In this essay, we discuss Spiked’s Unsafe Spaces event, held at our home institution, Rutgers. It was, at times, a wild and woolly event, complete with a substantial security presence, Black Lives Matter activists, some interruptions, and a fairly anarchic ending. As such, two separate reports of the event have cast the behavior of those activists as somehow beyond the pale, and of a piece with other leftist protests on campuses around the country that are threats to speech and academic freedom. In this particular case, though, we both attended the event, and, however justified the concerns may be about other protests around the country, neither of us saw much in the way of such threats at this particular event. We use this experience, and the two articles that miscast what actually happened, as a jumping off point to discuss the crucial difference between political actions (protests, interruptions, even the content of Tweets) that are versus are not bona fide threats to speech. We further argue that there is a new, and very subtle such threat: Attempts to stigmatize legitimate dissent as a threat to speech. Inasmuch as the right to dissent and protest is exactly the type of thing that speech protections were created to protect, as such, we argue, such attempts are themselves the far more serious threat to free speech than is dissent that does not threaten others’ rights.
The threats to speech and academic freedom from the illiberal left and radical right are, by now well known to anyone who has been paying attention. Bret Weinstein was driven out of his position at Evergreen College for refusing to leave his office when illiberal leftist protestors declared “a day without white people.” Rather than debate controversial perspectives on their merits, an increasingly common response by an increasingly leftist professoriate is to condemn, denounce and call for retraction. And, most recently, a graduate student teaching assistant who presented a video of a reasoned debate about a controversial Canadian law was subject to what many have described as a Kafka-esque, Maoist style interrogation that feels lifted from the pages of 1984 (one of the main interrogators and the school itself have since publicly apologized).
But the left does not have a monopoly on such threats. President Trump’s call to challenge the license of NBC after its reports criticized him constitutes just such a threat. Attempts to ostracize or delegitimize kneeling football players – who are not burning flags, spitting at soldiers, or engaging in any behavior that disrespects or suppresses individuals, institutions, or symbols of America – are another. The Department of Energy has insisted that those whose research it funds remove the term “climate change” from their funded work.
But can a threat to free speech masquerade as a defense of free speech? We believe it can, if that self-styled defense denounces and stigmatizes legitimate dissent by unjustly framing it as illegitimate. Just as a false accusation of abuse or harassment can itself be a form of abuse or harassment, falsely tarring dissent as a threat to speech when it is not can itself be a threat to free speech.
Unfortunately, many people seem to be highly sensitive to such threats from their political opponents and entirely tone deaf to such threats from their political compatriots. When someone on the right condemns leftwing threats to speech, they may be correct for doing so, but unless they also condemn similar threats from the right, their defense of free speech is political, not principled.
When someone on the left condemns rightwing threats to speech, they may be correct for doing so, but unless they also condemn similar threats from the left, their defense of free speech is political, not principled.
We are not leftist apologists:
Jussim: I have a long track record contesting leftist biases in the social sciences, am a founding member of Heterodox Academy, and have been featured in Quillette and the HxA blog regarding the accuracy of stereotypes, the ballpark accuracy of Damore’s Google Memo and I have a book that just came out exposing a broad array of leftist biases in the social sciences. I also helped Spiked arrange this event at Rutgers.
Careem: I am working with Lee on a variety of projects involving dissent and speech, and assisted in the Spiked event that is at the center of this essay.
Which gets us to Spiked Magazine’s Unsafe Spaces tour of American campuses. Spiked is a British online current affairs magazine that bills itself as a champion of intellectual risk-taking liberty, and free speech. Why does Spiked call this an “Unsafe Spaces” tour? This was an intentional provocation, a proverbial poke in the eye, to leftist academics and, especially, students who appear to some as so opposed to engaging with controversial ideas that they are willing to essentially shut down others’ right to speech. An Unsafe Space stands in contrast to “safe spaces,” which are supposed to be where people, usually students, can go to avoid feeling threatened by exposure to views different than their own.
The concept that a socio-political environment should be created that permits most people to express their ideas without fear of insult or harassment is not a ridiculous idea. Note that we said “most” not “all.” Karl Popper, in The Open Society and Its Enemies (p. 543), drawing on Plato, pointed out the paradox of freedom: “freedom in the sense of absence of any restraining control must lead to very great restraint, since it makes the bully free to enslave the meek.” Thus, even bedrock human rights, such as that to free speech, must have some limits in order to actually maximize the free exchange of ideas, including but not restricted to political protest. Although the U.S. government cannot prohibit expressions of even perspectives some consider vile or ridiculous, your right to free speech does not entail a requirement that anyone else take you seriously. We personally feel no particular need to seriously engage with violent extremes, such as white supremacy, Nazism, Marxist totalitarianism, or advocacy for subjugation and mass murder. We similarly feel no need to engage with flat earthers, anti-vaccination advocates, or people who believe the world is 6000 years old.
