I recently taught a negotiation workshop at Chevron’s corporate headquarters in San Ramon, California. I was still wearing a suit and tie when I drove my SUV rental across the Bay Bridge through snarled traffic. The car to my left was packed with smiling Millennials. Its windows were down, music blaring. Somehow, I caught their eye. Then they began shouting and gesturing obscenities in my direction. Their taunts included “####ing corporate sell-out” and derisive comments about the the “one-percent.” These were complete strangers. I had done nothing to them other than dress in a manner they found offensive.
It’s Halloween, a day on which Americans dress up and change their appearances for a night of revelry. College students’ costumes tend toward irreverence, which has led the University of Texas to ban “offensive” costumes. For example, “[s]tudents at the University of Texas at Austin have been advised not to wear cowboy hats or cowboy boots on Halloween” (Fox News). Other costumes deemed harmful include gypsies, geishas, and Hawaiians. UT administrators issued students a 29-point checklist, suggesting instead that students dress “Preppy” or like they are at a “Catalina Yacht Mixer.” Given the reaction to my suit and tie on the Bay Bridge, such one-percenter costumes may be just as offensive.
Policies like those at UT are sweeping the nation’s campuses because they are being requested by students. Millennials want to be shielded from classroom discussions, books, and costumes that might offend them. They demand “safe areas” (rooms in which students of the same cultural background can exclude others who are different) and “trigger warnings” (professors caution students in advance about controversial content, giving students the chance to opt out).
Some believe this desire to be protected stems from changes in parenting styles. Others cite repeated exposure to cyber-bullying. Maybe the habit of attacking from the safety of a screen has lowered inhibitions generally. What used to be just thought now spews forth from mouths and twittering thumbs. Professor Forni, cofounder of the Civility Project at Johns Hopkins University, laments that because of the Internet, “[p]eople today are so self-absorbed they don’t know the value of restraint.”
Another (related) possibility is that the Internet has made people less tolerant. Everyone can now exist in their own Internet cocoon. They only read news that confirms their worldviews, and people’s beliefs are constantly reinforced by social media groups (who share them). Growing up in South Texas in the 1970s and 1980s, my community read the same daily newspaper and watched one of three newscasts. We were exposed to many perspectives at once, including those we disagreed with.
College campuses are one of the few remaining environments where vastly different people are forced to listen to each other. The University of Texas has 50,000 students from all 50 states and 120+ nations. There are more than 1,000 student clubs representing every part of America’s cultural and political landscape—from “Queer People of Color” to “The Young Conservatives of Texas”—and someone’s preference is likely to offend another. How do we choose which to suppress?
The University of Chicago has an answer to UT’s dilemma. Rather than trying to censor some speech, it allows all views to be heard. Chicago adheres to the “principle that it may not restrict debate or deliberation because the ideas put forth are thought to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed” (University of Chicago Statement on Principles of Free Expression). Nor may other students seek to intimidate or “shout down” those whose speech they disagree with. If one student has the floor, others “may not obstruct, disrupt, or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe.”
What America needs is more of Chicago’s mutual tolerance. Let students be exposed to difference and learn how to be civil toward those they disagree with. As Professor Forni warned, “[i]f we cannot be civil, our quality of life deteriorates, society itself begins to fray and democracy is weakened.”
About the Gaille Energy Blog. The Gaille Energy Blog discusses issues in the field of energy law, with weekly posts at http://www.gaillelaw.com. Scott Gaille is a Lecturer in Law at the University of Chicago Law School, an Adjunct Professor in Management at Rice University’s Graduate School of Business, and the author of two books on energy law (Shale Energy Development and International Energy Development).