Protecting Free Speech is the Wrong Strategy

There may be some good news for those concerned about today’s campus madness: the cavalry is on the way. We will, hopefully, be rescued! A recent Wall Street Journal editorial celebrated Harvard’s new Council on Academic Freedom. The organization proclaimed that “… free speech is also essential to human progress,” and that intellectual orthodoxy “is bound to provide erroneous guidance on vital issues like pandemics, violence, gender and inequality.” With a Who’s Who of Harvard scholars from across the political spectrum, the Council was forthright regarding the Left’s animus to honest debate. This newest organization joins other cavalries such as the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, the Center for Individual Rights, and several newly created, alumni-based free speech groups.

Now for the bad news: this academic cavalry will be as effective at beating back the barbarians as would a horse cavalry in today’s Ukraine. To be blunt, defending free speech is the wrong tactic in current campus battles—it will misdirect resources and, thus, fail. The parallel might be the British horse-mounted lancers who, in splendid formation, charged German machine gunners in WWI. They were surely inspiring, but instantly doomed. This is how we are about to engage the enemy.

Placing free speech at the center of efforts to eliminate campus diversity, inclusion, and equity (DIE), speech codes, mandatory sensitivity training, de-platforming, micro-aggressions, and all the rest is predictable. Nobody feels safe from the mob’s ire, and scarcely any administrator will risk his cushy job to quell its fury.  So, with terror in the air, why not rally around free speech?

Unfortunately, what makes the free speech defense so alluring is its ease of embrace, not its effectiveness. Endorsing an unfettered soapbox for everyone helps professors flaunt their anti-woke credentials and erudition at zero political or personal cost. Physicists can explain how advancing knowledge requires vigorous testing of rival hypotheses, while social scientists can dwell on the marketplace of ideas with the usual J. S. Mill On Liberty quotes. Those in the humanities and the arts likewise possess a handy stock of splendid references. No wonder assembling a pro-free speech group on campus is so popular. This is motherhood-and-apple-pie rhetoric.

Advocating abstract free speech is also a perfectly safe strategy, even on the most progressive campuses. No matter how strident these evocations, you will not be condemned as a racist, sexist, homophobe, white supremacist, xenophobe, misogynist, transphobe, and so on. Instead, you’ll be ignored, and the absence of enemy fire in your direction should tell you something—you’re a non-combatant. You only think that you are in the war.

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Celebrating intellectual openness in and of itself side-steps the quackery currently running rampant on campus. Today’s war is about defeating dishonesty, not intellectual openness per se. You do not refute crackpot ideas about sex as a social construct, for example, by calling for “more dialogue.” You eliminate it by showing how it is factually incorrect. It is this unwillingness to confront the quackery for what it is, rather than make vague speeches about free expression, that dooms the campus free speech crusade.

Letting a thousand flowers bloom on today’s campuses will invariably bring a cacophony of jabbering nonsense, not truth. Pushed to its limits, the free speech defense is quackery-friendly, an open invitation for cranks to demand a place at the table for phrenology, witchcraft, astrology, and countless other subjects that have no place in academia. Just wait until the religious fanatics and conspiracy nuts show up and demand a hearing. This is viewpoint diversity on steroids.

In short, the battle is about evidence and logic, what is true and what is false, not easy access to a soapbox. The university is not Hyde Park’s Speakers Corner.

The irony is that every academic enlisting in Harvard’s Council on Academic Freedom (and elsewhere) is, no doubt, brilliant at demolishing idiotic, ineptly constructed arguments. They certainly reject an open-door policy for finding the truth, and their skill at discerning truth is what earned them faculty appointments. In their capacity as professors, they regularly perform this intellectual search-and-destroy mission on undergraduates, graduate students, faculty job applicants, and, most of all, each other. A colleague sends you a paper arguing that some distant, murky event can explain a current, barely discernible voting pattern, and the likely response is skepticism, not an appeal to free speech.

