Who Stole Oswald's Stone, the Magic Middlesex Monolith?
It disappeared from central London in 1869, after an archeological magazine praised its historical value
Millions live in or near Ossulstone, but only a handful have ever heard of it. Why and how has this place disappeared from common memory? Perhaps the when is easier to trace - to 1869, the year in which the mysterious object that lent its name to the area was stolen.
Marking the intersection of two ancient London roads , at a place formerly called Tyburn but now known as Marble Arch, a monolith called Oswald’s Stone once stood. Until 1783, Tyburn was the place for public executions in London ; undoubtedly in part to erase that location’s lurid reputation, it was chosen as the relocation site for a large monument that was deemed out of place in front of Buckingham Palace .
Ossulstone, with its 4 constituent districts (Kensington, Holborn, Finsbury and Tower divisions), 2 territorial exceptions (the City of London and the City and Liberty of Westminster), and the area annexed by London in 1889 (in grey). [Image taken here at a website for the Oliver-Paull family tree]
Nobody remembered what the stone was meant to mark  or even who Oswald was. Indeed, the rock was also called Oswulf's Stone. Unsure about what to do with the ancient monolith, the authorities interred it in 1819 - only to dig it up again in 1822. In later years, it was found leaning against Marble Arch. After an archeological journal highlighted its historical importance, Oswald’s Stone disappeared. It has never been seen since that fateful day in 1869.
Presuming that the stone was removed by someone alerted to its value by the archeological article, it is not unthinkable that someone somewhere, perhaps a descendant of that 19th-century thief, is still holding Oswald’s Stone. Although, judging by the facility with which the last remnants of ancient names and meanings vanish from knowledge, perhaps he or she no longer knows why that stone was so important to great-grandpa.
I accidentally stumbled across Oswald’s Stone - figuratively speaking of course - while looking for an answer to a question that had bothered me for some time: Where is Middlesex? Half a dozen Middlesexes survive as place-names in the US, Canada and Jamaica. But the original Middlesex , once one of England’s counties is defunct: small enough to begin with, it had the additional bad fortune to be encroached upon by London, and in the end be gobbled up piecemeal by the metropolis. The last vestiges of the county, whose name was first attested in 704 AD, were abolished on 1 April 1965, when nearly all that remained of Middlesex became part of Greater London .
Middlesex may be dead, but it is not entirely forgotten: it leads a phantom existence in the names of Middlesex University, the Middlesex County Cricket Board, and the Middlesex County Football Cup. There’s even a Middlesex County Day (May 16th ) and a Middlesex County Flower (the wood anemone). You can still address letters to a number of postal towns  by adding Middlesex to the address, but adding the county is no longer required by Royal Mail.
At its greatest extent, Middlesex, its southern border being the Thames, stretched from the river Lea in the east  to the river Colne in the west . Middlesex’s only land border was to the north, and followed a ridge of hills , including Oxhey Hill (438 ft.), Harrow Weald Common (475 ft.), Bushey Heath (504 ft.), Deacons Hill, Edgware (478 ft.), and Highwood Hill (443 ft.).
Like the other 38 historic counties of England, Middlesex was divided into hundreds. In Saxon times, a hundred defined an area large enough to sustain 100 households. Until they were replaced by districts in 1894, hundreds were the only administrative unit between counties and parishes, and were the essential locus for dispensing justice, raising soldiers and discussing the affairs of the day. They were usually named after the place where the men of the area gathered to witness the dispensing of justice, the raising of armies, and the debating of matters of state.
One such place was Oswald’s Stone, the other five Middlesex Hundreds being Edmonton, Elthorne, Gore, Hounslow and Spelthorne. The City of London, nominally part of Ossulstone, became a self-governing county in the 13th century. From 1585, the City and Liberty of Westminster also attained a degree of autonomy from Middlesex.
London, and to a lesser extent Westminster, would become the names attached to the capital of England, and later of Britain, and of the urban growth that this position allowed. Middlesex was merely the canvas over which this expansion was poured - its only option to absorb the growing metropolis, and retreat from it.
