A notion currently as fashionable as it is pernicious is the idea that free speech protections should only ever be legal protections. As long as the government respects our free speech rights, we citizens can and should feel free to use whatever legitimate private means of silencing speech we disagree with are available to us. I have never understood what people who take this line aim to achieve with it. Of course legal speech protection is important. But what end does it really serve if you’re dedicated to silencing people by other means?
Osita Nwanevu’s recent Slate piece "There’s nothing outrageous about stamping out bigoted speech" is an excellent illustration of the intellectual bankruptcy those who cheer politically correct taboos in the private sphere.
Taking the violent physical attack on Charles Murray at Middlebury as his jumping-off point, Nwanevu argues that critics of politically correct campus culture exaggerate their criticisms as a way of hypocritically dodging difficult questions about the limits of fruitful discourse. He’s not entirely wrong about this – but his own arguments are so disingenuous that the essay takes us nowhere.
Do critics of politically correct culture exaggerate the dangers? Yes, probably. In his single good point, Nwaenvu reminds us that the availability heuristic is at work here. Students mobbing a professor’s car is news, students quietly listening to a lecture and writing responses rejecting its conclusion is not, and yet instances of the latter greatly outnumber instances of the former. If you base your opinion of campus culture only on what you read in the news, you have a pretty bleak picture of what it’s like, but you’re also misinformed.
That’s worth keeping in mind, and if he’d stopped to flesh it out, this might have been a thoughtful essay. Unfortunately, he seems more concerned with legitimizing no-platforming by the back door, and the piece is ultimately a series of distractions to that end.
Distraction number one – make all modern-day conservatives responsible for agreeing with something William F. Buckley wrote 65 years ago.
The notion that speech could be sensibly regulated was the central idea of one of the conservative movement’s ur-texts. God and Man at Yale, authored by the then 25-year-old William F. Buckley Jr., is little more than an extended plea for speech restrictions on campus. “Question: What is the 1) ethical, 2) philosophical, or 3) epistemological argument for requiring continued tolerance of ideas whose discrediting it is the purpose of education to effect,” Buckley asked. “What ethical code (in the Bible? in Plato? Kant? Hume?) requires ‘honest respect’ for any divergent conviction?”
This is trivially easy to respond to: no one is actually required to agree with everything William F. Buckley said – not even Buckley himself. The same way that no Planned Parenthood supporter signs on for everything Margaret Sanger ever wrote about eugenics. But even so, the quote is misplaced. The thesis of God and Man at Yale wasn’t that universities should dictate students’ thinking so much as that the intellectual climate lacked rigor. Students needed to be challenged, taught to think for themselves; unversities shouldn’t just be indulgence playgrounds for professors’ hobby horses. Agree or disagree with it, nothing about that is incompatible with the notion that students need to engage with lecturers on campus rather than shouting them down. And indeed, the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program at Yale features this quote from Buckley on its website:
The largest cultural menace in America is the conformity of the intellectual cliques which, in education as well as the arts, are out to impose upon the nation their modish fads and fallacies, and have nearly succeeded in doing so. In this cultural issue, we are, without reservations, on the side of excellence (rather than "newness") and of honest intellectual combat (rather than conformity).
Distraction number two – the good ol’ guilt by association fallacy.
In the Washington Post, Danielle Allen compared Murray’s plight with the ordeal faced by the black students of the Little Rock Nine. The fact that the research Murray has endorsed is regularly deployed by racists to argue that the education of black students is futile went unacknowledged.
So, anything that a racist uses to promote his views cannot be discussed? This is no kind of standard at all. Notice what isn’t said: that Murray himself is a racist, or that his work actually endorses "scientific racism." Is he? Does it? These are questions we could ask him if he were allowed to speak. Murray doesn’t seem to think of himself that way. In an open letter to Azusa Pacific University students after his lecture there was cancelled, Murray writes:
Try to find anything under my name that is not written in that spirit. Try to find even a paragraph that is written in anger, takes a cheap shot, or attacks women, African Americans, Latinos, Asians, or anyone else.
Can we take up this challenge? Nwanevu seems to prefer we don’t – an approach that pointedly leaves the truth of the matter somewhere just out of bounds. Should we simply take Nwanevu’s word for it? I wouldn’t do that even if I did believe that Nwanevu had ever read Murray. Whatever is being advocated here, it isn’t a culture of thinking and questioning. We’re just supposed to smell the racism and run away. Or something.
