Free speech cannot be given

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 LoverTropic 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.

18 Responses

  1. Paglia is indulging in some retconning of the 1960s when she says the radicals didn’t go to graduate school. Obviously the crew that occupied the administration building in 1969 diverged in several directions, but plenty of them went to graduate school. In my discipline they are only now retiring, after having spawned a bunch of humorless epigoni.

    I think your initial intuition was correct. Freedom of speech is important only to those who feel an important form of speech is being suppressed. They will speak in universal terms so long as suppression continues, but will at the very least loose their ardor for the general principle of free speech once they are able to say everything they feel like saying. As has been said of freedom generally, no one is interested in freedom generally–only in freedom to do the things they think ought to be done.

    I think we should see a “right” to freedom of speech in the same light we see the “right” to freedom of religion. Having the “right” means that the government agrees to defend what the individual has promised to defend. If I say “you will have to kill me to make me shut up,” the government may well decide to keep the peace by (at least theoretically) promising to kill anyone who tries very hard to make me shut up (by, for instance, shooting me). The “right” to freedom of religion rests on the same promise, and only so long as that promise is credible. The government did not give people freedom of religion. People took it for themselves, and then said that anyone who tried to take it back would have either to kill or be killed. Behind every “right” stands a credible threat of violence.

  2. The disputes over hate speech on campuses in the last few years have left me rather pessimistic about the ideal of “free speech.” It seems that almost everyone who makes a point of defending it (including reactionaries with whom I sympathize) is doing so not out of sincere belief that political discourse in which every opinion is allowed to be spoken publicly is more likely to converge upon the truth than political discourse in which some ideas are censored, but instead out of sympathy for some particular unpopular ideas that the free-speech advocate prefers not to defend on their own merits. This may well be justified strategically as a matter of political activism, but it also does not make me inclined to include “free speech” as one of the rights I would guarantee in the fantasy world in which my own ideals won out completely and were already enshrined into law.

  3. This is what strikes me about libertarian defenders of religious freedom. Yes, libertarians genuinely want us religious folk to mostly be able to be free to say and do whatever we want and not face penalties for all that in our work etc. But our libertarian allies don’t really care that much about our predicament. Our freedom to practice our religion is on the same level as some pothead’s freedom to get with his bong, and there’s a whole lot less social pressure going against that latter.

  4. Perhaps the Left is right, and people like me don’t have freedom of speech on campus because we’re not worthy.

    Yes, and I include myself in that condemnation.

    A passive Conservatism that does not do anything to push back against the Leftist onslaught is going to die. It’s as simple as that. Our forefathers were prepared to suffer for their country’s well being. The question is, are we prepared to do the same?

    This does not mean literally taking up arms against the enemy but it does men devoting our time and service towards its good. Forgoing personal advancement and opportunities in order to concentrate on the fight. The problem in the West is primarily cultural and we need to shift the culture.

  5. The left-liberals obtained the power to say what they like. Why should they share it with the conservatives, especially when both are bitter enemies?

  6. This is well put I think. I was thinking about this the other day. Nothing is going to change unless people start killing each other and the powers that be have no reason to ever let it get to that point. Maybe if we run out of food, or maybe we will hit a critical mass of some capable minority that organizes a violent coup, but those possibilities seem pretty distant. Safe spaces seem to be the intermediate future.

    Semi-OT. I watched the episode of My Little Pony called The Cutie Map with my daughter. You’re right, its pretty good and fairly blatantly anti-left.

  7. It is worth recalling that, as long ago as 1965, Marcuse argued that “the realization of the objective of tolerance would call for intolerance toward prevailing policies, attitudes, opinions, and the extension of tolerance to policies, attitudes, and opinions which are outlawed or suppressed. In other words, today tolerance appears again as what it was in its origins, at the beginning of the modern period–a partisan goal, a subversive liberating notion and practice. Conversely, what is proclaimed and practiced as tolerance today, is in many of its most effective manifestations serving the cause of oppression.”

