14 May 2014

On Free Speech and Social Justice, or, Just Who Should Speak at Commencement

Oh, dear. The Establishment media has ratcheted up the hand-wringing machine again. Those pesky kids are creating a ruckus, and It Needs to Stop.

This time it’s over commencement speakers. This morning, both Vox and The Christian Science Monitor ran stories about college students opposing controversial commencement speakers. (Interestingly, both describe the same incidents and both lead with pictures of IMF Director Christine Lagarde—Vox’s Libby Nelson wins with the facepalm pic—which makes me wonder who pitched the story to begin with. But that’s another lecture.) They have been successful, forcing at least five speakers and one honorary degree recipient to withdraw or have invitations rescinded.
Update, May 14, 15:52: My colleague Quinn Koller pointed out that Slate was also in on the issue last night, and takes first prize in the headline division: “Elite College Students Protest Their Elite Commencement Speakers.” Seems like plenty of others jumped on the story at some point today, led largely by the Legarde withdrawal at Smith College.
This is, of course, a dire threat to the future of the Republic. In Vox, The Nation’s Michelle Goldberg argues that this represents a return of an “anti-liberal left” that is [GASP!] more concerned with social justice than with free speech. CSM trots out Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (an organization deeply concerned with the rights of conservatives students) to bandy about the “right to not be offended” trope. Both agree that these trends are deeply, deeply distressing to those concerned with academia as a place for the free exchange of ideas.

I call bullshit. (This is getting to be a habit.)

Both of these critics miss a much bigger and more important issue: the tension between free speech and justice. They speak as if free speech is the obvious truth of the matter and These Kids Just Don’t Get It. Goldberg is particularly dismissive.

“College campuses are really the only place where the left has any power to enforce its own agenda.”
Yup, These Kids are clueless about The Real World.

“Take, for example, that Harvard op-ed, basically saying that research that doesn't further the writer's own agenda should be thwarted.”
These Kids are just pissed they can’t have things their way.

“[The students at Wellesley who objected to the statue of a sleepwalking man in his underwear] are young, they don't remember the war over the National Endowment for the Arts during Reagan and Bush.”
Oh, These Kids will change their minds when they grow up.

“In a way, these kinds of culture war tempests become an outlet for otherwise frustrated political energies.”
These Kids are just acting out. Their ideas aren’t reasoned.

The immediate problem here is not just Goldberg’s paternalism. It is that she doesn’t once address the substance of the arguments about social justice that these students raised. Her piece smacks of what Herbert Marcuse called “repressive tolerance.” Yes, we let people say whatever they want, but we do so in ways that deny their speech of its substance, for example by making the issue whether certain people should be barred from speaking at commencements rather than about the vision of social (in)justice that the commencement speakers promote. That is the issue that the students raise, and it gets sidelined in this discussion. Saying that the students should model tolerance to promote discussion is meaningful only if one then participates in the discussion. Goldberg, and to an even greater extent Lukianoff, simply shout “Tolerance!,” drop the mike, and walk offstage.

To her credit, Goldberg does take up the specific objections to Brandeis University’s since withdrawn offer of an honorary degree to noted anti-Islamist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and makes a difference between commencement speeches and other campus speakers. In both cases she objects to certain people receiving honors that come with an opportunity to speak rather than to the mere fact of the speech, a point to which I will return below.

But Goldberg and Lukianoff, who provide the bulk of the articles’ critical content, both assume the absolute superiority of classical liberal principles protecting civil rights, especially free speech. Goldberg uses anti-liberal as if it’s pejorative nature goes without saying. So let me say it:

What’s wrong with being anti-liberal?

We think of classical liberalism today as being a set of philosophical principles. But it was at its outset, and continues to be today, a political program as well. Those ends include things like centralizing political power within the state, shifting power from landed to monied wealth by keeping the power of the state away from the industrial economy, and breaking the power of established classes by resting power on the individual. Liberalism’s principles are designed as much to further those ends as to create a logically coherent philosophical framework for understanding and ordering the political world.

That’s not to reject liberalism. Many of the ends of liberalism are quite nice, especially when compared not with a political ideal but with the results of most other systems that have been tried from time to time. Political power, especially if we understand that to mean the power to order lives rather than the power exercised by the state, is much more widely distributed than in other political systems. That’s led to quite a lot of prosperity, and while there are serious problems with how we distribute that prosperity and who we sacrifice to get it, liberal systems do better on that score than many others.

I also tend to like a lot of the principles of liberalism regardless of the ends to which they lead. The principle that one cannot shoot the losers after elections is, I submit to you, a Good Thing. Free speech is an especially good thing, as it is, John Stuart Mill reminds us, very hard to find truth without it. In short, it could be a lot better than it is, and surely I’m a lot closer to the top of the social stratification it creates than a lot of people, but there are few systems that I would choose over a well functioning liberal democracy.

But while I recognize the good things in liberalism, I’m a moral pluralist. There are many good things but neither a Best Thing that always has priority nor a transitive ranking of good things. Often two good things conflict with each other; we can’t achieve one without undermining another. As a result, we have to make hard decisions about trade-offs among good things.

That is very much the case for free speech and social justice. The concern that free speech can be used to further injustice is just as serious a concern as Goldberg’s and Lukianoff’s concern that social justice can be used to further censorship. At its most basic, speech is the primary way politics is done in well functioning liberal democratic systems. If a democratic system can do injustice, it will almost certainly be done through speech. Both Judith Butler and Catherine MacKinnon have made arguments based on speech act theory that show that hate speech is central to maintaining the unjust stratification of, respectively, race and gender.