Distraction number three – point to another more pressing (perceived) threat to liberal democracy as a way of avoiding the issue.
The veteran critics on and off campus, like the rest of us, are a bit preoccupied. As you may have heard, Donald Trump has been elected president of the United States. In his first seven weeks in office, Trump has attempted to delegitimize the judiciary and the electoral process and condemned the free press. He has made two thinly veiled attempts to restrict the entry of Muslims into the country. … Given conditions on the ground in 2017, it’s easy to forget the thousands upon thousands of words expended not too long ago in the service of arguing that college students represented the most serious threat to liberal democratic norms and values.
OK, let’s grant for the sake of argument that Trump’s election is a bigger potential threat to liberal democracy than campus culture. That means what, exactly? That we can’t call it as we see it when students are literally beating people they disagree with? Nonsense. These problems are not mutually exclusive. Quite the contrary – the one seems likely to feed (and have fed) the other. People voted for Trump in part because they’re tired of people like Nwaenvu using the "bigot" label too freely – and Trump, for his part, would like nothing better than to normalize the idea that universities can police what lectures their students hear. One thing being a bigger threat than another doesn’t make the other thing not a threat. Was Japan or Germany more dangerous in WWII? Germany, I guess – but ignoring Japan on that basis would’ve been fatal. Students beating up speakers they don’t like is a problem, and one we should deal with. Period.
Distraction number four – mention other countries’ restrictions on speech, as though that were relevant to anything.
Those who disagree—those who dare suggest that the utility of speech may in fact be dependent on content, context, speaker, and audience—have unfailingly been deemed oversensitive and closed-minded. They are beholden to, in Jonathan Chait’s words, “philosophical premises that happen to be incompatible with liberalism.” Incompatible? Really? As of 2014, laws criminalizing offensive hate speech were on the books in 89 countries, including 84 percent of European nations. Is Spain, which bans racist speech, not a liberal state? Should we consider the state of Israel, where one can face criminal penalties for denying the Holocaust, intellectually stunted and fragile?
No, Spain is a liberal state, and Israel is not intellectually stunted and fragile. And yet, Spain’s speech laws are illiberal, and Israel’s ban on denying the Holocaust is intellectually stunted and fragile. It’s sort of exhausting to have to explain this to a college-educated adult, but a thing can be one way and still contain parts that are another way. Sort of like how my car is great in every way but for the fact that the battery runs down a little faster than it should. In general, we prefer things without flaws. So, if I could have the same car without the electrcial flaw, I’d take it. The only way I’d voluntarily accept the flaw is if there were a tradeoff – say, the car were cheaper. In the same way, if we’re going to accept restrictions on speech, we need something in return. What, exactly, does Israel get in exchange for its ridiculous Holocaust Law? What does Spain get for its hate speech laws? Is there some reason to believe that Spain’s hate speech laws have measurably reduced racism there? Does anyone for a moment believe that but for that Holocaust law protecting it the Israeli public would be awash in confusion about the reality of the Holocaust? So if you’re getting nothing in exchange for your speech restrictions – if they’re serving quite literally no public good – why make them? It’s fine for Nwanevu to point out that if Spain can ban hate speech without descending immediately into fascism we could probably survive some political correctness on campus – we probably would. But why jail people to no end? I’m not going to do it on what amounts to a dare, just to see if American liberalism survives it! More to the point – it’s a bit rich to hear this argument coming from the guy who just paragraphs ago told us we have to ban Murray from speaking on campus because some racists like his stuff. Liberal democracy is strong enough to survive a Holocaust Denial ban, but it’s not strong enough to survive Murray making a couple of campus speeches? Give me a goddamn break. And it’s not even like the racsists will stop citing him if he goes a year without a university speaking engagement anyway. They’ll just be doing it without cogent rebuttals from the academy is all – I mean, if there’s a social taboo on educated people mentioning his work.