    It was in the saame vein that Slavoj Zizek has pointed out that “In our post-modern era of ’emerging properties,’ chaotic interaction of multiple subjectivities, of free interaction instead of centralized hierarchy, of a multitude of opinions instead of one Truth, the Jacobin dictatorship is fundamentally “not for our taste” …. Can one imagine something more foreign to our universe of the freedom of opinions, of market competition, of nomadic pluralist interaction, etc., than Robespierre’s politics of Truth (with a capital T, of course), whose proclaimed goal is “to return the destiny of liberty into the hands of the truth”? Such a Truth can only be enforced in a terrorist way.”

    That is one reason the Left has always despised Liberals, whom it accuses of want ing “a decaffeinated revolution, 1789 without 1792,” as Alain Badiou, the GOM of the French Left put it.

  8. You find similar arguments in nineteenth-century Positivists such as Comte, and there are hints of it in Mill. Both men said that they were in a “critical” age when skepticism was scouring away the old prejudices. Once skepticism had done its work, everyone was expected to line up behind the scientists. They expected most to do this voluntarily, since they believed the truths promulgated by positivist science would compel all rational men. But they recognized that there would be an irrational remainder and they did not plan that this remainder would be free to propagate error.

  9. Here’s Karl Popper in 1945, displaying the bloodlust we have come to know and love from the left:

    Less well known is the paradox of tolerance: Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. — In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.”

    Happily, he is only interested in killing us if he loses an argument to us. So, there’s that.

  10. Dr. Bill@ It’s interesting to think about what is assumed by such a statement. First, it’s assumed that the word intolerant has two very different meanings, as would be the case if one said “I hate nothing but hatred.” Behind all this is an assumption that the speaker is not personally responsible for his own hatred (or intolerance), but has been forced feel (or act) in that way by the other person’s hatred (or intolerance). So there is voluntary hatred (or intolerance) that it is correct to hate (or not tolerate), and involuntary or necessary intolerance that it is correct to love (or tolerate).

    Of course this is all pure balloon juice, since every regime tolerates some opinions and behaviors, and censures others, and Popper’s doctrine serves merely to defend the existing regime.

    The other assumption is that there exists some objective touchstone by which we can identify “rational arguments.” What is a “rational argument?” Clearly the arguments that men have accepted as “rational” have varied from time to time and place to place, and there are at any given time and place very few arguments that all men giving evidence of rational capacity have approved.

    So it is very hard to read Popper as saying anything more than “A society should tolerate what its thought leaders find tolerable, while persecuting everything else.”

  11. @JMSmith

    Yes, that’s my take as well. Liberalism seems to want, rhetorically, for there to be some kind of meta-morality which adjudicates among moralities. We can’t all agree on how one should live one’s life, but let’s all agree to tolerate one another. But this is nonsense. Can I have sex with my children? Bash fags? Beat my wife? Discriminate against black people?

    Any time you ask a particular question about what is to be allowed and what is to be punished, something has to decide that question. All this blithering about tolerating different conceptions of the good does absolutely no work at all in answering such particular, practical questions. Whatever you call the system which decides these particular, practical questions, it is serving the purpose of morality.

    Freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and similar things are really no different. When I talk about politics, it’s generally because I want to change some policy. If I want to change it in an immoral way and if my speech stands a good chance of working, then why in the world should my speech be tolerated? Gathering all the illegal aliens together and burning them would be wrong and should be punished, but whipping up passions to make such a policy politically feasible, that’s protected speech. Idiotic.

    It’s also the problem with NRx. Their entire solution to social conflict is exit. We’ll have TradCathistan and SJWistan and Islamistan and etc. Everybody gets to live the way they want. Blah, blah, blah. Except the people in SJWistan want to live by imposing their will on TradCathistan. Also Ferengiistan wants to live its life by stealing all the stuff in Islamistan. Oh, but those things won’t be allowed! You see, we’ll all agree that non-interference with other ‘stans is the very highest moral principle which we will never ever transgress. And if you Catholics don’t like it, I guess we’ll just have to kill you all. Etc.

    So it is very hard to read Popper as saying anything more than “A society should tolerate what its thought leaders find tolerable, while persecuting everything else.”

    Yes. Well, except presumably they should forbear persecuting ideas which, while yucky, are not spreading or threatening anything.

  12. JMSmith

    The difficulty with the application of “rational argument” to most political or ethical questions was pointed out by Hume: “Reason is the discovery of truth or falsehood. Truth or falsehood consists in an agreement or disagreement either to the real relations of ideas, or to real existence and matter of fact. Whatever, therefore, is not susceptible of this agreement or disagreement, is incapable of being true or false, and can never be an object of our reason.”

