Free Speech and Dialogue

Wednesday, 12th July 2017

From July 12, 2017

Symposium: Is Free Speech Under Threat in the United States?

The right-of-center Commentary Magazine asked for 27 writers to give hot takes on whether free speech is under threat in the US. The responses vary from insightful (a few) to annoying (most) to infuriating (again, a few). Despite the general question that was posed, most of the respondents focused on campuses, and most, to no surprise, argued the standard right-wing line that campuses are filled with leftists who engage in speech control all the time and who stifle all free expression.

So, I have a few thoughts on this.

1. There are thousands of campuses and millions of faculty and students across the US. We hear broadcast a few controversial cases. These are supposed to be metonyms for all faculty and students – a few examples serving as the tip of the iceberg.

I’m just not seeing it. I’m not seeing rampant disregard for free speech rights across campuses. I’m seeing a few high profile cases, megaphoned by outlets like Fox News and others. Some of these are right-wing stunts, deliberate provocations to generate these metonyms. Would they have happened without the provocations? I doubt it.

2. In Ben Shapiro’s response (and, to be sure, I didn’t expect anything else than this), he says “Leftists traded truth for tribalism long ago…” This is a little insight on the difference between the “us” and “them” in these situations.

How many people can tell squirrels apart? Or the birds that come to your feeder? Very few, other than those who are trained. But we can tell ourselves apart very easily. Some white people stereotypically think that “all black people look alike”.

The same is true politically. I don’t recognize what Shapiro is talking about here. Tribalism? I see incredible diversity. I see a very big tent. But of course, if someone is in a different tribe, the left looks like squirrels – all the same.

This is part of the problem with the truism on the right that there is no diversity on campus. That’s true – but only if you put “the left” into a big container and treat it as if it’s all the same thing. It’s not all the same, not even politically.

That’s what hides behind the right-wing demand for diversity. It’s not diversity that people want, it’s to have their own preferred ideas taken seriously.

3. So, what does it mean to take one’s ideas seriously? Here we get into the idea of dialogue. Several of the writers here called for it, or something like it. And it always assumes that there’s a rational basis, which we all would just recognize if we weren’t so influenced by our self interest, tribal loyalties, desire for profit, or general pathologies to see clearly. And, of course, those on my side don’t have any of those things – we’re clear-eyed, we’re on the side of reason. The other tribe – they have all that stuff.

When I was in Bujumbura Burundi 20 years ago, I interviewed a university official. When I walked into his office, the first thing he asked me was “What have you heard about the problems here in Burundi?” This seemed like a minefield, so I gave a tepid answer. He cut me off, and said, “Let me tell you what the problems are. It’s not about ethnicity. It’s that the rational people are here in the city, and the crazy people are all out there in the countryside.” Now, it just so happened that that division mapped onto the ethnic divisions in the country – Tutsis in the city, Hutus in the countryside. But no, it wasn’t that. It was about reason.

When will we have a rational discussion about reason? Because everyone is claiming it, but from what I can see, it’s just a club made for bashing, like any other.

4. Of course, one component of dialogue is supposed to be listening. How’s that going? Is anyone listening? What would that look like? Every demands to be listened to, but few fall silent and listen. It’s weakness, it’s a sign of having lost the argument. Dialogue is impossible without listening, and yet dialogue ends when one person in that dialogue decides to listen.

I’ve always wondered what the desired outcome of dialogue actually is. I mean, we keep hearing that we should have dialogue. What do we suppose will happen? Will one side convert the other side? If you start from a quasi-religious viewpoint, I suppose that’s the desire. The inflections of conservative evangelicalism on the right certainly give it that character. The charges against the left are, of course, just the same – everyone should convert. And backs go up.

Will people “meet in the middle?” What would that even look like?

Will people transcend their differences and find a new, as yet unseen option?

Will people agree to disagree? Can that happen when there is public policy at a federal level that requires laws? Will it not simply be a winner take all situation?

And, what if dialogue is just another weapon, as already suggested? What if we engage in dialogue to delay the opponent, so that we can continue to act in a manner harmful to someone?

