Free Speech on Campus (6): What’s at Stake?

The authors wrote this book out of a concern that “much of the current debate over the learning environment on college campuses gives insufficient attention to the values of free speech and academic freedom — the philosophical, moral, and practical arguments in support of these principles, the lessons of the historical record, and the current state of the law. Surveys reveal that students’ support for basic free speech principles is dramatically eroding.”

Many factors have contributed to this trend especially since the ’90s, but a big one is the collapse of traditional network news and rise of “curated” information gathering on cable and online. It’s been much easier in recent decades for people to listen to those with whom they already agree, and to respond to opposing viewpoints with mockery and charges of bad will. Colleges and universities should be a corrective to this trend instead of following it.

The stakes are high, conclude the authors, as we help today’s generation of students understand why free expression matters, on college campuses and in the world. They can hardly be expected to fight for free speech values if they don’t understand their history, practicality, and ethical premises. I found this book to be a helpful presentation of the issue and highly recommend it.

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Free Speech on Campus (5): What Campuses Should and Shouldn’t Do

Hate speech codes are a bad idea, but it’s a mistake to ignore the harmful effects of hateful and bullying speech. According to the authors, “free speech advocates must acknowledge the admirable values that tempt people toward censorship, and then provide a road map for addressing these issues in a way that does not undermine higher education’s necessary commitment to free speech, academic freedom, unfettered inquiry, and robust debate”.

They offer a series of cans and can’ts, or shoulds and shouldn’ts for private universities. Here are the highlights.

  • Faculty members may choose to provide students warnings before presenting material that might be offensive or upsetting to them. Colleges and universities should not, however, impose requirements that faculty provide such “trigger warnings”.

Professors need to decide how to best educate their students without being micromanaged by the administration. In some cases a professor’s judgment might be that being exposed to disturbing material without warning will make for more effective instruction. Besides, understanding cuts both ways. Just as professors should not be tone deaf to the feelings of their students, students need to prepare themselves for the real world where they won’t be coddled.

  • Campuses should create “safe spaces” in educational settings that ensure that people feel free to express the widest array of viewpoints. They should not uses the concept of “safe spaces” to censor the expression of ideas considered too offensive for students to hear.

Put simply: you go to college not to learn things which comfort you, but to learn things that shatter you out of your comfort zones. That’s what education is about.

  • Campuses can sensitize faculty and students to the impact certain words will have, as part of an effort to create a respectful work and learning environment. But they should not prohibit or punish faculty or students from using words that some consider to be examples of “microaggressions”.

We should all listen when others tell us they feel insulted and hurt.

  • Campuses should expect university administrators to speak out against especially egregious speech acts and intolerance as a way of demonstrating the power of “more speech” rather than enforced silence. They should not expect the administrators to comment on or condemn every campus speech act that some person considers offensive.

It’s cliche by this point, but a lesson that’s being lost, that the best remedy for speech we don’t like is more speech — robust counter-speech that rigorously challenges what we object to.

The authors list other campus agenda items:

  • Protect the rights of all students to engage in meaningful protest and to distribute materials that get their message out, while at the same time preventing disruptions of university activities.
  • Ensure that campus dormitories are safe spaces of repose, short of imposing content-based restrictions on speech.
  • Establish clear reporting requirements so that incidents of discriminatory practices can be quickly investigated and addressed.
  • Encourage faculty and students to research and learn about the harms associated with intolerance and structural discrimination, and sponsoring academic symposia.
  • Organize co-curricular activities that celebrate cultural diversity and provide victims of hateful and bullying acts the opportunity to be heard.

In the final chapter we’ll see what’s ultimately at stake in all of this.

Free Speech on Campus (4): Hate Speech

The authors survey the Supreme Court rulings on hate speech issues (pp 82-97) and then with this background turn to the issue of hate speech codes in campus settings (97-110).

