National Public Radio commentator Wendy Kaminer delivered a lecture titled “Censorship, Irrationalism, and the Therapeutic Culture” last Thursday.
Kaminer is the president of the National Coalition Against Censorship and is the author of several books, including I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional and It’s All the Rage: Crime and Culture.
The lecture was sponsored by the Bernhard Visiting Fellowship Program and the Department of Anthropology and Sociology. Michael Brown, the chair of the department of anthropology and sociology, said Kaminer was selected as a result of her willingness to take controversial stances.
“Kaminer is willing to take an irreverent and against-the-grain position which I’ve always admired,” he said. He added that she has also recently published a book on crime and punishment, including the enforcement of drug laws, which relates well to a course being taught on drugs and society by Assistant Professor of Sociology James Nolan.
In her lecture, Kaminer discussed the damaging effects that the therapeutic credo of not intellectually questioning, but simply feeling from intuition, has on therapy and society. “The therapeutic culture is purely irrational,” she said. “True beliefs are said to be those that help you heal. What you feel in your heart is not open to question, while what you manage to figure out is a lot more open to debate.”
She questioned the propriety and usefulness of the recovery movement.
“The etiquette of the recovery movement has prohibited challenging the story of a victim of abuse, unbelievable though it may be,” she said. “Critical, skeptical questions cause harm, and thus are abusive, and must be avoided.”
Kaminer argued that as a result of these efforts not to create discomfort or anxiety in others, society has censored many forms of free speech and has challenged the notion of equality.
“In a society that values comfort over liberty, the recovery movement helped to make censorship seem therapeutic,” she said. “It provided the basis for thought crimes, equating words with actions, speech codes on college campuses, and an unjust defense of alleged victims from troubling questions.”
Kaminer called for a preservation of what she termed “fundamental principles” as opposed to the newer values of therapy and comfort. “Democracy calls for people to have thick skins,” she said. “Many people in your generation, who have been in college during the last ten years, have been taught not to value free speech in the same way. But social change is forged by people who are not afraid to harass or offend the majority of people.”
Many of the students who attended the lecture said they were at least partially convinced by Kaminer’s arguments.
Jennifer Dolloff ’01 said she decided to attend the lecture as a result of her knowledge of Kaminer’s work and her interest in “the therapeutic ethos and the irrational trends that it has inspired.”
She said she agreed with many of Kaminer’s specific points.
“People don’t realize when they put a particular ‘p.c.’ cause on a pedestal and label all criticism or questioning of their views as a crime, they are themselves suppressing freedom of thought and speech,” she said. “Ultimately, quelling open discussion on important (if controversial) issues is a disservice to all those involved.”
Victoria Restler ’02 said she thought Kaminer’s arguments were strong and the format of the evening worked well.
“I thought the arguments she made were very interesting,” she said. “There are counter arguments to a lot of what she said. But she seemed very driven and her arguments were well thought out and logical. Also, the length of the lecture and the visit was good.”
After the lecture, there was a question-and-answer period, followed by a reception at Stetson Hall. During the question period and reception, students, faculty and members of the community discussed the connection between Kaminer’s lecture and current issues such as the gubernatorial race in Massachusetts, sexual harassment policies, the movement for school prayer and hate crime legislation.
Kaminer herself said she is unsure of the value of hate crime legislation..
“Hate crime legislation is something that I have mixed feelings about,” she said. “Under the current laws, sexual preference should be covered as well as race or gender. But I’m not sure we can start down this road of prosecuting hate crime and stop before punishing hateful speech.”
Kaminer, who graduated from Smith College and worked as a criminal lawyer before she became a writer, said her visit to Williams was rewarding.
“I’ve enjoyed talking to students immensely, and have been feeling nostalgic about my own college days,” she said.
Kaminer spent three days at Williams, attending three classes during the time where she discussed issues related to her lecture.
“She likes vigorous debate, and in the classes, it was more of an open-ended discussion,” Brown said.
Brown explained that the visit was sponsored by the Bernhard Visiting Fellowship, which has been operational for approximately five years. In the past, the fellowship was used to bring distinguished professors to Williams for a semester. However, more recently Williams has used the fund to bring women speakers in for a “mini-residency,” during which the speaker gives a lecture in addition to attending a few classes.
“Often, colleges pay a lot of money for a talking head who comes in, gives a half hour lecture, and leaves in a cab right after,” Brown said. “There has been a trend recently to invite speakers to come for at least a lecture and a classroom discussion, or some kind of opportunity for students and faculty to interact with the lecturer.”
Brown was impressed with Kaminer and the response to her visit.
“I really wanted students to meet someone who makes her living by her wits,” he said. “Supporting yourself as a nonfiction writer is difficult in today’s market, and to do what she does takes a certain kind of courage and boldness of thought.”