    Thus, ““Where a passion is neither founded on false suppositions, nor chuses means insufficient for the end, the understanding can neither justify nor condemn it. It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger. It is not contrary to reason for me to chuse my total ruin, to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian or person wholly unknown to me. It is as little contrary to reason to prefer even my own acknowledged lesser good to my greater, and have a more ardent affection for the former than the latter. A trivial good may, from certain circumstances, produce a desire superior to what arises from the greatest and most valuable enjoyment…”

  13. MP-S

    Since Leftism is normally grounded in a naturalist metaphysics, they should be governed by Hume’s restricted definition of Reason. Traditionalists, on the other hand, generally subscribe to a more expansive definition of Reason, which takes in the idea of a properly ordered life. For instance, they reject Bentham’s inference from Hume that “pushpin is as good as poetry.” One must be very subtle to argue that the Leftist is not entitled to claim that desires are Reasonable (because of his metaphysics), but that desires are, in fact, Reasonable or Unreasonable.

  14. JMSmith

    I am sure Popper, if pressed, would have agreed with Hume in confining “reason” to the judgment of what we should now call analytical and synthetic propositions.

    Of course, Hume would have dismissed with contempt Bentham’s suggestion that “pushpin is as good as poetry.” He believed the aesthetic sense, like the moral sense, were “original facts and realities” and an innate part of human nature. “There is no spectacle so fair and beautiful as a noble and generous action; nor any which gives us more abhorrence than one that is cruel and treacherous… A very play or romance may afford us instances of this pleasure, which virtue conveys to us; and pain, which arises from vice.”

    Hume believed that in both good taste could and should be cultivated. What he peremptorily denied was that there is a rational criterion, one that is valid for all, according to which we can decide a moral judgment is rationally founded.

    Now, this is the philosophy, common to the whole Scottish Enlightenment – Think of Thomas Reid and Adam Smith – that rapidly came to dominate the English-speaking world, or, at least, the academic and literary world. What has changed in recent times is that Hume’s notion of “good taste” has been rejected as “elitist” (and it must be admitted that Hume was a dreadful snob.)

  15. MP-S

    I’m a big fan of the “common sense philosophy” of Scotts like Reid and Beattie. I like what they were trying to do at that historical moment, and what they wrote resonates with my (un)common sense, even today.

  16. It’s a worthiness issue, but only accidentally. It’s an ownership issue. To the owner accrue the rights of ownership, i.e., to dispose of the things under their command in the way they see fit. The Left owns Academia, and they may dispose of their property the way see fit: granting the right to some to speak their minds and withhold it from others. Every man has the same right in his own home, no matter its size. He just happens to not have a whole University in which to impose his will. Yet.

  17. […] Free speech cannot be given. A formalist masterpiece. Leftists demanded free speech and got it. They are under no moral […]

  18. Outstanding. An absolutely great insight.

    Indeed, those 60s radicals were braver than we on the right. When they took over campus administration buildings, when they grew their hair long and took drugs, when they advocated for communist revolution, they were indeed demonstrating a willingness to lose their job options with the conservative establishment.

    Meanwhile, I sit in meetings at my high-tech company where we discuss the “exciting” initiatives to promote (rich, white) women over men regardless of ability. And I do not dare mention the obvious truth that such a policy is patently unfair. Because I lack courage.

    Oh, and by the way, despite all the wailing and gnashing of teeth here on the alt-right about conservatives “losing their livelihoods,” the stakes are usually much lower.

    I fail to mention the unfairness of “always promote the woman” policies even in small meetings with my own small work team of friends! Would I be fired? No. Would I be sent to HR? No. I would simply be seen as an eccentric who made a logical but politically incorrect statement. In one meeting I would make one statement which would seem…unpopular. That’s apparently deterrent enough for me.

    So, indeed, I am not worthy of free speech. Even worse, I actually HAVE free speech, and I CHOOSE to suppress my own words and thoughts without the left even lifting a finger. All they had to do was repeat their clearly nonsensical ideas enough to make them seem….popular. And I fell right in line.

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