Why anyone would invite a worthless pimple like Richard Spencer* to speak on campus is a mystery. The only potential explanation is to be provocative, since he’s otherwise got absolutely nothing to offer. But that, of course, isn’t the point when it comes to free speech. Not unless one exalts experience over reason, as Ulrich Baer tries to do.
While he opens with the usual anecdote, as is the trend for inductive reasoners, Baer’s is a curious one.
At one of the premieres of his landmark Holocaust documentary, “Shoah” (1985), the filmmaker Claude Lanzmann was challenged by a member of the audience, a woman who identified herself as a Holocaust survivor. Lanzmann listened politely as the woman recounted her harrowing personal account of the Holocaust to make the point that the film failed to fully represent the recollections of survivors. When she finished, Lanzmann waited a bit, and then said, “Madame, you are an experience, but not an argument.”
A provocative story, given the subject matter. Shoah, a Holocaust documentary, obviously evokes strong emotions, which lend themselves to Lanzmann’s retort, which at first suggests that the failure to “fully represent” one person’s experience doesn’t overcome the representation of millions of people’s experience. If Lanzmann didn’t meet the approval of every survivor, didn’t capture their personal experience, does that mean more than his capture of six million experiences? Does that invalidate the argument?
Baer, vice provost for faculty, arts, humanities, and diversity, and professor of comparative literature at New York University, goes on to argue that’s exactly what it does.
During the 1980s and ’90s, a shift occurred in American culture; personal experience and testimony, especially of suffering and oppression, began to challenge the primacy of argument. Freedom of expression became a flash point in this shift. Then as now, both liberals and conservatives were wary of the privileging of personal experience, with its powerful emotional impact, over reason and argument, which some fear will bring an end to civilization, or at least to freedom of speech.
We should resist the temptation to rehash these debates. Doing so would overlook the fact that a thorough generational shift has occurred. Widespread caricatures of students as overly sensitive, vulnerable and entitled “snowflakes” fail to acknowledge the philosophical work that was carried out, especially in the 1980s and ’90s, to legitimate experience — especially traumatic experience — which had been dismissed for decades as unreliable, untrustworthy and inaccessible to understanding.
For those of us who weren’t involved in these debates, which apparently happened in secret faculty teas, where philosophers decided that experience wins. Reason and argument weren’t just wrong, but left behind in this cultural shift that concluded that emotion rules. Even though Baer plays the strawman, that the argument in favor of reason is based on “traumatic experience” being “unreliable, untrustworthy and inaccessible to understanding” as opposed to irrelevant and irrational as a basis for law and policy, the debate was had without us. Move along.
The recent student demonstrations at Auburn against Spencer’s visit — as well as protests on other campuses against Charles Murray, Milo Yiannopoulos and others — should be understood as an attempt to ensure the conditions of free speech for a greater group of people, rather than censorship. Liberal free-speech advocates rush to point out that the views of these individuals must be heard first to be rejected. But this is not the case. Universities invite speakers not chiefly to present otherwise unavailable discoveries, but to present to the public views they have presented elsewhere.
It’s hard to fault Baer for being utterly clueless as to what is protected by the First Amendment. He’s not a lawyer. Plus, it would reduce his argument to its base logical fallacy. But then, since logic fails in the face of experience, and to question his experience is to deny it, neither law nor reason has any role to play. That said, it’s kind of him to note that it’s “liberal free-speech advocates” rather than the now-typical cries that the only people who support the Constitution are alt-right nazis.
But his reductio ad absurdum grasp of other people’s motivations demands a bit of scrutiny. When he invokes the “greater group of people” to decide whose speech is worthy, his argument is reminiscent of the imagery he seeks to invoke. In Nazi Germany, who was the “greater group of people”? These are not uninvited speakers, but speakers invited by groups that may not have majority campus support. So minority views should be gassed because the majority hates them?
When those views invalidate the humanity of some people, they restrict speech as a public good.
And so what began as a quasi-rational explanation of why the snowflakes aren’t wrong falls into the toilet of gibberish. Views don’t “invalidate the humanity.” Words don’t “invalidate the humanity.” That’s the sort of meaningless jargon that the snowflakes latch onto as a substitute for thought. But then, as Baer makes clear, thought has nothing to do with him or his beloved snowflakes.
As a college professor and university administrator with over two decades of direct experience of campus politics, I am not overly worried that even the shrillest heckler’s vetoes will end free speech in America. As a scholar of literature, history and politics, I am especially attuned to the next generation’s demands to revise existing definitions of free speech to accommodate previously delegitimized experiences. Freedom of expression is not an unchanging absolute. When its proponents forget that it requires the vigilant and continuing examination of its parameters, and instead invoke a pure model of free speech that has never existed, the dangers to our democracy are clear and present.
Despite Baer being a scholar (as he informs us), it would be unreasonable to expect him to appreciate that free speech is a legal term of art, not a philosophical construct to be diminished by the epithet “absolute,” and subject to the “continuing examination of its parameters” to match cultural feelings. But that he rationalizes away its values because we’re now in the age of emotion rather than reason, as if the law is whatever he feels it should be, makes him a danger around students.
If you wonder why so many snowflakes believe that they’re entitled to inflict violence on people who don’t share their opinion, it’s because of apologists like Baer. This is why his snowflakes feel entitled to hit another on the head with a bike lock, to “accommodate previously delegitimized experiences.” If someone harms your child in campus, it’s because of guys like Baer telling them their emotions matter most. So the snowflakes become the tyrants. Shoah.
*Edit: As was pointed out to me on twitter, nobody invited Spencer to campus. He “invited” himself by renting space that was made generally available.