There are those who maintain that there’s no free speech crisis on college campuses, that it’s all just a moral panic. Jonathan Haidt’s response to this charge in the latest edition of the Likeville Podcast is nuanced and thoroughly convincing.

He first concedes that this is in fact a moral panic. Conservatives are freaking out and the right-wing media habitually exaggerates the significance of the problem. But that doesn’t mean that the problem isn’t real. Real problems lead to moral panics with some regularity. The crack epidemic is a case in point.

Haidt then observes that most of those who claim that there’s no problem on college campuses point to surveys that show that most students are in fact rather moderate. Whilst true, this observation is beside the point. Because average students aren’t the problem; it’s the intolerant minority. They’re the ones who make life hell for everyone else.

In Skin In the Game (2018), Nassim Nicholas Taleb demonstrates that most social change—good and bad—is brought about, not by the whims of the majority, but by the strident insistence of intolerant minorities. Thinking along similar lines, Haidt says: “Even though most students are perfectly sane and healthy, there’s a small number at each school that will rip your head off if you use a word incorrectly. If there are just seven people at your school out of 3,000 who will rip your head off if you step out of line, and nobody will stand to defend you because everyone’s afraid of these seven students—or 20 students or whatever the number is—then you can have a really big change in the dynamic even without a big change in the average.”

Haidt argues that progressive bullies have been vastly empowered on elite college campuses by the equation of speech with violence, and by a concomitant claim that intent does not matter:  “Anywhere else other than certain university departments, anywhere else on Earth, intent is what we mostly judge people on. If somebody bumps into you when you’re in line at the grocery store, and they apologize, and it’s clear that they didn’t intend to, everybody understands that that’s really, really different than if they shove you out of the way to get ahead of you. That distinction has been deliberately erased in certain parts of the university.”

Intent Matters

“Except for extreme physical abuse,” avers Epictetus, “other people cannot hurt you unless you allow them to. And this holds true even if the person is your parent, brother, sister, teacher, or employer. Don’t consent to be hurt and you won’t be hurt.” Like all Stoic philosophers, Epictetus places responsibility for offense solely on the shoulders of the offended listener.

Twenty-first-century progressives tend to be equally immoderate, but in the opposite direction. For instance, Sarah Mei recently tweeted: “Blows my mind that there are still people in the world who don’t understand basic stuff like: your intentions don’t matter. If someone thinks you were mean, you were mean—even if you didn’t intend to be!—and you should work to make it right.”

If you’re offended by something, it’s always good to consider the possibility that you’re the problem. Taking that possibility off the table categorically, as Mei does—“If someone thinks you were mean, you were mean”—is a recipe for bad communication. Because the way I feel isn’t necessarily a fair or accurate reflection of reality. The fact that I think someone is being mean to me doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re actually being mean to me. Maybe I’m just sick. Maybe I’m just tired. Maybe I just misunderstood what was said.

I was very sick with the flu and strep throat a few weeks ago. It made me extremely grumpy for a few days. I took everything the wrong way, snapped at everyone, and thought everyone was being mean to me. But of course they weren’t being mean; I was just being unreasonable and uncharitable. Thank God I didn’t have someone like Sarah Mei around to enable my crazy!

Human communication is complicated and misunderstandings abound. If we’re going to figure things out together, speakers need to be as clear and sensitive to their audience as possible, and listeners need to be as charitable and self-aware as possible. Placing all of the responsibility for reception on the listener or the speaker is decidedly unwise. Both ways lead to badness.

—John Faithful Hamer

p.s. To listen to all of my interview with Jonathan Haidt, follow one of these two links: