Patricia Marino has a thoughtful essay on the limits of campus speech that I think is worth reading less because of the questions it raises – which mostly have pretty easy answers from my point of view – and more because it unintentionally points to all the attitudes we have to change to reclaim the university campus as a discussion forum.
(I take it as a given that there’s something wrong with campus culture these days that needs fixing. If you’re basically happy with student activism, with safe spaces, and with victimhood culture, this entry isn’t for you.)
She starts as any philosopher should: take something that seems obvious and question just how obvious it actually is. The question is in the title: "Which Ideas Should Have A Place On University Campuses?" The obvious answer: "all of them." The challenge: is it really that obvious?
Here’s a list of topic Dr. Marino thinks large numbers of people will find inappropriate for campus speeches/lectures:
- Why Are All Episcopalians are Evil People?
- My Personal Theory On Why The Germ Theory of Disease is False
- Do You Have Cancer? It’s Your Own Fault
- That Student Named Joe Green is Dumb and Ugly, and His Acne Makes Him Gross and Undatable
No fair coming up playful, irreverent speeches these might be the title to – the rules of the thought experiment are to try to imagine things that would be, at a minimum, a waste of university resources. Personally, the only item on this list I’d disqualify would be the last one – but I guess the majority of people would side with Mrarino that these are well outside the university’s bailiwick. On campus, we’re supposed to be expanding our minds, not wasting time with jejune nonsense.
From there, though, it’s sort of hard to agree with much else Marino says.
For example, she thinks that people would be justified in being angered by these hypothetical speeches.
Having these as university sponsored themes would be ridiculous and offensive, and people would be right to be upset.
Would they? I’d prefer to say people would be thin-skinned to be upset.
I think this is the first way campus culture goes wrong: offense is entirely too cheap these days. SO cheap, in fact, that it’s become impossible to take it even remotely seriously. We throw away paperclips without a second thought, but not fresh caviar, because there is a lot of the former and not so much of the latter. Offense these days is like paper clips.
Let’s say you’re Episcopalian and someone is on campus calling you evil. Be honest – does that really bother you? It doesn’t. Because it’s just not a widespread belief that Episcopalians are evil. I think the going consensus is more along the lines of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy‘s entry on Earth: mostly harmless.
Alright, let’s pick one that actually hurts, then. Say you’re Jewish and someone is making a speech called "Why Are All Jews Evil People?" Well, that might actually be a little frightening, because there’s been mass murder carried out on that premise. But here’s the rub – there either is or isn’t a danger of anti-Jewish pogroms in the modern United States. And here, I guess the consensus is "isn’t." I mean, the Anti-Defamation League would probably like to play up the danger – that’s kind of its mission statement. But the chances are honestly quite low. History being what it is, though, this still isn’t the kind of thing you can just sneeze at. So what do you do? The way this is framed, you have two choices. You either ban it from campus, or you study it. Is there really any question about which is appropriate on campus? Studying things is what universities do. Studying historically relevant things is what universities do. The aforementioned Anti-Defamation League exists entirely to study just this thing. People make careers out of studying just this thing. Having studied just this thing a little more closely in the 1920s might have prevented a lot of bloodshed. So, I don’t see how any intellectual would consider this speech out of bounds. Sure, they might find it offensive – but it’s hard to see how listening to a speech about why Jews are all evil is substantially different from watching Hitler make the same point in a video archive, as serious students of the Holocaust do.
It’s a conundrum. To the extent things are honestly ridiculous, it’s silly to get offended by them. To the extent things are sincerely-held opinions that shape history, it’s counterproductive to ignore them. What there isn’t at either end of this spectrum, nor anywhere along the way, is an honestly good argument for no-platforming someone.
Which brings up another issue:
The issue with campus sponsored events isn’t about "free speech," but rather about which ideas deserve a hearing and which do not.