Distraction number four – conflate organizations with a political agenda with universities. Probably Nwanevu’s weakest "argument" is equating CPAC disinviting Milo Yiannopolous with students calling for bans on speakers they don’t like – as if we’re too stupid to notice that political lobby groups and universities don’t have anything like the same commitment to truth. CPAC is expressly partisan. Its purpose is to advocate for particular ideas. Obviously, it can’t have people headlining who are at odds with that mission. A university has a very different purpose, and its speech culture should be tailored accordingly. You go to CPAC to hear a specific point of view, and to university to hear all of them. And to keep this discussion grounded, the argument on the table is that Murray should be allowed to speak on campus without being beaten up or shouted down. No one is asking the Black Student Union to host him, approve of him, or facilitate his appearance. If anything, we’re asking the Black Student Union to sponsor speakers to refute him. That’s what honest, open discourse is all about: point, counterpoint, reflection. If Nwaenvu can’t see the distinction between CPAC and a university … but of course he can. He’s not drawing this equivalence because he believes in it – he’s doing it to pull the wool over his readers’ eyes.
Distraction number five – confusing Hillary Clinton with the voice of reason.
he critics of political correctness flatter themselves with paeans to their putative open-mindedness and cluck sadly at angry outbursts. Yes, certain ideas are wrong, they tell activists. But when you allow people to examine the various sides of a debate, those with the best command of facts and reason—that is, those who agree with us—will emerge victorious. The race scientists will go the way of flat-earthers. Islamophobia will be found contemptible. Hillary will win. But this moment in American politics and American life proves that the victory of reason cannot always be assured. The purveyors of logic, of facts dutifully checked and delivered to the public, lost big league in November.
Oh come on. Trump has his flaws, but Clinton is hardly without hers. It’s fine to think that Clinton was the better of the two choices – that’s my personal view – but she was nothing remotely resembling the standard-bearer for light and reason.
For my money this is where Nwanevu really tips his hand. Read the quoted bit again. You don’t have to go too deep between the lines to learn that for Nwanevu this isn’t about rights and respect, it’s about getting his way. If free speech led people to conclusions he liked, he’d be all for it. It’s because it doesn’t always that he’s pushing these standards.
I don’t think this is limited to him. How far you take free speech support is a real character test. How far you trust in reason is a real character test. Is free expression a right that people have, and that you respect, or is it merely good social policy – a means to an end? Nwanevu’s just answered that question for us and essentially come out as a fascist. Read the excerpt above again and tell me I’m wrong.
And what’s his solution to the problem that "the victory of reason cannot always be assured?" It seems to be to give up on discourse altogether and shelter students from anything that might lead them to the "wrong" conclusions.
It’s hillarious that the basis for this isn’t even true as presented. After all, college students broke pretty hard for Hillary. Here’s Pew Reserach:
In the 2016 election, a wide gap in presidential preferences emerged between those with and without a college degree. College graduates backed Clinton by a 9-point margin (52%-43%), while those without a college degree backed Trump 52%-44%. This is by far the widest gap in support among college graduates and non-college graduates in exit polls dating back to 1980.
So, even by Nwaenvu’s own compromised standards college discourse is working. But hey, why let facts get in the way of a good censorship argument? "The victory of reason cannot always be assured" so … what? We just throw the towel in and tell people directly what to think?
And who, to go ahead and ask the begged question, gets to decide what it’s OK to think? Nwanevu seems to think it’s obvious what’s out of bounds, but is it really?
I have a better idea. Instead, why don’t we actually promote reasoned discourse as a real value? Which we do by, among other things, condeming people who shout down and physically attack invited speakers. Nwanevu could help with this by doing some of that instead of providing cover for them. But for what it’s worth, I think Nwanevu is right in his broader point that promoting an intellectual culture is more than telling thugs they’re wrong. Beating your chest about politically correct student protests gives you that righteous rush, but it’s not where the real fight is. The real fight, the hard fight, is more nuanced, and more positive – and that’s teaching students how to reason through arguments in the first place.
