UC Berkeley riot at Yiannopoulos event in February
Fifty years is a long time. In 1964 University of California students were barred from distributing flyers about major issues of the day, including the civil rights struggle. The resulting protests kicked off the Free Speech movement, whose anniversary was duly commemorated by National Public Radio in 2014:
“This year, the university is hosting a series of events to commemorate the 50th anniversary with concerts, poetry readings and lectures. There’s no doubt that many students today appreciate the activism that came before them. Freshman Marisa McConnell says it is still part of Berkeley’s brand.”
But no, free speech is decidedly not still part of “Berkeley’s brand.” Today, even a minimal free speech advocate would scarcely recognize the place. In February, the campus was on lockdown after “protests” broke out against former Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos, an alt right figure who was scheduled to speak (but the event was cancelled) and
“… university police urged students to shelter in place and stay away from the protest area. Videos from campus show fires breaking out, and students on the scene say firecrackers were thrown.”
Yiannopoulos, termed improbably by D.D. Guttenplan at left-wing paper, the Nation, the “most hated man on the internet” had earlier told Guttenplan’s readers,
“The range of socially acceptable opinions is narrowing. … You can’t keep a newspaper column in this country and say that the wage gap is a myth or that campus rape culture is a myth. We’re reordering society according to myths and conspiracy theories and advocacy research. You cannot deny these things and keep your place in the establishment, even at right-wing newspapers. More.”
In fact, as we shall see, it is difficult even for dissenting scholars to be safe on campus any more, never mind a flamboyantly comedic provocateur like Yiannopoulos.
So what has changed in the intervening half century?
What has very much changed is how influential thinkers understand the concept of freedom. At Bloomberg, Yale law professor Stephen Carter identifies the thought of American philosopher Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979) as a driving force. Discussing the recent assault on a professor who had sponsored prominent social scientist Charles Murray at Middlebury College, he explains,
“The German-born Herbert Marcuse was a brilliant and controversial philosopher whose writing became almost a sacred text for new-left intellectuals of the 1960s and 1970s. Nowadays, his best-known work is the essay “Repressive Tolerance.” There he sets out the argument that the downshouters are putting into practice.
For Marcuse, the fact that liberal democracies made tolerance an absolute virtue posed a problem. If society includes two groups, one powerful and one weak, then tolerating the ideas of both will mean that the voice and influence of the strong will always be greater. To treat the arguments of both sides with equal respect “mainly serves the protection and preservation of a repressive society.” That is why, for Marcuse, tolerance is antithetical to genuine democracy and thus “repressive.” … That is why tolerance, unless it discriminates, will always be repressive.
Marcuse is quite clear that the academy must also swallow the tough medicine he prescribes: “Here, too, in the education of those who are not yet maturely integrated, in the mind of the young, the ground for liberating tolerance is still to be created.” Today’s campus downshouters, whether they have read Marcuse or not, have plainly undertaken his project.”
In short, violent outbreaks on campus are not the outcome of kids acting out! Quite the contrary, they are the outcome of kids acting out the values that they have been absorbing over the past fifty years from increasingly illiberal teachers.
Turning freedom of speech on its head, their professors argue that politically incorrect speech is itself an abridgement of liberty. As Tom Knighton explains at PJMedia, professors at Wellesley College opined that “controversial speakers were exhausting students with their offensiveness”:
“The six faculty on the women’s college commission cited the left-wing historian Jelani Cobb’s theory that certain ideas ‘impose on the liberty of another’ if the person hearing those ideas is ‘relatively disempowered’:
‘There is no doubt that the speakers in question impose on the liberty of students, staff, and faculty at Wellesley. We are especially concerned with the impact of speakers’ presentations on Wellesley students, who often feel the injury most acutely and invest time and energy in rebutting the speakers’ arguments. Students object in order to affirm their humanity. This work is not optional; students feel they would be unable to carry out their responsibilities as students without standing up for themselves.’
Apparently referring to campus reactions to Kipnis—the subject of a two-month Title IX ‘inquisition’ at Northwestern University, where she teaches film—the commission members said ‘dozens of students’ have told them ‘they are in distress as a result of a speaker’s words.’”
