An idyllic hilltop retreat, where I spent four years of my life, has turned, it seems, into a national battleground. A controversial speaker, a campus protest, an injured professor, and conservatives and liberals alike have rushed to denounce a Middlebury College event as the latest horrifying assault in the growing war against free speech in universities and society at large. Except that this is not a war but an exhumation: an airing out of long-buried moral sins and intellectual shortcomings. The condemnation of student protesters, rather than a necessary reprimand of wayward youth by wiser minds, constitutes mostly attribution error, failure to understand the motivations of students, protestors, and radical critics. Similarly, the larger debate over free speech mischaracterizes the problems underlying student protests and colossally fails at offering solutions. Moving forward and escaping this self-satisfying, ever-frustrating debate calls for some creative reframing.
What happened at the college on the hill?
A few weeks ago I received an email asking me to sign a petition. Addressed to Middlebury and signed by over 450 alumni, the petition demanded that the college administration revoke its invitation to author Charles Murray to speak on campus. Murray, who wrote the 1994 best-seller, The Bell Curve, and more recently Coming Apart, won fame and wealth by highlighting and naturalizing statistical differences between identity groups—claiming, notably, that blacks and Latinos have lower IQs than whites, in general, which accounts for socio-economic inequality. Though The Bell Curve, his most well-known book, was largely discredited—shown to be misleading and dubiously sourced—it continues to be defended and remains influential. The Southern Poverty Law Center identifies Murray as a white nationalist and suggests that his work, based in “racist pseudoscience and misleading statistics”, has done enormous damage to the cause of racial and gender equality. Unfortunately, the email sunk into the swamp of my inbox, before I could give it much thought or attention. (I didn’t sign it, but would have.)
The school, meanwhile, apparently considered student and alumni demands to withdraw the speaker invitation, but ultimately the political science department (event cosponsor) and President Laurie Patton decided to welcome Murray. They did it, they said, in the name of rigorous intellectual inquiry and “the free exchange of ideas.” Some national publications saw the challenge and took up arms in defense of free speech. The email I earlier received developed into a back-and-forth thread among college friends, debating the merits of unhindered expression even when it promulgates insult, racism, and vitriol.
When Murray finally visited Middlebury on March 2, the usually abstract debate over free speech found concrete and provocative subject matter. Over 400 students and visitors to the college protested and prevented Murray from speaking. He relocated and continued his speech from a private room (the college broadcasting via live video), but protests raged outside the room and Murray was physically and verbally harassed while exiting the building and leaving campus. Regrettably, a demonstration apparently intended to be peaceful turned violent, Murray was jostled and shoved, and the professor who served as Murray’s interlocutor was injured. Conservative bloggers and commentators loosed a twitterstorm of gleeful outrage. Major news outlets—The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Time—all covered the story. And not only conservatives but even prominent liberals condemned the intolerance of the student protestors. Times columnist Frank Bruni claimed that the controversy was not “just about free speech” but about “emotional coddling” and “intellectual impoverishment.” Bill Maher called the protesters “little f***ing brats” and worried that “liberalism is at a perilous point.” My email chain, mirroring the dominant attitude of the nation, become more united in condemnation and more morose in prognostication.
Free speech, safe spaces, and liberalism’s many groans.
The episode at Middlebury is of a series. It brings to memory other recent speaker controversies at Berkeley and University of Chicago, as well as older incidents on university campuses. Of course it made me think of what happened here at HLS, one year ago: when in the wake of racist acts of vandalism, Reclaim Harvard Law, a group of frustrated students, mostly people of color, took physical control of a common space in the school. People opposed to Reclaim’s tactics or detached from the issues for which the group advocated lamented the ousting of free discussion and diverse viewpoints from the occupied space. It reminded me, too, of hate speech debates throughout the larger democratic world, where some countries increasingly criminalize violent and offensive speech while others defend free expression against all constraints and impingements. The academy’s and media’s rallied defense of free speech is nothing new, history tells us, nor is the condemnation of protest as speech suppression. Frank Bruni’s claim that meeting students’ demands would lead to coddling and intellectual impoverishment further echoes the increasingly common complaints against trigger warnings and safe spaces, which many academics and critics describe as repressive and self-infantilizing.
I believe that many of the commentators commit an attribution error when they characterize student protestors as fearful of tough ideas and wanting mono-ideological, “safe” existences. I doubt very much, for instance, that a low-income student of color at an overwhelmingly white, wealthy college, like Middlebury, has never experienced contrary views or challenging conversation there or on her way to get there. To provide some perspective, though many of Murray’s objectors were African-American, African-American students make up a bit less than a majority at Middlebury: 3.1% of the student body. An op-ed by Middlebury Professor Linus Owens and two of his former students briefly makes this point, while asserting that “[c]ivil discourse on hard issues does happen here, primarily through the labor of students of color and working-class students. It is an insult to call these students sheltered.” So Bill Maher isn’t being all that fair—or accurate—when he derides student protesters (disproportionately low-income students and people of color) as “brats.” He, and critics like him, misinterpret protestors’ motivations and mindsets.