This seems like a problem that solves itself: ideas that people want to hear deserve a hearing, and ideas that people don’t can be ignored. Why does anything need to be forbidden? This is what’s so frequently annoying about Popehat’s Ken White’s insistence that he supports a "robust marketplace of ideas." He invariably follows this up with a full-throated defense of people’s right to shout down things they don’t like. Well, no one actually disputes they have that right, but this isn’t really how marketplaces work. Marketplaces are more about popularity contests. The supply of things people want increases, and the supply of things they don’t dwindles to nothing. The reason there’s no Moxie Soda on the shelves around here is because there aren’t enough people who want to buy it. It’s not because mobs of people picketed Kroger until they got rid of it. We don’t actually need a central authority deciding what’s worth listening to and what’s not, and we don’t need mobs shouting over the things people want to hear. I don’t have any particular problem with the univeristy endorsing particular speakers as things that it thinks students’ education/critical thinking skills/etc. will benefit from hearing. But in general the way this works is exactly the way it should: particular campus organizations have an allocated budget for paying speakers, and they invite the speakers their members want to hear. Not everyone will want to hear the speaker a particular group finds interesting, and so they simply do not attend.
I am a supporter of free speech. I think people like Milo Yiannopoulos and other provocateurs like Dieudonné have a right to say what they want to say. But people don’t have rights to university platforms. It would be my opinion that if Milo Yiannopoulos proposed to give a campus talk consisting of abuse of Leslie Jones, then just like the "That Student Named Joe Green is Dumb and Ugly, and His Acne Makes Him Gross and Undatable," the talk would be wildly inappropriate and he shouldn’t be invited to give it.
This one I happen to agree with. To continue with the supermarket analogy, some speakers are simply intellectual junk food, and Milo Yiannopolous is one of these. So why do people want to hear him? Marino knows the answer but misses its signifance:
What is it that his [Milo Yiannopoulos] defenders thought were the merits of the contribution? "Too good to pass up" — why, exactly? Is it that his presence on campus would make people upset and angry? I think that on its own, in this context, this is not a reason.
I think it is, though. Yes, campus conservatives want Milo to come not because they actually agree with or even care that much about what he has to say, but because they know he offends people they don’t like. Marino is whistling past the grave in focusing on whether Conservatives have solid intellectual reasons to want to hear Milo. They don’t, probably, but isn’t the bigger problem that anyone is willing to use violence to shut Milo down? One side is the aggressor here, and it’s not the conservatives who invited Milo. If there’s a problem to be addressed, it’s that students get violent over things that just aren’t worth it.
And to me, that’s the rub: talking about what kind of speakers we can rule out is the wrong conversation to be having. The conversation we ought to be having is how universities got to the point where the "battle of ideas" plays out by deciding who gets the platform rather than by listening and discussing. The disease isn’t that anyone wants to invite Milo – that’s the symptom. The disease is that anyone looks at a speaker on campus and sees something besides an educational opportunity. Yes, Milo Yiannopoulos is a rank provocateur, nothing but entertainment. But you don’t have to take him at face value, the way the general public does. The right university student response to someone like Milo is to want to study him. What does he do to provoke people? How does it work? How much of it is his showmanship and how much of it is the ideology? IS there even an ideology there? Why is it – currently anyway – mostly left-leaning people who take this bait? There are so many questions a thoughful person would want to ask Milo. And the point is that this is the spirit in which university students should approach all speakers. The relevant and interesitng question isn’t how we decide what’s in and out of bounds, it’s why university students seem largely and increasingly incapable of tolerance, open-mindedness, and intellectual curiosity. To a true student, there’s something to learn even from someone like Milo.
Dr. Marino is, of course, just doing what philosophers do: questioning the seemingly obvious. But I respectfully submit that the way her essay is framed unintentionally provides cover for a student movement that is frankly fascist and dangerous. Milo Yiannopoulos may not be worth listening to on his own, but I think he’s useful at least as a barometer. To the extent people on campus respond to him with anything other than a shrug, we’re "doing university wrong." The reaction to Milo is what the Left would call a "teaching moment" under other circumstances. Rather than talking about when it’s OK to ban people, let’s focus on pushing back against a cultural trend that is truly frightening.