On Tuesday night I was lucky enough to attend a very engaging debate at the Comedy Cellar in New York City. Organized by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and moderated by Kmele Foster, it featured Jonathan Haidt and Andrew Sullivan answering in the affirmative, and Suzanne Nossel and Jeffrey A. Sachs answering in the negative, the event’s organizing question: “Is there a campus free speech crisis?”
FIRE and Foster, as well as most of the audience (and me with them), came in to the evening agreeing with the affirmative side. However, the debate had some strange features that prevented them from fully making their case. Sullivan and Nossel seemed more interested in free speech and censorship outside the academy. With Sullivan providing the political theory and Haidt providing the social psychology, the affirmative side seemed to suggest that the entire edifice of liberal society, which they presented as a sort of grand experiment that runs contrary to natural human tribalism, was in danger of falling. Of course this is a far broader proposition than anything relating merely to free speech on college campuses. And broader claims are per se more difficult to support.
Haidt and Sachs both seemed eager to revisit some exchanges they’d had on social media about surveys of college students on the topic of free expression. (Haidt’s Heterodox Academy has published several responses to Sachs as well: 1, 2, 3.) In their eyes, it seemed, the question of whether or not there’s a campus free speech crisis turns on the question of whether college students are growing more opposed to free speech. I have already written in the Chronicle of Higher Education that Sachs is wrong to make such a link. However, speaking to the two of them afterward, it sounded as though Haidt was the one who was really committed to the connection, with Sachs’s efforts merely rebutting a specific Haidt argument. I suppose I may have misread the dialectic between them. The most exciting moment in their conversation came when Sachs acknowledged that there is a problem of campus censorship, though one that he thought was relatively small. Haidt asked: “But what is the problem?” Unfortunately, Sachs did not get a chance to answer.
I was grateful to Nossel for pointing out that the popularization of the idea of an oppressive political correctness dates back at least to George H. W. Bush. As it happens, I watched two previous debates on campus expression to prepare to write this essay: an August 28th, 1991 Firing Line debate on whether “freedom of thought is in danger on American campuses” moderated by Michael Kinsley of the New Republic and attended by William F. Buckley, Jr., John Silber, Glenn Loury, and Dinesh D’Souza on the Haidt/Sullivan side and Catharine Stimpson, Ronald Walters, Stanley Fish, and Leon Botstein on the other; and a March 1st, 2016 Intelligence Squared debate on whether “free speech is threatened on campus” with Wendy Kaminer and John McWhorter on the Haidt/Sullivan side and Sean Harper and Jason Stanley on the other. One should also mention in this context Philip Roth’s 2000 novel The Human Stain, based on a true story from the 1980s, in which a professor loses his job for referring to two absent black students as “spooks” (meaning “ghosts,” but accidentally invoking a racial slur). I believe these all constitute a kind of evidence as to whether there has indeed been a change in attitudes and activism on campus. So it is to these I now turn.
The overwhelming feeling I think these debates, in sequence, should inspire is that of déjà vu. Contra Haidt, this means there isn’t the sort of novelty in campus activism in sentiment he sees. This doesn’t mean that his theses about generational fragility are necessarily wrong, only that we must be circumspect in evaluating their causal role vis-à-vis debates about campus speech, political correctness, identity politics, and so forth. As I wrote in January, seeming generational differences are also explicable by mechanisms whereby groups and ideas that previously strove for inclusion now strive for dominance; there is also the simpler mechanism that people taught in the atmosphere of nineties political correctness are now the professors and administrators enacting the new version. Contra Sachs, this doesn’t mean there isn’t a crisis. If this is the same situation that was objectionable in the nineties, that’s even worse, because it means we should know better.
