Many leftist academics have denounced the recent spate of riots and shouting down of non-progressive speakers on college campuses – and good for them – but you knew that there were others who were glad to see students fighting back against such supposedly dangerous people as Charles Murray. One of them has put his thoughts into an op-ed piece for the New York Times and it is worth reading to understand why this kind of behavior is apt to continue.
Writing on April 24, New York University vice provost and professor of literature Ulrich Baer makes a case for the suppression of some speech in “What ‘Snowflakes’ Get Right About Free Speech.”
In Baer’s opinion, “The idea of freedom of speech does not mean a blanket permission to say anything anybody thinks. 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.”
Let’s stop and take a look at that assertion. Freedom of speech really does mean “blanket permission” for each person to say whatever he thinks, just as free trade means blanket permission for people to enter into trade with anyone they want. Once you take away that complete freedom, you enter a world of selective permission to speak or to trade and that in turn requires having some person or group in authority to decide who receives permission and who does not.
Baer continues, declaring that “the inherent value” of some idea a person might want to express must be “balanced” against something else, namely “the obligation to ensure that other members” can “participate in discourse as fully recognized members of that community.” But how do we (that is, whatever authority gets the power) balance the value of an idea against the notion that each community member must be able to participate in discourse? If we have a regime of free speech, then everyone is able to participate in discourse and no one has to “balance” anything.
What Baer is getting at is the claim that some ideas are so hurtful to some people that those injured individuals cannot participate in discourse because they aren’t “fully recognized.” The question he never addresses is why we should believe that.
Let’s say that a college allows someone on campus who argues in favor of white supremacy, as Auburn recently did. Everyone was free to ignore the speaker as a fool or argue against his ideas. No non-white student or other members of the Auburn community felt “unrecognized” by this speaker’s presence or unable to participate.
Baer argues that some ideas should not be debated because they “invalidate the humanity of some people.” On the contrary, even terrible ideas should be debated. Doing so sharpens the case against them, as John Stuart Mill pointed out in On Liberty.
Furthermore, Baer sets up a straw man when he writes, “I am not overly worried that even the shrillest heckler’s vetoes will end free speech in America.” Of course, the sorts of nasty actions we have seen at Berkeley, Middlebury and elsewhere won’t “end free speech in America,” but what they do accomplish is to prevent particular instances of free speech at specific places.
If we excuse those actions, as Baer does, we will get more of them and less free speech. You would think that a college professor would understand that our national commitment to freedom of speech necessarily means defending it each time it is attacked.
Implicit in Baer’s piece is the idea that because certain groups of people are less adept at making rational arguments for themselves, they should be allowed to veto people who are (or at least might be) good at that by preventing them from speaking. That, obviously, is a dangerous concept. Who then gets to decide when a person or idea is unacceptable and deserves to be censored? History gives us the answer: It will be those who are zealous fanatics for authoritarian programs that undermine civility and our social fabric.