Deconstructing Free Speech Warriors

I’d take the free speech debate on college campuses more seriously were there a true diversity of viewpoints, opinions, and arguments among those who claim to be victims of political correctness. That there isn’t much difference among conservatives who critique political correctness with a “cultural Marxism” counter-narrative suggests that the debate about free speech at colleges and universities is not solely about free speech. It might not be about free speech at all. 

“Most importantly, free speech defenders are muddled about what is happening. They see millennial snowflakes doing something dangerous: taking the first steps down a slope that begins with wanting to be warned when books include rape scenes and ends in communist Russia. But they forget that even in free countries speech has always been limited by social rules, not least the one about simple politeness.

If you are rude to a lecturer, for example, you might expect to be thrown out of a classroom. If you are rude about a minority group, they might try to stop you being invited to speak at their university. If you say something people don’t like, they might say something you don’t like back. Countries without free speech tend to have it written into law or otherwise enforced by the state. We are not quite there yet.

Free speech advocates also misunderstand the motivation of those who might want to shut down a debate: they see this as a surefire mark of intolerance. But some debates should be shut down. For public dialogue to make any progress, it is important to recognise when a particular debate has been won and leave it there.

Even the most passionate free speech advocate might not wish to reopen the debate into whether women should be tried for witchcraft, or whether ethnic minorities should be allowed to go to university, or whether the Earth is flat. No-platformers are not scared – they simply think certain debates are over. You may disagree, but it does not mean they are against free speech.”

+“Free speech isn’t under threat. It just suits bigots and boors to suggest so” | The Guardian | Martha Gill

1) The “free speech debate” debate is primarily focused on whether the free speech debate is really about preserving traditional western (big “L”) Liberalism or opening the door to alt-right illiberalism. This debate’s deepest irony is that free speech warriors as devoted to free markets as they are to free speech should support the idea that their arguments succeed or fail in the marketplace of ideas and that the university is such a marketplace. Instead, they prefer to claim that free speech is “under attack” rather than admit their ideas might not be persuasive or acceptable to young college students. Isn’t that the marketplace at work? And isn’t that the same kind of free market that made Jordan Peterson a best-selling author? Free speech warriors don’t understand that the market in which their ideas compete is sustained by forces of supply and demand that may not be well-aligned with the product they’re selling. Thus, it’s not a university’s problem that the market isn’t as receptive to Ben Shapiro or Charles Murray as it might be to Noam Chomsky or Cornel West.

2) The free speech debate is not about free speech. It’s about the university itself and knowledge as the product of reasoned inquiry, not the say-so of authoritarians and their unjustifiable hierarchies. It’s about whether traditional western Liberalism will endure or be eroded. Enlightenment values resolutely fix the university at the core of the Liberal sphere of influence along with media, journalism, the arts, culture, and entertainment. (Big “c”) Conservatism’s preferences for gradual rates of social and cultural change, strong religious faith, and the belief that history, tradition, hierarchy, and authority provide better modes of organizing human affairs than Liberal individualism are at odds with the university, which means they’re also at odds with the Liberal sphere of influence. This explains the contempt free speech warriors on the right have for the ways universities shape the worldviews and opinions of young people. It’s also at the heart of the right’s attack on the university itself, the liberal arts, and the values that underlie both. Both attacks are cleverly obscured by the free speech debate.  


Where are your hammers for these nails?

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