This lust for rejecting bad ideas is plainly visible in how top disciplinary journals boast that they accept so few submissions, despite nearly all the articles coming from bona fide scholars who believe that their research is publishable. In fact, where the pursuit of knowledge is celebrated, scholars appreciate when their colleagues carve up their rough drafts. It’s better to administer this coup de grâce before submitting the paper to a journal and its anonymous, even harsher, reviewers. Thrashing flimflam is what decent academics are supposed to do.

Yet, when these same thrashers attend a lecture where the speaker claims that black children perform poorly in school “due to the teachers’ unconscious racial bias,” they go mute. Not even a frown, let alone a display of disbelief. They all know that the unspoken rules of intellectual combat that they apply elsewhere are off limits when members of protected groups expound “sensitive” topics. All the past free speech oratory now evaporates if it might arouse the mob.

Imagine if Harvard professors created “The Defenders of Truth Society,” whose purpose is to expose dishonesty, shoddy research, ideological bias, and all else that undermines Truth—and if they did so openly for all to see, such that even the most “untouchable” Quack is naked.

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Now, when a Harvard speaker claims something that is patently untrue, or at least unsupported by any empirical evidence, the Defenders will sign a rebuttal and nail it to the Harvard Faculty Club door, with a more detailed rejoinder on the group’s website. Meanwhile, those who disagree with the Defenders will be welcomed to a free public disputation that will be livestreamed and archived. What could be more in tune with the university’s historic mission—an open, free-wheeling debate over a controversial issue? If you believe that poor health outcomes for African Americans are due to white racism, here’s your opportunity to cite statistics and offer coherent explanations.

It would not take many of these theses to stop the ideological insanity. The word would get out: give a dumb public talk at Harvard and immediately face the mocking rejoinders from some of the smartest people on the planet. There’s a new sheriff in town, as they say. And, for good measure, this back and forth invites mass media attention. What TV station could turn down a story about some race hustler who was crushed by a few Harvard professors? After a few months, no crank would accept a speaking invitation from the university.

Though the mechanics of such disputations are simple, it will be difficult to convince defenders of free speech to get out of their pulpits and engage in hand-to-hand-combat with the fakes who defends their nonsense with cries of racism, sexism, homophobia, and the like. Rounding up yet more champions of free speech is, unfortunately, a more attractive strategy.

We need more warriors like the distinguished Harvard geneticist David Reich, who in a 2018 New York Times essay stated, “Well-meaning people who deny the possibility of substantial biological differences among human populations are digging themselves into an indefensible position.” And we need fewer academics like Harvard’s Larry Summers, who shamelessly groveled for forgiveness when the feminist mob discovered that he merely suggested that the gender disparity in mathematical ability may have a biological basis.

It’s time to abandon free speech as the antidote to campus wokeness. A non-confrontational strategy just reflects cowardice. Quackery is quackery, and we will not defeat it by ever more high-sounding rhetoric about the life of the mind.

Image: Adobe Stock

Robert Weissberg

Robert Weissberg is a professor emeritus of political science at The University of Illinois-Urbana.

12 thoughts on “Protecting Free Speech is the Wrong Strategy

  1. IMHO, the Author is still making the mistake of trying to “save the University”.

    The core problem is that the social institution called a University is still pointed at what it started as in 1088A.D. That is, a place to train the 2nd and 3rd sons of nobility to a high enough literacy standard that they can become clerks for rulers, that are loyal first and foremost to those rulers, instead of to the Church, whose Pope might, in a political battle, excommunicate them. The success of the University vastly strengthened the State, and the major interest of the University is in the State, as the largest single employer of its students, and thus its basic market.

    Each of the wobbly “causes” that spring from the University over the past 150 years, and sweep over society through the impressions transmitted by further graduates of the University, in the media, are almost all “activist” attempts to open a “need” for more government clerks. Stop trying to “save” an institution which is itself strengthened by processes that reduce our freedoms of action. Replace the University with a means to pass knowledge from one generation to the next, that is *not* a dependent of the State, or we will find ourselves utterly subservient to those government clerks, and its all important State hierarchy.

    1. Tom wrote: Replace the University …, OR we will find ourselves utterly subservient to those government clerks, and its all important State hierarchy.

