America’s greatest minds on display

“What ‘Snowflakes’ Get Right About Free Speech” (nytimes) is interesting because it shows how one of America’s greatest minds (a professor of comparative literature at NYU who has been selected by peers to be “vice provost for faculty, arts, humanities, and diversity”) restates the sentence “Everyone who disagrees with me is wrong and I don’t want to hear from them.”

[The sheer length of the piece is fascinating, as though the professor had entered a contest for who could use the most words to restate “Everyone who disagrees with me is wrong and I don’t want to hear from them.”]

22 thoughts on “America’s greatest minds on display

  1. I read the same article and did not end up with the impression that the author said, or meant to say “Everyone who disagrees with me is wrong and I don’t want to hear from them.” @philg: Which passages from the article led you to this conclusion?

  2. There’s another free speech fracas going on at UC Berkely, the purported bastion of freedom. Pretty funny to watch how the majority of leftists are embracing their stalinist cousins’ ideology wrt censorship, but not surprising really. They’ve felt the affinity for decades. Some legal notes on the situation:

    Apparently, there are some folks on the left that are still resisting censorship:

    God knows why they are betraying their comrades. But not to worry, re-education camps may be in the local nouvelle gauche plans, just like they were for original Bolsheviks.

  3. “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.

    In such cases there is no inherent value to be gained from debating them in public. “

  4. @Henry: “When those views invalidate the humanity of some people” clearly applies to a very limited subset of speech, certainly not “Everyone who disagrees with me”.

  5. Neal: When does someone’s view invalidate the humanity of “some people”? Whenever anyone disagrees with me, that’s when.

    I kind of like how he lumps, Charles Murray, an old white guy who likes to scold Americans, in with Holocaust deniers. (And why are Holocaust deniers the gold standard of offensiveness? If someone wants to believe an alternative history of the mid-20th century, why is that upsetting? Jews in the U.S. are protected by laws, not beliefs about what happened circa 1940. Jews in Israel are protected by the Israeli military (too tough even for the Sodastream and Sabra boycotters!))

    Then he complains about the Trumpenfuhrer: “his insults are meant to discredit and delegitimize whole groups as less worthy of participation in the public exchange of ideas.” How does the brilliant professor know what’s going on inside Donald Trump’s head? And, in any case, Trump is not the one writing in the New York Times about how other people should be prevented from speaking.

  6. It’s a shame that not enough people reject vapid political parrying. Instead they think that the pursuit of mere political games is redeeming in and of itself, and don’t dismiss the rhetorical games as a distraction from real philosophical work. That article is political and not intellectual. His arguments are weak and are not reflective of his educational credentials, which are supposed to belong to the tradition of the liberal arts (they are reflective of his school’s political history, though).

    The author of the article, although credentialed, isn’t very wise. In the same breath that he says free speech is supposed to include the marginalized, he says that free speech should be restrictive and marginalizing of those people and ideas that someone, anyone merely characterizes as dehumanizing. He wants to replace one brand of authoritarianism which another. Free speech should include the marginalized, period. It is not a game of trying to move the boundaries. Free speech is unobstructed speech.

    He is also conflating free speech in a free and open society with a group’s private prerogative to frame the rules of a debate any way they think is productive. Private groups can frame and regulate a debate, but it doesn’t mean that they are necessarily intellectually honest or will be productive in revealing truth.

    The trouble comes when groups say they’re upholding an ideal of free inquiry and free speech and, clearly, are not. People will think they are getting the benefit of free speech because of the institution’s branding, but will not be. And if that attitude of marketing over substance is allowed to pervade a society and its legal, political, and media institutions, truth will whither and authoritarianism more likely to spread.

    Free speech absolutism is a better prophylactic to authoritarianism than whatever the author is suggesting in that article.

  7. >When does someone’s view invalidate the humanity of “some people”?
    >Whenever anyone disagrees with me, that’s when.

    @philg: Where in the referenced article does the author state or imply that disagreeing with someone invalidates their humanity?

  8. @neal

    “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.”

    Milo, Charles Murray and Richard Spencer clearly disagree with the author. It’s not clear how their speaking engagements were going to invalidate anyone’s humanity.

  9. “As a college professor and university administrator with over two decades of direct experience of campus politics, I am not overly worried that even the shrillest heckler’s vetoes will end free speech in America. As a scholar of literature, history and politics, I am especially attuned to the next generation’s demands to revise existing definitions of free speech to accommodate previously delegitimized experiences. ”

    Yeah, we get it, you think you’re smart (professor and scholar!) and that makes you think that qualifies you to open your mouth in public.

    “The idea of freedom of speech does not mean a blanket permission to say anything anybody thinks.”

    Yes it does. It is written in First Amendment to the US Constitution! It’s very clear: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”.

