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The new hysteria over campus speech

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The incident earlier this month at Middlebury College, at which Charles Murray was shouted down while attempting to give a talk, and a professor who was accompanying him was physically assaulted when she and Murray were attempting to leave, has led to a new round of hand-wringing over how Kids Today just want their safe spaces and lazy rivers, the supposed flourishing of left-wing intolerance on college campuses, the revivification of the ghost of Herbert Marcuse, etc.

The leader in the clubhouse for the most over the top take on these developments is Yale law professor Stephen Carter:

Here’s what’s scariest about the last week’s incident at Middlebury College, where protesters shouted down the social scientist Charles Murray and injured a professor who was escorting him from the venue: It felt like an everyday event. So common has such odious behavior become that it’s tempting to greet it with a shrug . . .

The downshouters will go on behaving deplorably, and reminding the rest of us that the true harbinger of an authoritarian future lives not in the White House but in the groves of academe.

Let’s make one thing perfectly clear, as Richard Nixon used to say.  OK two things:

(1) College students who exercise a heckler’s veto — that is, who don’t merely protest, but actually try to shut down a speaker at an institutionally-sanctioned event — should be punished (in the wake of adequate due process of course) by their college or university.  Such punishment might include expulsion from the school under certain circumstances.

(2) Physical assault should be prosecuted.

That being said, the notion that the behavior of a handful of idiot undergraduates at one event at one hyper-elite college is a true harbinger of an authoritarian future — as opposed to say the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States — is dangerous nonsense.

But halt, sayeth the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law. Hast thou not heard that the name of the Middlebury Morons is legion?

According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, 2016 saw a record number of efforts to keep controversial speakers from being heard on campus — and that’s just in the U.S. To be sure, not all of the attempts succeeded, and the number catalogued, 42, is but a small fraction of the many outsiders who give addresses at colleges and universities each year. The real number of rejected speakers is certainly much higher, once we add in all the people not invited in the first place because some member of this or that committee objects to their views, or because campus authorities fear trouble. But even one would be too many.

By my count the actual number of “rejected speakers,” per the data base Carter cites, is 24.  They include things like the singer Common having an invitation to give a commencement speech revoked because police groups protested that he was the author of “a song in which he depicted a woman convicted of killing a police officer as a victim.”

They also include attempts by various people to stop giant checks from being handed out to the likes of Condi Rice for giving commencement speeches — i.e., wholly commendable efforts to resist this particularly obnoxious form of pseudo-intellectual grifting.  (Carter thinks those efforts are a form of illegitimate censorship as well).

And more than a quarter of the attempted dis-invitations were aimed at Milo Yiannopoulos, a professional attention seeker, whose total lifetime contribution to actual intellectual debate in even the broadest sense of the phrase can be calculated as approximately zero.

As Carter coyly acknowledges, the total number of talks on potentially politically sensitive topics at American colleges and universities in any one year must reach seven figures (There are four thousand such institutions in the US, so if you assume an average of one such talk per day per institution — surely a gross underestimate — that’s 1,460,000  opportunities for civil discourse-destroying protest).  So tens of thousands — at least — politically controversial talks take place at American institutions of higher learning for every one that leads to any (overt) attempt to keep that talk from taking place.

But even one such attempt is too many, says Carter.  Does he actually want to defend that position?  Universities are ongoing exercises in massive content discrimination, and indeed have to be by their very nature.  The notion that universities should be open to all viewpoints is so ridiculous that it’s hard to believe anyone would defend it, except at the highest level of abstraction, which is the level at which such defenses invariably take place.

Universities should not be open to the viewpoints of Holocaust deniers or Sandy Hook truthers, to pick just a couple of a basically unlimited number of possible examples, because such views are false, and false views should not be given a forum within institutions dedicated to the pursuit of truth.

But where do you draw the line?  You draw it right here, every day, that’s where.  (“Right here” being within the university itself).  But who should have the authority to make decisions about what constitutes a controversial view that deserves a hearing, and what is misguided nonsense, or a noxious calculated lie, or a paranoid delusion? We should — we being the members of the scholarly community — BECAUSE THAT’S LITERALLY OUR JOB, or part of it, anyway.

Sorry for shouting but come on.

The point is that, within the university at least, viewpoint tolerance is not and cannot possibly be some sort of absolute value.  It’s a pragmatic tool in the pursuit of truth, and, like all such tools, it has its limits.   Duly invited speakers should not be shouted down, let alone physically attacked, but making the decision whether a speaker should be heard in the first place is not “censorship,” unless censorship means making distinctions between speech that is likely to advance the mission of the university and that which will not.  And if making that distinction is illegitimate, then intellectual life itself becomes totally impossible.

 

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