Friday, November 13, 2015

Trading a Vice for a Virtue: A Reconsideration

The post I wrote earlier this week on the Yale controversy has gotten a decent amount of positive feedback. And while I'm grateful, I also am a bit surprised, because -- oddly enough -- I didn't really like that post. I wasn't comfortable with it when I wrote it, I hesitated greatly before publishing it, and I continue to have misgivings about it now. It's not exactly that the takeaways were wrong, but I wasn't satisfied with how I expressed them and there was some hiding of the ball -- even from myself -- on what was motivating me to focus on what I did. And while I imagine some will think that I received some blowback or critical response that is provoking this reconsideration, I can honestly say there was none (though perhaps one would have been deserved). This was internally-motivated, and hopefully gets across better what I want to think about on the subject.

I've noticed in all the (good) articles on this subject, there's a fair bit of "to-be-sure"ing going on, whereby the writer critical of the student protests acknowledges, "to be sure", that racial harassment is a very bad thing when it happens, or the writer defending the protests agrees, "to be sure", that it is inappropriate to call for "muscle" to evict a media photographer. Given these overlapping "to-be-sures", one could wonder what all the fuss is about -- but it's clear the question is on emphasis: is the important issue ingrained racist practices at many of our colleges and universities (with suppression of dissident views a real but side issue), or is the important issue incurious and intolerant millennials (with ongoing racial harassment a real but side issue)? Clearly there is a problem of caring equally here. But on reflection, it's unclear why I should have taken the focus that I did (incurious millennials, while to-be-sureing racial inequities).

One of the arguments I did try to make with some level of clarity was that this entire discussion is ill-served when it is grouped-in as a question of free speech. Kate Manne and Jason Stanley have a very thoughtful article on this point that I largely agree with* noting that for the most part "free speech" is being used opportunistically to privilege particular speech-instances while condemning others that are structurally identical. The Yale controversy, after all, essentially broke down as follows:

  1. Yale administrators say that one shouldn't (not mandate that one can't) wear ethnically offensive Halloween costumes (because that's part of being respectful of one's peers on a diverse campus);
  2. A Yale dorm master says that they shouldn't have sent that email (because one shouldn't need administrators to make such recommendations and in any event a little bit of offense is not the worst thing in the world);
  3. Yale students say that the dorm master shouldn't have made that argument (they find the argument risible, beneath the standards of good argumentation, or not in keeping with the master's mission).
  4. Various commentators say that the students shouldn't  have condemned the dorm master for writing the email (they should be tougher, they should be open to diverse views, etc.).
All of this is speech and counter-speech, structurally identical to one another. And moreover, I've been quite consistent in arguing that it is a legitimate move (from both a "counterspeech" perspective and a good citizen perspective) to argue that certain arguments should not be made (the "academic legitimacy" argument), though I've also implied that I think one should be very judicious in making such claims -- there should be a very wide gap between "claims I think are wrong" and "claims I think should be explicitly discouraged from being considered in the deliberative space". My contention was essentially that the Yale students made that gap too small -- and while I still think I'm right about that, there are some serious shortcomings in how I framed it. 

For starters, believing that the Yale students drew the line incorrectly does not necessarily suggest that they simply lacked curiosity about an alternative view -- indeed, it seems overwhelmingly likely that they have thought about this issue plenty and were just tired about having to retread plowed ground again. Potentially, such retreading is nonetheless necessary -- but failure to do so is at least a distinguishable vice from a lack of curiosity. And to the extent I implied that there was a more general failure of curiosity at work here, that seems on reflection difficult to infer as well given that I acknowledged that this email almost certainly did not occur in isolation but rather was the straw that broke the camels back (and of course individual straws look insignificant). On this score, Kevin Drum got it exactly right when he said that "fixating on a single incident like this is as silly as trying to figure out why all those European countries really cared so much about Archduke Ferdinand." Finally, you'll note that this concern about having a strong default in favor of considering arguments qua arguments did not come into play in my assessment of the master's email vis-a-vis the Yale administration email. Why wasn't I also rattled by the idea, forwarded by the master, that it was a bad (not impermissible, but bad) deliberative step for the administration to proffer its ideas regarding what one should (but was not obliged) to do? It's not that there aren't arguments to be had on this score, and I think the master raises a legitimate point when she asks why the students lack confidence in their internal ability to create tolerant norms but do have confidence in the administration's capacity for doing so, but those are significantly more complicated points that seem not to explain the disparate treatment between arguments that structurally adopt the same pose.

