[Opinion] The Distortion of Free Speech

Tuesday, Dec 10, 2019

Whig Hall, the home of the American Whig-Cliosophic Society.

Whig Hall, the home of the American Whig-Cliosophic Society.

Free speech is a deceptively simple phrase for such a complex and contested set of meanings. Often, debates about free speech involve not just the incident being discussed, but also a litany of associated interests. The most salient example of this is the purported crisis of free speech on college campuses. As it is most often told, over-sensitive college students, unwilling or unable to engage with ideas they oppose, prefer to shout down those who disagree with them. But this narrative leaves out an important facet of free speech: the difference between the right to speak and the nonexistent right to an elevated platform—on a private campus—from which to spout offensive and false ideologies. Also missed: the equivalent right of targeted students to protest such speakers. 

In the past month and a half, Princeton student groups have hosted events with Amy Wax, Heather Mac Donald, Bret Stephens, and Yoram Hazony. Although Wax’s invitation caught the most attention, all four of these speakers have a history of elevating racist ideas and thus should not have been welcomed to campus. It is worth going through each of their histories to understand why their invitation to campus is objectionable. 

Wax, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, was invited to campus by the Whig-Cliosophic Society despite her long history of voicing racist ideas. She falsely claimed, “I don't think I've ever seen a black student graduate in the top quarter of the [Penn Law School] class and rarely, rarely in the top half.” For this and other offenses—for speaking so “disparagingly and inaccurately” in the words of the law school’s dean—Wax has been forbidden to teach core classes required for first-year students. At the National Conservatism Conference last summer, Wax said, “our country will be better off with more whites and fewer non-whites,” citing the “first world” and the West’s superior advancement. After the conference, a Penn Law student started a petition to fire Wax. Since then, more than 65,000 people have signed. Wax’s statements are not merely controversial; they are blatantly racist and false and have no place in an intelligent discourse about the state and future of our country. 

Yoram Hazony visited campus for a panel with Bret Stephens, hosted by the College Republicans and the conservative campus magazine The Tory. Hazony was an organizer of the National Conservatism Conference and defended her immigration remarks against criticism that they were racist, tweeting after the conference: “the views she presented at the National Conservatism Conference are legitimate and should be heard and debated.” In other words, free speech. This is a common framing of free speech, in which one assumes that in a free market of ideas, the best argument wins out and the weak or harmful ones disappear. Therefore, the theory goes, we do not have the responsibility to regulate what is said.  

Hazony makes a similar move to avoid responsibility in his praise for right-wing American-Israeli ideologue Meir Kahane, whose extremist group the Jewish Defense League committed numerous acts of violence in the 1970s in America before Kahane moved to Israel. In 1988, his party was banned from Israeli elections “on the grounds that it is racist and undemocratic.” The U.S. government designated his organization, Kach, as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. 

Despite all of this, in a 1990 “most painful, heartfelt farewell” essay after Kahane’s death, Yoram Hazony reminisced on the positive effect of a speech Kahane made at Princeton in 1984 on his own development. In the last paragraph, Hazony notes that his disagreement with Kahane’s violent extremist politics was insignificant given how much Kahane’s messages about Judaism helped him. Like his comments on Wax, Hazony tries to separate a speaker’s hateful messaging from the part that benefits his cause.

In doing so, Hazony exhibits a crucial blindspot: he may have the privilege to ignore Wax’s racist ideas about people of color or Kahane’s invective against Arab people, but not everyone can. When he and others elevate these kinds of speakers, the audience does not selectively absorb their words; instead their whole ideology is spread. That is why hosting these speakers is dangerous. 

In a tweet responding to an op-ed column in the Daily Princetonian urging students to skip his panel with Bret Stephens, Hazony challenged students not to treat speakers with “contempt,” but to do as he did: “listen, learn, and test our rhetorical skills against those we disagreed with by debating them.” Hazony fails to see that some views are contemptible, some are outside the realm of reasonable debate, and students do not have a duty to subject themselves to speakers who see them as inferior. Students would be better served by other speakers who do challenge them intellectually but do not challenge their humanity. 

