Leftists’ newfound comfort with engaging in terror tactics to shut down free speech is disturbing by itself. It’s worse when university officials give them intellectual cover.
In a recent opinion piece at the New York Times, New York University Vice Provost Ulrich Baer makes the case that the college outrage specialists using brute force to shut down campus speech are actually protecting our republic, rather than chipping away at one of its core tenets.
In the piece, titled “What ‘Snowflakes’ Get Right About Free Speech,” Baer defends recent attempts to shut down speakers on campus – casually lumping in Charles Murray and Ann Coulter with the likes of Richard Spencer, of course – and argues that they “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,” he continues. “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.”
Of course, this ignores why these speakers were invited onto campus in the first place. Some people did indeed want to hear their views, not simply to have their worldview bolstered or get those coveted celebrity selfies for their social media profiles, but to think, engage, and challenge what was being said. Without this sort of intellectual engagement, education ceases to educate and becomes indoctrination – something hardly worth the ever-increasing tuition check, even with the promise of a fancy piece of paper and a walk across the stage.
To bolster his argument, Baer points to exchanges between Holocaust deniers and Holocaust survivors as an example. He also discusses the work of philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, who evaluated the “asymmetry of different positions when personal experience is challenged by abstract arguments,” to argue that “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 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. 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.
But ultimately, it is Baer’s piece, not “commentators,” that reduces the situation to the deceptively simple, concluding that one’s perceived emotions must be held as superior to reason (called “argument” in the post).
The comparison of Holocaust denial to opinions that leftists would rather not debate is a fallacious reduction to the absurd, an intellectual smear meant to cast dissenters to Baer’s orthodoxy in the most despicable light possible. It ignores the difference between a documented body of facts surrounding an event — the Holocaust — and a body of opinions surrounding modern policy preferences.
Baer also sets up a straw man that in our world today, some have no standing to gain “access” to speech — and then purports to conquer it by saying we must cut off the ability of others to speak by invitation in the very arenas that should be the most hospitable to free speech.
Most importantly, Baer starts with the false assumption that a dissenting opinion on a particular issue invalidates someone’s humanity. This should not be entertained on its own terms for even a moment. Simply because one does not agree with a policy prescription on issues such as immigration or transgenderism does not automatically mean one views an immigrant or a transgender person as less human.
Rather, the less-than-human assumption that dissenters’ opinions are too repugnant even to be heard is little more than a popular, comforting lie for those who can’t sufficiently defend their own ideas. This lie is often perpetuated by leftist professors to eager students suffering from a condition Hans Fiene calls “Selma Envy” – the need to be seen espousing a cause as great as racial equality. It also gives a convenient cover to those who wish to unilaterally decide which opinions are “off limits” with absolute impunity.
Baer cites, of course, transgender people as examples of a class for which free speech must kneel in order to give them their preferred legal standing. In other words, speech must be silenced in favor of whatever class the brute thugs on college campus and their intellectual gurus have deemed worthy of protection from big, scary ideas.
In conclusion, Baer says, “We should thank the student protestors, the activists in Black Lives Matter and other ‘overly sensitive’ souls for keeping watch over the soul of our republic.”
That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works.
Baer’s argument centers around the notion that speech must be subjugated to the demands of the progressive worldview — not because counter ideas truly dehumanize these progressive darlings, but because leftists know they cannot get their desired agenda adopted except by claiming all counter ideas are inherently evil and unworthy even to be heard. It’s all rooted, of course, in the tired old assumptions of Marx’s social conflict theory, even if Baer never mentions it by name. It’s therefore no surprise that violence and suppression of thought and speech are justified; after all, it’s always been okay to violently suppress the “oppressors.”
“I prefer dangerous freedom over peaceful slavery,” said Thomas Jefferson — an ethos which is rapidly becoming counter-cultural in the American academy. Our First Amendment protects the right of our citizens to speak and express themselves in accordance with their conscience. Yes, there are some limits on what is legally protected, but those revolve around actual violence, rather than hurt feelings and disagreement. The latter two require a free and earnest exchange of thought.
The way a free society deals with bad ideas — like Holocaust denial, for instance — is by confronting them with better ones. This only works, of course, if debate is possible. Censorship and brute force — what Baer casually and dangerously calls “redrawing the parameters” — are the refuge of those who cannot sell their arguments. A worldview based on feeling over fact knows it will fall apart when confronted with fact and reason; therefore the only way to shelter it is to shut down facts and reason by brute force. The cult of feelings has found it hard to win some things on merit alone; this is where violence becomes handy.
If the people responsible for refuting or challenging arguments metaphorically plug their ears and scream like spoiled toddlers, the whole system starts to fall apart. The only thing worse than the aforementioned temper tantrum is when the educators and mentors of those toddler-esque souls coddle — rather than correct — them.
Ulrich and the kids he’s defending are nothing new. They’re no different from the legions who have used violence and coercion to forcibly silence political and social dissent throughout human history. But it’s a tragedy to see it gaining so much ground in a country founded on the concept of human freedom.