Nicholas Dirks, Chancellor of UC Berkeley, sent out an important email about free speech. It’s not important for what it contributed to the dialogue about it, but rather for what it seeks to take away. It’s couched in kind, maybe even beautiful words, and it promotes a value that many hold dear. And it’s very dangerous.
At Popehat, Ken parses Dirks’ email line by line. Some commenters there have questioned whether Ken has taken an uncharitable view of Dirks’ meaning. As the words speak for themselves, anyone who sees a more benign meaning to a particular word or sentence is free to read it differently.
My concern is similar to Ken’s, but as he’s already deconstructed the email, there is no point in doing so again. Rather, this post is directed toward what the email, in its totality, represents: there is an ongoing trend in academia to recharacterize free speech, to twist it ever so gently, with sweet words that pluck at the heartstrings of people of good will and intention, until it’s so contorted that it represents the ugliest of Orwellian nightmares.
It begins by presenting what superficially seems an uncontroversial point:
For free speech to have meaning it must not just be tolerated, it must also be heard, listened to, engaged and debated. Yet this is easier said than done, for the boundaries between protected and unprotected speech, between free speech and political advocacy, between the campus and the classroom, between debate and demagoguery, between freedom and responsibility, have never been fully settled.
What Dirks describes here is the ideal of many, who feel as if they are advocating for free speech without realizing that they are advocating for their own free speech at the expense of others. It’s a very persuasive presentation of the point, tricky in its comparisons, and utterly, totally false. Political advocacy is core free speech, and yet Dirks slips in this comparison deftly, between the flagrant misstatement that the line between protected and unprotected speech has never been fully settled.
All speech, all expression is protected, except to the extent that there is a specific exception. While some speech may make us cringe, or flinch, or cry, or sad, it remains protected unless it falls within a small group of defined exceptions to the First Amendment. We are not allowed, as has become the fashion among dishonest academics, to pretend that we get to create our own exceptions at will based on how we feel about other people’s speech.
This is at the core of the manipulation of young minds, foolish minds. That this is being pushed by someone in the position of chancellor, particularly of an institution as liberal as UC Berkeley, is most telling. But he’s hardly alone.
Specifically, we can only exercise our right to free speech insofar as we feel safe and respected in doing so, and this in turn requires that people treat each other with civility.
This is the insidious lie, the soft and sweet distortion that so many find appealing. What’s wrong with civility, you ask? What’s wrong with treating others with respect, so they feel safe in expressing their views? There is nothing wrong with it, per se. It just has nothing to do with the First Amendment. There is no limitation on a person’s right to express her thoughts by how they make other people feel.
The play is to appeal to those who feel as if their thoughts aren’t shown the respect they deserve. Don’t we all feel as if our views are worthy and important? Don’t we all feel as if our views deserve respect? Don’t we all feel as if we should be able to express our views without being attacked for them? That’s the lie. The scam. Because we view Dirks’ words through the lens of our own self-interest, and they strike us as so sensible, so appealing, that we embrace them.
As Ken explains:
But speech need not be civil to be entitled to robust protection. Berkeley’s free speech movement did not seek to protect civil speech; the Vietnam war was not an occasion for civility. Paul Robert Cohen’s “Fuck the Draft” jacket was uncivil, but was protected by the First Amendment nonetheless. There is nothing civil about burning the flag or picketing a funeral or being a racist, but those things are protected.
But is this just legal argle bargle, the lowest and worst of free speech that we would all do well to be rid of? Let’s say a person, a Berkeley student perhaps, was to write:
The reason black students are under-represented at this great institution of higher learning is because they are intellectually inferior to white students.
Is this expression entitled to your respect? Should you be more concerned with responding civilly, or with the outrageous substance? Should your free speech be curtailed such that you can’t respond to such flagrant racism by criticizing this idea in the harshest possible way?
You see, the sweet words of people like Dirks masks its real purpose: to silence those who would respond to speech with other speech, more speech, that disagrees in a manner that hurts the first speaker’s feelings.
If all this sounds familiar, it should. This has been the goal of groups like the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative for quite a while, to gently contort our understanding of free speech for the benefit of those happy to dish it out, but too delicate to take the consequences. They want their right to spew to be predominant, while impairing your right to respond.
They want to control the language you’re allowed to use by limiting it to those words that meet their approval. They want to control the idea you express by limiting it to those they find politically acceptable. They want free speech, but only to the extent it conforms to their feelings. They want free speech for them, and they want you to shut the fuck up.
Nowhere in Chancellor Dirks’ email does he say that free speech at Berkeley shall henceforth mean speech that meets with his approval, speech that conforms with his political agenda, speech that soothes the feelings of his protected classes. Nowhere does he say that free speech belongs to those who match his sensibilities, and the rest of you will be silenced.
The latest trend in academia is to distinguish speech by what they consider to be valuable, asserting that “low value” speech is unworthy of protection, the First Amendment be damned. Uncivil speech, by their account, has no value. What they are talking about is your speech. What they are trying to do is change the mindset of college students so they never express ideas that challenge their orthodoxy.
Someone once told me that if you don’t want to be called stupid, don’t say stupid things. If you want to express your views, expect someone to disagree. You don’t get to decide how they disagree. You don’t get to decide that they can only disagree with words that make you feel safe and respected. They get to speak whatever way they please, just as you do.
Tell Chancellor Dirks that he’s very wrong. Tell the academics who want to silence speech that doesn’t comport with their vision of their own happiness that they’re wrong. This manipulation of free speech is as dangerous as it gets, and if it isn’t stopped, the generation of students whose malleable minds are being distorted by this nonsense will be incapable of realizing how their thoughts have been undermined. This cannot be allowed to happen.