The Free-Speech Tyranny of the Snowflake

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.

31 thoughts on “The Free-Speech Tyranny of the Snowflake

  1. Richard Kopf


    Ulrich Baer writes: “Freedom of expression is not an unchanging absolute.” What, exactly, does that mean?

    I am not a fan of originalism as the sole or even the primary tool for constitutional interpretation. That said, Baer’s essay is a perfect example of why originalism–to steal from Will Baude, “the view that law laid down by the framers in the Constitution remains binding until we legally change it, such as through the amendment process”–protects all of us from those who would silence the rest of us.

    Thanks for highlighting this piece. All the best.


    1. SHG Post author

      As Baer isn’t a lawyer, he apparently feels no constraint in expounding on a legal concept using the jargon du jour. What appears to prevail among academics at the moment is the living constitutionalism, that it means whatever they want it to mean at any given moment. So they don’t see the problems with reinventing rights at will? That’s not a problem when the majority on campus has been indoctrinated to the transient hysteria of social justice.

      I credit Baer with one thing, his confession that scholars no longer care about reason, but only emotion. When this turns around to bite them on the ass, as it must, they’ll get theirs. But in the interim, both a generation of kids will graduate with shit for brains, and it is growing increasingly likely that kids will die on campus when his indoctrinated and passionate snowflakes take his position to its logical extreme (ironic, right?) and start killing students who disagree with them. There already has been blood. There will be more.

  2. el profesor presente

    “When those views invalidate the humanity of some people, they restrict speech as a public good.”

    I guess if this guy ever speaks of any minorities as a monolith we can shut him down. I hope for his sake he’s not into Critical Race Theory. Are bike locks optional?

  3. Quinn Martindale

    Free speech is more than just a legal term of art. It has a long philosophical tradition, and is a value that can be appealed to even if the first amendment doesn’t apply to a situation (e.g. the rules of private colleges or protestors legally interfering with speech).

    1. SHG Post author

      That’s great for cocktail parties. Not so much for a justification for violating the First Amendment or hitting people with bike locks. Unless you think engaging in violence (the real kind, not the social justice hurt feelz kind) against people with whom you disagree is fine. Is that what you think? Are you all in favor of punching peopke, pepper spraying people, hitting them in the head with bike locks? When the murder them, will that be a philosophical value too?

      1. Ryan

        In older Supreme Court unprotected speech cases the analysis is often framed around the furtherance of societal values or uhm feelz:

        “It has been well observed that such utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality”

        Howard Dean pointed to Chaplinsky, because this feelz language gets progressives who want to limit speech they deem low value very hard. Luckily, recent cases like US v. Steven the Court kicked the value feelz test to the curb.

        1. SHG Post author

          Feelz language is enormously useful to produce unprincipled outcomes because it justifies any desired outcome. A quick appeal to morality does wonders when one wants to shut down opposing viewpoints, as Chaplinsky showed.

        2. Charles

          Playing the Chaplinsky card says more about the violent tendencies of the listeners than about the speaker or the speech.

          1. SHG Post author

            That’s what they’re counting on. They’re “fighting words” because Ima fight you if you say them.

      2. kushiro

        According to folks on some of the more, uh, “woke”, websites (say, Jezebel, for example), it’s exactly the opposite argument that is used to justify violence. To them, there’s no philosophical tradition of free expression; rather, free speech = 1st amendment and nothing else.

        They say it in different ways, but the argument boils down to “it’s perfectly fine to shut people down, block them, dox them, threaten them, punch them, kick them, get them fired, and otherwise make them pay for their naughty speech, as long as it’s not the government doing it”, or, more simply “the cops can’t punish you, but I can, and I will”.

        1. Myrt

          The alt-right, 4chan, Kekistanis and allies seem to have grasped that this position can be turned against the left. Watch what is unfolding in Berkeley, where the mayor is being outed as an antifa supporter and antifa attackers are being identified, doxxed and sued by the people they attacked.