On the other hand, the intentional silencing of a voice—even if, like Murray’s, it propagates offensive and ill-supported ideas—seems to be a real challenge to the principle of free expression. That principle forms the bedrock of liberal arts education, according to over 100 Middlebury professors who signed a Statement of Principles for Free Inquiry on Campus. Limiting free expression undermines rational thought and leads to “dogmatism and groupthink,” according to Cornel West and Robert P. George. And we must concede: Bill Maher is right in seeing a danger to liberalism at large. At the center of classical liberal and neoliberal theory, with roots going back to John Milton and John Stuart Mill, early feminist thinkers (including but not limited to Mill) and abolitionists, is the notion of truth-seeking through the “marketplace of ideas.” A society must invite and protect the unhindered expression of different viewpoints, which leads to revision, experimentation, innovation, and, at last, triumph of truth over falsehood. Failure to do so defies the essence of liberalism, resulting in tyranny, political and intellectual despotism, oppression of minority opinions, and proliferating ignorance, the argument goes.
Demands to dis-invite a speaker, protests that drown out his voice, efforts to run him out of college and town: these really do threaten liberalism, traditionally understood. Nonetheless, liberalism can’t be saved by simply telling protesters to pipe down. Just as liberal theory espouses free exchange of ideas, it also—and partly for the same end (truth-seeking)—deeply values diversity. Earlier in European and American history, liberalism’s diversity value focused on political and religious pluralism. Since the 1960s, however, liberalism has turned its attention to also encourage minority groups historically disenfranchised and blocked from education to enter the great institutions of higher learning—often to the financial benefit of those same institutions—so that the perspectives of all colors, origins, and identities could contribute to the high pursuit of truth and civilization. At the very least colleges owe to those same groups the security they need to survive; failing to secure to them their right and opportunity to speak undermines the diversity sought and may be itself a suppression of free speech. To secure diversity and preserve diverse groups, some selection is necessary—even American courts have prohibited obscenity, libel, and incitements to violence—and total deregulation would certainly undermine liberalism as much as its opposite. In the practice of universities and legislatures, then, the question of which opinion to prohibit—or which speaker, like Charles Murray, is too noxious to host—becomes a line drawing exercise: a determination of if and when a statement, belief, or argument is contentious but acceptable, and when it crosses the line. Again and again, all sides defend liberalism, worry about its future, and silently wonder whether they must one day abandon its premises. The anxiety pregnant on every side of this debate is real and justifiable, for liberalism threatens to crack under the weight of its dual commitments to liberty and diversity.
The free speech debate should not be characterized, therefore, as a war. While suppression and silencing threaten liberalism, so does unrestricted speech that (like Jefferson’s tyranny of the majority) undercuts diversity. The free speech versus safe spaces debate is much more like an exhumation of liberalism’s long-held internal tensions: between the values of liberty and diversity, as discussed above, but also between words and actions, ideals and practices, ethics and sins. Euro-American liberalism has championed individual liberty even when enslaving and exploiting masses of human beings, from indigenous tribes to African-Americans to foreign laborers to women the world-over. It has championed free market competition while distorting prices for the benefit of the powerful and using force to secure economic gains. It has sought diversity in universities and boardrooms and government while failing to guarantee adequate, liberating education and security to underclass groups it formerly marginalized and even presently exploits. Liberalism celebrates multiculturalism—recognizes that only multiculturalism will truly enliven that marketplace of ideas—but then refuses to change its media and institutionally reproduces an inequality that effectively prevents diverse peoples from joining in civil discussions and sharing their knowledge and experience. In short, liberalism’s vision of justice and freedom is at odds with its history of sin and oppression—history which it has never fully recognized or reckoned with. So we shouldn’t be surprised when we see student protesters, with fierce anger and deep emotion, demand that a racist speaker not be given a platform; and it is not astounding at all that such a clash would lead to violence. The question is, what to do about it?
Can what’s missing be found?
I don’t want to talk about the tactics employed by Middlebury dissenters to Charles Murray, nor about the violence. Were students right to protest? Should they instead have done it in a different way? Simply asked tough questions one-by-one? It seems evident that the tactics the Middlebury protesters employed, as activist and Middlebury scholar-in-residence Bill McKibben noted, simply didn’t work. And few, if any, people think the physical aggression and injury were positive outcomes. The violence committed by some protesters was, of course, disappointing and deplorable, but saying just that is pretty boring. The larger “free speech” debate is slightly more interesting, but there is something missing from that, too—a recognition of what’s going on under the surface. The debate goes on and on, repeated every time there’s a controversial speaker, a protest, an incident of offensive or inciting speech. And as suggested, the debate has little chance of resolution, since it represents a conflict between opposing values and practices within liberalism itself. Rethinking and reframing the debate over free expression seems necessary. And we might start by realizing a historical truth about the liberal United States:
We’ve never had freedom of speech in this country.