In 1889, county councils were introduced in England. About 20% of the area, and 33% of the population of Middlesex - taken from Ossulstone, the most densely populated hundred - was transferred to the new County of London. Ironically, the new Middlesex County Council met in the Middlesex Guildhall, located in… the County of London .
London’s expansion proved unstoppable, due to better transport links, especially the extension of the Metropolitan Tube line to the northwest of London into a rapidly suburbanising area known as Metroland. This cut right into what remained of Middlesex exceptionalism - which in the context of the expanding city meant: a rapidly rarefying ruralism. The death blow came in 1965.
Middlesex nevertheless lives on. Some even dream of a Greater Middlesex, encompassing not just the historical County of Middlesex (which preceded the much smaller Middlesex County Council), but also ‘tribal areas’ from the Chiltern Hills in the west, to “somewhere near Luton” in the north.
"The current Government are keen to bring in regional government for England. This will almost certainly mean the abolition of all County Councils, so from Herts to Surrey everyone will end up in the same boat as Berks and Middlesex. It is possible that with the current review the regions of England will be based on the kingdoms and provinces of the Anglo-Saxons."
Well, why not? But something tells us they’d have to find Middlesex’s ‘palladium’ first. As yet, however, the only tangible remnant of the missing monolith is Ossulston Street, leading off the Euston Road past the British Library.
So if you have an antique stone in your basement that emits a strange glow at night and low moans at full moon, let us know: it might be Oswald’s Stone, pining for Tyburn.
A modern, practical interpretation of ancient county: the catchment area of the Middlesex Association for the Blind.
Strange Maps #605
Got a strange map? Let me know at email@example.com.
 The prehistoric names of these pathways are lost. They were renamed and upgraded by the Romans. The north-south road was labeled Iter III (Road Number Three) in the Antonine Itinerary, later called Watling Street by the Anglo-Saxons and locally known as Edgware Road (to the north of Marble Arch) and Park Lane (to the south of it). The east-west one was called Via Trinobantina, connecting Colchester with Hampshire, now better known around these parts as Oxford Street (east of the Arch) and Bayswater Road (west of it).↩
 Traditionally by hanging, from a gallows often called ‘the Tyburn Tree’. The prisoner(s) would be led from Newgate Prison (or the Tower, if they were nobility) through the city, enjoying a last ale at St Giles in the Fields (or, again if they were nobs, a glass of sherry at the George and Blue Boar, a now defunct pub in Holborn). The prisoners’ option of saying a few uncensored last words gave rise to Speakers’ Corner, now in the part of Hyde Park closest to Marble Arch. It is estimated that throughout the centuries, as many as 50.000 people were put to death at Tyburn. The highwayman John Austin was the last person to be executed at Tyburn. Later executions took place outside Newgate Prison. The last person to be executed in public in Britain was a Fenian bomber, Michael Barrett, in 1886, after which executions moved indoors to Newgate Prison itself. Curiously, no single person was the last person hanged in Britain; that dubious honour goes to two men, both convicted for the murder of the same man, and hanged at the same time: Peter Anthony Allen at Walton Prison in Liverpool, and Gwynne Owen Evans at Strangeways Prison in Manchester, both hanged at 8.00am on 13 August 1964. The death penalty for murder was abolished in 1965 in Great Britain (only in 1973 in Northern Ireland), and for all other offences (notably treason) in 1998. ↩
 The arch, in white Carrara marble and based in part on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, was designed in the 1825 as the ceremonial front gate to Buckingham Palace. Construction was completed in 1833, but the gate was considered a less than perfect addition to the Palace - soon losing much of its whiteness due to pollution by the famous (and then still quite vicious) London smog. In 1851, it was moved to its present location. The arch contains three rooms which were used as a police station from 1851 to at least 1968. Passage through the arch is limited to members of the Royal Family and the King’s Troop; in 1953, on her way to coronation, princess Elizabeth drove through the arch in the gold state coach. ↩