The problem is that in practice, hate speech codes are used less against the hateful slurs that inspire their passage, and more against opinions that people disagree with. For example, when the University of Michigan adopted hate speech codes in 1988, one student got in trouble because he claimed that Jewish people used the Holocaust to justify Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians. Another student faced punishment for simply stating that he had heard minorities had difficulty in a particular course. A graduate student was at risk for exploring certain theories in his field of psychobiology. The courts then struck down the hate speech codes as unconstitutional, and between 1989-1995, the courts ruled similarly against the hate speech codes adopted by other colleges and universities.

Hate speech codes, in other words, “inescapably ban the expression of unpopular ideas and views, which is never tolerable in colleges and universities”. This relates to the problem I mentioned in the chapter-2 post, that one person’s hate is another’s struggle against injustice and oppression (Hirsi Ali, Nawaz).

Statistics are relevant. There is no evidence that hate speech laws or codes result in more tolerant attitudes. According to FBI reports, hate crimes in America decreased from 1996 to 2010 to 2015, without hate speech laws. (For that matter, same-sex marriage has gained much wider acceptance between 2001 and 2016, not because homophobic speech has been punished or silenced, but because of the increased presence of gay and lesbian voices in American culture and politics.) By contrast, in Europe, the Anti-Defamation League’s survey of anti-Semitism reports higher levels than in America, despite their having hate speech laws.

Some of today’s students like to claim that hate speech is not protected by the First Amendment, though of course it is. Threats are not protected by the First Amendment. Inciting violence and harassment aren’t either. Ditto for child pornography, the use of copyright, disturbing the peace, threatening national security, etc. These are sometimes called examples of “restrictions on free speech”, but they go beyond offensive opinion content and translate directly into harmful action or violating the rights of others. Child pornography is illegal not because of how offensive it is, but because it involves exploitation of children. Threats are illegal not because they’re emotionally upsetting, but because they cause a person to fear physical harm. Etc.

To censor hate speech would be to censor something solely on the basis of its offensiveness and opinion content, which is exactly what the First Amendment is designed to protect. This is not to dismiss the emotional harm that comes by hate speech, and the authors address what can be done about that in the next chapter.

Free Speech on Campus (3): Colleges and Universities

In chapter 3 the authors distinguish between two zones of free expression in college and university settings: (1) a professional zone, which “protects the expression of ideas but imposes an obligation of responsible discourse and responsible conduct in formal educational and scholarly settings”, and (2) a larger free speech zone, which “exists outside scholarly and administrative settings and where the only restrictions are those of society at large”. On this understanding, members of the campus community may say things in the free speech zone that they wouldn’t be allowed to say in the core educational and research environment.

In their view, colleges and universities should never punish faculty members or students who express controversial or offensive views outside the professional educational context, where there are no enforceable scholarly standards, and no disruption of the educational context other than the fact that people might take offense. So faculty and students who behave properly in the classroom and do not illegally harass others, should not be punished for controversial or offensive statements made on their own time. This is basically what is enforced in public universities, and the authors believe, as do I, that it should be enforced (though not legally required) at any institution of higher learning that wants to be taken seriously as such.

On the question of guest speakers, the authors bring up The Bell Curve, which is a good example since it was just last year that hundreds of students at Middlebury College in Vermont shouted down Charles Murray (one of the book’s co-authors) and started violence that left a faculty member injured. The Bell Curve was published in 1994, and argued for racial differences in intelligence which account for different levels of economic and social success in America. Then as now, it was tempting to prevent the idea from being aired on a college platform, but rather than being worse off for it, society was better off since the book was subjected to rigorous scholarship and refuted on that professional basis. Angry students don’t have veto power, in any case, over students who want to hear the speaker.

The authors give a short history of colleges and universities in America, and their long road to intellectual freedom, culminating in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement of 1964-65, and a good discussion of the “six-year war” fought long and hard over free speech rights on campus. How Berkeley has dramatically changed since then, with its students protesting Bill Maher as the 2014 commencement speaker for his supposed “hate speech”. Which is the subject of the next chapter.

