I am hoping that commenters can help me understand an article titled “The Free Speech Fallacy,” by Jason Stanley of the Yale philosophy department, which appeared today in the Chronicle of Higher Education. I have now read it twice, and I cannot figure out Prof. Stanley’s ultimate position on free expression.
He begins by discussing a recent speech at Vassar by Rutgers Professor Jasbir Puar, in which she evidently accused Israel of “min[ing] the organs of dead Palestinians for scientific research.” This is apparently okay with Stanley because Prof. Puar is an “agenda setting scholar” whose work has been "cited over 1700 times."
Stanley then describes a Wall Street Journal oped by Mark Yudof and Ken Waltzer, in which they accuse Puar of reviving a “blood libel.” This is evidently not okay, even though both Yudof (former president of three universities) and Waltzer (emeritus professor of History at Michigan State) are prominent academics in their own right, and they no doubt have admirable citation counts.
The difference seems to be that Yudof and Waltzer employed “rhetorical excesses” such as “hatred of Jews” and “blood libel,” as opposed to Puar, who merely attributes “deliberate maiming” and body part harvesting to Israel. I have not previously been aware that rhetorical excesses are prohibited in academic debate, and Stanley does not explain how to distinguish the acceptable ones from the bad ones.
In any case, the Yudof and Waltzer oped did nothing more that criticize Puar, even if harshly, which would seem to be well within the bounds of intellectual discourse. Yes, the Wall Street Journal has a broad reach, but distribution seems to be a good thing in Puar’s case (1700 citations), so why would it be held against Yudof and Waltzer?
Stanley’s apparent answer is that the WSJ oped “predictably led to a wave of violent threats against Puar, which of course strongly discourages other academics from taking similar positions in public.” It ought to be obvious, however, that Yudof and Waltzer are not responsible for the outbursts of others, and that it is wrong to silence critics for fear of the reaction. Later in the article, Stanley completely reverses his position, noting a tweet from Jonathan Haidt that “declared Puar’s talk a threat to the safety of Jewish students, laying responsibility on the campus culture.” But no matter, says Stanley, because Haidt “mentions nothing about Puar’s free-speech rights.” For Puar, it seems, free speech is the most important value. For Yudof and Waltzer, apparently, not so much.
But then Stanley digs deeper, criticizing a group called the Heterodox Academy whose announced goal is to increase “viewpoint diversity” in higher education, including their observation that "antiracism is now a religion…. Certain questions are not to be asked, or if asked, only politely."
In this, the Heterodox Academy has it all wrong, says Stanley, because there is no “tension between antiracism and free speech.” “If I tell you that you shouldn’t say racist things, am I really denying you the right to say those things?”
So we have a contradiction. It is just fine for Stanley himself to tell people not to say racist things, with no implications for their rights to free expression or free inquiry. But it is no good at all for Yudof and Waltzer to say the same thing about anti-Jewish memes, because that has the effect of silencing Puar and others.
There is more, but it is equally non-understandable. Stanley accuses Heterodox Academy types of complaining too much when conservative speakers are prevented from presenting their views. “All year, the charge of imperiling free speech has been used to silence oppressed and marginalized groups and to push back against their interests.” But how precisely would lectures by conservatives, no matter how rhetorically excessive, “silence” anybody?
Jason Stanley is a highly accomplished scholar from a very distinguished family, but this article lacks a center of gravity. Who is allowed to criticize whom, in his opinion? When does criticism actually amount to silencing?
My own views, I hope, are more coherent: I am just fine with speakers such as Prof. Puar, and I would not seek to prevent them, or anyone else, from appearing on campus. I am likewise fine with criticism from Yudof and Waltzer, as well as with Stanley's criticism of the critics. I do not think there is anything sinister about Heterodox Academy or the call for more conservative discourse on campus, though there are many right-wing speakers whom I abhor, and whose talks I would never attend. I also think, it the best tradition of liberalism, that the remedy for objectionable speech is always more speech. (I supported this principle, for example, when Khalid Abdul Muhammad, a spokesman for Louis Farrakhan known for his anti-Jewish screed, was invited to speak at Northwestern.)
I trust I could find some common ground on free speech with Prof. Stanley, but the first step is figuring out exactly where he stands.
[Disclosure: I am a member of the Academic Engagement Network, of which Yudof is the president and Waltzer the executive director. I have no connection to the Heterodox Academy, but I note that its members include Jonathan Haidt, John McWhorter, and Steven Pinker, each of whose citation counts outnumbers Puar’s by orders of magnitude. I mention this only because it apparently matters to Stanley; it does not matter to me.]