 Oswald’s Stone is not the only mysterious marker of great antiquity in London. The London Stone has been associated with King Arthur, who according to some pulled Excalibur from this rock, and/or with Brutus, the mythical founder of London. Some consider it London’s ultimate safeguard (‘So long as the Stone of Brutus is safe, so long shall London flourish’) - in other stories, the Raven of the Tower are London’s ‘palladium’ (i.e. magical protection). Other myths, of London Stone’s Roman or Druidic origin and use, abound, but the truth is that, like Oswald’s Stone, nobody knows what it stood for. But unlike Oswald’s Stone, the London Stone, although probably greatly reduced from its ancient size, has not been lost, and is still on public display. It is visible in a niche at a front of 111 Cannon Street. ↩
 As in: land of the Middle Saxons, between the lands of the East Saxons (i.e. Essex), South Saxons (Sussex) and West Saxons (Wessex). The latter geographic entity has also has disappeared off the map, although Thomas Hardy used a (fictionalised) version for his novels, and a regionalist movement exists with the aim of reviving Wessex as a political entity. One of their many problems: defining the boundaries of that entity. We’ll keep the question Where is Wessex for a later post, shall we? ↩
 Small parts were transferred to Hertfordshire (Potter’s Bar), Surrey (Staines, Sunbury-on-Thames). ↩
 The anniversary of the Battle of Albuera (1811) during the Peninsular Campaign, at which the Middlesex Regiment (the ‘Die-Hards’) fought valiantly against the Napoleonic Armée du Midi. The Regiment got its nickname at Albuera when their commander, severely wounded and his horse shot from under him, urged his outnumbered soldiers to “Die hard, 57th, die hard!” In a evolution typical of all things Middlesex , the regiment lost its name when it was amalgamated in 1966 into the Queen’s Regiment. ↩
 Middlesex just doesn’t seem a viable proposition, not even as a noble title. The Earldom of Middlesex was created twice, in 1622 and 1677, but died out on both occasions. ↩
 At least some of the area covered by the post codes beginning with EN (for Enfield), HA (Harrow and environs), TW (Twickenham and surroundings) and UB (Uxbridge &c.) ↩
 Flowing through the Olympic Park in Stratford and debouching in the Thames opposite the O2 Arena (formerly the Millennium Dome) in Greenwich. ↩
 The Colne, one of a handful of rivers so named, flows into the Thames in the marshlands that still constitute a border - these days between Greater London and Buckinghamshire. ↩
 A marker near the northern border, sometimes used as pars pro toto its entirety, is the Grimsdyke (or Grim’s Ditch), stretching some 2 miles from Harrow Weald to Bushey Heath. Several Grimsdykes exist throughout southern England, all earthenworks possibly thrown up as boundary markers by Celtic tribes in the last centuries BC. ↩
 On Parliament Square, facing Big Ben. Since 2009, Middlesex Guildhall is home to the UK’s Supreme Court. ↩
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One victim can break our hearts. Remember the image of the young Syrian boy discovered dead on a beach in Turkey in 2015? Donations to relief agencies soared after that image went viral. However, we feel less compassion as the number of victims grows. Are we incapable of feeling compassion for large groups of people who suffer a tragedy, such as an earthquake or genocide? Of course not, but the truth is we aren't as compassionate as we'd like to believe, because of a paradox of large numbers. Why is this?
Compassion is a product of our sociality as primates. In his book, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, Peter Singer states, "Human beings are social animals. We were social before we were human." Mr. Singer goes on to say, "We can be sure that we restrained our behavior toward our fellows before we were rational human beings. Social life requires some degree of restraint. A social grouping cannot stay together if its members make frequent and unrestrained attacks on one another."
Attacks on ingroups can come from forces of nature as well. In this light, compassion is a form of expressed empathy to demonstrate camaraderie.
Yet even after hundreds of centuries of evolution, when tragedy strikes beyond our community, our compassion wanes as the number of displaced, injured and dead mounts.
