Free speech debates, terminable and interminable


I’m never sure what to do with an article like this one by David Bromwich in LRB. The discussion of free speech on campus seems to carry with it a series of rhetorical traps, as though it is impossible to criticize the phenomenon in question (“speech-policing,” “shaming,” “censorship,” or whatever else you want to call it) while maintaining a sense of proportion. It can’t be a bunch of late adolescents trying to figure out their identity in a complex world and sometimes making mistakes — it’s got to be a form of creeping totalitarianism that threatens to undo free speech and democracy once and for all. It’s as though the critics have thoroughly internalized the culture of offense and victimhood they are castigating and can do nothing but reverse it: you think you’re serving social justice, but it turns out that you are oppressing me!

It does seem to me that people sometimes overreact in the other direction. It’s difficult to register a criticism of any kind without being made to feel like the enemy. Sometimes that has made me self-censor in advance, just to avoid being hassled. But it’s not as though the world was deprived of world-shaking insights by my silencing, nor is it the case that “being made to feel like the enemy” is actually that big a deal. I wish the critics of oversensitivity could stop being so damned oversensitive themselves, so eager to take on the mantle of the noble martyr to the cause of free speech.

What worries me about the whole debate is that everyone is working within severe imaginative constraints. There is no positive vision of the world that follows from either of the two opposed positions on acceptable speech on campus — both are a version of “leave me alone.” Both rely heavily on shaming. This is obvious in the case of the dread “social justice warriors,” but it is equally true that their critics proceed mainly by name-calling: you’re oversensitive, you’re entitled, you’re fragile, you’re (God forbid!) a millennial! Both lean heavily on the slippery slope, so that the microaggression is on the same spectrum as a police shooting and the 19-year-old clumsily accusing you of being “problematic” is in training to join the Stasi.

I want to ask the SJWs: What comes after we have appropriately purged our speech of offensive and hurtful phraseologies? What prospect opens up for humanity once I finally train myself to stop saying “you guys”? And I want to ask their prickly critics: What amazing benefits will we derive from a “return” to this fragile utopia of free speech that we have so thoughtlessly left behind? What do we gain once everyone has reached that elusive perfect level of sensitivity, taking offense only when absolutely warranted?

We can’t change the world just by changing the way we talk — not by shaping our language into an instrument of sensitivity and inclusion, nor by finally purging it of the scourge of political correctness. Language isn’t unimportant. The questions people are dealing with by means of trigger warnings and microaggressions and safe spaces are real. But they aren’t the questions, they don’t point us toward a viable solution. Language is a field of power relations but it isn’t the only or even the primary one. We need to change our life, not just our talk.

20 thoughts on “Free speech debates, terminable and interminable

  1. I agree with what you say here. Nietzsche on the perils of ‘ressentiment’ still seems to me a relevant critique where the whole contemporary culture of ‘taking offence’ is concerned. One thing though: I wonder if the analogy of the ‘slippery slope’ is less to the point than the analogy of, let’s say, a lever. What I mean is: though, as you say, in many ways trivial in itself, the whole issue of ‘political correctness’ is now a point around which a character like Trump can leverage huge personal advantage and therefore societal damage. In large part he’s done so just by eg calling Mexican’s rapists and Muslims terrorists. The stakes are major.

  2. I know perfectly well what group you’re talking about, but at this point “SJW” has been taken from a term meaning a certain type of overzealous slacktivist who’s constantly looking for a fight to a term that attempts to identify any and all leftist politics with the most ridiculous manifestations of the said overzealous slacktivists.

    I realize you’re using the term in its original meaning, but it’s probably worth avoiding in the future. Not that I know of a better term that wouldn’t be instantly scooped up by the same people who ruined SJW

  3. I think you nailed it: the much discussed argument suffers from a lack of imagination in large part. My intuition is that the latest round of political correctness and nit-picking of common phrases/constant reminders of privilege stems from the successes of recent protest living out their utility for the mainstream media, while the urge to continue challenging power in all its forms cannot be squashed. The imagination that sparked the reawakening of vocal discontent has been hushed, but the bodily urgency and intensified affects remain. And I agree with Adam Roberts on the point of the levers analogy; we wonder why Trump can galvanize so many when people’s blood heats up over these questions of identity and identity play that are thrusters upon a general population that predictably contains roughly half of people who self-identify with traditional labels and practices. The problem is not that a challenge at all is presented, but the force and heat of the debate that you rightly “call out” for its lack of imagination. The demand is voiced without regard for tempo.

  4. Isn’t the debate about content notes, trigger warnings and safer spaces etc. already entangled with other attempts to change the world? All the safer spaces policies I’ve encountered (admittedly none of them on campus) have been in activist groups trying to create an environment where people can actually get political work done, and in the UK at least it seems like debates around free speech and no-platforming etc. have flared up around student activism that is very far from exclusively focused on issues of language.

  5. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that my experience of these debates within a UK context is that the outrage over threats to free speech is so damaging partly because it functions precisely to distract from other political struggles: right wing commentators get enraged about threats to free speech and, for example, ignore universities calling the cops on students occupying campus buildings in protest at fee rises.

  6. “Isn’t the debate about content notes, trigger warnings and safer spaces etc. already entangled with other attempts to change the world?”

    Yes, I hoped that was implicit. I’m not trying to set up a false dichotomy between action and discourse.

  7. Bah. If you wanna see outrage culture, just say “Patriotism is stupid” on television and watch the outrage pour out. You’ll soon have calls for “reminding young people of what it is they should be grateful for.”

    I’ll take a clumsy 19 year old over that any day of the week. The 19 year old is still developing their ideas. The grown man who won’t shut up about how he has a job, unlike all these entitled millenials, is probably about to hit middle age and unlikely to grow beyond his current incarnation of giant blowhard.

    Coincidentally: “What prospect opens up for humanity once I finally train myself to stop saying “you guys”?”

    Well, we won’t sound like an extra in a bad mafia movie. That’s something, I think

  8. I guess it sounded like you were suggesting that SJWs who are making a fuss about language aren’t also having conversations about other aspects of politics or political vision, and were focusing on changing the way we talk at the expense of thinking and acting and talking about how we should live. Have I misread you?

  9. Boo: The traditional mafia pronunciation is “youse guys.” “You guys” is a common alternative to “you all” in Midwestern American English that has no mobster connotations.

  10. I would also add that much of the “politically correct” shaming occurs among students who are not really engaged in activism — a real phenomenon that is ridiculously exaggerated in the anti-PC critique literature. It has actually become kind of a lingua franca among students to attempt to signal “wokeness” without doing much other work. And no, I do not intend to say that these students are as important or potentially harmful as the anti-PC polemics make them out to be. Hence why I led with the sense of proportion thing.

  11. I guess I haven’t encountered that phenomenon, which of course isn’t to say that it doesn’t exist, but I’ve seen e.g. people I know to be engaged in offline activism be accused of only caring about language just because they don’t talk about that activism much online!

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