  4. Charles

    You write, “Why anyone would invite a worthless pimple like Richard Spencer to speak on campus is a mystery.” That apparently is the requisite opening line in any attempt to have a rational conversation about free speech. You’ll still be labeled a Spencer supporter.

    Baer writes, “Liberal free-speech advocates rush to point out that the views of these individuals must be heard first to be rejected.” It’s ironic that he doesn’t even notice that he is applying the label “liberal” to those supporting the right of Spencer, Murray, and Yiannopolous to speak. “Progressive” and “liberal” clearly are not synonymous.

    He also writes, “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.” Maybe he meant “shrillest heckler,” but a “heckler’s veto” by definition means someone’s free speech has ended. In fact, I’m more worried about the “softest” heckler’s veto than the “shrillest.”

    1. SHG Post author

      1. That would be Gertruding, if my purpose was to head off the “nazi supporter” response. I truly don’t give a shit. I can fully understand why Murray, Milo and even Coulter are invited to campus. I cannot fathom any purpose to inviting Spencer except to troll.

      2. Have I not been distinguishing liberal from progressive forever? See? This is what I’ve been telling you. Old school liberals are not right of center since progressives pulled the center so far to the left as to fall off the rational cliff.

      1. Charles

        1) I didn’t think you were Gertruding. I know better than that.

        2) Yes, you called it. The irony is that they are not “radicals” anymore, either. Alinsky’s Rule 11 (Wikipedia version) suggests that violence from the “other” side can win public support. This model encourages supporters to be more and more violent so as to shut down more and more speech from the other side as “fighting words”.

        1. SHG Post author

          And that’s yet another reason why it matters. The farther this insanity goes, the more reasonable it is to have Trump (or some comparable moron) as an alternative. No matter how idiotic and crazy one side it, the other can make it appear comparably reasonable, and we’re screwed.

  5. DaveL

    In several cases, American courts have recognized the supremacy of personal testimony of lived experience over such things as reasoned argument and even known laws of nature. See Town of Salem v. Martha Corey, Salem v. Rebecca Nurse, and Salem v. Elizabeth Proctor. Not sure if the precedent still holds good, though.

  6. David Meyer-Lindenberg

    Modern teachers’ censorious snippets
    are the colorful, glorious tippets
    of the priesthood of Muzzling.
    (It’s not really that puzzling,
    as you worship by guzzling some Whip-Its.)

  7. ElSuerte

    Free speech is more than just a legal term of art. It’s an important cultural value and philosophical construct that should be defended against Baer’s rapacious sophistry. Among other reasons, I worry that the continued erosion of free speech culture will produce judges and legislatures that are more receptive towards increasing speech restrictions.

    1. SHG Post author

      So it’s a “cultural value and philosophical construct,” eh? The same empty, meaningless words that the Antifa use to claim they get to create their own definition of free speech, and it doesn’t include yours. You can have all the “free speech culture” you want, but some of us prefer that legal phrases have actual meanings. Just so the rights embodied by the words are still there when the smoke clears.

      1. ElSuerte

        I’m saying they are collateral concepts. I get your frustration though. It’s almost like how people will use ‘hostile work environment’ in the colloquial sense, rather than the strict legal sense.

        There are free speech values that go beyond what free speech law can or should address. For example, the appropriate use of social consequences.

        1. SHG Post author

          No, you don’t “get my frustration.” First, because it’s not frustration, a word the belies how badly you don’t get it, and second, because the “colloquial sense” is a rabbit hole into which the hard of thinking take a deep dive. We can have one of two things, words with meaning or words with “senses.” One allows us to communicate, to comprehend, to address, real issues, while the other allows the intellectually challenged to indulge their fantasy feelings while eliminating any possibility of achieving resolution. If you got it, you wouldn’t write this insipid nonsense.

Comments are closed.