It is hard to believe that anyone, let alone a professor, would argue against free speech. The freedom to say what you want, even if everyone else finds it disagreeable is an inherent part of American culture. It is what allows us to challenge religion, the government, and outside forces. It is also what allows us to express ourselves and live our lives in the manner we wish.
Who would want to curtail such freedom? Ulrich Baer, a professor, argues that free speech should be controlled because it might hurt some people’s feelings. It is a thing to behold:
At one of the premieres of his landmark Holocaust documentary, “Shoah” (1985), the filmmaker Claude Lanzmann was challenged by a member of the audience, a woman who identified herself as a Holocaust survivor. Lanzmann listened politely as the woman recounted her harrowing personal account of the Holocaust to make the point that the film failed to fully represent the recollections of survivors. When she finished, Lanzmann waited a bit, and then said, “Madame, you are an experience, but not an argument.”
This exchange, conveyed to me by the Russian literature scholar Victor Erlich some years ago, has stayed with me, and it has taken on renewed significance as the struggles on American campuses to negotiate issues of free speech have intensified — most recently in protests at Auburn University against a visit by the white nationalist Richard Spencer.
The two instances have nothing in common. The latter is a situation in which a group of people wish to prevent a controversial speaker from sharing his opinions while the former is a situation in which a one person challenged another person’s presentation of historical events.
Free speech is a zero sum proposition. You either have it or you do not. The moment that someone can stop you from saying anything, you lose that freedom.
The logic Baer will attempt to use to justify curtailing free speech will rest on an emotional argument. Even without reading ahead, one can see this coming. His argument will be that some people are marginalized and their voices have not been heard or their experiences acknowledged. Therefore, anyone who would challenge the “marginalized” people’s expression of their experiences should be silenced for the sake of allowing those people to essentially have their say unquestioned.
This is a ridiculous argument, yet it is one Baer makes with no understanding of its impact:
During the 1980s and ’90s, a shift occurred in American culture; personal experience and testimony, especially of suffering and oppression, began to challenge the primacy of argument. Freedom of expression became a flash point in this shift. Then as now, both liberals and conservatives were wary of the privileging of personal experience, with its powerful emotional impact, over reason and argument, which some fear will bring an end to civilization, or at least to freedom of speech.
We should resist the temptation to rehash these debates. Doing so would overlook the fact that a thorough generational shift has occurred. Widespread caricatures of students as overly sensitive, vulnerable and entitled “snowflakes” fail to acknowledge the philosophical work that was carried out, especially in the 1980s and ’90s, to legitimate experience — especially traumatic experience — which had been dismissed for decades as unreliable, untrustworthy and inaccessible to understanding.
The problem is that the experiences are unreliable, untrustworthy, and inaccessible to a degree precisely because they are personal experiences. Obviously if enough people recount those experiences we can and should take note of that importance. However, that does not mean that their recounting of events is the end of the conversation. There are other people who had different experiences which are just as important and valid as the “marginalized” groups. We should hear those experiences as well in order to get a fuller understanding of the situation.
To use a current example, we should not only listen to the numerous black people who recount mistreatment at the hands of police. We should also listen to police recount their experiences in black communities. We may not agree with what either group says, however, listening to both sides will give us a better understanding of problem occurring between the two groups.
This is more important to do when the conversation becomes broad, such as declaring that police departments discriminate against black people. In that instance, we would need to hear what the police have to say about it, why they engage in whatever it is that they do, and their opinion on the matter. We would also want to hear from those belonging to both groups who hold opposing views. We would want to hear from police who think the departments unfairly target black people, and we would want to hear from black people who think the police do not go far enough.
None of this will be comfortable, yet it is necessary for understanding the situation. However, if we followed Baer’s logic, the police would never be allowed to speak unless it was to condemn other officers.
Instead of defining freedom of expression as guaranteeing the robust debate from which the truth emerges, [The philosopher Jean-François] 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.
That is an egregious situation, however, that is not the nature of the current discourse. The nature of the current discourse is one group claiming to be victims of another group, and the accused group claiming that accusations are false or gross misrepresentations. When asked to present evidence supporting the accusations, the accusing group presents a handful of carefully selected statistics and a host of anecdotal evidence via personal experiences. The accused in turn present a handful of carefully selected statistics and challenge the veracity of the personal experiences, particularly the ideology influencing the perception of those experiences.
