Please Just Throw Me a Bone with the Wesleyan Argus Controversy
you know admitting exceptions often makes arguments stronger gang
Another week, another opportunity for our media class to freak out when it’s suggested that we are living in an age that’s not friendly to open debate. The absolute madness this anodyne NYT op-ed provoked among the NPR tote bag set should be listed in the DSM. Just an absolute shriek of anger from the privileged, overeducated Brooklynites (in spirit if not in geography) who have put our intellectual culture in such a stranglehold.
I could go through the usual litany, starting with the fact that free speech and the First Amendment are not coterminous, that democratic society requires not just legal protection of the right to express oneself but a culture of open exchange, a shared social understanding that the only way to solve our myriad problems with their irreducible complexity is through an actually-existing free discursive space. I could also point out that liberals and leftists who insist that free speech refers only to freedom from government interference are swallowing libertarian ideology hook, line, and sinker, simply rolling over to the idea that private forces like corporations can’t abridge rights, and all for momentary argumentative convenience. I could do that.
But it would all be for naught. You have to understand this to understand our media class: the number one priority in their entire lives, above and beyond literally any other, is to earn insider status with other people in media. That’s it. That is their lodestar, their true north. They want other people in media to see them as cool and smart and fuckable, and most of all they want to have the right opinions, the opinions that the group doesn’t laugh at. The mirror image of the desperation to be considered cool is the intense, all-consuming fear of being made fun of by cool people in media. Look at the way they write, report, communicate with each other; these people are absolutely terrified that someone’s going to take something they say and hold it up for mockery on Twitter. This seems to me to be pretty much exactly the opposite attitude you should want among writers and journalists, who literally can only perform their function when they are pissing most people off. But that’s the professional culture of media, a culture defined by the fear of being made fun of.
And that’s why, when these debates go down, they never, ever say “well this scenario wasn’t ideal, I agree, but….” They can’t admit exceptions. Demonstrating themselves to be good and upstanding members of the in-crowd to which they relentlessly aspire forces them to deny the very notion of an exception. But I have to believe there are free speech controversies so bad that even they could be forced to admit an exception. So I’m going to tell you about a little controversy over free expression that was not, in any sense, ambiguous.
In the fall of 2015, the Wesleyan Argus published an op/ed by a student that criticized BlackLivesMatter. The piece did not, in fact, disagree with the ends of the movement, which were praised, but with the tactics used to achieve them. Given that movement’s perpetual inability to turn good publicity into change, that would seem to be fair game. But no. (It didn’t help that the author of the piece in question was 30 years old and a veteran of the war in Iraq, not exactly the archetypal Wesleyan student.) The response from students was furious and swift. They organized a campaign of denunciation that resulted in the author becoming a pariah on campus. OK, sure. That not being enough, they worked to defund the paper, to get the paper shut down. At a liberal arts college - a type of institution that exists literally for no reason before the exchange of ideas, including the angry exchange of controversial ideas - the students tried to kill a beloved campus paper because it published something they didn’t like.
Now. It is typical, during these controversies, for media liberals to take two tacks with this sort of thing. The first is to assert, usually on dubious grounds, that the controversy wasn’t really what it seemed, that there was some sort of extenuating circumstances that undermined the critical narrative. The second is simply to say, who cares, college doesn’t matter. Neither of these tactics can move me, for the same reason: I grew up on Wesleyan, have friends and family members who remain part of the Wesleyan community, and in a sense I still consider myself a part of the community though I’m rarely physically present there. And I can tell you, first, that there was never anything ambiguous about what the controversy was - campus activists didn’t like an essay that had been published in the school paper, so they tried to destroy the paper. Period, then end, that’s it, that’s what happened. This isn’t a question of a badly-worded article describing the fight or the conservative media bending the narrative. Dozens or hundreds of students at Wesleyan thought that an appropriate response to the publication of an argument they didn’t like was the annihilate the publication. I know. I paid great attention to this story for years. That synopsis is entirely accurate and fair.