Intellectual values are not automatic. They’re something that has to be learned. We’re emotional creatures with a lot of base motivations. We like drama and fighting and ritual. Learning how to disagree respectfully is a skill that no one is born with – not entirely, anyway. And so yes, I do see a difference between Charles Murray and, say, Milo Yiannopolous. Murray is more clearly suited to a college environment than Yiannopolous. This is not to say that Yiannopolous should never be invited to speak on campus, and it’s certainly not to endorse the physical attacks on him or people going to see him. But Yiannopoulous is intellectual junk food. He’s not telling you anything you can’t and won’t see on TV. He’s an agitator, a provocateur – trying to get a reaction more than spark a discussion. The people who are always banging on about politically correct excesses on campus would be more credible if they were quicker to identify his popularity with campus conservative groups as equally symptomatic of intellectual decay. People who are interested in learning and honest inquiry sure as hell don’t physically attack speakers they disagree with, but then again, neither do they really waste their time – or their university’s money – on people like Milo.
They do spend time and money on people like Murray, though, and that’s the central point. Supporting academic discourse means supporting engagement with speakers you don’t like – even some speakers whose ideas you think are dangerous. If proper academic norms have anything to say about what kinds of speakers are welcome, then speakers who are thought-provoking, challenging, and provide reasoned arguments for their positions. Murray fits this bill. That Nwanevu wants to tack on all kinds of political tests to this list to exclude people like him is – well, an argument he’s free to make, but ample enough evidence that he’s not actually interested in promoting intellectual culture. He has another agenda, and not one I think I like.
Distraction number six – the false dichotomy. You really didn’t think we were getting through this without one of these, did you?
This is, to borrow a phrase, a time for choosing. In the Trump era, should we side with those who insist that the bigoted must traipse unhindered through our halls of learning? Or should we dare to disagree?
Why not both? Or, how about being honest about the question before the court? There’s a lot of middle ground – like, really a lot of it – between letting bigots "traipse unhindered through the halls of learning" and physically beating anyone we decide is a bigot. Like, for example, doing what they did at Middlebury, and having a professor on stage with Murray to question his position. My preference: pretty much anyone of an intellectual bent who students are interested in hearing should be allowed to speak unmolested, and students who don’t want to hear it don’t have to attend. Students who don’t like what a speaker has to say can and should invite counterspeakers to either debate the objectionable speaker directly – if the original speaker is willing – or to provide a countervailing viewpoint after the speaker has gone. To the extent people feel the need to invite Milo Yiannopolous to campus, we’re faling at fostering an intellectual culture, not because of the specific beliefs he holds (if any), but because of the sensationalist way he expresses them. The point of intellectualism is to promote deep thinking. So let’s do that. Let’s stop beating people up, stop no-platforming them, and stop pretending celebrities are providing intellectual discourse. Maybe compaining about politically correct culture on campus is only a small part of fixing the problem with our universities, but the solution is hardly to institutionalize it.
A questio from Murray – the closing line of that letter:
Azusa Pacific’s administration wants to protect you from earnest and nerdy old guys who have opinions that some of your faculty do not share. Ask if this is why you’re getting a college education.
It’s not, and Nwanevu knows it.
A question I’d really like Nwanevu – and people like him – to answer is when the training wheels come off. When, in his eyes, is someone actually an agent who can be trusted to form his own opinion – someone you have to face and present evidence and arguments to – someone you can’t just hide inconvenient things from? Maybe Nwanevu thinks that some adults in our society never reach that status – they’re never full people to him, never grown up enough to hear talks by people he doesn’t like. But see, if university students – the educated class, as it were – aren’t such people to him, then who ever can be? Are grad students? PhDs? What’s the test for this? Who makes it? Who takes the test how do we know when they’ve passed? Where can Murray speak, if not at universities? Because if the answer is really "nowhere," then Nwanevu is not a liberal. Stay focused here: we’re not talking about the situation where Murray can’t speak because no one wants to hear him. We’re talking about reality: people want to hear him, and Nwanevu doesn’t want to let them. He doesn’t want the police to stop them, sure, but he wants someone to. He wants an express policy where the school decides that certain opinions are out of bounds for discussion – apparently even if the speaker himself doesn’t hold them directly but has been cited by people who do. He thinks that’s what universities are.
This is not liberalism. This is not freedom. This is not intellectualism. This is not openness, and it is not respect. Pertinently, it is not how you fight Trump. If Trump really is the danger Nwanevu takes him to be, then remaking the world in this way just makes his job easier. Because in Nwanevu’s world, there are things you can say and things you can’t, and someone gets to decide what that is, and all we’re fighting over is who.
Me? I think that job belongs to everyone.