Commentary: Learning to Speak Fearlessly in the Midst of College Cancel Culture

by Janice Traflet


Many parents send their college students off for a new academic year with well-intentioned advice. For some, that now includes a cautious directive: maintain a low profile in the classroom on political and religious subjects. Parents have good reason to offer such counsel.

Colleges are no longer robust arenas for students to engage in lively debate. The space in which they once felt free to shape, refine, reaffirm, or jettison certain beliefs has been retrofitted to prioritize purported emotional safety, not free discussion.

As a result, students are hesitant to speak their minds or explore their tentative ideas, even on relatively innocuous topics, and even among those whom they consider friends. They aren’t paranoid. They have seen peers face retaliation, bullying, and condemnation for disrupting “safe spaces” – even though what one person deems a safe space might be regarded as unsafe by someone else.

What happened? Just a few years ago in the business world, the phrase “courageous conversations” was all the rage. Employees were encouraged to have frank and direct talks with colleagues, even if those discussions proved awkward or uncomfortable. Today, fewer and fewer of those courageous conversations are unfolding in the boardroom or the classroom.

While avoiding tough conversations might seem like the easier path, self-censoring can take a personal toll. It’s healthy to say what’s on your mind and to challenge the dominant voices in the room. You might even find that you’re not alone.

We talk a lot in academia about the necessity of being a good “ally.” Too often, though, such allyship tends to run in one direction. That increases the chances of our peers feeling left alone in taking a stance that looks unpopular but with which others present might silently agree.

We should take a cue from long-ago shareholder activist Wilma Soss, who believed in the power of free speech and the power of one person. In the 1940s and 1950s, she dared to speak up at corporate annual meetings and challenge CEOs and boards.

Soss’s fearless commitment to fighting for the rights of the individual investor is the focus of my new book with coauthor Robert Wright, Fearless: Wilma Soss and America’s Forgotten Investor Movement. The journey of Wilma Soss was one of courage and optimism. She spoke up to make the system better, and in doing so, she grew as a person and achieved a liberating authenticity that she carried with her the rest of her life.

This fall, I hope my students will do the same – but we can’t expect them to do it alone. They need our support.

Alumni groups around the country are forming to promote free speech and civil discourse on campuses. A group of concerned Bucknell University alumni, for example, recently formed Open Discourse Coalition (ODC), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, with which I am affiliated.

Among the lectures ODC helped sponsor in the past year was one by noted psychologist and former University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson, who addressed a crowd consisting mostly of students on the importance of speaking one’s mind and the psychological anguish of self-censorship.

You want your friends to know the real you – and I would say the same of colleagues and others in our lives. But finding our voice takes work, as does using it responsibly. Those of us in academia have a moral and professional obligation to shepherd students through this process.

I remember a series of logic & rhetoric assignments that I gave to undergraduates many years ago when I was a graduate student at Columbia University. It was a writing-intensive course that focused on teaching students how to argue effectively. One assignment required students to write a persuasive essay on a hot topic such as abortion or gun rights.

But the assignment didn’t end there. To their surprise, students were told that their next paper would take the opposite position of their first. For many, it was a hard but valuable assignment. I then asked my students to rewrite their first position paper.

It was amazing to see how much students improved the clarity and depth of their original arguments. Some even changed their minds. These students were learning the critical exercises that allow us to know ourselves and to stand up and speak out, as Wilma Soss once did. Ironically, today, Columbia University is ranked by the Foundation of Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) as the worst of 208 top colleges for free speech.

Communicating our values honestly and authentically is worth the effort. I’m putting my faith in the college students of today, of all backgrounds and values, to have the courage to speak up and once again engage with the viewpoints of others – and I am calling on my colleagues in academia to have the courage to help them do it.

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Janice Traflet is a professor in the Freeman College of Management at Bucknell University. Her latest book, co-authored with Robert Wright, is Fearless: Wilma Soss and America’s Forgotten Investor Movement (All Seasons Press, August 2022).
Photo “Free Speech Sign” by Simon Gibbs. CC BY 2.0.



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