This week we’ve seen two articles by English professors arguing that censorship is essential to ensure free speech. One, in the New York Times, was by Ulrich Baer from New York University, and the other, in the New Republic, was by Aaron Hanlon from Colby College (links go to my analyses, which contain links to the original pieces). Both professors claimed that yes, free speech was good, but that “hate speech”—speech that dehumanized people or attacked their identities or nullified their “lived experience”—was not free speech and thus was okay to censor. (By “censor,” I mean disinvite people who have already been invited to speak at universities, or to harass them in such a way that they become unable to give their talks.)
I’m thus pleased to see some pushback in the liberal press against what I consider not only dumb but dangerous arguments for censorship: arguments that, if they became policy, would allow only approved forms of speech on campus. One article, by Kevin Drum (a cat lover) is at Mother Jones, and is called “The most important free speech question is: Who decides?” Here’s an excerpt, in which Drum starts by referring to Aaron Hanlon’s New Republic piece:
The sophistry here is breathtaking. If it’s just some small group that invites someone, then it’s OK if the rest of the university blackballs their choice. After all, universities are supposed to decide what students don’t need to know. It may “look like censorship from certain angles,” but it’s actually the very zenith of free expression.
. . . But now everyone is weighing in, and here on the left we’re caving in way too often to this Hanlon-esque lunacy. Is some of the speech he’s concerned about ugly and dangerous and deliberately provocative? Of course it is. But that’s not a reason to shut it down. That’s the whole reason we defend free speech in the first place. If political speech was all a harmless game of patty-cake, nobody would even care.
Speech is often harmful. And vicious. And hurtful. And racist. And just plain disgusting. But whenever you start thinking these are good reasons to overturn—by violence or otherwise—someone’s invitation to speak, ask yourself this: Who decides? Because once you concede the right to keep people from speaking, you concede the right of somebody to make that decision. And that somebody may eventually decide to shut down communists. Or anti-war protesters. Or gays. Or sociobiologists. Or Jews who defend Israel. Or Muslims.
I don’t want anyone to have that power. No one else on the left should want it either.
Well, this argument is not new; it was made by Hitchens and parroted by me, and it’s a good argument. Who would you trust to make all the decisions about what you can hear on campus? Anyone? I can’t name anybody save someone like Hitchens, who would censor nobody. There is no clear distinction between “acceptable” and “unacceptable” speech, and different people have different views. I, for one, wouldn’t try to censor a Holocaust denialist, because I would want to hear what kind of arguments he/she would make. At the very least, hearing someone with “offensive” views gives you an idea of what your opponents have to say, and a chance to hone your own arguments. There’s not really a down side, unless you think that you need to be The Decider because the Little People might be swayed by offensive speech.
A related piece is in the Washington Post, written by Samantha Harris, vice president of policy research for the estimable organization Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). The piece is called “Lawyer: Stop using censorship to ‘protect’ free speech“, and here’s an excerpt, which gives some tangible examples; I particularly like the invocation of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Harris’s starting point is Ulrich Baer’s call for censorship in the New York Times:
Under this view, some enlightened group of people, claiming a monopoly on the truth, decide which viewpoints are permissible and which must be shut out because they “invalidate the humanity” of others. In Baer’s case, these impermissible views include not only Holocaust denial and white supremacy, but also opposition to illegal immigration and transgender rights, among other things.
. . . But Baer assumes, quite dangerously, that we can know in advance whose stories and experiences are “legitimate” and whose are not.
What about, for example, the lived experiences of genuine dissenters from marginalized groups — people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose arguments about the treatment of women in Islam have been the frequent target of calls for censorship because of their perceived insensitivity to Muslims, though Hirsi Ali was herself raised as a Muslim and subjected to female genital mutilation?
Would Baer and others like him consider her criticism of Islam’s treatment of women to be a legitimate personal narrative, or is it one of those topics that should be off-limits because reckoning with Hirsi Ali’s argument might force other Muslims to defend their humanity? Or is it both? And if it is both, how do we decide — and who decides — which aspect should prevail?