Free Speech on Campus (2): How Times Change

One of the striking points the authors make in chapter 2 is that today’s generation of students don’t value free speech like previous generations did, because the idea is more of an abstraction to them. They didn’t grow up in times when the act of punishing speech was associated with undermining good values — the eras of the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War protests. Those who experienced these generations saw how officials tried to silence or punish protesters in the name of community values and protecting public peace, which is the same rationale used by today’s liberals.

Back in those days (the 60s-80s), liberals “owned” free speech, in the way conservatives “own” the right to bear arms. Liberals and minorities fought racism, sexism, and homophobia tooth and nail, but they drew the line at trying to silence their foes. They were better than that. The right to speak your racist/sexist/homophobic mind — whether on campus or not — was for the most part taken for granted. The reason for this is as the authors say: the enemies of free speech tended to be conservatives, not liberals, right up to the end of the ’80s, when it almost became illegal to burn the American flag. Threats to free speech were identified as a right-wing issue, and liberals didn’t want to be hypocrites. That all began changing in the ’90s.

Throughout history the alternative to free speech — governmental control of ideas — has always led to disaster, regardless of what end of the political spectrum is in control. Censorship is on the side of conformity, authoritarianism, and the status quo. Today’s liberals suggest the opposite: that governmental control of ideas can be used for positive things, like protecting the vulnerable. But history refutes this. Social progress has never come by silencing offensive speakers. It has come by ensuring that previously silenced or marginalized groups are empowered to find their voice and express their views. That’s the way to fight discriminatory and bigoted speech.

Every generation tries to suppress speech for reasons that seem noble at the time. Today it’s to help create inclusive learning environments for minorities. Before that it was to stop pornography which offended women. Before that it was to stop flag burning out of respect for one’s country. Decades before, it was to stop communism. Further back, during World War I, it was to preserve the draft and win the war. Hindsight always shows, with embarrassing clarity, how misguided these efforts are. It will show the same thing for today’s efforts to silence hate speech.

How so? The authors address hate speech in chapter 4, which I’ll cover in detail, but for now I’ll mention an obvious problem. One person’s hate speech is another person’s lone voice crying against oppression and injustice. Aayan Hirsi Ali (a human rights activist) and Maajid Nawaz (a Muslim reformer) are examples of progressive-minded liberals who have been branded as hateful for speaking facts about the Islamic religion. “Hate speech” accusations have been attempts to silence them for their views which are inconvenient but certainly not hateful. In the case of Aayan Hirsi Ali, she has been banned from college campuses for her “hateful” opinions. That alone shows why hate speech codes are a bad idea, and we’ll see more when we look at chapter 4.

Free Speech on Campus

This is the book on campus free speech I’ve been waiting for. The authors are constitutional scholars who teach a course in free speech to undergraduates, and their position is that campuses must provide supportive learning environments for an increasingly diverse student body while never restricting the expression of ideas in the process. I’ll summarize the six chapters below, and then devote a separate blogpost for each chapter over the next week.

Chapter 1: The New Censorship. The authors’ central thesis is that all ideas and views should be able to be expressed on college campuses, no matter how offensive or how uncomfortable they make people feel. But there are steps that campuses can and should take to create inclusive communities where all students feel protected, without catering to “trigger warnings” and “microaggressions”.

Chapter 2: Why Free Speech is Important. A brief history of how the idea evolved. Today’s generation often has little understanding why it is a crucial right that needs to be protected.

Chapter 3: Free Speech at Colleges and Universities. Free speech is important in society as a whole, but even more so on college campuses. The authors’ position is absolute: campuses never can censor or punish the expression of ideas, no matter how offensive, because otherwise they cannot perform their function of promoting inquiry, discovery, and the dissemination of new knowledge. Although the First Amendment applies only to public universities (and rightly so, as a matter of law), all colleges and universities nevertheless should commit themselves to these values.

