Big Crimes and Little Crimes On Campus

Commentary, Education, Gerry Bowler

I must confess to a crime. Many years ago, when I was still in my twenties, I was enjoying a late night non-alcoholic beverage with an old friend from my high school days. Our talk turned to the teachers we had had in our adolescence, some of whom we revered, some of whom we despised. The memory of one teacher in particular aroused our ire: he was a bully; he was a blowhard; he was not above shoving students around physically.

We decided we hated him, even ten years after our graduation, but what could we do to even the score? In a flash, it occurred to both of us: we would tip over his garbage cans! We dashed to my car, drove across town and up a dark alley behind what we believed was his house, or at least what might have been his house a decade earlier. Then the two of us–one a provincial civil servant, the other now a teacher himself–threw his trash bins to the ground and rode away chortling with righteous glee.

Justice had been served!

I thought about that act of scholastic vandalism, in retrospect so innocent and so stupid, when reading about a different sort of war on professors, a much more vicious and threatening campaign currently being waged on North American college campuses.

It is not uncommon nowadays for professors who voice unpopular opinions to become the targets of threats. For disciplining a student who had made disparaging remarks about Islam, a Texas college administrator was subject to harassment on email. A professor at Portland State was heard to say good things about colonialism, and suffered a campaign of vicious attacks online and over his phone. Some teachers have been “doxxed”–their personal information, address, phone numbers, children’s names, etc. have been revealed online to prompt more fear. Some have been moved to ask for police protection; some have been forced out of their jobs–for refusing to leave campus and stop teaching on a day when all white faculty were asked to vacate campus to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, two Oregon professors felt frightened enough to seek work elsewhere. Abusive behaviour is amplified when highlighted by social media and mobs of trolls join in the fun with obscene phone messages, threats to family members, and attempts to get victims fired.

There are differences between threats emerging from the left or the right: the latter mostly come from off-campus and occur primarily on-line, while the former take place at the university. Right-wing menacing does not seem to have taken the shape of actual physical attacks but on-campus lefties have shouted down conservative speakers, taken over meetings, thrown fire-alarms, and formed mobs armed with baseball bats to intimidate opponents. One particularly enthusiastic activist at Queen’s University protested the presence of conservative speaker Jordan Peterson by smashing a stained-glass window and, when arrested, was found to be carrying a concealed weapon: a genuine wire garrote strangulation device.

This sort of intemperance is a nasty part of the culture wars that have divided North Americans, not only on campus but throughout society, into hostile camps. Students of the snowflake generation feel empowered to videotape, confront, and swarm professors with whom they disagree. Media from both sides publicize the sins of the other side and seldom seek a nuanced view. Cowardly university administrators bow to student mobs and cancel unpopular speakers or try to silence controversial teachers. Neither progressives nor conservatives come off looking good in these fights.

Solutions are many. Getting off social media and diminishing the reach of Twitter and Facebook would go some way to slowing the infection of abusive speech. Enforcing the rule of law on campus is another–the University of Chicago has led the way here making it clear that there are no “safe spaces” from opposing ideas and students should expect vigorous but respectful debate as part of campus life.

Teaching our young that democracy depends on tolerance and free speech should start in the home but it must be reinforced in the education system from kindergarten to graduate school.

And no one, no matter how justified, should ever tip over a teacher’s garbage cans.