I can’t believe we have to tell liberals of all people to stop this neo-book-burning.
In the past few weeks both inflammatory trolls Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter were disinvited to speak at reputable college campuses—the most mind-boggling of which was Ann Coulter’s rebuff at what used to be a beacon of free speech, UC Berkley.
These are the most recent, but there are others who have been disinvited, and still others who presented their speech and then were pelted with fists and eggs and everything else on their way out of the building. The alt-right bloggers reacted as expected: calling the protesters “snowflakes” and decrying the onslaught of a “politically correct” agenda. Politically correct, by the way, is generally a person’s way of saying “aw man, I can’t say nigger anymore? I will not stand for this facism!” In short, nothing surprised me about the heat Milo and Ann drew to their event, and nothing surprised me about their response to that heat.
What does surprise me is the rise of think-pieces, most notably in The New York Times, suggesting that these sometimes violent and certainly mob-like reactions should be celebrated and recognized as our youngest generation “redefining” the parameters of free speech.
Redefining the parameters? Free speech doesn’t have parameters. Or conditions. That’s why it’s called “free speech.” It’s free. Its properties are implied in the word “free.” A synonym for “free” is “liberal” and yet it’s people who identify as liberal ironically instilling parameters and conditions upon our concept of free speech.
In the New York Times piece, NYU professor Ulrich Baer suggests that what protesters (and the college administrators who are folding to their pressure) are doing is establishing a type of free speech that protects the greater good, or at the very least, a greater number of people.
“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.”
“The conditions of free speech.” The only “conditions” we should establish when it comes to free speech is when speech leads to widespread panic that can cost lives, like shouting “fire” in a crowded theater, or saying the city ran out of bike racks in Williamsburg. Even in these cases I’m queasy about acquiescing that kind of interpretive power to the masses. Just a few short months ago, in a conversation with a fellow NYC school teacher, she actually blamed Richard Spencer for getting punched. If Spencer’s views weren’t so abhorrent, she said, he wouldn’t have incited people to the point of violence. The level to which we have become comfortable with justifying violence because we don’t like a speaker’s message astounds and frightens me. The winds can and do change at any point. We have to keep free speech free.
Free speech with conditions isn’t free speech. Characterizing it the way Baer does in the passage above is nothing short of spin. It’s killing women and children and then calling it “collateral damage,” and I think liberals like this NYU professor know it.
We Live In A Time When We Have More Speech, Not Less
There’s no question that we have a history of delegitimizing whole segments of the world’s population. Baer opens his piece with an anecdote about a female Holocaust survivor who approaches a scholar of the Holocaust. The scholar dismissively says “Madame, you are an experience, not an argument.” Only since the 1990s, Baer asserts, have we began to acknowledge experience as a very powerful form of argument. Fair enough. But in that situation, which occurred around 1985, the female Holocaust survivor had to go home feeling like her voice didn’t matter. Nowadays, that same woman has a myriad of platforms (including college campuses) on which to shout her experiences.
(Case in point, The New York Times has never heard of me and would never publish this opinion piece, but guess what? You’re reading it!)
Such is the case with segments of our population who have been marginalized and feel de-legitimized by mainstream culture—ethnic and racial minorities, women, the LGBQT community—there are platforms for all of these voices (including college campuses!) and I think that’s a powerful thing. This can only make for a stronger society.
So why in hell would we want to put conditions to free speech in an age when technology has allowed literally everybody to be heard? It’s time to ask, who is really being de-legitimized here?
Are We Really Protesting Content?
Another specious argument coming from the left (I still can’t believe it’s the left doing this) is that there are some topics that are not debatable, or at least not worthy of debate. Topics such as the moral grounds for eugenics, the dangers of miscegenation, or the inferiority/superiority of one race over another: are not up for debate and are not worth discussing. Fine. But are those the topics Ann Coulter or Milo planned to discuss? Or have we decided, simply, that Ann Coulter’s views repulse us, so we’re going to protest them, violently if necessary, and get the intellectual backing of NYU professors in the New York Times? Baer gives these protesters far too much credit. They simply don’t like these speakers’ views (neither do I, for the record), they resent the fact that they have an audience, so they want to shut them down.
I also take issue with Baer’s premise that speech is intended as a “public good.” Sometimes this is the case, but sometimes it’s not. The Nazi Party march in Skokie, IL did not accomplish any greater good. But it was rightfully protected.
“The idea of freedom of speech does not mean a blanket permission to say anything anybody thinks.”
Yes it does. But I’ll let him continue because that’s the kind of guy I am.
“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.”
To which I ask: who was/is stopping these “other members of a given community” from “participating in discourse as fully recognized members of that community?” Those people have every right and every opportunity to speak on a number of platforms. Since when is a college barred from, say, having Ann Coulter speak on a Tuesday at 2 p.m., and an immigrant rights activist, or a transgendered or LGBQT activist speak at 3 p.m.?
“In today’s age, we also have a simple solution that should appease all those concerned that students are insufficiently exposed to controversial views. It is called the internet, where all kinds of offensive expression flourish unfettered on a vast platform available to nearly all.”
Oh, well that’s convenient. Let’s all thank this man for granting a proper venue for people he doesn’t like to deliver their opinions. How about this: Go piss up a rope. Why don’t you go and chuff your opinions off to the ghettos of the internet? Are we really engaging in this kind of soft-headed approach to the problem, that we’re willing to tolerate speech on the internet, just not on college campuses? Wow.
A Modest Proposal
Of course the biggest issue with all of this “redefining” and condition-creating is a simple, but large issue: Who gets to decide what’s debatable, acceptable and helpful to the greater good?
I’ll take care of it.
From now on, all college speeches will be sent to me in advance. I’ll sit down with a panel of people whose judgment I trust, and together we’ll decide whether the speech lends itself to a greater good, legitimizes and validates marginalized people and is therefore worthy for public consumption.
Sound good? Of course not! It’s insane. So stop it! Stop intellectually burning books and then calling it an act of advocacy for the greater good. We’ve seen this sort of collectivism before. Someone rewind that movie.
If we’re going to go down this path, let’s not kid ourselves. We’re not “redefining” free speech. These kids aren’t “re-envisioning” the First Amendment. We’re creating a new amendment. Let’s do what George Carlin would have done, and call it what it is. Approved Speech. Free speech is gone. We have Approved Speech. Stop lying to us (and yourselves) with these rationales and euphemisms.
Here’s the Kicker!:
Baer actually made my point for me just a few short hours after the New York Times published his piece. In the same article where he states “ I am not overly worried that even the shrillest heckler’s vetoes will end free speech in America,” he doubled back to include a legal disclaimer divorcing his views from his employer. Without a shred of irony.