Chris Martin is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a co-founder of Heterodox Academy. He has a PhD in sociology from Emory University and a MA in Human-Computer Interaction from Georgia Tech.
A couple of weeks ago, Intelligence Squared US arranged a debate on the motion “Free speech is threatened on campus.” Those arguing for the motion won — the audience voted that they made the stronger case. Here’s the video and transcript. You can also get an audio-only version there or through the Intelligence Squared US podcast.
Debating for the motion were Wendy Kaminer and John McWhorter, a Heterodox Academy member. Debating against the motion were Jason Stanley and Shaun Harper. In his opening statement, McWhorter pointed out that we do have boundaries for acceptable speech. We don’t consider genocide and slavery to be debatable. But he points out the problem with the current climate:
Our problem today is that we’re being taught by many people that, that zone that genocide and slavery and women occupies is much more crowded than it is. Many of the things that we’re being told we shouldn’t even discuss and that the mere discussion of it constitutes a space becoming unsafe are really things which in an intelligent and moral environment people will reasonably have discussions about. So, for example, does affirmative action continue forever and for what reason? One can debate the various places it might go. To bring it up, however, does not make somebody an immoral person.
What is cultural appropriation? What is the line between cultural appropriation and cultural mixture? That’s a tough one. It’s subtle. It’s worth debate. It’s not a matter of just shouting people down if a certain subject comes up or if a certain action is performed.
How perfect do we want society to be in the sociological sense? Micro aggression is real. I’ve written about it. How do we respond to it? What constitutes a micro aggression? What we’re dealing with is a general argument which indeed has become higher pitched since Ferguson in favor of a leftist position. And I am glad. However, what we’re too often being told is that the leftist position is truth incarnate and that on that position, if on no other one, there can be no further debate. And that’s problematic. It’s problematic on a campus, for example, because it’s fundamentally anti-intellectual
Both Kaminer and McWhorter also pointed to relevant evidence. Here’s Kaminer:
At the University of South Carolina, students have been investigated for discrimination for advocating free speech, for holding a small free speech event, displaying posters describing recent campus censorship cases. They were investigated after a few students complained that the posters were offensive and triggering. At a California college, students had to go to court to vindicate their right to distribute copies of the Constitution on Constitution Day. These are not anomalous cases. They are typical. Speech policing of faculty, students, and speakers has become routine. You could look it up at TheFire.org.
And here’s McWhorter on his personal experience:
I lost count of how many students in my office at Columbia I’ve had tell me that the atmosphere chills them in terms of feeling they can talk about these things. And we read about this in the newspaper all the time on campus.
McWhorter and Kaminer won the debate:
Host: Let’s look at the first vote. On the motion, “Free Speech Is Threatened on Campus,” before the vote, 49 percent agreed with this motion, 27 percent were against, 24 percent were undecided. In the second vote — in the second vote, the team arguing for the motion, their vote went from 49 percent to 66 percent. They picked up 17 percentage points. That is the number to beat. The team against the motion, their first vote was 27 percent, their second vote was 25 percent. They went down two percentage points. That means the team arguing for the motion, “Free Speech Is Threatened on Campus,” are our winners. Our congratulations to them. Thank you from me, John Donvan, and Intelligence Squared U.S. We’ll see you next time.