The Kids Are Still Right

Check out this op-ed from NYU professor Ulrich Baer in the NYT today:

The recent student demonstrations at Auburn against Spencer’s visit — as well as protests on other campuses against Charles Murray, Milo Yiannopoulos and others — 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. 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.

In such cases there is no inherent value to be gained from debating them in public. In today’s age, we also have a simple solution that should appease all those concerned that students are insufficiently exposed to controversial views. It is called the internet, where all kinds of offensive expression flourish unfettered on a vast platform available to nearly all.

The overall position is, obviously, in line with my essay on all this in Slate, but the practical point Baer raises here — that the university is never really debuting new ideas when it invites speakers — is a good one that I could’ve spent more time on. It’s a point, incidentally, that figures heavily in Stanley Fish’s very good response to Middlebury, in which he argues moreover that the whole practice of inviting extracurricular speakers—controversial and not—isn’t actually central to the project of the university in the first place. If one wanted to be truly provocative, you could argue that the kinds of ideological and partisan speeches we’ve been warring over actually reflect the kind of activity bloat the kinds of writers who critique P.C. culture often argue distracts from core education. I wouldn’t, but you could!

Half of my effort in continuing to participate in this debate is aimed at making clear that this is, in fact, a debate. There are a great many points on the other side that I think are strong and worth making. There are people on my side who make points I think are weak. I don’t think P.C.’s critics view contrary arguments on speech with anywhere near the same amount of generosity and I don’t think they put in very much effort to rein in the hyperbole and hypocrisy of certain arguments advanced on their side.

One of the attitudes Baer examines in his piece that I think P.C. critics have interrogated with some salience is the notion of authoritative experience. Do certain identities grant certain participants in certain debates a kind of authority that can substantively transcend the mere exchange of facts? Baer looks to Lyotard for insight and makes an argument about asymmetries of power that largely reflects what P.C. students often say in defense of their position on this question:

Instead of defining freedom of expression as guaranteeing the robust debate from which the truth emerges, Lyotard focused on the asymmetry of different positions when personal experience is challenged by abstract arguments. His extreme example was Holocaust denial, where invidious but often well-publicized cranks confronted survivors with the absurd challenge to produce incontrovertible eyewitness evidence of their experience of the killing machines set up by the Nazis to exterminate the Jews of Europe. Not only was such evidence unavailable, but it also challenged the Jewish survivors to produce evidence of their own legitimacy in a discourse that had systematically denied their humanity.

Lyotard shifted attention away from the content of free speech to the way certain topics restrict speech as a public good. Some things are unmentionable and undebatable, but not because they offend the sensibilities of the sheltered young. 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.

Baer also digs up some of Yale’s distant history — I’m well aware that this debate has been had many times over due to incidents at American universities that stretch back decades, but I seem to have missed some of the most interesting conflicts at Yale in my research. Have a look at some of the controversy over a William Shockley appearance recounted in a 1974 Yale report on free expression on campus that Baer cites:

For the first time in memory a speaker tried to speak at a scheduled appearance at Yale and was prevented from doing so by organized disruption. This time the opposition to the invitation and the determination to disrupt the speech came largely from within the University and was open, determined, and menacing from the start. It was also clear from the start that the opposition focused on Shockley, regardless of whom he debated, on his views of genetic inferiority and his proposal of voluntary sterilization as a solution.

[…]Well before the decision for the debate was reached, threats to prevent it were announced […] Shortly after the decision, officers of the Black Law Students and the Black Students Alliance at Yale joined with a graduate student and a medical student in a statement carried in the News of January 28: “We hereby serve notice that we vehemently oppose the Shockley Innis debate and will exert all necessary efforts to prevent its occurrence.” They urged members of the Political Union to override their Board’s decision and withdraw the invitation.

The University administration received delegations of objecting students and conferred with officials of the Union, but at this stage adopted a hands-off policy. Several student organizations however, did bring pressure on the Union. The Chairman of the Progressive Labor Party, according to the News, dismissed freedom of speech as “a nice abstract idea to enable people like Shockley to spread racism.’” An open letter from an organization of Puerto Rican students to the Union called the debate “an insult to the Third World Community.” Other News stories reported that concerned members of the Asian American Student Association declared that it “must not be tolerated,” and a spokesman of the Chicano students did not think Shockley would “be given the opportunity to speak.” Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish Chaplains of the Yale Religious Ministry urged cancellation. Voices were also raised in support of the invitation. Some contended that opposition to the invitation was not the same as opposition to the principle of free speech.

[…]In March another invitation was extended to Shockley by the newly reconstituted Yale chapter of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), who also invited William Rusher, publisher of the National Review, to debate him. The subject of the debate later accepted by YAF, and one cause of offense to others, was, “Resolved: That society has a moral obligation to diagnose and treat tragic racial IQ inferiority.” A politically conservative group, YAF stated that it regarded Shockley as a liberal and said its members sought refutation of his doctrines of state genetic control through Rusher’s arguments.

For the debate, which was to take place on April 15, the administration assigned room 114 in Strathcona Hall. On April 12 the Yale Daily News ran a front page story telling in detail how “student protest now threatens to disrupt the event itself.” Several protest organizations, not all of them endorsing disruptive tactics, were cited and quoted. The tactic that later proved to be the most effectively used to disrupt the debate was that attributed to the Ad Hoc Committee to Stop Shockley, namely to drown out all speakers with noise. Other groups planned to picket the debate outside the hall. The administration took some steps to discourage disruption. On the evening of April 13, at a meeting called by students and attended by about 100 people invited from the sponsoring and objecting groups, University Secretary Henry Chauncey, Jr., repeated the warning President Brewster had spelled out in the face of threatened disruption of a speech by Secretary of State Rogers in May 1972. On the day of the debate the News repeated these warnings of “severe discipline” against students using “violent or coercive action.”

At the hour appointed, the speakers and their hosts arrived at 114 Strathcona Hall to debate. When YAF officers could not make themselves heard. Secretary Chauncey took the platform to repeat his warning and was shouted down. The speakers were not permitted to say an audible word They were drowned out by derisive applause, insults chanted at Shockley, and shouted obscenities. No more than a third of the audience seemed to participate in the disruption. Chauncey sought to quiet the disrupters and warn them of disciplinary penalties, but without effect. “Racist Chauncey, go home!” became part of the chanting. After an hour and fifteen minutes Chauncey closed the meeting. The disruption of the speakers had been a complete success and the University’s defense of principle had ended in total failure.

Kids these those days.

 

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