5. Of course, the question posed here is about “free speech”. And, the consensus position is that free speech is best met by more free speech. But we know what counts as speech in the US (and, this is not my opinion, but the Supreme Court’s opinion). Money counts as speech. Actions count as speech, unless they are illegal (and sometimes, even then, as in protests). In fact, a great many things that aren’t actually words count as speech.

So, then, how would this work. Let’s suppose there’s a guest who is speaking on campus. He has come to speak about how you and those who look like you are inferior, or that you’re uppity and should just shut up and behave, or that you have way too much privilege. Fill in your favorite example of a horrible person speaking on campus. Free speech? Maybe. Depends on how it is presented. It might verge on hate speech, and we have laws against that, at least for the moment (let’s see how long they last). But what if that speech is more artfully put, complete with dog whistles, unmistakable to anyone who knows anything, but which still have plausible deniability among those who want to deny them?

Now, what if this is supported by the other forms of speech, such as money? What if this is megaphoned to everyone? What if any time someone wanted to mount a response, it was overwhelmed by the well-funded opposition.

I can see it now, the right is saying, yup, that’s what the left is like, and the left is saying, yup, that’s what the right is like. And again, we have the situation in which my side is the custodian of reason, and the other side is completely bereft of it.

We might almost be at the point of admitting that free speech and dialogue are just fig leaves over the tribal war we find ourselves in.

6. As I look through the responses to the question that the editors of Commentary Magazine asked, I’m struck by the ways in which the language is slanted. Most respondents talk about things like intersectionality (and, more often than not they misunderstand what it means). Several talk about feminism, others about race. And invariably, the unspoken assumption was that talk about any of these things could happen without any regard to history, different meanings within communities, or things like that. In other words, it was a difference about the space in which speech and dialogue happened. For the respondents here, it was a free and open field, which had no history, no geography, no implications. Ideas came onto this field, and were contested. As suggested above, it’s unclear what is supposed to happen at the end of these contests, but that’s the image.

On the left, there is history, there is geography, there are communities. None of this is abstract. You don’t talk about race in the abstract – it’s tied up with respect for the people who have been through both personal and community pain. On the left, it has always been about respect, and in particular, respect for those who are different. That, by the way, includes those on the right. Respect there too. Everywhere.

And, it’s not just about individuals, which is the other fundamental divide here. If we think of free speech as only the property of individuals, who express themselves in order to advance their own interests, it becomes all but impossible to see the collective effects and shared histories people have, that contribute to how the world becomes meaningful.

Black Lives Matter is a great example of this. One of the core protests is against police violence against blacks. What are the responses on the right? “All lives matter” (but that’s an individualist statement, despite the “all” – it is meant to express a universal principle that each person partakes in, rather than recognizing the history and present of targetting and racial profiling that the black community has experienced for years). “Blue lives matter” (again, misdirection of the claims, and diversion of the point, but also individualist, in the sense that we’re supposed to personalize the pain of police, but generalize the pain of “the criminals” they have to deal with).

Black Lives Matter is rooted in real history, and is the recognition of the fact that blacks are overwhelmingly targetted, and are treated completely differently from whites in similar situations. Philando Castile can inform officers of his legally owned gun, and still get killed (with no one found at fault), while whites actually pointing guns can get all the consideration in the world. Treating everyone as individuals first, and racialized, historically located, geographically located, gendered etc. second, is part of the problem here, because we don’t, and can’t act and think as if we are individuals first. That’s an abstraction, not how our reasoning actually works, no matter how hard we try.

7. Finally, it’s interesting how quickly the general question of free speech moves to being about campuses for many of the respondents. Really? Like, there are no issues anywhere else? There are no issues with this president and his treatment of media? There are no issues in the corporate world.

There is a difference between free speech and required speech. There are things I would like to have corporations, pharmaceutical companies, etc., be required to tell me. That’s never going to happen. But it is clear that free speech having to do with the public good is far inferior to the protections these entities hold, in terms of trade secrets. It seems to me that the far greater threat to free speech is in the difficulty of speaking on behalf of something other than an individual (and, I’m classifying corporations as individuals, as the law does).

It is one of the great Achille’s heels of the American social epistemology – the adherence to a version of individualism that has all but erased any notion that there can be knowledge that accrues to systems, to groups, to publics, to races, to genders.

But that discussion is for another time.

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