In his recent piece for The New York Times, “What ‘Snowflakes’ Get Right about Free Speech,” Ulrich Baer offers a defense of student groups who disrupt campus speakers. Baer argues that freedom of speech means “balancing the inherent value of a given view with the obligation to ensure that other members of a given community can participate in discourse as fully recognized members of that community.”
The obvious problem with Baer’s philosophy is that there is no objective criteria for evaluating the “inherent value” of any given viewpoint, nor for determining when it deprives another of recognized membership in a community. This problem of subjectivity is compounded by the ideological imbalance in higher education, which raises questions about the ability of liberal academics to collectively assess the merits of conservative speech. In recent years, students have attempted to interrupt a large number of speakers whose political views were deemed offensive for a variety of amorphous reasons. We cannot assume that students are capable of making correct judgments about these individuals’ views, based on what the read on the internet. Students’ chants at Middlebury College that labeled Charles Murray “anti-gay,” despite his public support for gay marriage, reveal the flaw in this assumption.
Baer’s viewpoint is also not new. This is a reiteration of Herbert Marcuse’s thesis in his essay on “Repressive Tolerance,” which I critiqued in a previous blog post.
My primary objection to Baer’s argument, however, is not that he is willing to sacrifice the rights of those he finds objectionable to support the rights of others. A legitimate case can be made for limiting some voices- if doing so would provide marginalized groups greater voice or would contribute to a net gain in freedom. We frequently limit individual rights when they compromise the rights of others and safeguarding minority voices requires extra vigilance.
While I understand his intentions and can’t fault his goals, Baer demonstrates a lack of understanding of the broad social consequences of political intolerance. One cannot simply pick and choose to whom tolerance and freedom of expression applies. The scientific research shows political intolerance infects the democratic system broadly. For example, intolerance towards racists on the General Social Survey is positively correlated with intolerance towards radical Muslims, communists, and other groups. Those who are intolerant of one group tend to be intolerant of others and of political communication in general. Gibson (1992) demonstrates that people perceive their political freedom to be limited in intolerant societies. Thus, intolerance creates a “culture of conformity” that suppresses political debate: “Without a culture that legitimizes political opposition, those outside the centrist mainstream have few political opportunities. Ultimately, the political system loses its democratic vitality.”
The free speech rights of minority groups are the easiest to suppress in a democratic system that is not committed to protecting the rights of those with whom we most fundamentally disagree. Europe has been far more willing to restrict offensive or hateful speech. Accordingly, some of our European allies have also been quick to repress minority rights in the name of the common good. The French burqa/veil ban is the most obvious example. In our own history, First Amendment protections have been vital to progressive causes. The Civil Rights Movement relied on the Supreme Court’s defense of the First Amendment (in cases like New York Times Co. v. Sullivan) when opponents tried to restrict press coverage of racist incidents. Young people don’t know this history; their civic knowledge is low and declining with each generation. Yet, academics should certainly understand the historical context and the importance of free expression to progressive movements.
A system that promotes intolerance of others will have the most severe consequences on those who lack political power. Providing voice to the marginalized requires a deep, uncompromising commitment to freedom of conscience. It requires that young people learn the importance of extending basic civil rights to all people, even if they find them objectionable. This does not mean that ideas go unchallenged. Ideas that are rooted in hate or discrimination will not find academia to be a hospitable environment. Yet, censoring views we find objectionable creates an environment that is generally hostile to discourse, and conservative viewpoints will not be the only causalities.
This doesn’t mean that students should not protest against speakers they find objectionable. But protesting someone is not the same as silencing someone. There is a world of difference between making your opposition known and refusing to let people know your opposition. The former is democracy. The latter is dangerous.