Chapter 4: Hate Speech. The authors look at the real harm caused by hate speech on campus, review the First Amendment in this area as well as the history of hate speech codes, and explain that although well intentioned, campus bans on hate speech are not desirable.

Chapter 5: What Campuses Can and Can’t Do. This chapter offers ideas on how to create inclusive learning environments without undermining freedom of speech and expression. Most notably — and this is often overlooked — campus leaders can engage in more speech themselves, by proclaiming the type of community they seek and condemning speech (without censoring it or punishing the speakers) that is inconsistent with those goals.

Chapter 6: What’s at Stake? The final chapter looks to the future. If campus leaders allow calls for “safe spaces” to suppress the expression of any idea, little will remain of free speech or academic inquiry. But if campus leaders do not find ways to create a conducive learning environment for everyone (without suppressing ideas), they will discover that they have provided free speech to some but not for all.

Salon on “New Atheism” and the Alt-Right (Michael Turton’s Reply)

On his Facebook page, Richard Carrier linked to a Salon article, “From the Enlightenment to the Dark Ages: How New Atheism Slid into the Alt-Right”, with approval. Like most Salon articles it’s garbage, and Michael Turton wrote a lengthy rebuttal in the FB comments. I’ve pasted his comments below (Carrier’s FB page is public), and added a few observations of my own in bold.

[Turton] Let’s look at the article as the lifelong atheist and political activist and popular niche blogger that I am. After three paragraphs of Harris’ views on Islam (but note, we get no evidence that this is a problem for “the movement” or “the leaders”, just Harris), we get this:

[Salon] This resulted in an exodus of women from the movement who decided that the “new atheist” label was no longer for them. (I know of many diehard atheist women who wanted nothing to do with “new atheism,” which is a real shame.)

[Turton] No evidence is presented for this “exodus”.

[Salon] Along these lines, the new atheist movement has flirted with misogyny for years. Harris’ “estrogen vibe” statement — which yielded a defense rather than a gracious apology — was only the tip of the iceberg. As mentioned above, there have been numerous allegations of sexual assault, and atheist conferences have pretty consistently been male-dominated — resulting in something like a “gender Matthew effect.”

[Turton] This isn’t a problem with the New Atheist movement. This is a problem with Skepticism in general. I believe the anthropologist David Hess wrote Science in the New Age, which discusses the gendered/gender problem in Skepticism almost 25 years ago. This is not a new issue. Obviously, the author does not understand the issue he is addressing or how the New Atheists are connected to it.

[Salon] Many leading figures have recently allied themselves with small-time television personality Dave Rubin, a guy who has repeatedly given Milo Yiannopoulos — the professional right-wing troll who once said that little boys would stop complaining about being raped by Catholic priests if the priests were as good-looking as he is — a platform on his show. In a tweet from last May, Rubin said “I’d like a signed copy, please” in response to a picture that reads: “Ah. Peace and quiet. #ADayWithoutAWoman.” If, say, Paul Ryan were asked, he’d describe this as “sort of like the textbook definition of a misogynistic comment.” Did any new atheist leaders complain about this tweet? Of course not, much to the frustration of critical thinkers like myself who actually care about how women are treated in society.

[Turton] “Many leading figures have allied…” No evidence is presented for “leading figures” who are “allied”. Connecting Milo to the New Atheists in this way is a smear. “Did atheist leaders complain about this tweet?” Seriously? I doubt Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris spends much time combing the literally millions of tweets of other atheists for things to police them on. They have productive lives. And why would we expect them to complain about a tweet of someone whom the author himself identifies as a marginal figure (!). Excellent clickbait, that rhetorical question — it is so good the author resorts to it twice (“Has any leader….?”.) You could go on asking “Has any leader…?” rhetorical questions all day long. A question like that is designed to emotionally appeal to the article’s target audience, without actually making any survey or showing why anyone would bother to respond to a tweet from a marginal figure. As if silence constituted endorsement.

