April 6, 2022

Campus Cancel Culture:
Technological Solipsism?

“Ann Coulter Storms Out After Lying to IU Students for 75 Minutes.” — headline in the April 2 Indiana University Daily Student

by Richard McGowan, Ph.D.

Anyone attentive to the news is aware of students shouting down speakers on college campuses. The incidents at Yale and the University of California’s Hastings College of Law are only the latest examples.

That a controversy about speakers exists across higher education is inarguable. The thesis I would like tested, however, is this: Can the controversy  partially be explained by the technology today’s youth grew up with and that older people did not?

When I was growing up on the north shore of Long Island, transistor radios worked especially well at night.  During the day, the big, local stations, 77 WABC and 1010 WINS New York, broadcast far and wide. My friends and I could drive anywhere on the island and listen to those big but local stations. However, at night, all sorts of alternative music from tinier stations drifted over from New Haven, home of Yale University.

Regardless, I listened to whatever someone else chose for me to hear, whether I liked the music or not.  Nor was a vast collection of records financially possible.

My college years, in upstate, presented me with the same situation; someone else chose what I heard on the radio.  At least the music on Long Island and in upstate New York reflected a young person’s mindset.  A sort of regional East Coast homogeneity reigned.

When I attended Washington State University’s graduate school in the mid-1970s, the music I heard on the radio changed. The dynamics of the situation did not change — someone else chose the songs I listened to but the songs I heard reflected the locale. Instead of rock ‘n’ roll, local radio stations played country and western music.  And as my brother Garry drawls, “I like two kinds of music, country and western.”  In other words, C and W music was alien to me and hard to like. I gave it a chance, though, and now country music is among my CDs.

Sometimes people can learn when listening to music they would not choose.

My youthful experience was not atypical. Children in the 1950s, who then attended college in the 70s and 80s, more often than not listened to music other people chose.  Those choices were confined locally and regionally. When I traveled east to see my family, I heard a variety of music on the car radio; anyone making that trip by car had the same experience. The music reflected diverse regional and local choices, to be sure, but the music was not personally selected by the travelers.

Advances in technology, though, impacted the delivery of music and the dynamics of listening. Over time, young people had the tools for listening to music that they personally chose. They could drive cars with cassette and CD players, listening exclusively to what suited them. Unlike my generation’s experience, young people could go from Los Angeles to New York and hear only what they wanted.

Back to my thesis: Technological advance made it possible for an individual to get in the habit of avoiding any music found to be personally objectionable. Students brought that habit with them into the classroom and into lecture halls. Music must suit student preferences — and so now must speakers on campus, more’s the pity.    

Richard McGowan, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, has taught philosophy and ethics cores for more than 40 years, most recently at Butler University. 


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