Camille Paglia has an article on the the campus Left’s evolving attitude toward freedom of speech. She tells a familiar story of a Left that started defending freedom of expression as a weapon against community moral norms and then decided that opposition to its own beliefs is intolerant and shouldn’t be allowed. But she gives some interesting inside information. For one thing, she doesn’t think it’s true that the radical students of the sixties went on to take over the university. As she tells it, most of them thought that going to grad school would be selling out. Of course, this doesn’t prove that the students who did go to grad school weren’t influenced by the radicals. She does prefer to look for structural causes rather than Gramscian conspiracies, and I agree that this is the more fruitful path. She suggests that university intolerance partly radiates from the new “studies” departments that were hastily constructed in the 70s largely as PR stunts to deflect criticism that elite universities were too WASP male. The new thrown-together disciplines had low-quality faculty and no traditions of scholarly rigor, and they’ve been left on their own to stay that way. She also gives some blame to the fashion of post-structuralism, which taught students to think that language manufactures reality, so that hate thoughts and their suppression are both imagined to have magical powers.
Other notes on the article:
- “Their prevailing WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) style was not a hospitable climate for racial or ethnic minorities, including Jews and Italian-Americans.” Sorry, Italians. The official victims bus doesn’t have any empty seats, and you’re not going to be allowed on.
- Yale in the sixties had women graduate students but not undergrads? That’s weird.
- Paglia admires Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, which was kicked off when Mario Salvo ran afoul of an official ban on political activity on campus for his Civil Rights work. Later, she laments the politicization of campus life. I think the WASPs might have had good reasons for that ban.
- She lists stuff 50s censorship was keeping from us: the Marquis de Sade, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer. It’s pretty striking to me that we weren’t missing out on all that much.
- I heartily agree with the idea of forcing women’s studies majors to learn biology.
I was actually visiting UC Berkeley not long ago. I spent most of my time in Campbell Hall with the astronomers, but I once stopped in the Free Speech Movement Cafe for breakfast. Lots of pictures of the main characters and events of the Free Speech movement juxtaposed with inspirational student art about communist Cuba. Once, that might have inspired me to write about Leftist hypocrisy, but now I find it charmingly unself-conscious. Anyway, it inspired me to think about this same subject, the Free Speech Movement that turned censorious. My usual thought on this matter is that such an evolution is not surprising given that communities require some level of censorship as a form of spiritual self-defense, and when Berkeley Leftists constituted their own community, they could have been no different. Then an idea popped into my head, as if from outside.
Those radicals did right to fight for their own freedom of speech and theirs alone. Did you expect them to do all the fighting and then hand the prize to everyone out of sheer generosity? No matter how generous they might be, the thing cannot be done. No one can give you freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is something that each belief must claim for itself. The belief must prove that its adherents will endure and inflict suffering for its sake. It must prove itself ineradicable, a fact of life that must be accommodated. Only when it has thus proven itself worthy is it even possible for the wider world to grant it the freedom to express itself.
I was immediately taken aback by this idea. It seemed clearly false. Why couldn’t the social order grant tolerance to mildly offensive but cowardly dissenters purely out of its own forbearance? Surely I could even think up some examples.
And yet, something also seemed profoundly right about it. Consider social conservatism (my own beliefs). It is striking how our resistance collapses as soon as people start losing their jobs or businesses and being targeted by the media or courts, how eager our movement (such as it is) is to distance itself from its martyrs. How must our position look from the outside? Something like
“We are divided from you on issues of tremendous importance to the structure of families and the raising of children. We insist on the right to preserve our own beliefs that are grossly immoral by your standards, and because we are embarrassed by our beliefs, we do not intend to give you reasons why we think they are not immoral but true. We admit that if you apply the slightest pressure to us, we will abandon our beliefs and embrace yours, and we will never look back (just as we have never reconsidered any of our previous capitulations). However, we insist that you not apply this pressure, because it would violate your principle of free expression.”
An outsider must surely think
“But this isn’t principled opposition at all! It is pointless stubbornness, a mere game. If you really disagreed, you’d be willing to defend your beliefs and willing to suffer for them. If universal and permanent consensus can be achieved with a slight nudge, it’s silly to wait. Let’s do it and have the whole matter settled. Free speech is for real, principled beliefs. It’s not for the likes of you.”
Perhaps the Left is right, and people like me don’t have freedom of speech on campus because we’re not worthy.
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