Ed. Note: David Meyer-Lindenberg started out to write about free speech, but midway through, realized that this post by Judith Shapiro, president and professor of anthropology emerita at Barnard College, published at Inside Higher Education was, well, unadulterated gibberish that said nothing. David shifted gears.
As those of you who’ve read my previous work know, I don’t write very well. Heck, I barely speak English. But I didn’t realize just how far I was lagging behind until I read this op-ed by Judith Shapiro, a former president of Barnard College, at Inside Higher Ed.
The topic? The purported need for less “free” and more “quality” speech. I think. It’s honestly kinda hard to tell.
In an era of information overload, we face the problem that too much information is equivalent to too little. But we also face a more serious problem: a Gresham’s law of information in which bad information is driving out good information.
Deepak Chopra, is that you? Is this like one of those Zen koans, where something’s only seemingly nonsensical but in fact turns out to be very wise?
Gresham’s law also holds for speech and is thus relevant to the many speech-related upheavals occurring on college and university campuses that we’ve read about repeatedly (and, by now, ad nauseam).
Cite? Are American college professors not as big on citations as their European peers? If so, I could’ve saved myself many a bruised knuckle by going to Barnard. Oh wait.
What makes the situation particularly challenging is that a worthy and important concern for free speech can overshadow the concern for quality speech. But, given the business that institutions of higher education are in — that of teaching and learning, scholarship and science — it would seem entirely fitting and proper for them to have certain standards of speech.
Not only is this a total non sequitur, but the first premise is, shall we say, a dubious reflection of reality. If college professors had recently been in the news for their excessive concern for free speech, as opposed to their fondness for bike locks, FIRE donors would feel a lot less “nauseated.”
The most ultramontane free speech advocates adopt a kind of domino theory according to which recognizing such distinctions can never be principled or even possible. To use a mélange of comparable metaphors, it is the thin edge of the camel’s nose sliding down the slippery slope under the tent. How can you possibly turn Richard Spencer down while accepting Charles Murray?
Gratuitous swipe at Murray aside – is there another scholar in America who’s so loathed by the people who’ve never read him? – what Shapiro appears to be saying, somewhere under the verbiage, is that free-speech advocates reject her call for policing speech on “quality” grounds because of slippery-slope arguments.
What are we do to with this claim? It’d be helpful if we knew what she meant by “free speech,” but Shapiro’s an anthropologist, not a lawyer, and precise use of language just isn’t her thing.