      REPLY: Remove the future tense “will find” and replace that with the present tense ARE. “OR” and everything prior to “OR”, in your last sentence could be removed as well. It’s already a done deal. The rest of your post, prior to the last sentence, was just fine.

  2. “Imagine if Harvard professors created “The Defenders of Truth Society,” whose purpose is to expose dishonesty, shoddy research, ideological bias, and all else that undermines Truth—and if they did so openly for all to see, such that even the most “untouchable” Quack is naked.”

    Oh lord.

    So the problem we have is that charlatans have claimed the mantle of authority- presenting papers that deign to prove that “Johnny can’t read because Prof Smith is racist”. And Mr Weissberg’s answer is to…create an Authority that will deign to prove that something isn’t true.

    Does nobody see how this will go woefully, catastrophically wrong? Let’s just pretend that the DoTS successfully becomes an authority that people trust to rate truth. How long do people really think it will be until activists are wearing it as a skin suit?

    I can only assume that Mr Weissberg is exactly the same elitist that he fears. He merely thinks himself the correct elitist, which is why he and his ilk need to be in charge of telling us poor impressionable sots what is true and what is not true.

  3. Yes, nailing a rebuttal on the door of nonsense is a perfect symbolic gesture, particularly because what we are fighting is a religion, Mussolini was very clear that Fascism was spiritual, and as clear that it was fully opposed to enlightenment ideals. What has to be fought into submission is not “wokeness” it is Fascism, which is not a right wing catechism, it was and still is, a left wing spiritual secular catechism that first grew out of the forment of The Radical Reformation. Mussolini simply codified it and gave it a name. One must be as willing as Martin Luther to stand against the selling of indulgences, in today’s world that is DEI, and to also be as willing to lose….everything, in the service of truth, and rooting out evil in the institutions ubiquitous in our lives, dashing to the rocks those that deserve it.

  4. People need to use their free speech to say controversial things. If they can’t, then it’s not truly freed. But if they are just too meek or cowardly, it’s on them.

  5. “give a dumb public talk at Harvard and immediately face the mocking rejoinders from some of the smartest people on the planet.”

    Dr. Weissberg appears to believe that “some of the smartest people on the planet” are at Harvard — I don’t.

    Some of the most credentialed people on the planet are at Harvard, but that does not inherently mean that they are the smartest. And some of the most expensive education in the world can be found at Harvard, but that does not mean that it is the best.

    I like to remind people that Albert Einstein did his best work when he was a lowly patent clerk.

    The European system of higher education of over a century ago was different enough from ours for me not to want to make direct comparisons, but — as I understand it — Einstein had essentially flunked out but was first permitted to “sit in on” lectures by professors who soon realized that he understood the material better than they did and hence was encouraged to publish.

    That wouldn’t happen today — the system is far too structured and monopolistic. Harvard could decree that the earth was flat and it would be believed because the Harvard faculty said so. And, sadly, it’s been this way for some time — 60 years ago, the late William F. Buckley said that he’d “would rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the Boston telephone book than by the Harvard faculty.”

    1. Re Einstein, I disagree. He did do fantastic work in the patent office starting in 1905. He soon came to the attention of the highest lights in Europe, and was recruited to the academic world by 1909. Where he did even greater work, the general theory of relativity which was truly a great achievement, and one of the two pillars of modern physics. He also continued to do very important work in quantum theory, around 1916 and again around 1924. Some people would say that his work on quantum entanglement (EPR paper) around 1935 was one of his greatest achievements.

      Whatever one thinks of Harvard — it is not my cup of tea — there are some great people there.

      But of course, it should be remembered, Einstein was practically unique.

      1. The problem is the great people that may still be at Harvard are now greatly outnumbered by the mediocre ones…

      2. I’m sorry, but for any such body to be at all functional the members must first be entitled to speak as they see fit.
        Free speech is a necessary, although maybe insufficient, prerequisite.

    2. Precisely. By the way, AI will just make this process more efficient, and thus more tyrannical.

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