Sticks and Stones Just Break My Bones, But Speakers...

Speakers really hurt me? Suigenesis Fragilis may be an epidemic on campus.

Posted Mar 29, 2017

“The truth will set you free, but it’s gonna piss you off first.”
Gloria Steinem, (1999, Illinois Wesleyan University)

Professor Laura Kipnis, an author, filmmaker, and feminist intellectual, is controversial on college campuses. Her brand of feminism stresses independence and resilience rather than women as victims-in-waiting.

Fred Kuipers/
Source: Fred Kuipers/

According to Kipnis, the students who attended her talk at Wellesley College exhibited tough-mindedness and intelligence throughout a discussion of challenging issues. Some members of the Wellesley faculty, on the other hand, responded with a recommendation that certain guest speakers who hold “controversial and objectionable beliefs” (such as Kipnis) be excluded as campus speakers.

Among their many troubling assertions (outlined in this article in the Atlantic by Conor Friedersdorf), a handful stand out as particularly detrimental to students’ psychological well-being:

There is no doubt that the speakers in question impose on the liberty of students, staff, and faculty at Wellesley.

An opportunity to choose whether to attend or ignore a speaker’s presentation is, by definition, no imposition on the liberty of those who have that choice. This is sheer doublespeak. When faculty purport to describe reality using language designed to produce a particular worldview, it has the potential to corrupt students’ ability to think critically and impair their ability to wonder. Nothing annihilates curiosity more than certainty and the assumption of infallibility.

An education that encourages curiosity, wonder, and doubt is an education that creates mental flexibility and lifelong learning, both of which are associated with psychological well-being. When educators declare there is no doubt – especially about something so clearly open to interpretation – curiosity dies, academic inquiry is replaced by orthodoxy, students learn to be inflexible dogmatic conformists, and a path to well-being is cut off. 

We are especially concerned with the impact of speakers’ presentations on Wellesley students, who often feel the injury most acutely and invest time and energy in rebutting the speakers’ arguments.

Imagine the unlikely scenario that every single argument a guest speaker makes is wrong. Even in that case, the exercise of critically examining wrong-headed perspectives is valuable—especially since bad ideas aren’t going anywhere, and they certainly don’t go away by silencing them. As lawyer and First Amendment advocate Samantha Harris asks, “If, as these faculty suggest, it is inappropriate to ask students to have to ‘invest time and energy rebutting’ arguments with which they disagree, then what, exactly, is the purpose of a liberal education?”

Katherine Evans/
Source: Katherine Evans/

Preventing students from engaging with controversial ideas and fallacious arguments is bad enough from an educational perspective, but invoking the language of harm not only stunts students’ growth as critical thinkers, it risks inculcating in them a fragile self-concept that cannot withstand the “injury” of objectionable ideas. Exactly how a feminist professor who questions the new feminist orthodoxy “injures” students (“acutely” no less) by merely speaking on campus is not clear. But the language of injury is now frequently used to describe what happens when speakers’ ideas contradict campus dogma.

Note that the faculty are concerned about students who “feel the injury.” In some colleges, feelings are the coin of the realm. If students feel injured or upset, well…

When dozens of students tell us they are in distress as a result of a speaker’s words, we must take these complaints at face value.

Actually, we must absolutely not. (If there is such a thing as educational malpractice, this might qualify.)

Part of the process of growing up is learning that feelings can’t always take priority. College is an opportunity for newly minted adults to practice the grownup ability to set emotions aside and focus on other things—like critical thinking. The more seasoned adults on campus must help students recognize that by practicing sound mental habits, “distress as a result of a speaker's words” can be overcome, and that in adulthood, feelings cannot deliberately be the primary driver for decision-making. Otherwise, there is no chance students will be able to combat bad ideas when they leave college. (And there will be many bad ideas for them to defeat.)

If college faculty protect students from intellectual disagreement, there is no hope for these students to make a difference in the real world. As progressive activist Van Jones insists, “I don’t want you to be safe ideologically. I don’t want you to be safe emotionally. I want you to be strong — that’s different. I’m not going to pave the jungle for you. Put on some boots and learn how to deal with adversity.”

The responsibility to defend the disempowered does not rest solely with students, and the injuries suffered by students, faculty, and staff are not contained within the specific identity group in question; they ripple throughout our community...

This evinces a worldview that certain students not only feel injured or disempowered, but students, faculty, and staff are objectively injured; that everyone is disempowered and needs to be defended. This goes beyond even the conception that victimhood grants social status. The medicalization of the impact of words is just the latest in the long list of things that have been swept into the medical paradigm. Perhaps it is unsurprising. When everything produced by the mind is viewed as a medical issue, then words are, too. Using the medical paradigm, then, faculty risk creating a generation of students with Suigenesis Fragilis: Brittle Self Disorder.

©Pamela Paresky
Source: ©Pamela Paresky

But the faculty are correct about the ripple effect. The extraordinary power of social networks, social scientists Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler discovered, is that networks both disseminate and magnify whatever they are seeded with. If colleges are seeded with Suigenesis Fragilis, then Brittle Self Disorder will ripple throughout the school community and realize the self-fulfilling prophecy of fragility and suffering for all. ♦


Learn more about Suigenesis Fragilis and how to cure it by understanding what is happening at college campuses. Two good resources are, a nonprofit that defends and sustains individual rights at America’s colleges and universities (where I do research), and Heterodox Academy, a group of politically diverse scholars who work to improve academia and universities.

The author's opinions are her own and should not be considered a reflection of the legal or other positions taken by FIRE.

For more on this topic by Dr. Paresky:

How Making Colleges Safe Spaces Makes Us All Less Safe

Bullies With a Cause

I'm Right, You're Evil

Angry About the Election?

We Say We Want Free Speech and Civil Dialogue...

Uncivil Rights

What You Need to Know About a Know-It-All