The Tory also hosted an event featuring Heather Mac Donald, an author whose latest book is titled The Diversity Delusion: How Race and Gender Pandering Corrupt the University and Undermine Our Culture. The title speaks for itself, but MacDonald argues that “the belief in America’s endemic racism and sexism” and “a metastasizing diversity bureaucracy in society and academia” have led to a “nation of narrowed minds, primed for grievance.” Essentially, she believes that acknowledging the role that oppression has played in American history actually makes us define ourselves by race and gender and creates a society of intolerance. In her mind, what we need is “a return to the classical liberal pursuits of open-minded inquiry and expression.” 

At first, the argument may seem plausible—don’t we all want open-minded inquiry? However, like Hazony, in calling for this Mac Donald makes a dangerous move. She says that in order to have free thought, we have to focus less on race. Which would be nice if race did not play a role in society—but it does. Turning away from the examination of how systems of racism and sexism shape our world means leaving behind people affected by those systems. You cannot get to the “common humanity” Mac Donald purports to desire if you do not resolve discriminatory and oppressive structures. 

In her book, Mac Donald specifically calls out Princeton student protesters in 2015 for repeating a chant from civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, “We’re sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Mac Donald writes, “Hamer had grounds aplenty to be sick and tired, but any Princeton student who thinks of himself as downtrodden is in the grip of a terrible delusion.” But it seems Mac Donald is the one caught in a fantasy. Is being a Princeton student a measure of privilege? Of course. But the idea that the inequality in the world somehow stops at Fitzrandolph gate, that the orange bubble is some kind of forcefield rejecting the forces that shape society is pure imagination. In her desire to invalidate the appeals of students of color, Mac Donald willfully ignores the reality of life as a black student on this campus. Rather than listening to the students’ substantive arguments, Mac Donald dismisses their right to voice them. This is an example of how power dynamics define free speech. Mac Donald does not see the protesters as deserving of her ear, but insists that she is deserving of ours.

Students occupy Nassau Hall in 2016.

Students occupy Nassau Hall in 2015. Photo by Princeton Alumni Weekly.

Bret Stephens, a columnist at the New York Times, similarly overlooks the continuing effects of racism. He has said that “Black Lives Matter has some really thuggish elements in it,” pronounced that “all lives matter,” and agreed with Mac Donald in denying the existence of systemic racial profiling by police. After Joe Biden was criticized at a Democratic debate, Stephens wrote a column in support of the 1994 crime bill, which contributed to mass incarceration. Stephens wrote that although “there may be a case that long prison terms cripple the lives and prospects of offenders, with disproportionate consequences for racial minorities,” his belief that the law led to a massive decrease in crime outweighs those “side effects.” This aligns with a column he wrote in 2015 arguing that “institutionalized racism is an imaginary enemy” of liberals—as are, apparently, the problems of hunger in America and sexual assault on college campuses. 

Last summer, Stephens wrote that student protesters should stop demonstrating and instead be grateful that they do not live on the campuses of the 1960s and are not being drafted into war. Focusing on student protesters at Yale who successfully persuaded the school to remove John C. Calhoun’s name and the title of masters in their residential college system, Stephens argued that they should not have been offended by those names. He wrote that the “word ‘master’ may remind some students of slavery. What it really means is a person who embodies achievement, refinement, distinction — masterliness — and whose spirit is fundamentally aristocratic. Great universities are meant to nurture that spirit.” Protests such as these amount to “a revolt of the mediocre many against the excellent few.” Stephens fails to recognize that it is this very aristocratic spirit that the students object to, because it entrenches power and justifies the oppressive institutions such as slavery that have marginalized people of color throughout history. But Stephens is not interested in the substance of the protesters’ arguments, just the existence of protest at all. 

