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Friday, October 27, 2017

Friday, October 27, 2017

Feeding a Dangerous Fiction, Redux

The news is that UCOP has legitimated the conventional wisdom that there's a crisis of free speech on campus by funding a center to study it.  But I'm still thinking about the situation at other campuses, from Drexel's suspension of a tweeting professor that I discussed at length in Inside Higher Ed last week ("Feeding a Dangerous Fiction"), to one of the many interesting exchanges I recently had in Reno. 

During questions after my lecture at the University of Nevada campus there, a man in his mid-40s told a story about his friend, a cement tycoon, who didn't get a thank you note from his East coast alma mater for building them a football stadium.  He then asked me when I thought universities were going to get back to "merit and accomplishment" and stop spending their time catering to their "special snowflakes." I smiled at him.  He was a UNR alumnus but not an academic, and I love talking with non-university people about universities.

I said that there is no tension between rewarding academic merit and "protecting snowflakes," which I translated as creating non-punitive and non-threatening conditions so that people's brains can operate correctly.  The latter is the means for achieving the former.  People learn only when they feel relatively safe and respected--not protected from their own wrongness, stupidity, and failure, but protected from stigmas, stereotyping, and mistreatment based on who they are and where they are coming from.  We can look at the vast learning literature for evidence of this truth.  

Or, I said, we can can refer to your story. Your donor friend felt hurt for not being thanked properly for his gift, and thus is having his "performance" in relation to his alma mater reduced. Similarly, the classroom performance of Black lesbian feminists is impaired by disrespect for them, implied or intended.  I'm a default egalitarian, I continued, which means supporting everyone's performance equally, while also knowing that means different things depending on whether one is a rich white donor feeling unappreciated or a young Black college student hearing nonsense talked about themselves.  I may have said "even if we own a cement business we're all basically snowflakes"-- I can't remember. In any case he smiled, waved, and departed.  I was left to ponder where he got the idea that even UNR, with its endless pouring of cement (pictured above), is mainly in the snowflakes business.

The most direct answer is that a bipartisan crew of campus free speech advocates continues to mis-frame the stakes of the debate.  Key members of the liberal center have joined the political right in committing this important error.  The error is to cast universities as safe harbors for enemies of free speech in particular and of freedom in general--with administrators as their squishy enablers.

Every week, the situation gets a little more propagandized. On the right, the motive for affirming this fake story is obvious. Republicans have to control all three branches of the federal government and most state legislatures and governorships with only 1/3rd of the national electorate.   They have a sole economic strategy, which is a combination of deregulation and tax cuts that over the decades has directly hurt their middle class base without actually helping the economy.  To maintain minority rule on the basis of failed economic policy, they need to trot out enemies, and the university has been a stock culture-wars enemy for well over 50 years.

In addition, now that "The Party of Lincoln Is the Party of Trump," Republicans need to sustain Trump's leadership moves--retaliation and abuse--while neutralizing their downside, which is retaliation and abuse, or, in other words, tyrant modalities in the service of what political scientist Jeffrey A. Winters describes as the country's "civil oligarchy."  They also need to keep people from noticing that their business agenda depends on secrecy and confusion,  which free speech standards would undermine were they applied to commerce.   For example, VP Mike Pence broke a tie on a Senate vote that forces victims of bank fraud back into private arbitration, where victims are not even allowed to talk about the problem for which they are seeking redress.  The Right protects commercial speech from disclosure while advocating it for public spaces, where the First Amendment does apply, and also for college campuses, whether or not it interferes with academic freedom.  In sponsoring speech that insults and upsets people, usually members of social minorities without power to retaliate, they can hope to trigger a backlash in which, Milo-style, they can play the victim.  When they do defend free speech for leftist professors, as the National Review did in the George Ciccariello-Maher case I also wrote about, they use it to describe college campuses as clubs for protected idiots.

The Right's demand for democratic speech is highly selective, not applying to Equifax or Renaissance Technologies but always applying to the student and professor part of the university sector.  These two groups stay in the political doghouse where they can be theatrically punished.  This venerable practice generally receives an unfortunate assist from the political center, which helps frame universities as anti-liberty.  As I noted in the IHE piece, some prominent liberals have aligned themselves with the Right's stereotypes of the freedom-hating campus Left.
Yale law professor and novelist Stephen L. Carter, writing in Bloomberg, said that Middlebury-style “down shouters 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.” Fareed Zakaria asserted on his CNN program in May, “American universities these days seem committed to every kind of diversity, except intellectual diversity. Conservative voices and views, already a besieged minority, are being silenced entirely … There is also an anti-intellectualism on the left, an attitude of self-righteousness that says we are so pure, we’re so morally superior, we cannot bear to hear an idea with which we disagree.” Historian Jill Lepore used her space in The New Yorker to argue, via a cherry-picked series of scattered examples, that today’s controversies are driven by a “tragedy of betrayals” in which, from the 1970s on, “the left’s commitment to free speech began to unravel.”
My new friend in Reno would have every reason to think snowflakes were demanding that all campuses silence speech, since he could find that view in the New Yorker as on Bloomberg as readily as on Breitbart.