There is no “incontrovertible eyewitness evidence” to be challenged. To use the police example again, most people do not challenge the numbers showing that black people experience more police brutality than other groups. The challenge is typically around the reason that occurs. One group argues that it is due to “institutionalized” racism while the other argues that black people’s situation may cause them to be more prone to violence or violent interaction with police.
One, both, or neither could be true to varying degrees, yet we cannot determine that if we prevent people from arguing that perhaps black people cause their own problems. Yes, that argument comes across as offensive. That does not mean it is invalid. We need to determine its validity, and in order to do so we must hear the argument and test it.
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.
That is an absurd argument. If one argues that all human beings are by definition equal to each other, then nothing prevents anyone from debating the counter argument that some people are inferior. By Baer and Lyotard’s own definition, people are inherently on the same terms and would therefore have the means and wherewithal to debate the matter. Baer’s argument ironically posits the opposite. He implies that some people are indeed inferior to others, which would make them incapable of defending themselves against such an argument.
However, there is a broader issue here: on what grounds do we determine that all humans are equal? What do we base this on? Morality? Ethics? Ideology? Religion? How do we reach this conclusion? Should we not ask these questions and answer them, testing each answer to determine which is the best? Would that not prompt us to challenge the answers we considered weak or poorly formed? Would such a discussion not meet the definition of debating?
The very thing Baer wants us to assume requires that we debate the topic to determine why we consider it true.
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.
The late Christopher Hitchens had a response to this:
Bear in mind, ladies and gentlemen, that every time you violate or propose to violate the free speech of someone else, in potencia, you’re making a rod for own back. Because the other question raised by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes is simply this: who’s going to decide?
To whom do you award the right to decide which speech is harmful or who is the harmful speaker? Or determine in advance what are the harmful consequences going to be, that we know enough about in advance to prevent?
To whom would you give this job? To whom are you going to award the job of being the censor? […] To whom you would give the job of deciding for you, relieve you of the responsibility of hearing what you might have to hear?
These are not rhetorical questions. They are legitimate and deserve an answer. To whom would you give the authority to decide what you can or cannot hear, say, see, or think? Baer attempts to weasel out of his ridiculous position that curtailing certain people’s speech is fair by arguing:
In such cases there is no inherent value to be gained from debating them in public.
To which Hitchens would reply:
[…] One has to suspect the motives of those […] who are determined to be offended […]
The value gained from debating “views invalidate the humanity of some people” publicly is to allow people to see the weakness of those views. If the person arguing them cannot defend them and cannot present them well, what reason would anyone have to support them? The way to demonstrate that an idea is bad or weak is by challenging it directly. The way to determine that a person suspects their ideas are invalid or would not hold up to criticism, or that a person is closed-minded, is see how the person reacts when asked to defend their views publicly. The person who runs away from rigorous debate likely suspects their ideas may lack veracity.
Curiously, Baer fails to realize that this idea of “views invalidate the humanity of some people” could apply to progressive views. It certainly would apply to progressive views about men, white people, straight people, police, government, the middle class, the wealthy, Christians, and anyone living in Western countries. Should a feminist who regards all males as potential rapists and abusers get a forum to speak? Should a gay rights activist who thinks straight people are “breeders” get the right to speak? Should Muslims who despise women, Jews, and Christians get to stand behind the public podium? Surely those people’s words “invalidate the humanity of some people”, no?
Baer does not consider this. Instead he argues that those wanting to hear “controversial views” should turn to the internet, “where all kinds of offensive expression flourish unfettered on a vast platform available to nearly all.”
Yes, it is true that the internet provides such a platform. One need only visit progressive sites to see such offensiveness in full bloom. However, the internet does not provide a forum for rigorous debate as it is too easy for people to only watch, read, or listen to those who share their views. The internet, despite its ability to link people half a world away together, has the tendency to cause people to form like-minded groups. In that sense, the internet is the worst means of addressing this problem.
The great value and importance of freedom of expression, for higher education and for democracy, is hard to underestimate. 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.
How can we reach the truth if we value one group’s experiences over evidence? How can we reach the truth if we value one group’s ideology over evidence? This is important because it is the latter — the ideology — that prompts the over-sensitivity. Remove the progressive ideology, and much of the reaction about “microaggressions” and “privilege” fall away.