Setting aside the blatant elitism of this argument, Stephens engages in the same flawed analysis as Mac Donald. He evaluates his own interpretation of Calhoun and master as more legitimate than the people actually subject to the effect. Assuming that he knows better what those words “really mean” than the black students who hear them every day, Stephens invalidates student protest and decries the “capitulation by universities to the shibboleths of diversity and inclusion” that only “generate new grievances while debasing the quality of intellectual engagement.” To Stephens, interrogating the histories these symbols carry does not qualify as intellectually rigorous, but rather just “radical” students looking for something to complain about. Labelling them as such, Stephens is comfortable writing off their arguments and maintaining his own perspective. He argues that students are the ones who cannot handle opposing arguments, but in column after column, Stephens dismisses the views he disagrees with, invalidating the right of their proponents to even speak at all.   

And for one so critical of people’s sensitivity to mere feelings, Stephens has dedicated a lot of words to his own offense. Most recently, Stephens wrote an entire column equating a professor’s tweet comparing him to a metaphorical bedbug with Nazi propaganda. When a Times editor tweeted that there were bedbugs in the newsroom, David Karpf, a professor at George Washington University, joked, “the bedbugs are a metaphor. The bedbugs are Bret Stephens.” But rather than ignoring the tweet, which initially had nine likes and no retweets, Stephens escalated the situation. 

Stephens emailed Karpf and his provost criticizing the tweet and inviting Karpf to his home to say it to his face. Then Stephens wrote a column equating Twitter with Joseph Goebbels and the Nazis’ use of radio in the 1930s, and comparing a current pattern of dehumanizing rhetoric—from European leaders, from Trump, and apparently from Karpf—to the Nazis’ rhetoric calling Jews insects. In his view, the targets of such language today are “the people who seem to convey less than 100 percent true belief: the moderate conservative, the skeptical liberal, the centrist wobbler.” That Stephens can see antisemitism analogous to Nazi Germany in a harmless joke but cannot see racism in policing or a kernel of legitimacy in student protest betrays his narrow and biased worldview. 

In October, Stephens then backed out of a scheduled event with Karpf when George Washington refused to close it to the public. So much for open debate in the marketplace of ideas.

A brief look into these speakers’ histories reveals concerning patterns. The purpose of inviting speakers to campus for these events is to educate the campus community on an issue, to bring something new that we would not hear without their voices. When that input consists of blatantly racist vitriol, why do we want their contribution to campus discourse? If we as educated students agree that racism ought to be rejected—that there is no inherent intellectual difference between black and white students, that nonwhite immigrants are not innately inferior to white ones, that people of color do face deep systemic racism—then why feature people who actively peddle the lies we seek to reject? We work hard in our classes to trace the truth—in history, in politics, in policy—why move backwards outside the classroom?

Free speech is not a blank check. It is not an open invitation for anyone with anything to say. But more than the purity of the concept, we should think harder about who we want to speak to and for us. People often mock the argument that offensive speech is violence, but what happens if we take that idea seriously? Underneath that tagline lies truth. Speech matters—that is why we value it so much. If we really believe that free speech is dear, then we necessarily buy into the idea that what people say has power. And if we grant that, we have to recognize what that means for offensive speech: that it has a real effect. 

This means that when Amy Wax says black students are categorically less intelligent than their white peers, those words don’t just float into the ether, but affect the way people think—and that is why it is harmful. Offensive does not just mean it hurts people’s feelings, but that it violates their personhood, and denies their humanity. Denying the existence of institutional racism negates the importance of interrogating our systems and institutions, turning a blind eye to the real pain that students have experienced throughout their lives. This is not a matter purely of personal grievance—it is about how we understand our world and our roles within society. 

It is because of the very fact that we believe in the importance of speech that we should interrogate what we mean by free. In a private institution, free does not mean unearned and it does not mean open to anybody. Each of these people has their own platform from which to spread their ideas; we should not lend them ours so they can amplify their message. There are plenty of conservative, even controversial speakers who are not forthrightly offensive. We should be judicious in who we invite to campus and cultivate a culture of debate not for its own sake but in pursuit of the truth that gives respect to all people.

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