    “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.”

    I think the internet allows everyone now to participate.

    “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.”

    Free speech without protections is not Free Speech.

    “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.”

    If freedom of expression is not absolute, then why have it? Continuing examination of its parameters? OK, so who gets to decide that? You will decide I presume? So I can’t use the word Snowflake for the next decade, and then what happens in the next decade? What will you censor next? How do we know the power to censor won’t get out of hand in the future?

    No sir, the danger to democracy is people like you.

  10. @joecanuck: Milo, Charles Murray, and Richard Spencer are certainly not “everyone who disagrees with” him.

  11. Neal: “Where in the referenced article does the author state or imply that disagreeing with someone invalidates their humanity?”

    He doesn’t have to state that. I was pointing out that “When those views invalidate the humanity of some people” is a subjective standard. Therefore, after I set myself up as the sole judge, it will turn out that anyone who disagrees with me meets the standard.

    Let me give you a concrete and simple example: Suppose that someone comes to my house, his phone rings (haters are always men), and an Android phone comes out of his pocket. After he hangs up he tells me that he prefers Android to the iPhone 7 Plus that I have. I can be pretty sure that his opinion is based on opposition to Apple’s social justice war. Therefore by maintaining that Android is superior to iOS he is invalidating the humanity (in my opinion) of the people whom Apple seeks to protect with their social justice efforts.

  12. “As a scholar of literature, history and politics, I am especially attuned to the next generation’s demands to revise existing definitions of free speech.”

    As a scholar of history, he should have noticed that this is the 1st generation in American history that is demanding LESS free speech from their elders. “Shut up, they explained.”

    Couching censorship as “revising existing definitions” is positively Orwellian. Let’s “redefine” free speech so it no longer means “free speech”. Maoists used to play games like this. We can redefine actual free speech as “bourgeois free speech” which is bad because it delegitimizes the marginalized and marginalizes the delegitimate. We will have a new kind of “Revolutionary Free Speech” which is not free at all. It’s the freedom to agree with me. I will defend to the death your right to agree with me! And we the vanguard of the Revolution get to decide what kind of speech is good and what kind is bad. “Colored People” is bad but “People of Color ” is good. Why? Because we say so. Every once in a while we’ll change the definitions some more just to keep you off balance.

  13. @philg: First, I should clarify that I don’t agree with most of what Ulrich Baer wrote in the referenced article; my objection is to the characterization of what he wrote.

    >I was pointing out that “When those views invalidate the
    >humanity of some people” is a subjective standard.

    A subjective standard is not particularly problematic. The standard for premeditation is subjective and yet we are willing to use it to kill people.

    >Therefore, after I set myself up as the sole judge

    Using a subjective standard does not imply “i set myself up as a sole judge.”. The article is silent on who the author thinks should apply this standard, but there is no particular reason to understand he thinks it should be “I set myself up as the sole judge”.

    >it will turn out that anyone who
    >disagrees with me meets the standard.

    I suppose there is always some danger of a slippery slope, but his proposed standard is pretty straightforward and it is not “anyone who disagrees with me meets the standard”.

    >Let me give you a concrete and simple example:

    Really? Preventing Richard Spencer from speaking at a University is going to result in Android user’s blood in the streets?

    I remain unconvinced that “Everyone who disagrees with me is wrong and I don’t want to hear from them.” is a fair summary of the article, but more importantly in discussing this straw man we have overlooked other arguments against the referenced article.

    The strongest argument (which other commenters have alluded to), is that the author is proposing to restrict a fundamental right of other Americans. Mr. Baer doesn’t even explicitly acknowledge this, much less explain how it is justified. Additionally, most people hold a complex mixture of ideas. A speaker with abhorrent ideas in one area could be capable of providing valuable insights in others. Even a speaker whose ideas don’t have any redeeming value can help one to identify weaknesses in one’s own thinking and listening to them can help a person to strengthen their arguments against the speaker’s ideas. Finally, there is an important tactical consideration for opponents of speech which seeks to invalidate the humanity of others. While the primary motivation of the students who invite such speakers is probably to tweak the sensibilities of their fellow students, there is undoubtedly an element of curiosity about the speaker’s ideas. To the extent this is the case, it is better to engage and vanquish on the battlefield of ideas than to allow the curiosity to fester and grow.

    There is one thing I did like about the article. I am very much an engage on the battlefield of ideas kind of person, and it was good to be reminded that there are some truths which are self evident and we aren’t necessarily obligated to produce arguments for their defense.

