Speech and all that

by Park

Since I’ve been back in a university setting this year (I’m currently at Brown), I’ve been struck by the recent wave of campus activism; both the nature of the protests themselves and the media reactions they’ve provoked. They’ve received extensive coverage in the mainstream press, and some prominent journalists, such as the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf, have made “campus protest” one of their regular beats. One should keep in mind that much of this protest has taken place at the elite colleges where so many prominent journalists went to school, but narcissism only goes so far as an explanation; it seems likely, rather, that many see in campus activism a microcosm of larger social dynamics in America.

The facts of the matter, of course, depend on your point of view, but the best attempt I can do at neutral summary goes something like this: a number of student activists, acting principally as spokespersons for marginal identity groups, have charged their colleges with failing to provide institutional spaces in which they feel respected and validated. The range of alleged crimes on the part of the colleges is vast, and includes institutional complicity with macro-scale historical injustices, such as racism, colonialism, slavery, patriarchy, heteronormativity, and cissexism, but the offenses most typically targeted for action are smaller-scale: institutional underrepresentation of minorities, hostile learning environments, implicit bias and discrimination on the part of professors, and frequent low-level insults endured from fellow classmates.

The students have demanded a number of major institutional reforms, including more money for scholarships, more resources for students, increased diversity in hiring, mandatory diversity training for students and faculty, and more effective punishments for those who deviate from universities’ communal norms of respect, diversity, and progress. The students were only partly successful, typically eliciting praise, symbolic gestures, and even large changes in spending and hiring priorities, but rarely getting the radical institutional reforms they demanded. Critics of the activists, both inside and outside of the academy, have accused them of violating important liberal norms such as freedom of speech and academic freedom, which in turn has provoked a wider, though generally unproductive, debate on the nature and limits of free speech.

On the left, there doesn’t seem to be any consensus on weighing the demands of the protestors with liberal procedural norms; some deny there is any conflict, while others are openly contemptuous of “free speech” and other bourgeois legalisms; the question is not whether abstract speech should be protected, but of the content of particular speech. Speech by oppressors or which legitimizes or fails to interrogate oppression is itself a form of oppression and should not be tolerated. As Jonathan Chait noted to some controversy, this is essentially a Marxist-derived theory of political rights; that is, abstract individual rights are subordinated to the overriding goal of class, race, or gender justice. Abstract liberal protections for speech in this view can only ever be protections for speech of the oppressor, and serve to further reveal liberalism’s complicity with oppression, i.e. its moral and ideological bankruptcy. It should therefore not be considered a pejorative to term this worldview “illiberal.”

The rise of this relatively anti- or il-liberal radical left, supported by a lively far-left media presence perfectly captured by the prominence of Jacobin magazine, occurs within a larger national context in which, as we read every day, a right-wing demagogue is summoning the forces of reactionary populist darkness, promising strongman rule and a disregard for the law, scapegoating foreigners and domestic minorities, and pointing dangerously to a sort of incipient white ethno-nationalism. While the candidacy of Hillary Clinton suggests that liberalism is still a winning political platform (though perhaps an unenthusiastic one), it would seem that ideologically, American liberalism is threatened from both ends of the political spectrum. Its not surprising, then, that a few Cassandras are speaking of a Weimar America.

Crises tend to polarize, and that is what we are seeing: a nation that is increasingly split into two hostile, perhaps irreconcilable political tribes, each convinced that the other is evil, stupid, and bent on total victory. Liberalism doesn’t tend to fare well in these situations, because it is primarily an ideology of proceduralism that remains agnostic on values beyond those of “rights,” typically defined in the negative. Of course, as any good Marxist or Catholic knows, placing the rights of the individual metaphysically prior to the claims of the community or to an analysis of the social dynamics in which those rights were conceived and are embodied is not exactly an agnostic position when it comes to organizing a society. It obstructs revolutionary plans for social transformation, yet in the long run tends towards the progressive abolition of the claims of tradition. More fundamentally, when the enemy is conceived not as someone who disagrees with you, but someone who is simply wrong and whose errors can only be caused by stupidity or evil, there is little reason to grant them rights, except perhaps as a tactical concession until your side has sufficient power to annihilate them. So there’s no surprise, really, that young radicals are rejecting liberalism.

Within the context of the university, as long as one maintains that the purpose of the university is intellectual inquiry of some form or other (which may be naïve), it seems obvious that one cannot concede to the demands of activists on certain points, such as, notably, persistent demands that schools grant power to certain students and faculty to discipline or fire other students and faculty members for perceived ideological infractions. However noble the nominal goals, Chait rightly points out that the question of “who are the oppressed, and who the oppressor?” has typically been answered by leftists as “the Left is the oppressed, and whoever opposes the Left is the oppressor,” and once party unity breaks down, the question of “who is the authentic Left?” is generally resolved in favor of whoever has the power to assert their will. One doesn’t have to go back to the Stalinist purges to observe this dynamic – enough time spent on left-wing Twitter gives a sufficient example of radicals’ congenital inability to avoid self-destructive purges, witch hunts, and purity contests, with the role of General Secretary played by whoever has amassed the most social capital in the relevant milieu. It’s impossible to watch something like Jacobinghazi and think, “these people should hold power.” At a more basic level, this sort of politics is only really justifiable if you are convinced you have some sort of unmediated access to capital-t Truth, a claim that no university should accept.

However, I think that the concern about Whats Wrong With the Kids These Days speaks to a larger anxiety that we are slipping into some sort of low-level civil war in which the gloves are finally being thrown off, and we are generally unsure that our liberal foundations – in the broad sense that encompasses both the mainstream right and left – will hold. Paradoxically, however, it is exactly these conditions of intense conflict in which liberal procedures are most likely to be rejected and in which they are also the most important. Aside from somewhat tired pleas for humanity and civility, or invocation of free speech as if it is natural law, we might settle for that classic of the liberal canon, self-interest: insofar as you consider your enemy to be the worldly manifestation of evil, treat rights, norms, and procedures with the knowledge that at some point, your enemy will hold power.