Liberals are concerned. It appears that the Campus Left is squelching free speech by protesting right-wing speakers. The answer to bad speech, we are told, is more speech. The only way that tired bromide could be true, though, would be if it were possible for the bad speech to be definitively rejected through reasoned argument. That is to say, free speech can only be the solution if the result of the ongoing debate can be some kind of progress where certain ideas are tested, found wanting, and then ruled illegitimate.
One such idea should be white supremacy. It is not an intriguing new theory that may provide insight into how to order human society. It is a dangerous lie that has underwritten the greatest crimes in human history — chattel slavery and the Shoah. Wherever it has been allowed to influence public policy and private behavior, the results have been uniformly destructive. Literally the only possible consequence of white supremacist ideas is to dehumanize people, leading to squandered human potential at best and legitimating violence at worst. There is no possible redeeming value to white supremacist ideas, no “good points” that can be harvested and incorporated into a more capacious view of the human prospect.
And so let’s take the example of Charles Murray. He has claimed repeatedly that differences in educational outcomes across races likely has a genetic component — which amounts to saying that he thinks blacks are likely to be inherently less intelligent than whites. That is not a point we need to debate. It is a white supremacist lie that needs to be excluded from the public sphere. Certainly universities should not be actively soliciting the views of someone who adheres to such a hateful ideology, one that implicitly dehumanizes some of their very own students, faculty, and staff. Students are members of the university community, they pay huge amounts of money (some of which is surely going to fund this talk) — they have a stake in how the university uses its intellectual authority. And if politely requesting that it not use that authority to legitimate dehumanizing ideologies that have wrought nothing but destruction does not work, then impolite action is unfortunately necessary.
The Groundhog Day theory of free speech, where we have to start from zero every time an idea comes up, where we have to act like history never happened — that is not a model of free speech worth defending. Some things are true, some things are false, and some things are profoundly dangerous. If free speech isn’t an engine for collaboratively discerning those distinctions, then it’s sheer nihilism.
5 thoughts on “The Groundhog Day of Free Speech”
Inevitably someone will ask: who decides? Well, one decider would be the university itself — and to the extent that one segment of the university has chosen wrongly, another segment (namely the students) are trying to correct the error.
Much of the reactionary resentment I’ve seen recently seems to arise in response to just such perceived exclusion. In addition to exclusion, how would respond to that resentment?
Right on. Thank you.
Speaking honestly about why the exclusion is taking place would be a start — not larding it up with impenetrable management-speak and vague generalities, but actually being a human being and taking a clear stand and defending it. But to some extent, the resentment is just not fixable as long as conservative leaders continue to stoke conspiracy theories and a false sense of victimhood in their constituents.
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