Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Which Ideas Should Have A Place On University Campuses?

Which ideas should have a place on university campuses?

It might seem like the answer is "all of them," but I think that can't be right. Should universities invite speakers to give public lectures on "Why All Episcopalians are Evil People"? How about "My Personal Theory On Why The Germ Theory of Disease is False"? Or "Do You Have Cancer? It's Your Own Fault." 

What about a speaker who promises to show that "shape-shifting reptilian aliens control Earth by taking on human form and gaining political power to manipulate human societies." Or, just for something really simple, how about an hour long presentation on how "That Student Named Joe Green is Dumb and Ugly, and His Acne Makes Him Gross and Undatable."

None of these topics, I think, would be appropriate use of university resources and none would be appropriate as a sponsored event at a university. None, I think, involve ideas that would be appropriate for a teacher to endorse in a classroom setting.

As is often pointed out, giving people a platform is different from "free speech." According to the principles of free speech, if you want to walk around promoting your crackpot theory of illness, or explaining your personal ideas about how reptiles secretly rule the world, or ranting and raving about what a dope that Joe Green is, there's nothing to stop you. Knock yourself out. While there are legitimate questions in the margins -- like, whether you should be able to speak out without being fired -- the platform in question is not in that category. Having these as university sponsored themes would be ridiculous and offensive, and people would be right to be upset.

I think about this often, of course, when people talk about "free speech" issues on campus. There is a lot of concern out there that campuses are becoming intolerant of a free exchange of ideas, but as I've explained before, I think that often -- and especially when we're talking about university sponsored and promoted events -- "free speech" isn't really the issue at all. If students objected to a talk on "Why All Episcopalians are Evil People" or "Do You Have Cancer? It's Your Own Fault" or whatever -- I think they'd be right to do so. The issue with campus sponsored events isn't about "free speech," but rather about which ideas deserve a hearing and which do not.

When you put it this way, it's not surprising that people disagree -- because once you get into controversial topics, people not only disagree about what is true, they disagree about what is reasonable versus obviously false, what is worth debating versus what is a conspiracy theory, what is worth discussing versus what is just propaganda for instruments of oppression and so on. But this isn't a disagreement about free speech versus something else. It's a disagreement about actual ideas, about what is and isn't an open question, about what is and isn't harmful and how bad those harms are.

The question of which ideas deserve a platform, which deserve our time and serious engagement, is complicated. Judgments have to be decided on the merits of the case, and cannot be decided with a universalizing meta-principle. There are many factors to consider, like the degree to which a set of ideas might cause harm. One of the most important factors concerns the likely merits of the proposed contribution. On the face of it, people who deny the germ theory of disease, or want to tell us about global reptile domination -- the merit of the contribution is, to put it politely, "obscure."

If this is right, appeal to universalizing meta-principles like "free speech" or even "open exchanges of ideas" do not provide the relevant rationale. Cases have to be argued on their merits.

I was thinking about this recently when Milo Yiannopoulos was invited to speak at Berkeley and protestors prevented that from happening. Leaving aside for the moment the difficult question of the tactics used to prevent the speech, I was curious to know why he was invited to speak in the first place. Not knowing much about him beyond his abuse of Leslie Jones, I was curious what his defenders might think of as the merits of the proposed contribution.

In this article from The Guardian, The Berkeley College Republicans are quoted as saying that the opportunity to invite Yiannopoulos was "too good to pass up," while emphasizing they don't agree with everything he says. The Chancellor is quoted as describing Yiannopoulos a "troll and provocateur who uses odious behavior in parts to 'entertain,' but also to deflect any serious engagement with ideas," while also defending his right to speak on campus.

These remarks seem to me to leave the crucial question unaddressed. What is it that his defenders thought were the merits of the contribution? "Too good to pass up" -- why, exactly? Is it that his presence on campus would make people upset and angry? I think that on its own, in this context, this is not a reason.

I am a supporter of free speech. I think people like Milo Yiannopoulos and other provocateurs like Dieudonné have a right to say what they want to say. But people don't have rights to university platforms. It would be my opinion that if Milo Yiannopoulos proposed to give a campus talk consisting of abuse of Leslie Jones, then just like the "That Student Named Joe Green is Dumb and Ugly, and His Acne Makes Him Gross and Undatable," the talk would be wildly inappropriate and he shouldn't be invited to give it.

If we don't have a lecture series on why the germ theory of disease is false, or how the world is run by reptiles, this isn't because of enemies of "free speech." It's because those ideas are stupid, and not worth our time and attention. If you want to defend campus speakers, it's not enough to be in favor of free speech. You have to have a case for why, exactly, the proposed ideas are worth taking seriously. You don't have to think the proposed ideas are true. But you have to say why they're worth discussing.

I'm not saying that these cases don't exist. I'm just saying that in this context, appeals to "free speech" are never sufficient on their own.


Anonymous said...

Is "So-and-so's right to a platform" really the issue in these cases? It's not as though Milo Yiannopoulos or Ann Coulter have been showing up at university campuses out of the blue and demanding an auditorium to speak in. They've been invited by student groups. It seems to me that the issue is, how much control should university administrations exercise over which speakers students can invite?