Many of the sorts of examples mentioned in the 1991 debate will sound familiar to us. Buckley cited Smith College’s lingo of “lookism, the antisocial construction for the standard of beauty,” and objected to a Michigan course on “the remasculinazation of America.” Silber complained about the “trivialization” of real moral and political concerns “through ill-advised linguistic reconstructions” and discussed the problem of reducing the pursuit of truth to a matter of perspectives, to which Fish replied that no theory on offer has provided a transcendent, unbiased perspective. Loury listed the sorts of things that are found offensive – the phrase “man-hours,” a “theme party around the 1950s” – but got at a bigger problem: an increasing number of topics could not be discussed due to “very severe social pressures and consequences. . . . Sensitivity-mongers ought to understand that ostracism is a very serious cost to impose on people. . . . The quality of argument is undermined. The range of discussion is limited.” Walters claimed, rather oxymoronically, that it’s “difficult for people who are powerless to be racist because one has to have the power to enforce that racism.” Fish agreed and suggested that “neutral, objective standards” can be discriminatory, and that “corrective efforts” to change “linguistic assumptions . . . in the deep culture of the language” were merited. It’s not just that none of these issues have gone away; nobody could read this paragraph and think the debate was even particularly dated.
The more recent debates were, if anything, far narrower in scope. By 2016, most speech codes had been eliminated, but new concepts like microaggressions, trigger warnings, and safe spaces had taken their place. The 2016 debate also saw the beginnings of the snarky, superior attitude exhibited by a campus left that simply refuses to engage intellectually. Stanley stated: “The language of free speech has been coopted by dominant social groups, distorted to serve their interests, and used to silence the marginalized. . . . What’s a coddled safe space, then? Is it one in which white men like me are never exposed to the idea that women have minds?” The notion speaks for itself. Stanley also opined that the campus protests of 2015 were catalyzed by the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the subsequent furor. If I’m right that the situation from 2015 to today is continuous with the situation in the nineties, this view must be wrong. McWhorter echoed Loury’s points from twenty-five years prior, saying: “It’s as if we’re at the end of ideas. I don’t think that’s appropriate.” Where the Firing Line debaters had worried about the overbreadth of codes against “stigmatization,” Kaminer on Intelligence Squared worried about the idea of “verbal conduct,” which “confuse[d] the metaphoric power of allegedly hateful speech with actual violence.” When I spoke to him after the debate on Tuesday, Haidt suggested that this was a central difference between the current situation and the situation in the 1990s. Yet the idea that speech can be violence is mostly a tactical one intended to buttress attempts at censorship. The censorship is the main thing, and that doesn’t seem to have changed. Presumably, opponents object to it in either case. The focus, I think, ought to be on those objections, and not on the caprices of the censors.
McWhorter is the only one of the sixteen participants in the three debates to voice a concern that troubled me throughout all of them. These debates are all about whether or not there is a danger, a threat, or a crisis. But this puts rather the wrong people on the negative side, or forces them to defend the wrong proposition. McWhorter said that these debates “should be about whether or not things that are undeniably going on are justified or not.” I agree completely. Put Andrew Sullivan up against Jeet Heer or Sarah Jones or Alex Pareene or Jeffrey Goldberg or Osita Nwavenu or someone else like that. Of the sixteen participants only Fish, in 1991, took anything close to the positions that I personally believe to be dominant among college administrators and a substantial subset of faculty members. Why do only the apologists debate, the excuse-makers, the minimizers? Why do Sachs and Nossel, whose line is that campus censorship is a problem but not a huge problem, cover for the members of the intelligentsia who say that “free speech” has become an alt-right buzzword? Who spell it “freeze peach?”
And don’t let people lie. Fish went on to write a book called There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech (And That’s a Good Thing, Too!). A perfect harbinger of the clickbait era in every way, this sloppily-argued text should surely affect our interpretation of Fish’s presence on Firing Line. Similarly, Jason Stanley appeared on Intelligence Squared having already written in the New York Times that speech could itself be a kind of censorship. Utilizing an offshoot of speech-act theory with roots in Rae Langton’s anti-pornography arguments, Stanley asserted that, for instance, calling then-President Barack Obama a Muslim would make it impossible for him to successfully perform the speech act of assertion, because nobody would believe him anymore. Unfortunately, this is the sort of stuff philosophers often end up writing for the broader public.
Sachs seemed hesitant to go the full Fish/Stanley route. It was only in his closing statement that he seemed to disclose some sympathies to their styles of thought. First, he expressed some sympathy for critical theory, noting that it had been useful in some of his research. This was particularly interesting to me, since Aaron Hanlon, a recent author of a piece describing Sachs’s data and agreeing with his conclusions, has argued very aggressively to me that critical theory no longer has much pride of place in academia. With critical theory, as with censorship, it seems that there is a two-step: the same broad political alliance deploys one group of people to argue that it doesn’t play a real role, but deploys another group to argue that the role it plays is good. I get turned around and confused easily by these sorts of organic, distributed strategems. Second, Sachs stated, more or less apropos of nothing, that there are no neutral principles, that everything is political and serves some groups more than others. Quite the bomb to drop in your last thirty or so seconds of speaking time.