The drop-off in commiseration has been termed the collapse of compassion, (Slovic 2007).¹ The term has also been defined in The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science: ". . . people tend to feel and act less compassionately for multiple suffering victims than for a single suffering victim."²
That the drop-off happens has been widely documented, but at what point this phenomenon happens remains unclear. One paper, written by Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll, sets out a simple formula, ". . . where the emotion or affective feeling is greatest at N =1 but begins to fade at N = 2 and collapses at some higher value of N that becomes simply 'a statistic.'"³
The ambiguity of "some higher value" is curious. That value may relate to Dunbar's Number⁴, a theory developed by British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar. His research centers on communal groups of primates that evolved to support and care for larger and larger groups as their brains (our brains) expanded in capacity. Dunbar's is the number of people with whom we can maintain a stable relationship — approximately 150.
Some back story
Professor Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford has published considerable research on anthropology and evolutionary psychology. His work is informed by anthropology, sociology and psychology. Dunbar's Number is a cognitive boundary, one we are likely incapable of breaching. The number is based around two notions; that brain size in primates correlates with the size of the social groups they live among and that these groups in human primates are relative to communal numbers set deep in our evolutionary past. In simpler terms, 150 is about the maximum number of people with whom we can identify with, interact with, care about, and work to protect. Dunbar's Number falls along a logorithmic continuum, beginning with the smallest, most emotionally connected group of five, then expanding outward in multiples of three: 5, 15, 50, 150. The numbers in these concentric circles are affected by multiple variables, including the closeness and size of immediate and extended families, along with the greater cognitive capacity of some individuals to maintain stable relationships with larger than normal group sizes. In other words, folks with more cerebral candlepower can engage with larger groups. Those with lesser cognitive powers, smaller groups.
The number that triggers "compassion collapse" might be different for individuals, but I think it may begin to unravel along the continuum of Dunbar's relatable 150. We can commiserate with 5 to 15 to 150 people because upon those numbers, we can overlay names and faces of people we know: our families, friends and coworkers, the members of our clan. In addition, from an evolutionary perspective, that number is important. We needed to care if bands of our clan were being harmed by raids, disaster, or disease, because our survival depended on the group staying intact. Our brains developed the capacity to care for the entirety of the group but not beyond it. Beyond our ingroup was an outgroup that may have competed with us for food and safety and it served us no practical purpose to feel sad that something awful had happened to them, only to learn the lessons so as to apply them for our own survival, e.g., don't swim with hippos.
Imagine losing 10 family members in a house fire. Now instead, lose 10 neighbors, 10 from a nearby town, 10 from Belgium, 10 from Vietnam 10 years ago. One could almost feel the emotion ebbing as the sentence drew to a close.
There are two other important factors which contribute to the softening of our compassion: proximity and time. While enjoying lunch in Santa Fe, we can discuss the death toll in the French revolution with no emotional response but might be nauseated to discuss three children lost in a recent car crash around the corner. Conflict journalists attempt to bridge these geotemporal lapses but have long struggled to ignite compassion in their home audience for far-flung tragedies, Being a witness to carnage is an immense stressor, but the impact diminishes across the airwaves as the kilometers pile up.
A Dunbar Correlation
Where is the inflection point at which people become statistics? Can we find that number? In what way might that inflection point be influenced by the Dunbar 150?
"Yes, the Dunbar number seems relevant here," said Gad Saad, PhD., the evolutionary behavioral scientist from the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University, Montreal, in an email correspondence. Saad also recommended Singer's work.
I also went to the wellspring. I asked Professor Dunbar by email if he thought 150 was a reasonable inflection point for moving from compassion into statistics. He graciously responded, lightly edited for space.
"The short answer is that I have no idea, but what you suggest is perfect sense.
"One-hundred and fifty is the inflection point between the individuals we can empathize with because we have personal relationships with them and those with whom we don't have personalized relationships. There is, however, also another inflection point at 1,500 (the typical size of tribes in hunter-gatherer societies) which defines the limit set by the number of faces we can put names to. After 1,500, they are all completely anonymous.
"All this is set out in various articles and books. The two most obvious are: Dunbar (2016) Human Evolution. Oxford University Press (and) Dunbar (2014). The social brain: psychological underpinnings and implications for the structure of organizations. Current Directions in Psychological Research 24: 109-114."
I asked Dunbar if he knows of or suspects a neurophysiological aspect to the point where we simply lose the capacity to manage our compassion:
"These limits are underpinned by the size of key bits of the brain (mainly the frontal lobes, but not wholly). There are a number of studies showing this, both across primate species and within humans."