Turton is right that connecting Milo to the new atheist movement is a ludicrous smear, but I would also point out that Dave Rubin runs a good show, and he is to be commended for having Milo Yiannopoulos on as a guest, just as Bill Maher did on Real Time. Reason being: when leftists try shouting down and silencing people — even idiot trolls like Milo — it becomes virtuous to give a platform to those idiots you would otherwise ignore. Chris Hayes made the same point about the “Draw Muhammad cartoon” contest held in Garland Texas two years ago (and it was refreshing to see a liberal like Hayes school his fellow leftists). When jihadists respond to cartoons of Muhammad by killing people, it’s necessary to be offensive and draw more cartoons, otherwise you’re catering to sharia blasphemy law and letting jihadists rule you through fear. Or, as Hayes made the analogy with his own profession, if he were considering doing a segment that he was on the fence about or didn’t even like, but then someone came to him and said, “You can’t do that segment because of an advertiser”, then he would absolutely do the segment, because “It has to be the case that we can do that segment”.

Ditto for Milo. Neither Dave Rubin nor Bill Maher make a habit of inviting trolls, but they will when everyone else resorts to thuggish silencing strategies that are only getting worse on college campuses. Objections about being inflammatory, or unfair to an advertiser, etc., go straight out the window at the moment the aggrieved group tells you to stop or be stopped, to submit or be killed, etc.

[Salon] In fact, the magazine Skeptic just published a glowing review of Yiannopoulos’ recent book, “Dangerous.” The great irony of this intellectual misstep is that Yiannopoulos embodies the opposite of nearly every trend of moral progress that Michael Shermer, the editor of Skeptic, identifies in his book “The Moral Arc.”

[Turton] (1) One author at Skeptic appears to like Milo… clearly this means that the New Atheist movement loves Milo. Can the author show us numerous New Atheist personalities who like Milo? Nope. (2) Do New Atheists control the editorial decision-making of The Skeptic? I think not, which means that — you guessed it — this is a smear, typical of Salon clickbait articles. Even better, the piece has a clickbait image at the top that puts Harris together with Milo the idiot. But it is photoshopped. A smear so obvious no one noticed it.

[Salon] Perhaps the most alarming instance of irrationality in recent memory, though, is Sam Harris’ recent claim that black people are less intelligent than white people.

[Turton] The author then spends four paragraphs explaining to us about IQ and race. Harris’ views are totally nutcase and evil. Are they widely held in the New Atheist movement or among its leaders? It is not difficult to find Dawkins saying that race is real but meaningless. Obviously, if Harris being an idiot proves that the New Atheists are evil racists, why doesn’t Dawkins saying race is meaningless prove the opposite?

Moreover, Hitchens, whom the author mentions, has written abusively about the idiocy of the race-IQ connection:

“There is, and there always has been, an unusually high and consistent correlation between the stupidity of a given person and that person’s propensity to be impressed by the measurement of I.Q.” [“Minority Report,” Nation, 11/28/94]

“Linguistics, genetics, paleontology, anthropology: All are busily demonstrating that we as a species have no objective problem of ‘race.’ What we still do seem to have are all these racists.” [“Minority Report,” Nation , 11/28/94]

Again, very obviously — if a “leader” of the movement asserting X means the whole movement is X, then why doesn’t Hitchens’ savage denunciation of that mean anything? Shouldn’t both Hitch and Dawkins’ remarks show that the New Atheist movement is solid on race? But no… painting Harris as a worshiper of Murray and a fool on race and IQ makes for much better clickbait. Salon’s clickbait articles work by rhetorical appeal to the “reasonable middle”. This is hardly the first such clickbait article on atheism at Salon, one reason I stopped reading Salon was because of the regular flow of such articles.

I agree with Turton that the sins of one person don’t reflect the views of a movement, but for the record, I seriously doubt that Sam Harris is, as Turton says, “totally nutcase and evil” on the subject of IQ and race. I admit I haven’t followed his views and interactions with Murray, but I have found that every time Harris is smeared on other subjects (like torture, or Islam), his views have either been distorted, exaggerated, or deliberately taken out of context. (Turton himself points this out in the case of Ben Carson below.)

