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Eternal Childhood of the Spotless Mind: Speech Codes in the Neoliberal University

02/18/2015 10:35 am ET | Updated Apr 20, 2015

Every morning, on my way to teach at Duke, I pass a display of civility marketing. Poster-sized pictures of students, done in that art-photo-meets-advertising style, inform me that "We Don't Say ... faggot, man up, 'What are you?'" -- that we are sensitive here to the subtle, complex ways of identity, and to the danger of insulting, triggering, micro-aggressing against other Dukies.

This is fine by me. I am generally a fan of considerateness, and the terms of considerateness change as identity changes. And by calling it considerateness, I don't mean to trivialize it; recognition and dignity are political issues, always have been. Duke's sensitivity ads are perfectly valid ways of trying to turn a campus into a certain kind of sub-culture, which campuses always are. It has always seemed hysterical to me that this kind of thing strikes the occasional conservative polemicist as somehow totalitarian.

This morning, a kind of conservative, law professor Eric Posner, came to the defense of campus speech codes -- not sensitivity ads, but codes, with punishments. His argument is much more revealing than the usual fears that university administrators are identity-politics Maoists. It is also totally depressing.

Posner's argument has two main parts. (He also points out that the classroom always has speech codes because it can't be a say-anything environment any more than a game of soccer could allow you to run off the field, which is so obviously right that it shouldn't need saying.) First, he points out that when universities impose speech codes, they are responding to consumer demand. This is what the people want. What complaint could a libertarian have against that?

Second, he says, speech codes reflect the cultural fact that we now regard people under 21 or 22 as children -- incapable of making responsible decisions, "larval" in Posner's words, and needing lots of kinds of protection from their own mistakes: chemical, sexual, ideological, and verbal.

So, Posner says, let's declare a truce. Conservatives should be glad that campuses are back in the business of moral education. Liberals should like the sensitivity-oriented content of the education. And libertarians should like that these speech codes are market-driven in the consumer-oriented neoliberal university.

What's so troubling about Posner's argument is that he has the description exactly right, and it doesn't bother him at all. There used to be an idea that universities were training members of the public to be citizens, which meant preparing them to consider inconvenient arguments, hold (or yield) their own ground against challenge, balance their own feelings and experience against larger perspectives, and contribute to some kind of judgment -- a political judgment -- on behalf of the whole. I am not being nostalgic. This was always imperfect, hypocritical, blind to its own blind spots, and so forth: the 1960s campus revolt raged against all those hypocrisies, and wasn't wrong. But even that revolt wanted to press the principle deeper: to treat students as responsible citizens, shaping their own institutions and their own collective futures.

All trace of this is gone in Posner's universities. When he says that students, at 22 or so, can be released to take up "the responsibilities of adulthood," he must mean holding down jobs, being nice, and not taking political disagreement too seriously. The students he's imagining will not have been prepared for anything more. From the neoliberal university, they will emerge into neoliberal citizenship.

Of course, our current version of citizenship is hardly all nice all the time. It's a culture of relentless insult and ubiquitous grievance, where everyone up to a billionaire hedge-funder can complain of feeling disrespected and threatened by someone's speech. It's equal time on comment threads, ripping up your opponents. (This morning, someone tweeted a description of me as "uniquely detestable, worm-infested pile of dog feces on the lawn of intellectual culture," which is not the worst thing I've been called but the laziest, if only because worms are good for poop, turning it onto soil.)

But all this trivial nastiness is excused by the fact that none of it matters. Government is for experts -- marketers and administrators, the people with skills from economics departments and business schools. Citizens are consumers - mostly of goods and services, occasionally of partisan cage-fight entertainment. Political invective, like political campaigns, is just another market. We trash-talk one another, we vote, and then things go on pretty much as before -- in growing inequality, eroding public infrastructure and institutions, and, on the other side (and this really is a gain), more niceness and openness in every sphere of life except politics. Universities, in fact, train you for a job, and the rest -- the political philosophy class with its theories of justice, the cultural theory class about hegemony -- are for recreation and style.

I am exaggerating, of course, to capture a certain mood: but it is the mood that defunds public universities, especially their humanities departments, and teaches students to ask relentlessly about the return on investment of their courses, extra-curriculars, and mentorships. It is the mentality that accepts massive student debt as a way of enforcing market logic in education: study only what pays for itself on the market. It is also the mood that accepts the huge distortion of politics by money: after all, if you don't really believe in equal and responsible and citizenship, what are you losing when billionaires' private campaigns define elections?

It strikes me as peculiar that, even as left and right are entertaining a rapprochement around the principle that college students are children and not to be trusted with political opinions, my social-media feeds are full of a genre of video where an 8-year old "explains" climate change, tolerance, income inequality, or some other thing that my tribe and I care about. The phrase "this kid nails it!" is usually part of the blurb. I know the same thing exists on the right, which celebrates its pre-pubescent, home-schooled bloggers.

What exactly is this? Why are college students "children" when they try to be political, while actual children get clickbaited as political truth-tellers? I'm afraid they're two sides of the same counterfeit coin. If political views aren't things that count, things that you struggle to develop through challenging encounter and hard work, if you don't have to learn to be challenged -- if they're entertainment for market demographics -- then politics will have its prodigies: freakishly gifted imitators of their parents.

Politics is kids' stuff, and in today's topsy-turvy world of perpetual pseudo-youth, only adults can really be trusted with kids' stuff, because they know not to take it too seriously. Knowing better than to take it seriously, knowing that it's just entertainment -- that's part of the adult responsibility that, in Posner's telling, colleges are preparing their students to enter.

I still am not sure what I think about campus speech codes, as opposed to sensitivity propaganda, which I dislike aesthetically but think is perfectly valid and probably to the good. Speech codes tend to misfire in awful ways, and the bar for accepting them should be extremely high.

But I am sure that treating young adults as kids -- specifically in matters of citizenship, when we are treating them as adults in the sense of letting them take on massive debt and prepare for careers they can have no idea of, yet, at their tender ages -- careers like "consultant" and "social entrepreneur" that hardly match any lived reality they could know -- is an abdication of university life's civic role that reflects, and capitulates to, an abdication and evacuation of politics in the larger culture.

Eric Posner is at least half-right. I just wish it bothered him more.