I’m never sure what to do with an article like this one by David Bromwich in LRB. The discussion of free speech on campus seems to carry with it a series of rhetorical traps, as though it is impossible to criticize the phenomenon in question (“speech-policing,” “shaming,” “censorship,” or whatever else you want to call it) while maintaining a sense of proportion. It can’t be a bunch of late adolescents trying to figure out their identity in a complex world and sometimes making mistakes — it’s got to be a form of creeping totalitarianism that threatens to undo free speech and democracy once and for all. It’s as though the critics have thoroughly internalized the culture of offense and victimhood they are castigating and can do nothing but reverse it: you think you’re serving social justice, but it turns out that you are oppressing me!
It does seem to me that people sometimes overreact in the other direction. It’s difficult to register a criticism of any kind without being made to feel like the enemy. Sometimes that has made me self-censor in advance, just to avoid being hassled. But it’s not as though the world was deprived of world-shaking insights by my silencing, nor is it the case that “being made to feel like the enemy” is actually that big a deal. I wish the critics of oversensitivity could stop being so damned oversensitive themselves, so eager to take on the mantle of the noble martyr to the cause of free speech.
What worries me about the whole debate is that everyone is working within severe imaginative constraints. There is no positive vision of the world that follows from either of the two opposed positions on acceptable speech on campus — both are a version of “leave me alone.” Both rely heavily on shaming. This is obvious in the case of the dread “social justice warriors,” but it is equally true that their critics proceed mainly by name-calling: you’re oversensitive, you’re entitled, you’re fragile, you’re (God forbid!) a millennial! Both lean heavily on the slippery slope, so that the microaggression is on the same spectrum as a police shooting and the 19-year-old clumsily accusing you of being “problematic” is in training to join the Stasi.
I want to ask the SJWs: What comes after we have appropriately purged our speech of offensive and hurtful phraseologies? What prospect opens up for humanity once I finally train myself to stop saying “you guys”? And I want to ask their prickly critics: What amazing benefits will we derive from a “return” to this fragile utopia of free speech that we have so thoughtlessly left behind? What do we gain once everyone has reached that elusive perfect level of sensitivity, taking offense only when absolutely warranted?
We can’t change the world just by changing the way we talk — not by shaping our language into an instrument of sensitivity and inclusion, nor by finally purging it of the scourge of political correctness. Language isn’t unimportant. The questions people are dealing with by means of trigger warnings and microaggressions and safe spaces are real. But they aren’t the questions, they don’t point us toward a viable solution. Language is a field of power relations but it isn’t the only or even the primary one. We need to change our life, not just our talk.