NYU prof and vice provost, Ulrich Baer, has never been shy about crossing lanes into oncoming traffic, so it’s unsurprising that he wrote a book on a subject about which he knows nothing. What else would a passionate academic do, particularly when the climate is ripe for assertions that would have gotten him laughed off campus before intellectual rigor was replaced by sad tears.
Baer’s book, What Snowflakes Get Right: Free Speech, Truth and Equality on Campus, got him an interview at that bastion of academic freedom, Inside Higher Education, where he plays the most popular game among scholars these days, Guess my logical fallacy!
Q: What’s wrong with the way the free speech debate is understood on campus?
A: The free speech debates on campus have been framed incorrectly as a conflict between free speech and offended feelings of coddled, oversensitive students. The issue is that free speech only has meaning in the university when it’s paired with the legally mandated principle of equality for all qualified participants: equality of participation and opportunity.
Can you forgive him such mind-numbingly idiotic claims as the “legally mandated principle of equality”? I can, given that he’s no lawyer even if he can’t resist driving into the law lane. This has become a pervasive delusion within academia, that Titles VI and IX, not to mention the Equal Protection Clause, “mandate” that educational institutions receiving federal aid have a duty to silence individuals whose words might offend the “snowflakes.”
So when a speaker proposes that some people are innately inferior, such speech conflicts directly with the university’s mandate to provide equal access to its facilities and resources.
There are some speakers who have been invited to speak who suggest inferiority. Richard Spencer comes to mind, and perhaps Milo. Charles Murray never said such a thing, even though it’s often attributed to him by those who are so outraged that they can’t bother to read his book, suggesting that the inquiry shouldn’t be foreclosed, not that it’s the case.
But Baer’s statement is simply a non-sequitur, connecting two entirely unrelated things by some vague assumptions and inferential leaps. If a speaker proposes that some people are inferior, it might hurt some people’s feelings if they happen to be the people so called, or they have been sufficiently indoctrinated to believe it is their duty to stand up for the inferior.
But what does that have to do with equal access? They are there, in the room, free to disagree and dispute this offending proposition. By allowing an idea to be uttered that displeases someone, there is no more relation to depriving them of access than there is of correcting their answer on a test when they insist that two plus two is nine. And if that’s their answer, they’re inferior in math. Why that may be seems to be a fair basis for inquiry, since it behooves no student to be incapable of addition at the college level.
Free speech, moreover, is neither a blanket permission to say anything without consequence (our courts regulate many types of speech, from child pornography to libel, incitement and false information in legal contracts, advertising etc.) nor identical with academic freedom.
Boom. Here’s where Baer’s lane-challenge causes him to crash head first into an oncoming Mack truck of logic. And for those of you keeping count, the same gloss covers Mary Anne Franks’ facile irrationality, which similarly enjoys the blessings of academics for whom intellectual rigor provides no impediment and sophistry is all the rage.
Child porn? Libel? Fraud? Put aside incitement, as he’s so far off the charts at this point that explaining the failings seems pointless. There are certainly categorical exceptions to the First Amendment, each with its own rationale and constraints. If he cared to learn, there is no shortage of writing that explains such things, even some using small enough words for a non-lawyer to follow. But he would have to care enough to learn. It’s not as if writing a book on the subject would be sufficient motivation to know what he’s talking about.
But what he’s done, as so many other academic frauds do, is use them as a justification to silence speech that isn’t covered by a categorical exception. Even worse, to silence speech that’s not merely protected, but is usually held up as the epitome of protected speech.
Political speech isn’t child porn. It’s not libel (or slander, but who’s counting?). It’s not professional limits voluntarily assumed by the decision to join a regulated profession, nor a fraud perpetrated upon an unsuspecting contractual party or a lie in commercial speech about a product offered for sale.
The problem is that this is what academics are now spewing, and what of the poor groundlings, or the impressionable students, who hear the words they so desperately want to hear from the adults into whose intellectual care they reside? If a prof says so, it must be true. Or at the very least, a legitimate argument that they can seize upon and propound to their heart’s content on social media.
Sure, we can hope that students are smart enough, even if they have yet to achieve wisdom, to recognize that their teachers are indulging in logical fallacies to further their agendas, but experience suggests that if academics lack the capacity to call out illogic in their ranks because they too want the same irrational outcomes no matter how brutally logic gets sacrificed for the cause, do students stand a chance of realizing their profs are spewing nonsense? Do they want to realize it? Why would a student question their teacher who is telling them what they so desperately want to hear?
I asked a law prof friend the other day how it’s possible that such “smart” folks as his fellow prawfs fail to see the flagrant illogic of such contentions and call it out. “They don’t want to,” he informed me. “They like it, so they believe it.” Not only is Baer wrong about free speech, but this is his idea of truth, relying upon the rejection of logic to prove its worth. It’s innately inferior.