Even Murray, while holding what I take to be incorrect views on the subject of race, has been overly maligned, and I doubt he is a racist. He’s an advocate for gay marriage and has two half-Asian kids for Christ’s sake. His error lies in dismissing the effects of socialization on race data, but his arguments should be rejected or upheld on the basis of scientific methodology, not political ideology. Reasoned refutations, not ad hominems and shut-down strategies, are the proper counters.

[Turton] Then comes this brilliance:

[Salon] On a personal note, a recent experience further cemented my view that the new atheists are guilty of false advertising. A podcaster named Lalo Dagach saw that I had criticized Harris’ understanding of Islamic terrorism, which I believe lacks scholarly rigor.

[Turton] The author spends two paragraphs discussing some marginal podcaster’s behavior towards the author as if that were somehow indicative of an entire movement. How? The podcaster is one marginal person. This personal digression is merely a bit of entitled whining about being attacked online that says nothing about New Atheism as a whole. If whipping up followers to attack people were a proclivity of New Atheists as a whole and the author could provide many examples, then perhaps this might have a place in this essay. Otherwise, no. It’s pure whining designed — once again — to appeal to the emotions of the audience which has already been nodding along. The author still hasn’t learned that if you jump in online, people are going to abuse you.

[Salon] From censoring people online while claiming to support free speech to endorsing scientifically unfounded claims about race and intelligence to asserting, as Harris once did, that the profoundly ignorant Ben Carson would make a better president than the profoundly knowledgeable Noam Chomsky, the movement has repeatedly shown itself to lack precisely the values it once avowed to uphold.

[Turton] This sweeping conclusion is hilarious and such stunningly obvious clickbait. “From censoring people online” — the author conflates his own experience with some nobody podcaster with the habits of the entire movement. You can’t “censor people online” unless you are the Communist Party of China and own the entire internet. Anyone can comment anywhere on the internet, at least in most of the West. Harris’s comments on race and Islam somehow stand for an entire movement. The provocative one on Ben Carson is especially hilarious, since Harris dismisses Carson as a nutcase in the very next sentence (which the author ignores, of course). Harris was obviously indulging in rhetoric to make a point about the “Islamic threat.” But obviously, it isn’t good clickbait to note that Harris was just being rhetorical.

Indeed. As I said above, Harris is regularly taken out of context, if not outright misrepresented. That tends to be what happens to those who speak unwelcome truths.

[Turton] If you are going to say “This movement is X and I don’t like it!” then you need to provide many examples/surveys etc that show that the whole movement is X. None are provided here, the article is simply a clickbait attack largely on Harris, designed to appeal to the audience of New Atheists like himself (and myself) who wish Harris would STFU about Islam and that they would address the mysogyny in the skeptic movement.

Turton is correct that the Salon article is a ridiculous hit piece on Harris. However, Harris should not stop speaking about Islam. His task has been a thankless one in explaining that (1) Islam has more dangerous and toxic ideas than other religions, (2) these ideas (jihad, sharia, geographical expansion) saturate the Qur’an, Hadith, and Sira, and thus have always been mainstream and mandatory in all Islamic schools of jurisprudence, and (3) they are believed and enacted on by a disproportionate number of Muslims (who may be a minority, but by no means the fringe). He should be applauded for this, along with Maajid Nawaz (Harris’ colleague), Asra Nomani, Aayan Hirsi Ali, and Bill Maher — people who are far more progressive than leftists who cry “Islamophobia” in the name of cultural tolerance.

(“Islamophobia” is a propagandist term in any case, intended to shut down criticism of the religion Islam in advance. The correct term for racism is “anti-Muslim bigotry”, just as we use “anti-Semitism” and not “Judaiaphobia”).

In sum, I agree with Michael Turton that the Salon article is worthless, but would go further in correcting the smears of certain individuals.