There were two kinds of questions on which I thought Sachs and Nossel could have pressed Haidt more. One concerns just what sort of solution would satisfy him. Note that in 1991 the Firing Line resolution was about freedom of thought, while the 2016 and 2018 resolutions were about freedom of speech. That, at least, may be one change. Jacob Levy has argued somewhat convincingly that free speech is not even a relevant category for university life. To the extent that he’s right, we might wonder what other values in the same general sphere might buttress the liberal edifice that Haidt and Sullivan believe is about to fall. What, for example, about curiosity? Imagine a university adjusted its social science departments such that half of the professors were Republicans and half Democrats. But imagine that, this having been accomplished, no students attended the right-wing professors’ lectures. Would this have solved the broader problem? I think not. Certainly not for Haidt, whose emphasis is more on viewpoint diversity than on censorship. So speech might not be the right thing to look at.
Haidt, who has written a lot (and a lot that’s very good!) about the coddling of fragile campus snowflakes, bases many of his claims on surveys of students who attest to being afraid to speak their minds. But the students who are afraid to speak out are ex hypothesi affected by the same generational vulnerabilities as the so-called crybullies. Doesn’t that confound the data somewhat? I know that when I was going through my own kind of campus mobbing episode in the spring of 2008 I reacted in all the worst ways, quick to see myself as ostracized and victimized and quick to seek help from moronic authority figures in loco parentis in the administration who sympathized far more with the plight of my opponents. Here at Areo we have published an excellent essay on conservative victimhood. This is a point Michael Kinsley also made in 1991, saying that oversensitive groups “include conservatives themselves.” The recent fracas in Nebraska speaks directly to this problem as well.
Another pressure point I think should be explored came from Sullivan’s assertion that it is the eclipse of individual identity by group identity, of individualism by collectivism, that has spurred on the identity politics of the campus social justice trend. But Mark Lilla, whose The Once and Future Liberal I reviewed last September, has argued exactly the opposite. For Lilla, identity politics is a kind of expressive equivalent of Reaganite economic individualism, in which one feels empowered and entitled to agitate for the world to change until it completely reflects one’s felt identity. Two opponents of identity politics, but with completely different views of its historical roots and its current manifestations. What gives?
I sometimes think the best way to defeat tribalism and groupthink is not to build bridges between tribes but to destroy the illusion of uniformity within them. It is when people are suddenly politically homeless, as so many of us were in 2016, that they open themselves up to connecting with and relying on others who might not agree with them on everything. So here are a few within-tribe debates I think would be fascinating based on the conversation.
- A debate on whether and to what extent the roots of identity politics lie in individualism or collectivism.
- A debate on whether and to what extent the free speech furor that’s been engulfing campuses and the media since 2015 differs from the canon wars and the development of political correctness in the 1990s.
- A debate on whether and to what extent critical theory and postmodernism remain potent forces in the academy, as regards teaching, research, and administrative policy.
- A debate on whether and to what extent abstract moral and political principles can be neutral, and if they can’t, whether it is better to strive for as much neutrality as possible or to abandon the effort entirely.
- A debate on whether and to what extent linguistic and symbolic changes can be effected “from above,” and on whether these distract from more material concerns about the distribution of power and resources.
- A debate on whether and to what extent speech can be distinguished from other kinds of action.
The free speech debate itself has, I think, begun to ossify. Bari Weiss’s recent New York Times article on the “intellectual dark web” shows that there are outlets for those who do not conform to the current campus and media consensus; Alice Dreger’s response in the Chronicle of Higher Education explains succinctly why this development is not really a cure for what ails these institutions, and the broader culture. These background questions call out to be answered, and the answers themselves must be analyzed for their effects on the liberal society whose downfall Sullivan thinks may be near. Liberalism itself seems to contain conflicting mandates: pluralism, inclusion, empiricism, free expression, democratic rule, etc. Thus far my generation seems to be doing a very poor job of peacefully balancing these interests. But I am not convinced we are doing so much worse than those who came before us.