The campus paper opined,
“Shutting down rhetoric that undermines the existence and rights of others is not a violation of free speech; it is hate speech. The founding fathers put free speech in the Constitution as a way to protect the disenfranchised and to protect individual citizens from the power of the government. The spirit of free speech is to protect the suppressed, not to protect a free-for-all where anything is acceptable, no matter how hateful and damaging.”
The Wellesley paper’s claim about the American founding fathers could be branded as false except that the author(s) would not likely know or care what might be true about them. Intellectual curiosity is not a virtue in their eyes; rather, a threat.
The war on free speech is, of course, a war on intellectual freedom in general. Samuel J. Abrams tracks the pace of the change in faculty attitudes that fuels the students’ war on alternative viewpoints at the American Interest,
“…the massive leftward shift of our nation’s professors, beginning in 1987 and continuing at a fast clip up to the present. Over the past three decades, the professoriate’s left/right ratio jumped from a low point of 1.17:1 in 1984 to a high point of 5.27:1 in 2011. While there was a slight decline in 2014 to 4.67, this three-decade jump represents an approximate increase of 350 percent. In 2014, the average American left/right ratio was 0.63:1, and the nation’s college freshman leaned left at 1.51:1. This means that college freshman are two-and-a-half times more liberal than the nation as a whole and faculty are seven-and-a-half times more liberal and rising. These facts are simply nowhere to be found in most of the coverage of campus unrest.”
Similar attitudes are observed among students in Britain and across the Western world. It is certainly convenient for the professors to protect themselves from challenging ideas in this way.
Take note that the new approach to intellectual freedom does not permit anyone to just mind their own business. Even silence can be violence. Bari Weiss quotes social psychologist Jonathan Haidt at the Wall Street Journal:
“People older than 30 think that ‘violence’ generally involves some sort of physical threat or harm. But as students are using the word today, ‘violence’ is words that have a negative effect on members of the sacred victim groups. And so even silence can be violence.” It follows that if offensive speech is “violence,” then actual violence can be a form of self-defense.”
Indeed, self-defense is often the precise justification for the riots: self-defense against a perceived threatening atmosphere.
The student censors and rioters are generally at peace with themselves, as befits those who follow faithfully in their teachers’ footsteps. Guy Benson advises readers at Townhall,
“Take ten minutes and watch this profoundly creepy conversation between Tucker Carlson and a left-wing fascist named Yvette Felarca, who smirks with pride as she describes the riot she helped foment in order to ‘protect’ her community from the threat of words. Carlson opens the segment by showing another clip of Felarca personally engaging in violence during an anti-fascist rally in California last year, then questions her about her big anti-speech ‘triumph’ at Berkeley earlier this month. She calmly — and almost sociopathically — makes the case that speech she deems to be ‘fascist’ could lead to ‘genocide,’ and ‘rape,’ and therefore must be forcefully suppressed ‘By Any Means Necessary’ (BAMN), which is the name of her radically illiberal organization.” More.
She is a public school teacher and may well turn up writing study guides and curricula.
The campus war on free speech and intellectual freedom is slowly graduating into the mainstream. For example, pop science magazine New Scientist recently offered an article defending more censorship, citing Germany, because free speech itself is censorship (as Marcuse would say):
“For people like Cerf and many American companies, who view online speech through the lens of the US First Amendment, Germany’s approach may look like a heavy-handed suppression of the right of free expression. However, it may be a necessary first step in re-establishing a shared moral reality. In the age of bots, misinformation, and anonymity, free speech itself may be used to enact a kind of censorship.”
So free speech is, we are given to understand, old-fashioned and misguided. New Scientist earlier supported another popular science publication in no longer allowing comments.
On campuses like Claremont (where a lecture critical of Black Lives Matter was shut down by a mob), even the pursuit of objectivity (vs. subjectivity) when assessing issues as an intellectual benefit has been attacked as “white supremacy”.
One of two things will happen if universities continue to make themselves enemies of intellectual freedom and free speech. Either our intellectual life will rot or it will find a home other than the university. In the age of the internet, many are now exploring alternatives.
Next: How the war on intellectual freedom rots our ability to think
Denyse O’Leary is an Ottawa-based author, blogger, and journalist.