| by Malhar Mali |
Last week, Ulrich Baer, a vice-provost and a professor of English at New York University, made an astonishing case against free speech in the New York Times. Baer framed the debate as one of speakers operating to “invalidate the humanity” of others — thus justifying shutting down the speech of speakers students might not be appreciative towards. But in doing so, he revealed far more about his mindset and that of many scholars who operate in the humanities. After all, who do you think teaches students that speech is dangerous, the ideas that cause the “snowflake” reactions we have become accustomed to viewing, or that anyone who is not a straight white male is experiencing oppression at unprecedented levels?
Baer’s article has already been skewered by Conor Friedsdorf in The Atlantic and Ted Gup in The Chronicle. I’m more interested in exploring how Baer argues as it lends us an insight into what’s causing students to behave in the ludicrous ways we have witnessed.
The most comically disturbing statement made by Baer, when referencing the at times odious views of controversial speakers, is:
“When those views invalidate the humanity of some people, they restrict speech as a public good.”
Views that invalidate humanity? The concept that speech invalidates the humanity of entire groups of people is preposterous hyperbole. A listener merely has to reject this idea to leave with their “humanity” intact. Violence is a physical act. Speech is not. If someone punches me, I feel its impact. That is not the same as someone disparaging me to the nth degree with their words. To think that an educator harbors views which effectively conflate words with violence provides us a clue to where students might gain these notions from. (Notions which are then repeated amongst peers until they are eventually parroted out with the zeal of preachers from days gone).
Yet the most important flags from Baer’s piece are that he is a professor of English and that he references Jean François Lyotard (and his book, The Postmodern Condition) as justification for his positions. As Phil Magness, a historian who teaches public policy at George Mason University notes after conducting an analysis of campus disinvitation letters which were also signed by professors, MLA departments, in which English sits, are the communities which most harbor individuals who are opposed to free expression. Describing the trend he sees, Magness writes:
“The pattern in each case is alarming, as it suggests that these and potentially other organized faculty-initiated attempts to impinge upon the academic freedom of their colleagues and their students are not randomly distributed occurrences. Instead they appear to concentrate heavily in the humanities, with English/MLA faculty invariably taking the lead. With that in mind, perhaps it is time to ask: why are so many English & MLA faculty displaying hostility to the academic freedom of their own faculty colleagues and students?”
These are the departments which are the most ingrained with corrosive postmodern and poststructuralist thought — à la Lyotard, Foucalt, Derrida, Lacan. And, as Jason Brennan, a philosopher who teaches in the business school at Georgetown University, points out in conjunction to Magness:
“These just happen to be the departments with the most activism and the lowest quality ‘research’; they’re full of poststructuralists, ideologues, and people who do sloppy work that would never cut it in economics or political science. The faculty least qualified to have an opinion on politics are the ones with the loudest opinions.”
Activist professors incapable of surviving in the more arduous disciplines (see: Autoethnography) are the most vociferous in limiting academic freedom of others. Given all of this, it is no surprise that Baer holds the views that he does. Neither is it surprising that we have professors of English publishing op-eds which ask for limiting speech, such as Aaron R. Hanlon a professor of English at Colby College in New Republic or John Patrick Leary a professor of English at Wayne State University in Inside Higher Education. That Yale is also often the site of the most aggressive student behavior is also calculable. Baer himself gives away how infested the school has become with poststructuralist thought when he writes:
“It is perhaps telling that in the 1980s and ’90s, while I was also a doctoral student there, Yale ultimately became the hotbed of philosophical thinking that acknowledged the claims of people who had not been granted full participation in public discourse. Their accounts, previously dismissed as “unspeakable” or “unimaginable,” now gained legitimacy in redefining the rules of what counts as public speech.”
Keep what Baer says in mind and see this video of students privileging their “personal experiences” over Nicholas Christakis’ arguments. Notice, in particular, what this student says, “Your experiences will never connect to mine. Empathy is not necessary for you to understand that you’re wrong… Even if you don’t feel what I feel…”
I hope you are starting to connect the dots between the “past few decades of scholarship that has honed our understanding of the rights to expression” Baer references and the way students are behaving. Baer uses the same reasoning to censor speech. It is Lyotard’s idea of mini-narratives over meta-narratives taken to terrifying extremes. Personal experience overpowers empirical evidence. Who is anyone to deny my truth and what I feel?
And where do students get these ideas from? Some of their professors. These concepts — that rebutting an argument is taxing on students, or it invalidates their humanity, or that we must believe someone’s experience over an argument — are widespread and have morphed into ridiculousness through outlandish theorizing and academic discourse which has no grounding in reality. Take the email from the Commission on Race, Ethnicity, and Equity at Wellesley College in response to feminist Laura Kipnis’ appearance at the school which expressed concern about the wellbeing of students, “who often feel the injury most acutely and invest time and energy in rebutting the speakers’ arguments.” The writers state, “students object in order to affirm their humanity,” and “this work is not optional; students feel they would be unable to carry out their responsibilities as students without standing up for themselves.” Or, see this, written by a Nora Barenstain, professor of philosophy at University of Tennessee, Knoxville, in response to a philosophy article by Rebecca Tuvel in the feminist journal Hypatia affirming that if transgenderism was possible, then so was transracialism. Pay attention to the first and last sentences.
Never mind the theoretical underpinnings of what Tuvel argues, we have generations of ersatz intellectuals in the humanities who are so entrenched in critical theory and poststructuralist thought that they are fine equating words with violence! These are the people who are teaching our students — and their ideas have spread wide. Baer tells us himself:
“Lyotard taught at Yale in early 1990s, and his and others’ thoughts on how to resolve the asymmetry in discussions between perpetrators and victims of systemic or personal violence, without curtailing speech too much, seeped into other disciplines.”
“Seeped” might be too soft of a word. “Infected” is more apt. Take a peek at @RealPeerReview, a group of academics and professors I’ve interviewed before, who expose this identity based and personal experience over argument “scholarship” for the laughable fraud that it is.
That Baer is a vice provost and in a position of power and there are many others like him should raise some alarms. While it is easy to laugh and ridicule “snowflakes” and “social justice warriors” who take things too far and act in outrageous, despicable ways, this approach takes us away from the important question we should be asking: who is teaching our future adults ideas which are antithetical to the Enlightenment? — that words are the equivalent of violence, that logic, objectivity, and science are oppressive white supremacist constructs? If you think I’m fabricating or have been duped by the “right-wing media,” I invite you to ponder these statements from students at Claremont Mckenna which claim,
“The idea that there is a single truth–‘the Truth’–is a construct of the Euro-West that is deeply rooted in the Enlightenment, which was a movement that also described Black and Brown people as both subhuman and impervious to pain. This construction is a myth and white supremacy, imperialism, colonization, capitalism, and the United States of America are all of its progeny. The idea that the truth is an entity for which we must search, in matters that endanger our abilities to exist in open spaces, is an attempt to silence oppressed peoples.”
The “scholarship” that Baer references and postmodern and poststructuralist theory are all tied to this lunacy. It is no use treating the symptoms of an intellectual disease if we do not address its causes. Laughing at zealous students is not going to solve the problem.
Words are not violence. We brought Western civilization through a crucible of ideological warfare to establish the norms of differentiating speech from physically harmful actions. Now some operators in the humanities want to drag us back there. What the “snowflakes” and Baer get right about free speech is absolutely nothing.
Header Photo: Faustin Tiyambaze
[Author’s note: I incorrectly identified the faculty affiliations of Phil Magness and Jason Brennan. I’m sorry for perpetuating discursive violence and invalidating their existence. The article has been updated]