The rights of transgender people for legal equality and protection against discrimination are a current example in a long history of such redefinitions. It is only when trans people are recognized as fully human, rather than as men and women in disguise, as Ben Carson, the current secretary of housing and urban development claims, that their rights can be fully recognized in policy decisions.
Men and women are human, and since transpeople are either male or female this renders Baer’s argument utterly pointless. No one challenges transpeople’s humanity. The challenge is to whether one’s sex can be altered or whether one can be “born the wrong sex”. That is a valid question related to biology, genetics, and psychology. We cannot ignore the question because some transpeople feel “offended” that other people do not regard them as the opposite sex.
The idea of freedom of speech does not mean a blanket permission to say anything anybody thinks.
Actually, it does. That is the very definition of freedom of speech. However, that freedom comes with responsibility. It is irresponsible to say things that are specifically designed to hurt other people. It is irresponsible to use this freedom to curtail other people’s rights. What we should do is teach people about the responsibility that comes with being able to say anything one thinks, not attempt to silence certain thoughts.
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. Free-speech protections — not only but especially in universities, which aim to educate students in how to belong to various communities — should not mean that someone’s humanity, or their right to participate in political speech as political agents, can be freely attacked, demeaned or questioned.
Unless they come from the group Baer determines are bad actors. Then, according to his own argument, those people should be silenced. Likewise, the people with the good views are allowed to attack, demean, or question the humanity of the bad actors, like Richard Spencer. He has no humanity and no right to participate in political speech as a political agent because of his views. If he were a black lives matter activist, however, then he could say whatever hateful thing he wished about white people and police to no one’s complaint.
In 1963, Yale University had rescinded an invitation to Alabama’s segregationist governor, George C. Wallace. In 1974, after unruly protests prevented William Shockley from debating his recommendation for voluntary sterilization of people with low I.Q.s, and other related incidents, Yale issued a report on how best to uphold the value of free speech on campus that remains the gold standard for many other institutions.
Unlike today’s somewhat reflexive defenders of free speech, the Yale report situated the issue of free speech on campus within the context of an increasingly inclusive university and the changing demographics of society at large. While Yale bemoaned the occasional “paranoid intolerance” of student protesters, the university also criticized the “arrogant insensitivity” of free speech advocates who failed to acknowledge that requiring of someone in public debate to defend their human worth conflicts with the community’s obligation to assure all of its members equal access to public speech.
That is a valid argument. However, that is not what is occurring today. Today, a progressive speaker can challenge the human worth of people who voted for Donald Trump without any chance of being barred from speaking. To the contrary, Yale may be more inclined to invite them, and the harsher the anti-Trump, anti-conservative language, the more generous the invitation.
As we can see, Baer’s argument has nothing to do with fairness so much as it is about protecting and favoring certain groups. This is useless and bigoted. It also leaves students in a difficult position because once they step outside of the protection of the college system they will hear all the views they silenced.
This is the other reason it is so important to debate so-called “bad ideas”: people need to know how to refute them, and that is something one can only learn by engaging those ideas. The moment the transwoman steps into the real world and encounters someone does not consider his biological penis just her enlarged clitoris, the transwoman will need to deal with the reality that most people will react that way. The black student will have to realize that most people simply will not care if she takes offense to someone “culturally appropriating” her hairstyle. The feminist student will need to learn that no one cares about her feelings on how urinals oppress women because they allow men to stand when they urinate while women must sit on the toilet.
Most people will not be as provocative as Milo Yiannopoulos in their reactions, yet they will share his perspectives on the “special snowflakes” responses to challenges to their arguments.
What is under severe attack, in the name of an absolute notion of free speech, are the rights, both legal and cultural, of minorities to participate in public discourse. The snowflakes sensed, a good year before the election of President Trump, that insults and direct threats could once again become sanctioned by the most powerful office in the land.
Yes, and their candidate loved to engage in insults and direct threats against groups she did not like, as did her snowflake followers. This can still be seen with the numerous verbal and physical attacks on Trump supporters. This has even happened to people progressives assume supported Trump. So when Baer states:
Like President Trump’s attacks on the liberal media as the “enemies of the American people,” his insults are meant to discredit and delegitimize whole groups as less worthy of participation in the public exchange of ideas.
it is little more than projection. His group does the same thing. The difference is that his group is making an active effort to curtail the rights and freedoms of anyone with whom they disagree while Trump is simply being an ass.