Our hope is that by not wasting effort on absurd, murderous, or blatantly bigoted views, we can inspire thoughtful engagement on serious but controversial topics, such as affirmative action, policing, human evolution, and understanding sources of inequality. A person who opposes the preferential selection version of affirmative action, or who argues that police racism is not a major cause of disproportionate incarceration of African Americans, or who argues valuing marriage, hard work, and civility are important ingredients in personal success, may or may not be right. But the act of making those arguments does not mean they are a racist, White supremacist, Nazi or sexist.
Spiked’s Unsafe Spaces tour doesn’t provide an outlet for extreme views. Rather, it challenges audience members to listen. The format brings together panelists of academics, lawyers, and activists to discuss a variety of controversial topics, such as identity politics, political correctness, and why evolution is true. It is highly interactive, with only brief introductory comments by the panelists after which the floor is open to the audience for questions and comments, the idea of which is to then provide an avenue for extended, thoughtful engagement with these ideas between the audience and the panelists.
On October 2, Spiked hosted an Unsafe Spaces event on Identity Politics at our home institution, Rutgers University. The panelists were quite diverse (Kmele Foster, an African American libertarian entrepreneur; Sara Haider, a Pakistani immigrant who leads Ex Muslims of North America; Brian Stascavage, a former military intelligence analyst and current student at Wesleyan University; Mark Lilla, a Columbia humanities professor). The event was undeniably raucous. However, “raucous” is not equivalent to “shutting down” free speech. Instead, our view is that attempts to delegitimize protest that does not shut down free speech by claiming it does are themselves a far more serious threat to speech than those they condemn. As examples of this, we next highlight how two separate reports of the event are themselves threats to free speech.
On October 11, an article appeared in Campus Reform covering the event. It was titled “Rutgers students ‘don’t need no facts’ to heckle speakers.” The “don’t need no facts” part of the title was a reference to a (as we discuss later, interestingly misquoted) comment made by one of the attendees, as part of a long and impassioned statement opposing the views of the panelists.
The rest of the Campus Reform article accurately reported some of the more extreme and foolish-sounding comments of some of the attendees. It also claimed that police escorted one of the speakers out because they feared for his safety. Although it is possible that this escort claim is true, neither of us noticed it and the video of the event (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-YwJ2NEQn8o) ends before anyone left the stage, so we do not discuss it further. By reporting only the disruptions and silly comments, and nothing about either the long periods of civil exchanges or the interesting points made by both the audience and panelists, it risks creating the false impression that activists present created a far more disorderly event than actually occurred.
The second article appeared in Quillette, which routinely posts thoughtful essays on all sorts of controversial topics. This article was titled, “Get On the Bus or Get Under It: Shouting Down Free Speech at Rutgers.” Its tone conveyed the impression that the event was conducted under almost police-state conditions, and, as per the title, that speech was “shouted down.”
This article got much right. There were police outside the event conducting bag checks as attendees entered, and there were several police in the event room, although we hardly noticed them, once the event started. The event also had moments when it was not clear that civility would be maintained, though, ultimately, it almost always was. It is definitely right in casting the activists who spoke as presenting strident and condescending monologues. Furthermore, there are so many real-world cases where protestors are bona fide threats to campus speech and academic freedom that, in general, U.S. academic discourse needs more, not less, pushback against those threats.
Nonetheless, for us the problem is that this was not one of those cases.
When is something a threat to free speech? The most obvious answer is when it actually attempts to prevent speech. There are ample examples from campuses around the country where leftist protestors have actually prevented speech through physical attacks, aggressive protests, and calls for retraction of controversial articles. A more subtle form of threat, however, comes from attempts to delegitimize speech through denunciations and condemnations.
Further, and most relevant here, the mischaracterization of protests as “shutting down” speech when they do not actually do so is yet another. Both the Quillette essay and the Campus Reform report are morally wrong, but not because the facts they reported are in error (though some are). They are morally wrong because they are attempts to delegitimize expressions of dissent that do not step on other’s free speech rights. As such, put simply, these articles are threats to legitimate expressions of dissent.
Here is what actually happened (a video of the entire event can be found here) so you can see for yourself). Because there was, in fact, no shut down of free speech, we refer to those who engaged in the more strident behaviors as “activists” rather than “protestors.”
- The first 25 minutes were orderly and civil.
- This was followed by a brief interruption that lasted about one minute.
- There was about another 7 minutes of civil discussion, followed by one minute of activists chanting, and a two minute strident, uncivil (and, in our view, mostly incoherent) speech by an activist
- There were mostly orderly exchanges (with some minor interruption) from about 34 minutes in until the closing marks, after which followed a wild melee of shouts and responses between the activists and panelists.
There was no “shut down of speech.” Some activists were raucous, but, in contrast to the claims in the Campus Reform article, they did not heckleanyone. It is not fair to describe someone as a “protestor” if they merely passionately present their viewpoint. They were much closer to “attendees who strongly disagreed with the panelists” or “attendees who were there to vocally present a very different perspective.” There is a fuzzy line between disagreement and protest, and, whether one agrees or disagrees about how best to describe them, there was no protest that shut down others’ right to be heard.
