NYU Professor Sides with “Snowflakes” Against Free Speech

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.

One thought on “NYU Professor Sides with “Snowflakes” Against Free Speech”

  1. Mr. Leef is absolutely correct, of course, but he is far too magnanimous, far too gentle in his critique.

    The preferencing or selective silencing of voices is not simply a “dangerous concept”, it is a totalitarian horror. It is the sine qua non of Orwellian repression.

    This idea of Privileged vs. Forbidden Speech was expressed quite clearly by Harvard’s Sandra Korn in her infamous 2014 essay, “The Doctrine of Academic Freedom”: “When an academic community observes (anything) promoting or justifying oppression, it should ensure that (it) does not continue.” [Ms. Korn was specifically addressing academic research, but the sentiment is exactly the same (and just as horrific).]

    It was further echoed by the Idiots at Pomona in their response to their President’s rather tepid defense of Free speech in the face of the ‘disinvitation’ of Heather MacDonald. They said (and it’s a lengthy quote): “Free speech, a right many freedom movements have fought for, has recently become a tool appropriated by hegemonic institutions…. it has given those who seek to perpetuate systems of domination a platform to project their bigotry…. Historically, white supremacy has venerated the idea of objectivity, and wielded a dichotomy of ‘subjectivity vs. objectivity’ as a means of silencing oppressed peoples. The idea that there is a single truth–’the Truth’–is a construct of the Euro-West that is deeply rooted in the Enlightenment, which was a movement that also described Black and Brown people as both subhuman and impervious to pain. This construction is a myth and white supremacy, imperialism, colonization, capitalism, and the United States of America are all of its progeny. The idea that the truth is an entity for which we must search, in matters that endanger our abilities to exist in open spaces, is an attempt to silence oppressed peoples. We, Black students, exist with a myriad of different identities. We are queer, trans, differently-abled, poor/low-income, undocumented, Muslim, first-generation and/or immigrant, and positioned in different spaces across Africa and the African diaspora.” Emphasis added.

    Mr. Leef suggests, in reference to the presence of a White Supremacist speaker on campus: “ No non-white student or other members of the Auburn community felt “unrecognized” by this speaker’s presence or unable to participate.” But he is wrong, as the Pomona Response clearly shows. Indeed, they insist they were absolutely threatened & unrecognized simply by even the possibility that the right to free speech might be exercised: “The idea that we must subject ourselves routinely to the hate speech of fascists who want for us not to exist plays on the same Eurocentric constructs that believed Black people to be impervious to pain and apathetic to the brutal and violent conditions of white supremacy… The idea that the search for this truth involves entertaining Heather Mac Donald’s hate speech is illogical. If engaged, Heather Mac Donald (fill in the blank) would not be debating on mere difference of opinion, but the right of Black people to exist.”

    What we are addressing here is not simply an academic tussle over the semantic details of what is and is not “free speech”, rather it is the thunder of guns, not so very distant, which threaten the foundation upon which this nation stands.

    ““No one believes more firmly than Comrade Baer that all animals are equal. He would be only too happy to let you make your decisions for yourselves. But sometimes you might make the wrong decisions, comrades, and then where should we be?”

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