Recently I have been reading about speakers who are being censored in universities in the US, Canada and the UK by students who are deeply offended by their points of view. In some instances, offended students attempt to no-platform a speaker, in others they will loudly interrupt the lecture or flee to “safe spaces.” Stories like these are causing a bit of a stir in the press these days.

The concept of students from elite universities attempting to shut down lectures or fleeing to safe spaces because they are emotionally affected by a speakers’ point of view (even if not attending the speaker’s lecture) was curious to me, so I looked into it. At least in the case of feminist author and former philosophy professor Christina Hoff Sommers, I realized that students took offense at her interpretations of statistics. In Sommers’ view, the students’ reaction is evidence of “victimology spinning out of control.”

Sommers, a registered Democrat who is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a pro-business think tank, has certainly felt the heat from offended students. She’s seen a lot of protests against her lectures and has been shouted down at events at universities.


Christina Hoff Sommers during her lecture at Columbia University

So what is she saying that is so offensive? One of her main messages is that the gender wage gap is a myth. She notes that the statistics being bandied about in the media are based on an average pay for full time work and don’t take into account number of years in the workforce, education, or job specialty. One solution she jokingly suggests is for more women to enter STEM careers.

But what really riles some students up is her assertion that the number of rape and sexual violence cases on campuses across the US is lower than is reported in the media. Sommers believes the most prominent statistics on the issue have been produced via faulty methodology. To refute the oft-repeated statistic that 1 in 4 women are raped on campus, which Sommers claims is based on an Internet study, she cites the Bureau of Justice Statistics, whose research, she says, shows that 1 in 53 women are victims of rape on campus. And while she has publicly asserted that that figure is still “too much,” she concludes it shows that there is no “rape culture” in universities. Some students are deeply appalled by this statement, believing it silences rape survivors.

Anyone can strongly agree or disagree with these points – but to be offended by an interpretation of statistics, rather than stepping up with an opposing fact-based interpretation, is fruitless.

It’s fine to disagree with Sommers’ opinions and provide rebuttals. At her Columbia University lecture on the 1st of November, for example, she made a comment about the US being the best, if not one of the best countries in the world to live in. A Columbia student later challenged Sommers on that statement during the Q&A, citing statistics that show the US coming in at 10th place out of 12 OECD countries in terms of social mobility and how it lags in other metrics such as education levels. Sommers engaged the student and even conceded on this point.

Other people in the audience also debated a bit with Sommers during the Q&A segment, mostly in a respectful tone. She even remarked on that – she had been pleasantly surprised by the lack of hecklers or people shouting her down.


Packed auditorium at Columbia University during Sommers' lecture

It surprised everyone at her Columbia lecture, actually. Before she spoke here, dissident students had ripped out the promotional flyers for the lecture that had been put up across campus. In another instance, a student poured cereal and pretzels on one of the event organizer’s feet. And everyone in the audience had heard of what had happened when Sommers visited other universities.

In Ohio, The Oberlin Review of Oberlin College reported about Sommers’ lecture there, noting that “while Sommers declined to address accusations from her audience of being a ‘rape denialist,’ activists organized a safe space in Wilder Hall during the event to affirm the experiences of survivors of sexualized violence and provide them with support. The alternative event, We’re Still Here, was attended by approximately 35 students and one dog.”

The experience at Georgetown University was similar. Students protested Sommers’ appearance, accusing her of being an anti-feminist who dismisses rape survivors.

At the University of Massachusetts, some students constantly shouted and raised hell during an event with Sommers, Breitbart technology editor Milo Yiannopoulos and Canadian Christian Steven Crowder– the latter two conservatives who have also felt the wrath of students across campuses. The video of the event went viral.

But then again, anyone’s interpretation of statistics is not necessarily an endorsement of the problem being analyzed. Is saying that highly publicized sexual violence statistics are erroneous the same as saying rape doesn’t happen?

Still, offended students consider Sommers’ speech “discursive violence” and feel her opinions “invalidate their lived experience,” to which she responds that “you don’t go to college to get your lived experience validated.”

Now, the right to free speech applies to everyone. While students do have the right to speak up against views they do not agree with, attempting to shut down or ban a speaker is in itself curtailing free speech.

T. Rosa

T. Rosa

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