Down the rabbit hole we go.
And what about people like Jonathan Rauch, a gay man who thinks that unfettered free speech is actually critical to minority rights? What if Rauch — and not those who believe that minority rights require the suppression of “hate speech” — is correct?
In a 2013 article for Reason magazine, Rauch described growing up gay in an era of terrible prejudice, and observed how the right to free speech was critical to the success of the gay rights movement.
Now you can say that gay rights were clearly something that should have been articulated, and those opposing them censored, but remember that long ago there were many who had arguments against gay rights, and the morality of equal rights for gays, and of their marriage, wasn’t universally accepted. Societies change, and that change is promoted by free discussion. Criticism of Islam is considered “hate speech” by many Muslims; should we ban it? Then we lose the opportunity of reforming the religion to eliminate its more oppressive tenets.
But one person has set himself up as The Decider—the person who can and has determined which speakers colleges shouldn’t be allowed on campus. It’s those like Coulter and Milo, who are “Nazis” and “far-right asshats.” Further, we have to make such decisions because finance and time dictate that a college can host only a limited number of speakers (not a good argument!). We must invite only those people who promote education, not ignorance, and who open rather than close minds. (I presume, based on The Decider’s past posts, that Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris would not fill that bill.)
A bit of The Decider’s argument:
One catch. You want infinite free speech on campus, you have to give us infinite money, infinite time, infinite resources. Fair enough?
Somehow, I don’t think it’s coming. Especially since the same people who want to see Ann Coulter given a privileged spot on the non-infinite roster of available speaking engagements are the people who under other circumstances complain bitterly about diversity. The rage always seems to rise on behalf of far-right asshats and Nazis, like Coulter or Yiannopoulos, have you noticed?
But even if we could accommodate everyone and every single point of view, the result has a name: it’s called cacophony. I don’t see how that is useful or constructive. Universities have a mission of promoting education; should we, in the name of Free Speech, insist that we also promote ignorance? That would be incoherent.
Universities are not neutral on all issues, nor should they be. We try to encourage open-mindedness; you can’t do that by also opening the door to those who encourage the closing of minds. We try to serve a diverse community; that doesn’t work if you take a disinterested position on purveyors of hate and bigotry. We aim to be selective and teach the best ideas that have the support of an educated, informed group…the antithesis of indiscriminate acceptance of bad, unsupported, rejected falsehoods. Coulter has nothing to contribute.
I know what’s next: Marketplace of ideas! Exposing students to novel points of view! The university should take students out of their comfort zone!
This is true. We do that all the time. I introduced my students to epistasis last week — discomfort and confusion were sown everywhere. It was good. But none of these arguments apply to Ann Coulter.
. . . Further, if you think being a place for education and intelligence and learning means you’re supposed to be wide open and completely neutral on everything, letting every voice through unfiltered, you don’t understand the university. I’ll give you two words: critical analysis. The university will examine your ideas, all right, and it will judge them. Nazis don’t get to come back and demand a do-over and a new grade.
Those protests? Those are students exercising their intelligence, and then going into the public square to exercise their free speech. Why? Did you think free speech meant freedom from criticism?
Note to The Decider: none of us have ever made the stupid argument that free speech meant freedom from criticism. But criticism is different from violence, and the former doesn’t justify the latter.
Were The Decider to run a university, we would see nobody on the Right, or especially the Far Right, allowed to speak. After all, time and money are limited, and they’re asshats anyway.
In fact, cacophony is exactly what we need, for, as the Founding Father realized, progress comes not from a harmony of opinions, but from a clash of opinions. I would not want The Decider to decide who promotes the “best ideas” (which of course are his ideas). We wouldn’t hear from the Right, and many from the Left would also be censored—those, like Sam Harris, Christina Hoff Sommers, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who are the “wrong kind of Leftists.” What a constricted intellectual world!
Finally, as a geneticist, I have to say that the analogy between epistasis (gene interaction) and Ann Coulter is ludicrous.
h/t: Grania, Richard W.