Culture, Speech Codes and Implicit Bias

I recently came across a brialliant keynote by Megan McArdle to the libertarian-leaning FIRE organization about the increasing prevalence of campus speech codes. What follows is a more philosophical examination of free expression beyond the typical “administrators who suppress student speech are bad”, I recommend it for anyone who has half an hour.

Like most people who find themselves on the “wrong” side of what college administrators typically consider correct, I’ve had an interest in the growing attempts by campuses to lock down expression in the name of sensitivity. But I think Megan has nailed why these codes emerged in the first place (and no, it’s not leftist academics secret desire to re-institute Stalinism). In most cases, it seems that the speech codes are an attempt to replace the missing cultural commonality that was lost when American Universities became multicultural in the late 70s and early 80s. Stringent speech and behavior codes, in effect, were an attempt to run a multicultural student body under a mono-cultural system of support this time with progressive empathy filling in for the old WASP sense of decor. Basically, it’s a way to avoid the problems, and benefits, of living in a multicultural campus. No one wants to have uncomfortable interactions and the speech codes continue the illusion that none are actually necessary.

Of all the bloggers writing today, Megan McArdle seems to have the strongest understanding of how institutions re-enforce their own implicit bias and unanimity, not with ill-will, but through the implicit ways humans prefer to interact with others of alike mind. She’s right in identifying this force as the reason why university sociology departments are overwhelmingly non-conservative and university science departments are overwhelming non-black. The mechanism is the same. I think many people of the left acknowledge just this kind of effect when it comes to structural racism, sexism, and hetrosexim. But they are resistant to acknowledge this as a general flaw in all human organizations, particularly organizations that they prefer. Hence, I always get the sense that the liberal solution to structural racism is to ensure that the “right” people are put in power.

But at any rate, regardless of who is correct, this is a conversation worth having, though rest assured it won’t be a very a sensitive or comfortable one.