In his literature, Professor Dunbar presents two reasons why his number stands at 150, despite the ubiquity of social networking: the first is time—investing our time in a relationship is limited by the number of hours we have available to us in a given week. The second is our brain capacity measured in primates by our brain volume.
Friendship, kinship and limitations
"We devote around 40% of our available social time to our 5 most intimate friends and relations," Dunbar has written, "(the subset of individuals on whom we rely the most) and the remaining 60% in progressively decreasing amounts to the other 145." ⁵
These brain functions are costly, in terms of time, energy and emotion. Dunbar states, "There is extensive evidence, for example, to suggest that network size has significant effects on health and well-being, including morbidity and mortality, recovery from illness, cognitive function, and even willingness to adopt healthy lifestyles." This suggests that we devote so much energy to our own network that caring about a larger number may be too demanding.
"These differences in functionality may well reflect the role of mentalizing competencies. The optimal group size for a task may depend on the extent to which the group members have to be able to empathize with the beliefs and intentions of other members so as to coordinate closely…" This neocortical-to-community model carries over to compassion for others, whether in or out of our social network. Time constrains all human activity, including time to feel.
As Dunbar writes in The Anatomy of Friendship, "Friendship is the single most important factor influencing our health, well-being, and happiness. Creating and maintaining friendships is, however, extremely costly, in terms of both the time that has to be invested and the cognitive mechanisms that underpin them. Nonetheless, personal social networks exhibit many constancies, notably in their size and their hierarchical structuring." Our mental capacity may be the primary reason we feel less empathy and compassion for larger groups; we simply don't have the cerebral apparatus to manage their plights. "Part of friendship is the act of mentalizing, or mentally envisioning the landscape of another's mind. Cognitively, this process is extraordinarily taxing, and as such, intimate conversations seem to be capped at about four people before they break down and form smaller conversational groups. If the conversation involves speculating about an absent person's mental state (e.g., gossiping), then the cap is three—which is also a number that Shakespeare's plays respect."
We cannot mentalize what is going on in the minds of people in our groups much beyond our inner circle, so it stands to reason we cannot do it for large groups separated from us by geotemporal lapses.
In a paper,⁶ C. Daryl Cameron and Keith B. Payne state, "Some researchers have suggested that [compassion collapse] happens because emotions are not triggered by aggregates. We provide evidence for an alternative account. People expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming, and, as a result, they engage in emotion regulation to prevent themselves from experiencing overwhelming levels of emotion. Because groups are more likely than individuals to elicit emotion regulation, people feel less for groups than for individuals."⁶
This argument seems to imply that we have more control over diminishing compassion than not. To say, "people expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming" suggests we consciously consider what that caring could entail and back away from it, or that we become aware that we are reaching and an endpoint of compassion and begin to purposely shift the framing of the incident from one that is personal to one that is statistical. The authors offer an alternative hypothesis to the notion that emotions are not triggered by aggregates, by attempting to show that we regulate our emotional response as the number of victims becomes perceived to be overwhelming. However, in the real world, for example, large death tolls are not brought to us one victim at a time. We are told, about a devastating event, then react viscerally.
If we don't begin to express our emotions consciously, then the process must be subconscious, and that number could have evolved to where it is now innate.
Gray matter matters
One of Dunbar's most salient points is that brain capacity influences social networks. In his paper, The Social Brain, he writes: "Path analysis suggests that there is a specific causal relationship in which the volume of a key prefrontal cortex subregion (or subregions) determines an individual's mentalizing skills, and these skills in turn determine the size of his or her social network (Powell et all., 2012)"
It's not only the size of the brain but in fact, mentalizing recruits different regions for ingroup empathy. The Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education published a study of the brain regions activated when showing empathy for strangers in which the authors stated, "Interestingly, in brain imaging studies of mentalizing, participants recruit more dorsal portions of the medial prefrontal cortex (dMPFC; BA 8/9) when mentalizing about strangers, whereas they recruit more ventral regions of the medial prefrontal cortex (BA 10), similar to the MPFC activation reported in the current study, when mentalizing about close others with whom participants experience self-other overlap."⁷
It's possible the region of the brain that activates to help an ingroup member evolved for good reason, survival of the group. Other regions may have begun to expand as those smaller tribal groups expanded into larger societies.
