Is free speech something that should be redrawn? With Ann Coulter’s scheduled speech at Berkeley cancelled today due to security concerns, we’re once again seeing the ugly face of the Left shutting down constitutionally-protected rights for the sake of safe spaces and political correctness. Yet, that’s the whole point of college, immersing in things that are outside your comfort zone, right? My political philosophy professor in college was an avowed anarchist and we all turned out okay. Yet, Ulrich Baer, the vice provost for faculty, arts, humanities, and diversity, and professor of comparative literature at New York University, decided to bring us an explanation for why it’s okay to chip away at the Bill of Rights. The New York Times published his op-ed and it’s only something that the snobby elite in the urban bastions of America could argue in support of squashing free speech: It’s a public good that constantly needs redrawing (they say) [emphasis mine]:
The philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, best known for his prescient analysis in “The Postmodern Condition” of how public discourse discards the categories of true/false and just/unjust in favor of valuing the mere fact that something is being communicated, examined the tension between experience and argument in a different way.
Instead of defining freedom of expression as guaranteeing the robust debate from which the truth emerges, Lyotard focused on the asymmetry of different positions when personal experience is challenged by abstract arguments. His extreme example was Holocaust denial, where invidious but often well-publicized cranks confronted survivors with the absurd challenge to produce incontrovertible eyewitness evidence of their experience of the killing machines set up by the Nazis to exterminate the Jews of Europe. Not only was such evidence unavailable, but it also challenged the Jewish survivors to produce evidence of their own legitimacy in a discourse that had systematically denied their humanity.
Lyotard shifted attention away from the content of free speech to the way certain topics restrict speech as a public good. Some things are unmentionable and undebatable, but not because they offend the sensibilities of the sheltered young. Some topics, such as claims that some human beings are by definition inferior to others, or illegal or unworthy of legal standing, are not open to debate because such people cannot debate them on the same terms.
The recent student demonstrations at Auburn against Spencer’s visit — as well as protests on other campuses against Charles Murray, Milo Yiannopoulos and others — should be understood as an attempt to ensure the conditions of free speech for a greater group of people, rather than censorship. Liberal free-speech advocates rush to point out that the views of these individuals must be heard first to be rejected. But this is not the case. Universities invite speakers not chiefly to present otherwise unavailable discoveries, but to present to the public views they have presented elsewhere. When those views invalidate the humanity of some people, they restrict speech as a public good.
In such cases there is no inherent value to be gained from debating them in public. In today’s age, we also have a simple solution that should appease all those concerned that students are insufficiently exposed to controversial views. It is called the Internet, where all kinds of offensive expression flourish unfettered on a vast platform available to nearly all.
The great value and importance of freedom of expression, for higher education and for democracy, is hard to overestimate. But it has been regrettably easy for commentators to create a simple dichotomy between a younger generation’s oversensitivity and free speech as an absolute good that leads to the truth. We would do better to focus on a more sophisticated understanding, such as the one provided by Lyotard, of the necessary conditions for speech to be a common, public good. This requires the realization that in politics, the parameters of public speech must be continually redrawn to accommodate those who previously had no standing.
Right, there’s the Left using the most extreme example to characterize the whole issue as if every conservative that’s being protested is denying that the Holocaust ever happened. That’s not what’s happening. It’s students who just don’t want to hear other views because they’re, in the words of Bill Maher, “f**king babies.” Moreover, the whole notion that the parameters for free speech needs to be redrawn is absurd. The First Amendment is quite explicit in outlining what the Founders’ intended it to be used for in this country of ours. Perverting that to give yourself various political escape hatches to shut down conservatives is cute at best and abjectly stupid at worst.
“The idea of freedom of speech does not mean a blanket permission to say anything anybody thinks. It means balancing the inherent value of a given view with the obligation to ensure that other members of a given community can participate in discourse as fully recognized members of that community,” wrote Baer.
That’s precisely wrong. And there is value for inviting some of the most insane people to speak. Since you brought up Nazis, let’s say a typical national socialist addresses a college, offends people, denies the Holocaust, thinks Adolf Hitler is the best leader in the world, and feels that anyone who isn’t Aryan is the scum of the Earth worthy of extermination. It would be brutal. It would be rough, but there’s nothing to gain from this? You couldn’t glean that maybe there should be another discussion about the sordid history of anti-Semitism? Maybe discuss at length the Holocaust; listing the endless amounts of evidence that shows the Third Reich tried to purge the entire continent, and eventually the world, of these people? All of which ends with the same result: Nazis are wrong and they have a history that is downright evil. Why do people still carry Nazi beliefs? Is it due to a lack of education? Is it because racism persists in families who hold such views? Can the cycle be broken with more speech, more tolerance, and more outreach of some sort? If anything, having a Nazi whacko visit campus is a great way to remind us the horrors committed in the name of this ideology to avoid it from ever happening again. And I frankly think that history lessons tend to serve the public good.
The National Review took Baer to the woodshed for this piece as well. But the Right has also found some unlikely allies in this fight, like the American Civil Liberties Union. Liberal Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine is also disconcerted with this faction that he branded the illiberal left. And yes, he also criticized Baer:
Left-wing critics of liberalism instead see the free-speech rights of the oppressed and the oppressors set in zero-sum conflict, so that the expansion of one inevitably comes at the cost of the other. Baer praises recent violent protests that halted speeches by Charles Murray and Milo Yiannopoulos as, therefore, “an attempt to ensure the conditions of free speech for a greater group of people,” actually enhancing freedom of speech. “When those views invalidate the humanity of some people, they restrict speech as a public good,” he argues.
But what kinds of speech should be shut down on these grounds? Baer’s definition is rather vague.
Nearly all American politicians in both major parties support some limits on legal immigration, and some measures to enforce those laws. Virtually all of them define “some human beings as ‘unworthy of legal standing’” — a position Baer insists does not deserve to be defended in public at all. Perfectly cogent arguments can and have been made that, say, Hillary Clinton advocates systemically racist policies or that Bernie Sanders encourages sexism. The ability to associate disagreeable ideas with the oppressor, and to quash free speech or other political rights in the name of justice for the oppressed, is a power without any clear limiting principle. Historically, states that rule on that basis tend to push that power to its farthest possible limit.
In other words, the end of free speech as we know it, coupled with the entrance of an Americanized Cultural Revolution that would make Mao proud. This is what we’re fighting—and it shouldn’t be just conservatives. Any free speech loving American should be horrified at the progressive intolerance that spreading through American academia like a brushfire.
Remarkably, not once does this piece explore the difference between public and private colleges. pic.twitter.com/MV3J2uyvjN— Alex Griswold (@HashtagGriswold) April 24, 2017