It was nice to be invited by Jonathan Haidt’s Heterodox Academy and FIRE to join the audience to hear four academics talk about diverse viewpoints on campus. The panel consisted of April Kelly-Woessner, a political-science professor at Elizabethtown College, Samuel Abrams, a political-science professor at Sarah Lawrence College, Mark Lilla, a political-science professor at Columbia and Nadine Strossen, former president of the ACLU who now teaches at New York Law School.
It was all very . . . nice. If you knew nothing about what is happening on campus with students, faculty and administration silencing speech that fails to comport with progressive orthodoxy, you would leave far better informed than you came. It was . . . nice. As in, if we wish really hard for rainbows and unicorns to make things better, it could happen. Nice. Even the College Fix’s write-up of the presentation is nice.
“One person’s hate speech is somebody else’s cherished speech,” and what one person finds hurtful may galvanize another to engage with more speech, said Strossen, who testified at a July congressional hearing on campus free speech.
She told an audience member that a good way to get people to support free speech is to present them with an example of their own opinions getting censored.
That was from Strossen, who began in a melodramatic voice by extolling the virtues of social justice and asserting that if only progressives would be more willing to engage with those who didn’t share their views, they would be effective in persuading them to join in the quest for Utopia.
If I had the ability to read minds, I might have gotten the sense about midway through that Mark Lilla had a secret desire to yell “bullshit” at all the shallow politeness of the happy free-speech warriors on the panel. I know I did, but then, I lack the compulsion to speak in moderated words that fail to actually say what one means. That could be why I sat in the audience rather than on the chairs up front.
The question is who decides what constitutes “hate speech”? You don’t say. The solution is to make the irrational mob understand that free speech serves their enlightened self-interest? As they burn you at the stake. It’s the mission of professors to “educate,” and they need to do better? You bet. All of which amounts to nothing new, deep or useful.
What never happened was any attempt to deal with real problems with real ideas. Things are bad? What a surprise, since there wouldn’t be much of a reason for the program to happen if they weren’t. But was there any academic willing to own up to the cowardice, the insipid wishful thinking, the flagrantly simplistic slogans uttered in deeply empathetic tones, of how much better the Academy would be if only people wouldn’t be so authoritarian?
It’s understandable that four academics on a panel are disinclined to call bullshit on the excuses, the rationalizations, the facile answers riding unicorns on rainbows. That would be impolite. No, this presentation was happy, civil and safe. What it was not is real.
Compare and contrast George Ciccariello-Maher’s polemic blaming conservatives for being the “real thought police” on campus.
Last week, I sent a string of relatively uncontroversial tweets in the aftermath of the Las Vegas massacre, in which I sought to answer a question about mass shootings in the United States: Why are these crimes almost always carried out by white men? “It’s the white supremacist patriarchy, stupid,” I tweeted, before then diagnosing a sense of double entitlement — as white people and as men — that, when frustrated, can occasionally lead to violent consequences.
This was the same fellow who twitted that all he wanted for Christmas was “white genocide.” Nothing controversial there. As reprehensible as he may be, at least he was real, and not afraid of calling his own flavor of bullshit.
But the evening’s presentation was not without its high points.
Columbia University’s Mark Lilla, a political science professor, has drawn much left-wing criticism for his new book denouncing the infiltration of liberalism by identity politics.
As one way for advocates to rescue free speech from pollution by Trumpism, Lilla challenged MSNBC to report on any given “attack on free speech” at a college before Fox News, so the right-leaning network couldn’t “exploit it for their own ends.”
The audience rewarded his suggestion with applause.
It was about as bold as it got, and the audience applauded as this was as far away from nice, and as close to real, as it got.