The second tactic that’s used when these stories flare up is to declare them unimportant. It’s not that you defend the censorious students, it’s just that you assert that tiny liberal arts colleges don’t matter and it’s uncool if you pay attention to them. Why worry about free speech on campus in the era of Donald Trump?, they ask. Here again, I can’t go along with it. As I said, Wesleyan is a community that I’ve been invested in for my entire life. I care about it. It matters to me. And it matters to hundreds of staff and faculty, thousands of students, tens of thousands of alumni, and tens of thousands of members of the greater Middletown community in which Wesleyan is embedded. Every little unimportant liberal arts college is a community of thousands. What’s more, I care about college as a culture, as a concept, and these periodic bursts of censoriousness suggest broader unhealthy dynamics. And for the record we spend about 2.5% of GDP a year on higher education in this country - that’s over $500 billion, but who’s counting - so I think “hey college is just for parties, who cares” defense just doesn’t fly. We invest immense amounts of money and social importance into college and to dismiss what happens there as unimportant is disingenuous in the extreme.
A year or so after the Argus controversy Christopher Hoffman of the Columbia Journalism Review declared that “More than a year later, it’s almost as if the controversy never happened.” I cannot agree. I still have a lot of connections in my network there, whether in a faculty or administrative capacity. And the effect of the controversy was very real and long-lasting. You have to understand that the Argus has always had a special place in the heart of the campus community, and attacking it so directly, and with such bald motives, really wounded a lot of people. I don’t read the Argus as habitually as I did when I was a teenager, but I know several people who believe that the paper essentially devolved into self-censorship for years later, stung by the controversy. And the fact that the paper was not ultimately defunded is less important to me than the fact that students thought destroying a publication was an appropriate way to respond to someone expressing ideas they didn’t like within it. Besides, this happened in 2015. Had it happened in 2020, would the administration have held firm? Knowing the school as well as I do, I honestly, sincerely doubt it.
To the Argus controversy you could add, to pick just a few, the fact that Oberlin students made formal demands calling for the firing of professors and staff who disagreed with them; that Amherst students demanded that students who criticized their protests be formally disciplined by the college; that UC Santa Barbara students voted to adopt a broad trigger warning policy that would in effect allow any student to skip any class material without penalty to grades; that Laura Kipnis was subject to repeated investigation for writing an essay students didn’t like; or any number of other campus academic freedom controversies. They are legion. I know, I know, I know - it’s just college, who cares, it’s not cool to talk about this stuff. It gets harder and harder to believe that anyone would argue there’s not a trend here, but again, in-group status demands you never break ranks, and our chattering class isn’t going to risk being on the wrong side of this.
I wish these people could throw me just one bone and acknowledge that the Argus affair was actually, genuinely bad. I can’t conceive of a defense in principle of attempts to shutter a campus paper because it published an op/ed you disagree with. Not coming from anyone with even the smallest investment in academic freedom. Say that it was one instance at a school with a small enrollment and it blew over, fine. But please, don’t do the thing where you try to lawyer your way to a claim that it wasn’t a free speech or academic freedom issue. It was bad, it sucked, it had a negative impact on the culture of the campus, just say it was bad.
Is the concept of an exception itself now rejected in spaces dictated by “social justice” mores? I think it is. The ratchet only goes in one direction. And what they all understand very well is that the only way to avoid ever being the condemned is to always side with the prosecutors.
I don't know anything about the Wesleyan controversy, but the reaction to the NYT op-ed seems to prove the point. If there were no threat to open discourse in our culture, nobody would care about that op-ed at all. Most of us would not even know it was written. Why are journalists *so threatened* by this idea? Why is there so much vitriol? Do these people really not see the contradiction, or is there just so much pressure to say the right thing publicly they won't let themselves consider what's staring them in the face?
Yes. Here's my anodyne reply on Twitter to one Adam Davidson who's spent that last few days railing against that editorial: "This is not complicated. There are any number of *legitimate* policy debates—e.g. how much affirmative action, where, and for whom; or trans people in sports and prisons; or criminal justice reform—that many people are afraid to opine on in certain settings. That fear helps no one." That anyone who actually *lives* in this country could disagree with that is insane. And of course, when those who feel censored take their revenge in the privacy of the voting booth, these same people are shocked, shocked.