On Monday, The New York Times published an editorial entitled “What ‘Snowflakes’ Get Right About Free Speech” from Ulrich Baer, a “vice provost for faculty, arts, humanities, and diversity” and professor at New York University. Within it, Baer not only defends the students who wail, gnash their teeth and or riot to prevent controversial figures from speaking on university campuses, he argues they’re the true advocates for real free speech.
It should be read in its entirety, but here’s the excepts I will be dissecting (emphasis mine):
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.
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…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…
The great value and importance of freedom of expression, for higher education and for democracy, is hard to overestimate. But it has been regrettably easy for commentators to create a simple dichotomy between a younger generation’s oversensitivity and free speech as an absolute good that leads to the truth. We would do better to focus on a more sophisticated understanding, such as the one provided by Lyotard, of the necessary conditions for speech to be a common, public good. This requires the realization that in politics, the parameters of public speech must be continually redrawn to accommodate those who previously had no standing.
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. Free-speech protections — not only but especially in universities, which aim to educate students in how to belong to various communities — should not mean that someone’s humanity, or their right to participate in political speech as political agents, can be freely attacked, demeaned or questioned.
We should recognize that the current generation of students, roundly ridiculed by an unholy alliance of so-called alt-right demagogues and campus liberals as coddled snowflakes, realized something important about this country before the pundits and professors figured it out.
What is under severe attack, in the name of an absolute notion of free speech, are the rights, both legal and cultural, of minorities to participate in public discourse. The snowflakes sensed, a good year before the election of President Trump, that insults and direct threats could once again become sanctioned by the most powerful office in the land. They grasped that racial and sexual equality is not so deep in the DNA of the American public that even some of its legal safeguards could not be undone.
The issues to which the students are so sensitive might be benign when they occur within the ivory tower. Coming from the campaign trail and now the White House, the threats are not meant to merely offend. Like President Trump’s attacks on the liberal media as the “enemies of the American people,” his insults are meant to discredit and delegitimize whole groups as less worthy of participation in the public exchange of ideas.
…I am especially attuned to the next generation’s demands to revise existing definitions of free speech to accommodate previously delegitimized experiences. Freedom of expression is not an unchanging absolute. When its proponents forget that it requires the vigilant and continuing examination of its parameters, and instead invoke a pure model of free speech that has never existed, the dangers to our democracy are clear and present.
We should thank the student protestors, the activists in Black Lives Matter and other “overly sensitive” souls for keeping watch over the soul of our republic.
What a load of crock! Here’s why: One can’t reject the classically liberal notion of free speech as the other side of his mouth affirms it. But that’s precisely what Baer is guilty of throughout his essay. He can’t have his cake and eat it too, but he wants us to think he can. He simultaneously denies fundamental theses of the Enlightenment as they concern freedom of expression but appoints himself and other radicals like Black Lives Matters as defenders of the Enlightenment, i.e., “keeping watch over the soul of our republic,” in spite of the fact those theses are at the heart of it.
For starters, leaning heavily on a postmodernist like Jean-Francois Lyotard doesn’t help Baer’s claim to the Enlightenment throne. Lyotard famously described postmodernism as “incredulity toward metanarratives.” Last time I checked, the Enlightenment’s pronouncement of reason over superstition for the betterment of man’s lot, as facilitated by freedom of expression and thought, is such a metanarrative rejected as empty foundationalism by postmodernists. Likewise, redefining free speech to center on the “asymmetry of different positions” instead of truth in a debate, contra John Milton, John Stuart Mill, et al., is another deviation from Enlightenment philosophy.
Further muddled is when Baer writes about rights, the notion of which really didn’t take hold in societies until around the Enlightenment. He asserts, “[The right of] Freedom of expression is not an unchanging absolute,” yet earlier, the professor opines, “What is under severe attack, in the name of an absolute notion of free speech, are the rights, both legal and cultural, of minorities to participate in public discourse.”
First of all, why is the Enlightenment-inspired individual right to freedom of expression subject to “continuing examination of its parameters,” but the novel legal and cultural group rights of minorities progressives favor ostensibly are not? Are they “unchanging absolutes,” or are they open for constant revision too? If the former, why not freedom of expression? If the latter, how does that square with those disciples of the Enlightenment, the Founding Fathers, and their declaration about “certain inalienable rights”? It implies they’re morally and thereby metaphysically binding. If these rights exist, though arguably not absolute, they’re not the sort of things that change with the times. Are then these cultural rights — whatever they are — inalienable too? Granted that’s a lot to sort through in an NYT editorial, but Baer fails to be clear here, leaving this ontological Pandora’s box closed. In short, he doesn’t explain how his position fits within the rest of the Enlightenment tradition of rights he seemingly both in large parts rejects and appropriates.
