a nerve. You can tell by all of the progressives doing their best to attack her.