If you listen to people who get their news from Jordan Peterson’s YouTube channel — and that’s not a small number, I hear — you’d think that university professors were the most constrained speakers around.
Peterson, after all, got 15 minutes of fame and then some by protesting a Canadian law that he understood to tell him which gender pronouns to use and not use. Obeying this law in his University of Toronto classroom, he said, would be “silent slavery.”
Actually, professors are the opposite of constrained. We are the most coddled, protected, sheltered speakers at work in America today.
Most working people can lose their jobs if their employers don’t like what they say. A lucky minority — including union members and some government workers — are harder to fire. Tenured professors have an even better deal with respect to our speech.
Our freedom to say what we want is not only tolerated but celebrated. In classrooms, research, and contributions to public dialogue, we insist on — and typically get — exceptional deference.
Academic freedom takes for granted the power not only to speak but also to silence and exclude other voices. My own voice included. When I’m in class and think of something to say that I decide is dumb, I censor myself. I cover what I deem important, omit what I believe is extraneous. Nobody minds.
Two guest lecturers are coming to my legal seminar this semester. They’re returning because in my opinion they did a great job last year. If I thought otherwise, they wouldn’t be back; I’d yank their platform. I’ve done that in the past.
Outside the classroom, I write what I please. My publications are for the most part “academic,” meaning obscure, but some could offend or upset readers. For example, in a new book, “The Common Law Inside the Female Body,” I say that women have very strong rights with respect to their physical interior. You know where that argument is going. Those who object to my conclusions on abortion rights can decline to buy a copy, but they can’t harm my livelihood in retaliation.
My work also includes judging scholarship that other people write. Consequences follow. There too I call it as I see it, with no interference.
Speech codes, trigger warnings, safe spaces, and campus “snowflakes” are far from my life, perhaps because I work in graduate education. No matter what you study in grad school, your profs will stress the importance of toughness. Part of being tough, they teach, is having to listen to what you don’t want to hear.
In short, we are exceptionally unconstrained.
Great freedom, great responsibility. While physical (or financial) threats should remain unacceptable, people in my occupation need more intellectual discomfort, challenge, and pushback. Not criticism just to criticize, I hasten to add. Not attacks on speakers’ identities. It’s engagement that makes our ideas better — and from there we professors can do a better job educating.