Do Colleges Teach ‘Cheap Dodges’ to Debate & Discussion?

Earlier this fall I was honored to be invited to guest blog at the Volokh Conspiracy and in my first post I wanted to explore whether readers think, as I argue in my book, that college censorship teaches “cheap dodges” to meaningful debate and discussion. Here is my longer explanation, but I’d love to hear what Ricochet readers think:

One theme that I started to develop in the book that I hope to explore further in future writing is how higher education legitimizes and hones what I call “cheap dodges” to debate and discussion. Probably the most well-worn of these campus dodges is the claim of being “offended” by certain speech, but other tactics exist, including the related concept of “feigned outrage.”

In illustrating what my friend and Brookings Institution scholar Jonathan Rauch likes to call the “offendedness sweepstakes,” I draw on a number of examples from popular culture, including the whole kerfuffle around Rush Limbaugh and Sandra Fluke, and other controversies involving Bill Maher, Sarah Palin, and, most ridiculously, Robert DeNiro and Callista Gingrich [check out that story, here].

I also identify cheap dodges that I have run into, both in law school and later on in my work with FIRE. I refer to them as “selective relativism” (the ability of some students to be morally absolutist at one moment and relativist the next, depending on whether it allows them to short circuit a debate they don’t like) and “selective uptightness” (similar to selective relativism, of course). For an illustration of the latter, check out this wacky story about an incident at Cornell involving Margaret Cho and a forbidden font. Yes, a forbidden font.

[Therefore] I have two questions for you:

1) If you do agree that we as a society have become too adept at using cheap dodges to avoid meaningful debate, what do you think the most common of these tactics are?


2) Do you think our colleges and universities are doing a good job of teaching students to avoid these easy outs, or are they in fact encouraging them?

Of course, if you don’t think the use of easy tactics to avoid debate is currently part of a societal trend, please let me know. I’m looking forward to your responses!