  14. We simply must listen to the greatest snow flake. He is, after all, a scoundrel of literature, history and politics.

  15. Perhaps the professor just wants to avoid putting his own career at risk. This is an interestingly apt description of the new, improved concept of free speech –

    “While the man in the street could cease talk a great deal,
    the professors were bound to continue giving lectures before public
    audiences which inevitably contained informers on the alert for
    anything which could possibly be interpreted as ‘hostile’.”

    – though it was written some 50 years ago, in “The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties”.

  16. “A subjective standard is not particularly problematic.”

    In matters of free speech it is. The 1st Amendment does not allow for “reasonable” regulation of free speech, or free speech so long as it does not “invalidate the humanity of some people”. There have traditionally been a few narrow exceptions to the almost absolute prohibition on regulation of free speech, such as libel laws but at least until recently the liberal position was to narrow, not broaden, these very limited exceptions (e.g. NY Times v. Sullivan) so that they would not apply to public figures, etc.

    It’s also clear to me that even if we had an exception for speech that “invalidates humanity” that the protesters are not applying that standard in any reasonable way. I could understand that if say there was some Nazi saying that gays are subhuman and should be exterminated, you could reasonably argue that he is “invalidating their humanity”. But if we declare that the serious scholarly work of people like Charles Murray “invalidates humanity” then there’s no real standard at all – “invalidating humanity” is some kind of vague rubber yardstick that means whatever the protesters intend it to mean including that they simply disagree with the speaker.

  17. In another time and place anything deemed “counterrevolutionary” would get you punished. “Counterrevolutionary” and “invalidating someones humanity” have about the same heft to them, it seems to me.

  18. >The 1st Amendment does not allow
    >for “reasonable” regulation of free
    >speech, or free speech so long as it
    >does not “invalidate the humanity of
    >some people”.

    I don’t disagree with this, but the objection stated it is with the standard itself, not the fact that the standard is “subjective”.

    >I could understand that if say there
    >was some Nazi saying that gays
    >are subhuman and should be
    >exterminated, you could reasonably
    >argue that he is “invalidating their

    Here we are moving toward a different “hate speech” standard. I’m not suggesting a specific standard with this comment, but surely all “hate speech” is not protected in all contexts. For an extreme example: A university is not obligated to host a speaker whose stated objective is to convince white attendees of the talk to leave the talk and go lynch a specific black student. I would argue that Milo Yiannopoulos crossed this line, at least in the context of university sponsored events, when he displayed a student’s photo during his talk and invited audience derision of that student. All students within a university community, especially those who are not “public figures” within the context of that community, should be able to attend any university sponsored event without fearing that an external speaker is going to attack them personally. A university is not obligated to host a speaker who can’t abide by this simple ground rule.

    >But if we declare that the serious
    >scholarly work of people like
    >Charles Murray “invalidates humanity”
    >then there’s no real standard at all

    @philg keeps saying The Bell Curve doesn’t say what people think it says. I haven’t read it so even setting aside the fact that I do value @philg’s opinion I must concede that point. However, the fact that a standard can be misapplied does not mean it is “no real standard at all”. People are regularly wrongfully convicted of murder yet we continue to use those standards to prosecute suspected murderers.

  19. NYT article’s author is specializing in literature of country that, while it produced many scientists and engineers, has relatively short post WWII democratic tradition and that produced both Nazi and communist ideologies that do not square well with notion of free society and free speech, as well as initiating WWII and co-initiating WWI. Probably his thinking is affected by his mental specialization. Indeed, free speech is still prohibited in Germany to guard against past totalitarian evil. While I do not think that his ideas are applicable in the USA with its longest uninterrupted tradition of people self-government, free speech and civil society it is dangerous that these notions are under attack in colleges that educate the part of young generation that will have oversized impact on our future. His views yet may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Hopefully modern communications technology is going to mitigate threat of totalitarianism. Someone cautions said that totalitarianism is always just one generation away.


    Berkeley Campus On Lockdown After Loose Pages From ‘Wall Street Journal’ Found On Park Bench

    BERKELEY, CA—Advising students to remain in their dormitories and classrooms until the situation was resolved, the University of California, Berkeley declared a campuswide lockdown Thursday after several loose pages from The Wall Street Journal were found on a park bench outside a school building. “At 11:15 this morning, several pages from two separate sections of today’s Wall Street Journal were discovered spread across a bench outside of Eshleman Hall in Lower Sproul Plaza,” read the urgent alert sent to all students and faculty, emphasizing that while campus security and local police had safely disposed of the pages, there was no way of knowing if others were strewn elsewhere on university grounds. “As of now, the perpetrator remains at large, so it is vital that you stay where you are until the all-clear is given. In the meantime, notify police immediately if you have any additional information at all regarding this incident.” At press time, a black-clad group of 50 students were throwing bottles at the bench while chanting, “No Nazis, No KKK, No Fascist U.S.A!”

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