Even when individual activists talked at some length, it was never more than a couple of minutes, and they did eventually sit down, allowing other people to speak, and allowing the panelists to respond to the full set of points and questions. Yes, the activists did sometimes shout and interrupt when a panelist spoke. Maybe they did cross some line, but, after doing so briefly, they then crossed back (i.e., sat down and let others speak). Also, reasonable people can disagree about the value of raucous interruptions. Our view is that, within limits and as long as they do not prevent speech, such interruptions are themselves manifestations of free speech, not a threat to it. And they can not only be quite interesting, they can give an otherwise potentially staid event some interesting energy.
Protest and dissent are forms of free speech, and we see nothing inherently objectionable about them UNLESS they function to shut down others’ speech. And the activists at this event DID NOT shut down anyone else’s right to speech. Forgive us for yelling here, with the all capitals. We are purposely doing so in an attempt to be heard over the din of others shouting “protestors shut down speech again!”
There were some silly, sophomoric comments accurately presented in the articles (but consider this: many of the activists were probably Rutgers college students, and maybe even sophomores, so perhaps we can be a little forgiving?), we thought the activists made some killer points that at least warranted consideration. First, the “Don’t tell me about facts” statement was misquoted and/or misrepresented. The first statement (about 34:30 in, hard to hear because the moderator was talking over the speaker to get him to sit down) was “I don’t need statistics” – and, though it is beyond the scope of this essay, the imperfection of statistics is amply recognized by many actual statisticians. This was probably not the speaker’s point, but when the germ of an important point is actually recognized in such a comment, it is not so easily dismissed.
Second, in responses to some statistics quoted by Foster, the speaker did say, ““Don’t tell me about facts,” and went on to suggest that those in power control what the “facts” are. Whether or not you or we agree with either of these points, the fuller context of his statement means his “facts” statement is something more than willful denial of reality. Furthermore, the activists pointed out that Foster’s argument that police racism probably does not explain much misses a far bigger problem — the huge number of black men in prisons. Foster engaged this argument and responded with a call to stop imprisoning people for victimless crimes, a general argument that, though it does not rely on identity politics, would, he argued, disproportionately benefit African Americans. Although we agree that the activists showed no sign of engaging in return, they were not the only people in the room. We suspect we were not alone in finding this exchange interesting, and perhaps even a bit enlightening.
Towards the end, Foster presented the example of Michael Bell Sr., who worked for 10 years to overturn some unfair police practices as part of his urging the activists to engage in more constructive efforts. However, one of the activists shouted out a response along the lines of (we are paraphrasing because though we both heard it at the time, we are doing this from memory; the actual statement cannot be heard on the video): “That it took ten years to overturn those practices shows how much of an utter failure the current system is.” We are not sure how much we agree with that, but it was a pretty trenchant point, perhaps worth actually discussing.
We found the event fascinating because there really was a lot of back-and-forth. It was often not a true discussion, in that the activists did not seriously engage with the arguments or analysis of the panelists. They came across to us like they were there to make their points, the end. Nonetheless, the panelists did try to engage with the activists, so, despite the activists’ demeanor, there was a back and forth exchange of ideas that, perhaps, some in the audience found worthwhile. The activists also made some important points, but, as the Campus Reform and Quillette articles correctly conveyed, they did it in such an angry manner that, with respect to persuading anyone there, they probably mostly failed.
We would have liked to see more actual engagement among the activists, and we disagree with their tactics. Regardless, those tactics were a manifestation of free speech, not a threat to it. Free speech includes their right to present their views with passion, even with anger. Their failure to engage with the panelists’ arguments is not a threat to anyone else’s speech. Free speech does not include a mandate that one listen to others (however wise it might be to do so).
As a result, critics who cast the activists as “heckling” or “shutting down” free speech, or as some sort of threat to speech are inaccurate and unfair in a subtle and important way. Inaccurately characterizing dissent or protest as shutting down or threatening speech when it actually did not do so delegitimizes speech that epitomizes exactly the type of speech that is supposed to be protected. As such, we view those critics as a far bigger threat to speech than the activists. Surely the critics have not actually shut anyone down, either. However, they have attempted to stigmatize passionate dissent as somehow “unacceptable.” Dissent is not on the same intellectual or political planet as, say, calls to challenge the license of networks that criticize the President, or protestors who actually physically attack those whose views they oppose.
John Stuart Mill, in On Liberty, recognized this sort of thing as the far more serious threat to speech: “… the chief mischief of the legal penalties is that they strengthen the social stigma. It is that stigma which is really effective…” There is a deep irony here, one that makes this emerging threat to speech especially troubling. Specifically, it is a threat to speech presented as a defense of speech. We hope this essay inspires those who would defend speech to more carefully distinguish between dissent that does versus does not infringe on others’ speech rights; and to recognize that when they stigmatize legitimate dissent they, and not the dissent, are the bigger threat to free speech.