The New York Times would be the first to defend the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech and of the press . . . for itself. Others? Not so much:
by Ulrich Baer | April 24, 2017
During the 1980s and ’90s, a shift occurred in American culture; personal experience and testimony, especially of suffering and oppression, began to challenge the primacy of argument. Freedom of expression became a flash point in this shift. Then as now, both liberals and conservatives were wary of the privileging of personal experience, with its powerful emotional impact, over reason and argument, which some fear will bring an end to civilization, or at least to freedom of speech.
We should resist the temptation to rehash these debates. Doing so would overlook the fact that a thorough generational shift has occurred. Widespread caricatures of students as overly sensitive, vulnerable and entitled “snowflakes” fail to acknowledge the philosophical work that was carried out, especially in the 1980s and ’90s, to legitimate experience — especially traumatic experience — which had been dismissed for decades as unreliable, untrustworthy and inaccessible to understanding.
The original article is a long one, 1,786 words, and copyright laws being what they are, I cannot simply reproduce the whole thing. Much of the article deals with the work of Jean-François Lyotard:
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. 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.
Really? Then the universities must be taking the decisions concerning the content and value of those views, taking those decisions for other people rather than for themselves. Private colleges ought to have more leeway in this, but public schools are government entities, and thus subject to the limitations on government power over speech.
The great value and importance of freedom of expression, for higher education and for democracy, is hard to underestimate. 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.
I find this notion repugnant. To hold that “the necessary conditions for speech (should) be a common, public good” is to hold that the public — meaning: government officials, the ones who exercise power in the name of the public — get to decide, in advance, whether some particular expression meets or enhances the “common, public good.”
Well, not just government officials. One of the greatest tragedies for the press was the creation of the internet: it allowed people to get out messages that were not previously approved by the ‘gatekeepers’ of the professional media. One no longer needed to have the editors of The New York Times or The Washington Post or even the Lexington Herald-Leader to approve publication to get one’s point out into the public domain.
Rush Limbaugh was the first to break the gatekeepers’ power in this. By virtue of his talent, he was able to put together an audience which was ready to listen to points of view not approved by the gatekeepers, a talent which enabled him to draw a massive audience. Mr Limbaugh’s medium was radio, not the internet, but he demonstrated that there was a huge audience out there, one which people exploited for themselves once the internet became solidly established and inexpensive enough for almost anyone to use.
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.
Is not Dr Baer’s own position an attack on some people’s “right to participate in political speech as political agents?”
My copy of Will, autographed by G Gordon Liddy. (Click to enlarge)
In 1980, Watergate burglar G Gordon Liddy published his autobiography Will, after which he went on a book tour. Following prison and disbarment, he needed the money! Sometime in the early eighties, my best friend Ken and I went to see Mr Will’s speech in the University of Kentucky’s Student Center Ballroom. There were well over a thousand people in attendance, and the room was packed. There were a few protesters, including one rather rude fellow who was screaming and running down the aisles, before he was tackled by an audience member and escorted out by the University Police, but one thing is obvious: far fewer members of the university community chose not to attend than did. The freedom of speech, which Mr Liddy exercised, carries with it the freedom of others to choose to listen or not listen, and far more people chose not to listen than otherwise.
This is what Professor Baer misses: the freedom of speech, or the press, carries with it the freedom of others to choose to listen or read, or not listen or read. The New York Times is the most famous and widely read newspaper in the country, and perhaps the world, but far more people choose not to read it than do. Fox News is the most widely watched cable news network in the country, but far more people choose not to watch it than otherwise. With around four million viewers, before his recent dismissal, Bill O’Reilly was watched by a whopping 1.2% of the American population.
Dr Baer continued, letting us know that he was writing from a definite leftist position:
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.
Quite frankly, “coddled snowflakes” is about as kind a term as one might find for them. Just what are these students going to do when they leave the protected enclave of academia, and have to do something really radical like get jobs out in the real world? They are going to find out that the real world doesn’t care about their feelings, and that building a career means competing with other people seeking the same advancements up the corporate ladders. When their competitors discover that the snowflakes can be disturbed and hurt by micro- and not-so-micro-aggressions, the competitors will use those to trample down the snowflakes. Of course, Dr Baer, who described himself as “a college professor and university administrator with over two decades of direct experience of campus politics,” has, himself, battled for, and won, a coveted position as a tenured professor, something to which far more aspire than ever win.
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.
This is ludicrous. Conservatives claiming that freedom of speech is, and ought to be, absolute, are championing “the rights, both legal and cultural, of minorities to participate in public discourse.” It means that “minorities” have the same rights to say and publish exactly what they think, and that they have an equal right to compete with everyone else for attention and persuasion. What Dr Baer and the snowflakes fear is competition, that their arguments will not be strong or persuasive enough.
In conclusion, Dr Baer thanks the protesters , the Black Lives Matters and the other snowflakes “for keeping watch over the soul of our republic.” Yet the “soul of our republic” would, in Dr Baer’s construction, stifle the opinions and freedoms of those who might disagree with the protesters, the Black Lives Matters activists and the other Special Snowflakes. Only those protesters with whom Dr Baer agrees may speak; everyone else, shut up!
Freedom of speech and the press exists in order to allow people to have opinions contrary to those in power, something the Framers held dear to their hearts. They were, after all, the revolutionary generation, the people who used speech and the press to inspire a revolution against King George III, to seek independence from Great Britain. With the rise in power and influence of the left in academia, it is the left who are the ‘government,’ as it were, in the universities, and ‘revolution’ from the right is something which must be put down. That is the position of Dr Baer, the position of King George and his Parliament, the position of Kim Jong-un, and Xi Jinping, and Nicolás Maduro.
Conservatives may mock the positions of the left, but the left try to use raw power to muzzle the positions of the right.