Since at least the 70s, it looks like administrations have generally taken the view that they should be as hands off as reasonably possible* when it comes to vetoing student invited speakers. The current debate seems to be over whether they should intervene more actively. Personally, I think it's a shame if student organizations choose to waste their opportunities to actually learn something by inviting professional trolls, but if that's what they choose to do, the best tactic is to ignore them. I'm sure Charles Murray's latest book is selling a lot more than it would have without the Middlebury incident.

I'm on the fence about Yiannopoulos in particular, because he really is someone who brings absolutely nothing to the table except a willingness to insult people, and he's been involved in actively encouraging online harassment campaigns. So Berkeley would have had a reasonable case that such a person has no place as the center of an even hosted on the campus. With Murray and Coulter, though, I think "ignore" is the better option.

*I think there was always an understanding that they would step in if some event would seriously damage the university's reputation, e.g., a neo Nazi rally or similar.

Justin Kalef said...

Hi. My two cents' worth:

"Should universities invite speakers to give public lectures on "Why All Episcopalians are Evil People"? How about "My Personal Theory On Why The Germ Theory of Disease is False"? Or "Do You Have Cancer? It's Your Own Fault." What about a speaker who promises to show that "shape-shifting reptilian aliens control Earth by taking on human form and gaining political power to manipulate human societies."

Yes. I would be happy for any of those public lectures to be held on campus, so long as the speakers adhere to the spirit of free inquiry by welcoming all audience members to present objections and counter-arguments. The lectures should also be argument-based.

"Or, just for something really simple, how about an hour long presentation on how "That Student Named Joe Green is Dumb and Ugly, and His Acne Makes Him Gross and Undatable.""

No, not that one. General moral trends among Episcopalians, apparent difficulties with the germ theory of disease, a thesis that cancer is always avoidable, and an alternative theory about shape-shifting reptiles are matters of general interest, even if very implausible positions are taken on those issues. But there doesn't seem to be any basis for an academic discussion on the intelligence of Joe Green in particular. That just seems like the airing of a personal grievance, dressed up as a lecture.

Daniel said...

Thanks for your post, Patricia!

I appreciate your thoughts on this. I wonder, though, about how appropriate it is for the way that invitations and events at campus actually come to be, at least in my experience. At Columbia, various campus groups receive money for budgets after being recognized as official student groups (not sure what goes into this official recognition status). The groups allocate the money how they see fit. I don't think that they are required to have their budgets vetted by some central organization or voted on by other students. In short, it seems like the groups have a lot of independence in terms of their decisions. In this way, "what is appropriate for a university or campus sponsored event" isn't really a consideration for many events on campus, as they are sponsored by individual groups, many of which are identity-specific, political ideology specific, &c, and explicitly so.

I guess I usually encounter the call for "free speech" coming later in the process - after the speakers are invited, and in relation to interruptions of the events so that the speaker can't be heard (Middlebury and Charles Murray, for instance), or in campaigns to get the person uninvited (graduation speakers, for example - although it that case, it does seem more "university-wide" and not a specific group inviting someone to speak).

I agree that of course there will be disagreement and disputes and it makes sense. But the university is comprised of all kinds of individuals and all kinds of groups, and I don't think the idea of more general university arbitration of disputes of these sorts is in the right spirit of the university.

Urstoff said...

In the United States, at least, the question of who deserves platforms at public institutions is moot barring some sort of constitutional amendment or radical revision from the courts of the interpretation of the first amendment. Students have free speech rights, and those rights include inviting speakers. Public universities are not allowed to abridge the free speech rights of their students, particularly when basing that abridgment on the content of the speech. Public institutions also cannot give into the "heckler's veto", perpetually cancelling events because others don't like that speech (and may respond violently to the speech), nor are they allowed to charge student groups that invite contentious speakers more for "security concerns", as that would, in effect, be discriminating based on content.

It seems to me there are several different questions that get tangled up here.

1. What type of speech should the state be allowed to restrict?

2. What type of speech is the state allowed to restrict? This is the question that the "no platform" movement in the US gets factually wrong.

3. What type of speech should social norms promote? For example, the fact that student groups have a right to invite Milo doesn't mean that they should.

4. What type of speech should social norms censure? Note that one can comprehensively answer 3 and 4 without covering every possible instance of speech. Some speech we may want to neither promote nor censure. In addition, this answer must take into account facts of social dynamics, psychology, basic common sense, etc. Milo is a case in point: his success seems to be a direct result of people wanting to censure (and censor) him. Had he been ignored by those who find him abhorrent, he would likely have ended up a nobody. "Don't feed the trolls" is rule #1 of the internet, after all.

5. How should the social norms of speech be reflected in the state regulation of speech? I think this is where you find the most disagreement between civil libertarians and censors of various kinds. The former think that the answers to 1 and 4 need not, and probably should not, be the same.

All of these questions are interesting and important, but none of the possible answers except for #2 (and maybe #3) matter for the current issues on campus.