There is an eclectic list of reasons why compassion may collapse, irrespective of sheer numbers:
(1) Manner: How the news is presented affects viewer framing. In her book, European Foreign Conflict Reporting: A Comparative Analysis of Public News, Emma Heywood explores how tragedies and war are offered to the viewers, which can elicit greater or lesser compassionate responses. "Techniques, which could raise compassion amongst the viewers, and which prevail on New at Ten, are disregarded, allowing the victims to remain unfamiliar and dissociated from the viewer. This approach does not encourage viewers to engage with the sufferers, rather releases them from any responsibility to participate emotionally. Instead compassion values are sidelined and potential opportunities to dwell on victim coverage are replaced by images of fighting and violence."⁸
(2) Ethnicity. How relatable are the victims? Although it can be argued that people in western countries would feel a lesser degree of compassion for victims of a bombing in Karachi, that doesn't mean people in countries near Pakistan wouldn't feel compassion for the Karachi victims at a level comparable to what westerners might feel about a bombing in Toronto. Distance has a role to play in this dynamic as much as in the sound evolutionary data that demonstrate a need for us to both recognize and empathize with people who look like our communal entity. It's not racism; it's tribalism. We are simply not evolved from massive heterogeneous cultures. As evolving humans, we're still working it all out. It's a survival mechanism that developed over millennia that we now struggle with as we fine tune our trust for others.
In the end
Think of compassion collapse on a grid, with compassion represented in the Y axis and the number of victims running along the X. As the number of victims increases beyond one, our level of compassion is expected to rise. Setting aside other variables that may raise compassion (proximity, familiarity etc.), the level continues to rise until, for some reason, it begins to fall precipitously.
Is it because we've become aware of being overwhelmed or because we have reached max-capacity neuron load? Dunbar's Number seems a reasonable place to look for a tipping point.
Professor Dunbar has referred to the limits of friendship as a "budgeting problem." We simply don't have the time to manage a bigger group of friends. Our compassion for the plight of strangers may drop of at a number equivalent to the number of people with who we can be friends, a number to which we unconsciously relate. Whether or not we solve this intellectual question, it remains a curious fact that the larger a tragedy is, the more likely human faces are to become faceless numbers.
¹ Psychic Numbing and Genocide, Slovic, 2007 https://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2007/11/slovic.aspx
² The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science, 2017 http://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780190464684.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780190464684-e-20
³ The More Who Die, the Less We Care: Psychic Numbing and Genocide
⁴ Dunbar's Number https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunbar%27s_number
⁵ The Social Brain: Psychological Underpinnings and Implications for the Structure of Organizations http://www2.psych.ubc.ca/~schaller/358Readings/Dunbar2014.pdf
⁶Escaping affect: how motivated emotion regulation creates insensitivity to mass suffering. (Cameron, Payne 2011) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21219076
⁷ Stanford paper: "Empathy for the social suffering of friends and strangers recruits distinct patterns of brain activation"
⁸ European Foreign Conflict Reporting: A Comparative Analysis of Public News, Emma Heywood https://books.google.com/books?id=EAYqDwAAQBAJ&pg=PT115&lpg=PT115&dq=%E2%80%9CTechniques,+which+could+raise+compassion+amongst+the+viewers,+and+which+prevail+on+New+at+Ten&source=bl&ots=HgZpkKc-u5&sig=ACfU3U31FtWtYZby8QD9XQWR_8qMIHgnzA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwj8ndu05dngAhXwnuAKHVFcDHcQ6AEwAHoECAkQAQ#v=onepage&q=%E2%80%9CTechniques%2C%20which%20could%20raise%20compassion%20amongst%20the%20viewers%2C%20and%20which%20prevail%20on%20New%20at%20Ten&f=false
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- Emily Chamlee-Wright says there are many benefits to having no one central authority on what is appropriate speech.
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