The reason we’ve never had freedom of speech is essentially this: we’ve never had group equality and universal suffrage at the same time. In the epoch of the founders and early observers like Alexis de Tocqueville, perhaps we had the equality necessary to allow a certain class of citizens to voice their opinions and freely discuss; but we certainly didn’t have the suffrage needed to make that freedom a reality for all. Tocqueville linked the “great freedom” of Americans with their “extreme equality,” and noted how equal conditions (relatively even distribution of resources and education) gave all citizens a personal interest and role in democratic discussion and decision-making. The “citizens” about which he wrote this description, however, included only the free, white, European men; so equality was limited to a small and privileged group. The vast majority of American humans (women, slaves, indentured servants, and indigenous people) wholly lacked economic power and political agency.
Today, we have extended the suffrage to almost all; but a quick look at relative power among groups shows a bitter and troubling picture of caste inequality—one in which the opportunity for the oppressed to speak at the same level and to the same effect as a figure like Charles Murray is frankly absent (and this is a people group, the historically disenfranchised and their allies, versus one man!). The point I’m making is this: We can’t rationally talk of freedom of speech as if it’s a thing to be protected, because we can’t protect what we’ve never yet had. We ought instead to think of freedom of speech as something to be attained. And unless and until we establish some basic equality—the very possibility that Murray’s work puts in doubt—talk of freedom of speech will only describe a privilege of some, not the right exercised by all. Unless and until we establish basic equality, we will never have neutrality, that favorite virtue espoused by law and common defense raised by universities. Equality is a condition of freedom. Even drowned out by four hundred protesters, Murray’s voice was and is still louder than the students in that room and the people they advocated for.
Framing this debate as one about free speech versus intellectual suppression confuses the issue, intentionally or inadvertently. This is a debate about whose speech is valuable, given scarcity of time and microphones. It is a debate about how to voice competing ideas and perspectives and have each and all effectively heard. It is a debate about how to ensure communities meaningful opportunities for democratic participation and political, economic, and spiritual development.
There are things I like and things I dislike about “liberalism.” But it gets it wrong—and we crumple too—to the extent it insists that individuals are the prime actors in social evolution and that peaceful discussion or authoritarian suppression are the only alternatives in the process of truth-seeking. The question of whether to bring a Charles Murray to Middlebury shouldn’t lead us to ask if his views are acceptable or if they cross the line; such a debate confuses the issues and fails to address the problems. A Murray invitation should lead us, rather, to ask who was not invited—who never has been and probably never will be invited—to Middlebury and places like it. (What about that homeless veteran with PTSD who’s seen a great deal of human society, human variability, human good and evil—who knows deeply what it means for America to be “coming apart”?)
The Statement of Principles from Middlebury professors, which extols unrestricted discourse as the highest priority and states that “the impossibility of attaining a perfectly egalitarian sphere of free discourse can never justify efforts to silence speech and debate,” doesn’t recognize the reality of liberalism’s internal tension and America’s historical dearth of free speech. In this way, the academy’s and media’s response to student protest reproduces the limitations of the debate. I am in agreement with Gustavus Adolphus College Librarian Barbara Fister, who criticized the Middlebury Statement and suggested that we view truth-seeking as a conversation, in which debate is only a part and in which respect and caring are valued alongside rational argument. I’m encouraged by efforts that seek not to demonize but to understand, not to entrench old battle lines but to develop creative new conversations and venues for exchange. We are all too often stuck in tired patterns of thinking, mindsets blind to the perspectives of others. The crisis of liberalism demands that we think, act, and, yes, speak, differently.
There is a line in Dylan’s “The Times They Are-A Changing”: “the battle outside raging/ will soon shake your windows and rattle your walls.” He addressed the line to congressmen, too stubborn and out of touch to respond to social movements of the day. Today, I wonder who’s inside avoiding the battle. Is it the students, wanting protection from tough ideas and the comforts of “emotional coddling”? Or is it the “liberals”—the academics, the journalists, the buttressed political commentators with new mics, scripts, and millions in their audience—bemoaning not the fearful realities of injustice and war, but rather the relatively meager attacks on their imagined state of free speech? Can we at last shake off our limitations and dream of truly freer, more equal discourse? It will take digging deeper, into our social problems and unresolved history—liberalism’s promises and profound failures. It will be difficult, but the free speech debate won’t be resolved by us continually restaging it. It requires addressing the underlying conditions that spawn it. It demands that we recognize inequality and un-freedom: the existential reality faced by so many. How should we respond to outraged student protesters? Let’s examine ourselves. Let’s look deeply at our society and its strains. Finally, we need to start thinking more about genuine alternatives. Solidarity and progress—community bound not just by the ability to discuss but also the ability to love and heal and create together—await somewhere outside the old debate between free speech and suppression.