Baer also never specifies which particular legal or cultural rights pertaining to public discourse are in jeopardy for minorities. Conservatives don’t endeavor to “shut down” and “no-platform,” for example, Peter Singer, Cecil Richards, Angela Davis, Dan Savage and other leftists from speaking in public — that’s a phenomenon of the left. Go ask Charles Murray, Milo Yiannopoulos, Ann Coulter, Heather Mac Donald, David Horowitz, Ben Shapiro, et al., who don’t push for the legal or cultural ostracism of minorities. They dissent from leftist dogmas on race, sexuality, immigration and the like — perhaps some do inappropriately — but there is no right to be immune from criticism.
Of course, for Baer and company, immunity from scrutiny is the right they demand. Enlightenment-styled skepticism of certain sacred axioms in certain precious contexts is in principle, if not in intensity, tantamount to Holocaust denial, as described in the article. Judging from it, Baer likely has the same attitude about seeking due process and operating under the presumption of innocence — both of which are Enlightenment innovations — when it comes to allegations of rape. It’s an example of systemic violence that proves women are worth less than men in the patriarchy or something. The same hostility takes aim, I’m sure, at views like “Caitlyn Jenner is really a man no matter what he has done to alter his appearance” or “homosexual acts are morally wrong” because they “invalidate the humanity” of the “other.” On the contrary, with the ethical considerations in these cases, they presuppose it — ought implies can; can implies choice; choice implies rationality; rationality is essential for what it is to be human.
I digress, but to insinuate if not argue, as Baer does, that questioning or mere disagreement of the sort above is to hate or subjugate is to beg the question by substituting moral condemnation for argument. It’s those oppressor-versus-oppressed narratives and paradigms, “parameters of public speech,” mores of common decency, that are under contestation, not the value of human beings.
Even if racist, hate-mongering views do permeate the right, there is inherent value, contra Baer, to be gained from debating them in public. Doing so reaffirms those classically liberal norms that foster a community toward consensus and political action, thereby bonding its members together in a common will, as well as preparing it for future disputes, no matter how incendiary. Not only does practicing democracy strengthens democracy both in this case and more generally, it is a good unto itself.
So too is the promotion of a culture of free expression in which the outrageous and false are vigorously combated with the tempered and true. Surely, the university environment that permits a lively debate, for instance, on whether there is such a thing as race is better than the hushed academy, chilled only just to explode with mob justice or violence when there is only the prospect of someone uttering something not in keeping with the prevailing orthodoxy. In his preference for the latter — the status quo at too many universities it seems — Baer again reveals where his anti-Enlightenment loyalties lie.
And if he wants to appeal to the non-classical liberal, but postmodern view of “asymmetry of different positions” and power relations, then consider who wields power, even if by proxy, at universities. They’re not the conservatives with the so-called “backward” and “oppressive” opinions. College Republicans don’t stir up frenzies and oust professors or administrators by crying “racist.” In such manufactured crises, they don’t furiously lobby to impose “diversity” and “cultural sensitivity” curricula on students, faculties and staffs. Chapters of the Young Americans for Freedom don’t force the members of student religious groups to violate their sincerely held beliefs when it comes to selecting officeholders for the sake of “inclusivity” and “tolerance.” On campus, conservatives aren’t doing the marginalizing; they’re the marginalized.
Even more pertinent to the topic at hand, conservatives don’t rampage because someone with views they find abhorrent is scheduled to speak and afterward largely get away with it. Indeed, in the recent Berkeley scrums, arrests and other legal reprisals for the rabble-rousers were few. Strategies for prevention remain to be seen. The will to implement such measures seems non-existent. What’s instead typical on campuses like Berkeley’s is the powers that be levy exorbitant fees on conservatives for inviting controversial speakers. Or the administration squashes their sponsored event due to the looming threat of unrest, a violent promise that too often is kept because the responsible authorities lack the spine to deter it and or are otherwise sympathetic toward its underlying sentiments.
Everything outlined above points to what I infer as gross mendacity on Baer’s part. The Maverick Philosopher, Bill Vallicella, defines the Orwellian template as “X, which is not Y, is Y.” War is peace; slavery is freedom; BLM, whose fits of lawless destruction molest the idea of Lockean property rights, is “keeping watch over the soul of our republic”; resorting to violence to prevent dissident political expression, behavior Baer never denounces, is anti-fascism; repudiating Enlightenment values is upholding genuine democratic ideals; more specifically, denying free speech is expanding free speech.
What a sick and twisted fantasy Baer would have the world believe. It raises the question, as a professor and university administrator, what sort of sick and twisted fantasies is he directly or indirectly indoctrinating young adults to believe?
Are we so naive to think he is the only one?
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