Thus while Goldberg and Lukianoff are both right to question the automatic priority that the students in question place on social justice, they need to recognize that the same arguments can be directed toward those civil liberties they they prioritize. It is not at all obvious that, for example, we should protect Governor Faubus’s right to defend segregation over the Little Rock Nine’s right to attend integrated schools. Goldberg and Lukianoff are (relatively) young, they don’t remember the war over whether property rights and due process of law protected slavery during Lincoln.

The implicit principle behind these criticisms is that the students’ claim that people who have, in their opinions, undermined social justice should not be invited to speak at commencement ceremonies is an illegitimate one because it violates free speech. But if free speech can perpetuate injustice then such claims are, in fact, legitimate. That does not mean that they are in any specific case sound, but they cannot be dismissed out of hand as Goldberg and Lukianoff do. What, then, would we do in the face of such a claim?

One solution would be to return to Mill’s definitive defense of free speech in On Liberty. Mill first observes that freedom of speech is not simply a political freedom from interference by the state but a personal freedom threatened as much by repression from society—an important point in this case that the arguments above all assume by discussing commencements at private and public institutions without distinction. He then makes three claims about how free speech leads us to find truth.

The first has never really impressed me: free speech leads us to find truth because the idea that we would suppress might just be true. To be sure, Mill uses this to make a compelling argument against asserting our certainty in any belief. But as an argument for free speech it is weak, as people are quite unlikely to suppress an idea that they think has the slightest chance of being true. This argument only works to the extent that we accept its conclusion up front.

The other two, however, are compelling. Falsehood challenges one to defend the truth, and that defense strengthens our understanding of the truth and deepens our commitment to it in practice. It’s a compelling argument because it works even with beliefs that are demonstrably false. We should allow people to assert that the Earth is at the center of the universe because defending the truth requires us to understand the scientific method in order to provide evidence supporting the truth. We should allow people to argue that the Pledge of Allegiance is propaganda because we are more likely to pursue liberty and justice for all having defended it.

These arguments work only if we allow those with whom we disagree to speak: Mill’s arguments undermine what we might call, echoing Marcuse, repressive intolerance. But they also only work if we engage those with whom we disagree. If we simply throw some side-eye and walk away muttering, “Dude’s crazy”—when we have simply engaged in repressive tolerance—we are in the same position as before our ideas were challenged, holding onto some dogma that we don’t really understand and never bother to live by, yet knowing that “this is most certainly true.”

The solution to the twin challenges of repressive intolerance and repressive tolerance is thus what I call critical intolerance. When confronted with a speaker with whom we disagree, our obligation is to critically engage that speaker, defending our ideas and making her (surely I’m not the first to notice how many of the commencement speakers in question are women) defend hers. To the extent that this is possible, I think the students who are challenging the invitations are, in fact, wrong: social justice is better served by critically engaging ideas that promote injustice. Done right, free speech and social justice can often be reconciled.

But I don’t think this is such a case. For one thing, commencement speeches are not really about speech. Here, Goldberg is spot-on: commencement addresses are part honoring the speaker (as, certainly, is giving an honorary degree that doesn’t include a speaking opportunity, which was the case for Hirsi Ali) and part inspiring the students. It is not really the occasion for deep ideas, one final chance to spur the kinds of abstract, principled conversations that are higher education at its best. From this perspective, commencement is no more the time-manner-place for such a speech than a crowded theater is for shouting “fire!”

This is an exceptionally important consideration, and much more so than even Goldberg herself recognizes. A point much of the discussion missed—and that Hirsi Ali in fact indicates in the CSM article that she assumes to be the case—is that in no case was the anticipated content of the speech the point of objection; the issue is the speaker more broadly. To the extent that such is the case then this issue is almost entirely about the honor issue the Goldberg raises and not really a free speech issue at all. The speech is incidental to the honor, and the objections would be equally sound if there was no speech involved.

That, of course, makes the attack on the students, whether from Goldberg and Lukianoff or from the university administrators quoted in CSM seem even more like putting these little brats in their place. It reminds me of a wedding planner who, when I was planning mine, told me that the wedding was about the bride’s mother. I was 38, my wife a touch older, and her mother was not going to be there. Note to university presidents: commencement is about the students, not you.

But even to the point that this is about free speech, I still find the idea that commencement is not an appropriate venue for politically controversial speakers compelling. Critical intolerance is the ideal response to speech challenges, but it may not be possible. In a typical campus lecture, some time is set aside for the audience to ask questions of the speaker, which provides the opportunity for critical engagement. At conferences, there is a discussant whose job is to spur critical engagement. In major political speeches such as the State of the Union Address, the party opposite has a formal response that is widely ignored broadcast after the President. Commencement ceremonies don’t have these—and I for one hope that they never do.

Without the option of critical intolerance, I can see a compelling argument that some politically controversial speakers should not be invited to speak at commencement ceremonies. Specific cases are likely matters of judgment and negotiation among the campus community. I don’t see a firm rule for deciding who is too controversial to invite, but simply from the perspective of good event planning I’d suggest that the more controversial the speaker the more extraordinary their speech should be to justify the invitation. Ultimately, though, it strikes me that having a controversial speaker is as much about having a high-profile name on the program as much as a good speech, and that’s not what commencement should be about.

My advice: this is a great instance where the solution is avoidance. My college commencement speaker was then-California Lt. Governor Gray Davis, who lived up to his name: all I remember was him telling us to put away the beach ball. The best commencement speaker I ever saw was Art Buchwald. I have no recollection of what he said, but I remember enjoying it. There’s more than a bit of truth behind the cliché that a commencement speaker should be funny, be brief, and be seated.

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