This is not a post about President Trump’s shortcomings. It’s tangentially a post about a problem with American society that is apparent these days on the right, and perhaps particularly among Mr. Trump’s voters. That problem is loss of belief in the idea of knowledge and expertise. Here is a recent quote from Wayne LaPierre, the head of the National Rifle Association, which supported Pres. Trump during the campaign:
NRA's Wayne LaPierre: "Academic elites, political elites and media elites. These are america's greatest domestic threats."
— Lois Beckett (@loisbeckett) April 28, 2017
Now, you may wonder where Mr. LaPierre gets the idea that he himself is not part of the “political elite,” but it’s clear in everything from President Trump’s choice of appointments in the White House and in the Cabinet to his moves towards dismantling the progress of the last several years on climate change that the President himself distrusts the idea of expertise, and it seems clear that his supporters do, too. This is a terrible trend, maybe the most troubling trend in our society today.
But there’s a close second, which I’d like to focus on in this post, and it comes not from the right, but from the left—not from the NRA Convention but from college campuses. I’m talking about the violent reactions to conservative or not-so-conservative speakers and the loss of belief in the value of free speech that many students and others who should know better have shown. Here, for example, is Howard Dean, former governor of Vermont and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee:
I’m not going to waste your time explaining what I trust you already know, which is that Mr. Dean is simply wrong. In the United States, at least, speech cannot be forbidden even if it is hateful. The categories of speech that can be forbidden—true “fighting words,” for example—are very narrow indeed. I understand that our idea of free speech is not shared by much of the world; I understand that there are historical and cultural reasons for that; and I would, in another post, be happy to defend the distinctively American ideal of freedom of speech in principle and in practice. But leave that aside for now. Some college students, some members of so-called “Anti-Fascist” or “Antifa” groups, and some politicians pandering to them, have gone wrong in two ways. First, they’ve responded to speech they don’t like, which may or may not be hate speech, with violence. For example:
- During the University of Missouri protests, Professor of Communication Melissa Click called for some “muscle” to prevent student journalists from covering the event.
- At an event at Middlebury College, students prevented Professor Charles Murray, author of the old but apparently still-controversial book, “The Bell Curve,” from speaking and assaulted Professor Allison Stanger.
- A mob forced the cancelation of an event with alt-right provacateur Milo Yiannopoulos at Berkeley, causing more than $100,000 in property damage. The apparent threat of a similar mob forced the cancellation of another event by another right-wing rhetorical bomb-thrower, Anne Coulter.
Second, even assuming it were okay to prohibit “hate speech,” many students and others have dramatically redefined “hate,” or rather, dramatically narrowed the scope of speech that is (to them) permissible. Let’s look at some recent examples from the Claremont colleges in California, which have been in the news recently and illustrate the problem:
- The anonymous demand by “a collective of Sociology students, alumni, and allies at Pomona College” demanding that the college rescind its job offer to celebrated sociologist Alice Goffman. Goffman’s excellent book, On the Run, an ethnographic look at the lives of young African American men in a Philadelphia neighborhood, was praised by many though not all of her colleagues and by public intellectuals including Cornel West. But the “collective” claimed that Goffman’s hire did not “enhance a culture of inquiry and understanding on campus as we navigate a tumultuous time in our nation’s history; on the contrary, it boasts the framework that white women can theorize about and profit from Black lives while giving no room for Black academics to claim scholarship regarding their own lived experiences.” In other words, only “Black academics” should be writing about black “lived experiences.” The members of the “collective” redacted their names “for individual safety in recognition of the violence inflicted on communities of color by various publications, namely the claremont independent,” a conservative campus newspaper.
- In a letter, a group of students objected to a statement in support of free speech after students blocked conservative commentator Heather MacDonald from speaking to a live audience on campus, attacked the very idea of free speech by likening speech to actual violence. For good measure, they demanded punishment for the editors of the campus conservative newspaper, including even expulsion, for their “continual perpetuation of hate speech, anti-Blackness, and intimidation toward students of marginalized backgrounds.” The whole letter is worth a read in the same way that a particularly gory car crash is worth a look when you’re driving by. Just to give you a taste:
Free speech, a right many freedom movements have fought for, has recently become a tool appropriated by hegemonic institutions. It has not just empowered students from marginalized backgrounds to voice their qualms and criticize aspects of the institution, but it has given those who seek to perpetuate systems of domination a platform to project their bigotry. Thus, if “our mission is founded upon the discovery of truth,” how does free speech uphold that value? The notion of discourse, when it comes to discussions about experiences and identities, deters the ‘Columbusing’ of established realities and truths (coded as ‘intellectual inquiry’) that the institution promotes. Pomona cannot have its cake and eat it, too. Either you support students of marginalized identities, particularly Black students, or leave us to protect and organize for our communities without the impositions of your patronization, without your binary respectability politics, and without your monolithic perceptions of protest and organizing. In addition, non-Black individuals do not have the right to prescribe how Black people respond to anti-Blackness.
- A student newspaper at another Claremont institution, Pitzer college, ran an editorial criticizing the conservative student paper, which had reported on a campaign by several Latina students to stop white students from committing an act of cultural appropriation by wearing hoop earrings. The editorial argued that the conservative paper shouldn’t have reported on the story:
While the CI’s piece included what may be considered “objective” facts, it isn’t fair or balanced reporting as a result. … The Claremont Independent’s reporting on the Free Wall was dangerous, predatory, and entirely intentional. Writing and publishing an article, even if it’s “free of opinion,” is not passive. Articles are written by people and for people. They are the claimed-to-be-objective products of subjective, biased actions. These actions can be to inform, expose, criticize — anything in service of the audience.
But when the action directly results in harm to somebody else, especially the subject of the story—especially when that subject is already enduring racism, sexism, and/or other forms of oppression which made their story relevant in the first place—that article is doing work to harm someone.
This is not objective journalism by any definition. Threats, propaganda, perhaps — but it is not worth publishing.
You might ask, “who cares about Anne Coulter, hoop earrings, or Alice Goffman’s new position?” Fair enough. I don’t think any serious person really is interested in listening to Anne Coulter or Milo Yiannopolous, and taken alone, hiring disputes in a college sociology department are not that interesting to the rest of the world. But it’s precisely in these cases that a principled defense of the value of free speech is necessary. What’s particularly troubling isn’t the details of these cases; it’s the possibility that we’re seeing a generational shift in which the philosophical underpinnings of our traditional ideas of free speech don’t seem to make sense any longer to the newest members of America’s educated class.
It’s important for the nation’s future that everyone recall what we all used to know about the importance of expertise. We’re not going to solve the problems we face if we don’t. But it’s also important for the nation’s future that everyone recall what we all used to know about free speech in America, and particularly on college campuses. If our universities become places that enforce intellectual conformity, we’re in trouble.