Who decides?!

In my previous post, I advocate excluding harmful ideas (my example is white supremacy, but I would include Holocaust denial, climate change denial, and others) from the public sphere. Whenever this kind of suggestion comes up, it is inevitable that someone will ask, “Who decides?!” This comment is not meant to open up a discussion along the lines of “Well, maybe we could form a committee, etc.” No, it’s meant to shut down the discussion altogether, because presumably the idea of some particular human agent being in charge of such decisions is utterly intolerable. No one, no one could possibly be trusted with such power!

This response is, to put it simply, stupid. In reality, all the institutions we could classify as the public sphere — the media, universities, etc. — are run by particular human beings who make decisions about what to publicize and what to exclude. So when I suggest that Charles Murray should be excluded from the public sphere, I mean that universities should not invite him to speak, respectable publications should not include or discuss his work, publishers should not offer him a book contract, etc.

None of this constitutes oppression. No one has a “right” to speak at Middlebury College, or be published in the New Yorker, or get a book contract from Simon & Schuster. When Milo’s book contract was revoked, a lot of people were wringing their hands, because if the publisher could revoke his contract, they could revoke anyone’s! And a chorus of non-idiots pointed out that we already live in a world where that can happen. That’s just what it means to have a publisher — they make decisions about what to publish.

And none of this requires any kind of legal or political intervention in violation of the First Amendment. All it requires is for universities, editors, and publishers to take their responsibilities as custodians of the public sphere seriously. In the case of Middlebury College, the administration served its responsibilities poorly by allowing Charles Murray to be invited. The students — who are also a part of the university, with a personal, reputational, and financial stake in its integrity as an institution — did everything they could to correct the administration’s error, and they are to be commended.

Is student activism a sustainable way to make such decisions in the long run? Probably not — and that’s why administrations need to wake up and stop making stupid, irresponsible mistakes in lending the university’s legitimacy to people. The best of all possible outcomes would have been for student protest to be unnecessary, because he wasn’t invited in the first place.

9 thoughts on “Who decides?!

  1. Sorry, how does this work when, say, a student group itself at a public university wants to invite an objectionable (to some) speaker?

    It’s undoubtedly very comforting to write off “Who decides?” as a stupid question, and there are surely specific cases when it is. But alas, it’s not actually that simple. (And that’s not even getting into the, um, highly questionable premise that the human beings in charge of institutions like universities and publishing houses can be trusted to err consistently on the side of promoting the kind of provocative speech you and I might enjoy while disallowing the kind we might not.)

  2. In exceptional cases, the administration can and should override invitations from student groups. This does in fact happen. At the end of the day, it is their responsibility. This isn’t a hypothetical — it’s already actually the case. There is no mystery, as implied in the “who decides?” question.

    No, I don’t imagine that the gatekeepers will make the same decisions I would. Indeed, I acknowledge that they are very untrustworthy in practice. I imagine that comes from the prevelance of business and political figures in academic administrations, as well as the exaggerated authority of Boards of Trustees (which should be largely a vestigial organ of the university). I trust career academics to make these decisions more responsibly, just as I trust professional editors and publishers who have goals other than the bottom line.

  3. I am allowed to have opinions about how the gatekeepers should act, and I also have ideas about how I would behave if I were in the same position (which is arguably already the case on some small scales). And I am allowed to point out the stupidity — yes, I firmly hold to this, the stupidity — of exclaiming, “Who decides?!” as though the idea of some particular human being making that choice is (a) novel and (b) inconceivable.

  4. We should point out that in deciding what forms of expression to actually suppress or censor, the state is doing fundamentally the same thing as non-state or quasi-state actors like university and media administrators — determine which forms of expression are harmful to its interests — with the distinction that “its interests” is assumed to mean the interests of the entire society. (Of course “its interests” actually means the interests of the ruling class, and so on and so on, but that’s not the point.) The point is that people tend to perceive the kinds of suppression and censorship we support in the interests of the entire society (e.g. against “incitement”, “slander”, “infringement”, “perjury”, “leaks”, “treason”, etc.) as an altogether separate category from the kinds we don’t, to a point where the kinds we support don’t seem to actually count as “suppression” or “censorship” at all, because censorship is bad and prosecuting treasonous speech is good and a good thing can’t be a bad thing, right?

    Once this perception is entrenched, any conceivable proposal for different standards of permissible expression becomes perceived as a qualitative shift from “free speech” to “censorship” (especially if the shift is motivated by competing class interests), when in fact simultaneously mandating both free speech and censorship is what it means to have any standard of permissible expression whatsoever.

  5. While I detest censorship, I’m caught, because I subscribe to the principle of doing no harm, and in the case of the Holocaust I believe that there is harm in denying. So in some ways, this is not just censorship, it is a valuing of life by protecting both the memory of those who suffered and died, and thwarting the violence of denial. For me, denial in this context is a form of aiding the original intention, to murder, thus to prevent perpetuity of such violence, a filter is necessary.

  6. The Liberal ideal (which, I have to say, still strikes me in the abstract as a noble and rather beautiful thing) is: “I disagree with what you but I defend to the death your right to say it.” But the psychology of this, I think, is more self-regarding than we often admit to ourselves: something along the lines of, we disagree, but surely you admire how even-handed I can be about that fact! Surely my tolerance for your intolerance impresses you? And if Trump/Brexit and all that has shown anything, it is that the Right simply doesn’t admire Liberal openness-to-debate. On the contrary they despise it; they see it as weakness. We win no friends on the Right by prioritising free speech/open debate over harm. I’d go further: we can never ‘win over’ the alt-Right and neo-Nazis and White Supremacists and so on by stressing our openness to debate. Which makes me wonder why we’re trying at all. White Supremacists don’t perform race-hate speech acts in the interests of ‘contributing to the debate’ but in the interests of intimidating people in the service of taking power themselves. Holocaust denial isn’t an expression of disinterested historical discussion. It isn’t about the ‘truth’ or otherwise of its claims; it’s about recuperating Nazism as a viable political force today.

  7. People concerned that a contract can be revoked have either never signed a contract or never read a contract (or, of course, both). Contracts for purchasing homes and cars can be revoked. Contracts for publishing books can be revoked. I don’t have my current book contract in front of me, but I’m pretty sure I agreed to give the publisher a wide swathe of discretion to revoke the contract and, indeed, so long as I repay my advance, I can revoke it as well. So, point being, not only do these horrified liberals not understand the nature of rights, nor the American constitution, they also don’t understand the basic principles of contract law. I guess, for everyone’s sanity, they too should be ushered out of the public sphere and put into the bush league sphere until they can up their game.

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