My pal could also get it from the leading First Amendment scholar and Berkeley Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, who frames his arguments with the same stereotype that "current college students are often ambivalent, or even hostile, to the idea of free speech on campus."  When he appeared on KQED's Forum program last August, Chemerinsky did not engage caller questions about whether universities must host advocates of positions that science and scholarship has already refuted, which were questions about academic standards and academic freedom, but chose to hear them as doubting the First Amendment.

Actual Left positions on free speech are represented by Joan Scott (interview with Bill Moyers rejecting viewpoint-discrimination on campus), Hank Reichman (bridging free speech and academic freedom via a post-Marcusian critique of tolerance), Wendy Brown (rejecting free corporate speech as the model for campus speech), Leigh Raiford (tying free speech movements to civil rights), Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (describing speech protests as widening civil rights tactics and goals), Tiya Miles (on speech needing to be embodied in "corporeal protest") and Robert Post (universities' obligations to educational goals are logically prior to their First Amendment duties).   (Post's longer paper is here.)  None of these positions advocate a priori viewpoint discrimination, though that is the typical charge.

Post's argument is that the First Amendment protects political speech but not all speech in any context. an obvious exception is private business: mall security can prevent anti-abortion rallies at the shopping center food court without losing a First Amendment lawsuit.  Post notes that free speech requirements also don't govern the exercise of professional competence. "We do not apply to doctors sued for malpractice the core First Amendment doctrine that 'there is no such thing as false idea.' We hold doctors accountable for their expertise."  He goes on to apply this professionalist framework to universities:
Another “bedrock principle” of the First Amendment is that “the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” Yet no competent teacher would permit a class to descend into name-calling and insults. Even if the object of classroom education is to expose students to ideas that they might find disturbing or threatening, it is nevertheless inconsistent with learning for students to experience this encounter in settings where they are personally abused or degraded.
Regarding outside speakers, Post writes,
universities are not Hyde Parks. Unless they are wasting their resources on frolics and detours, they can support student-invited speakers only because it serves university purposes to do so. And these purposes must involve the purpose of education.
There's much to be said about this view pro and con, but the core idea is correct: in principle, academic authority rests on tested, disputable, and accountable expertise, not on the exercise of superior political power as covered (and prohibited) by the First Amendment.

The Left has long done a superb job of describing all the ways that formal viewpoint neutrality is actually discriminatory.  It has mapped the many ways that this discrimination works generally against whomever has less power.  This has involved talking about inequalities of power and resources, which are topics that the Right does not enjoy, and that its partisans conceal in part with the trumped-up free speech controversy.

In addition to continuing to press on denied, veiled, and structural discriminations, I'd like to see the Left develop a model of free speech also grounded in both professional duty (the doctor example above) and educational purposes.  Both are based in things the Right has successfully weakened over decades--appreciation for expertise, and a working model of public goods.  Racial equity, gender justice, and similar forms of equality and reciprocity are good both because they help the public good of learning and because they are common goods, if not rights, ethically and philosophically valuable for their own sake.

In other words, free speech needs to be reconnected to the social justice issues that trigger the Right-- and too much of the center.


7 comments:

Mark Andrew Le Vine said...

UCI, who's administration has engaged in ridiculously punitive actions against Palestinian rights activists while not protecting them when attacked, literally, by outside groups, now has a new initiative, called 'confronting extremism," which you can see here: http://inclusion.uci.edu/confronting-extremism/.

Needless to say, just who and what is "extremist" is, as one might imagine, narrow...

Chris Newfield said...

@Mark Andrew Le VineIt'd be great to get a longer account of Howard Gillman's actual practice at UCI

California Policy Issues said...

Whatever the sins of the right and however selective they may be on this issue, they have found a winning topic on free speech. They're up 1-0 in that game and will remain ahead so as long as the debate continues. Best to change the subject (although, of course, you are free to keep talking about it!). Napolitano's new center is her recognition of that political fact. We have a center to take care of it so now let's move on to something else, is her message. -Dan Mitchell

Chris Newfield said...

@California Policy Issues I very much hope it will work the way you say. I haven't seen these kinds of concessions work with the right in the past. I also think the principals are true believers who will use this center to put out restrictive free speech doctrines, and that these will stir the campus pot. Still - fingers crossed that in six months or a year I can quote your comment in a concession post . . .

California Policy Issues said...

In the meantime: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/oct/31/far-right-politician-marc-jongen-campus-bard

Asliraf Ammar said...
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reno silaban said...
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