So that's the reassessment. But I also think it might be valuable, for me at least, to try to unpack what was going on in my head that was driving my thinking on the matter, the focus that I took and the conclusions that I arrived at. The basic argument -- which I still think is right, though more on why in a moment -- is that while it is certainly not a free speech violation to argue that certain other arguments should not (not cannot, but should not) be made or taken seriously, we should be exceptionally judicious in taking such stands. It's not that they're never warranted (an obvious example is a claim that the earth is flat -- I don't want to ban the view, but I do think it shouldn't be taken seriously. "Black people are scum" would be another), but we should be exceedingly cautious and default strongly in favor of at least listening to arguments and disagreeing with them on their merits.

The salience of that position, for me at that time, came out of a post I didn't write -- one about the objections by some progressives to having Bibi Netanyahu present at CAP. This, of course, occurred in the broader context of efforts to boycott -- or otherwise refuse to listen to -- Israelis more generally, and to me exhibited a true lack of curiosity that was deeply disturbing. There was no chance, after all, that Netanyahu would be (as one blogger put it) "feted like the Queen of England and subjected to no challenging questions." And since I am no fan of Netanyahu, I very much liked the idea that he would be subjected to challenging questions. But it seemed to me that the objections to him speaking were predicated less on the prospect that he'd say something outrageous in response than that he'd say something that was not so clearly off-base -- those who wanted not to listen were afraid that he'd give them something that seemed to warrant being listened to, and thus disturb the much more comfortable presumption that any decision he makes or any position he takes is based on such obviously atrocious arguments that they need not even be considered. More broadly, effort to disinvite him exists as part of a larger cultural moment whereby the very legitimacy of (most) Jews' perspectives -- the idea that this entire outlook can be casually dismissed as having no value, deceptive when it isn't oppressive, distracting when it isn't made in bad faith altogether -- that is deeply worrying to me and really does negatively impact my ability to proceed with confidence in deliberative spaces.

In short, I was in a place where I was keenly attuned to the very real equality risks that can emerge when people try to assert the illegitimacy of given perspectives. As a Jew, I can't completely cheer at these expressions of left-wing activism because I know there is a real and non-negligible risk that in that crowd someone wants to say the whole thing they're fighting against is a Zionist plot, and there is a real and non-negligible risk that if that person gets a hold of the mic and says so the crowd will erupt in cheers. 

But the bigger issue is this. I'd like to say that I take the position that I do -- a strong default in favor of accepting arguments into the deliberative space and against preemptively screening off even those I passionately dislike -- for  "neutral" reasons (respect for pluralism, the importance of experimentation, epistemic humility, whatever). But if I'm being honest, I think a large part of my position flows from my awareness that the check these activists wish to write is one that I'm not entitled to cash. The principle that we should (through social if not de jure pressure) seek to tamp down on speech that alienates people or makes them feel unsafe or disrespected is not one I'm allowed to invoke; indeed, it doesn't seem to occur to people that I'm the sort of person who ever could invoke it

One Yale graduate student (I lost the link) wrote an open letter to the dorm masters which presented his perspective on how white privilege and the perspective of persons of color should have played into this debate. Included in his argument was a pretty strong claim that only the oppressed can truly know the nature of their own experience and thereby they deserve deference when making such assertions. And then turning to the "free speech" claim, he asked the master where their free speech commitment was when Steven Salaita was denied his position at Illinois.

Had that question been directed to me, of course, I could have responded that I was quite explicit in declaring Salaita's academic freedom had been violated. But what I really wanted to say was that Steven Salaita is not your standard-bearer; Steven Salaita is your victim. What, exactly, do you think the Illinois decision was except an assessment that in deriding the legitimacy of anti-Semitism allegations as being worthy of concern (he said he took them with "bemused indifference"), in comparing Zionists to vermin or a pox ("scabies"), in celebrating violence against Jews and wishing more to fall upon them, he was making the space unsafe for Jews on campus? I could lob right back -- where was your epistemic humility about your ability to understand their outlook and what they've gone through? Where was your concern about respecting oppressed peoples' right to name their own experience when you erased their stated concern about anti-Semitism and substituted in a supposed inability to tolerate criticism of Israel? It doesn't even ring a bell. 

Now it's not the case that everyone is a hypocrite here. As I mentioned, despite absolutely believing that Salaita's tweets were anti-Semitic, I still thought his academic freedom was violated -- for me, the free speech issue trumped. And I had a wonderful train ride last year with a colleague who is both far more harsh in her assessment of Israel than I am and more favorably disposed to the "safe space" concept than I am, and she took the exact opposite view: She thought that Salaita's tweets raised serious questions about his ability to foster a safe and inclusive space in his classroom, and therefore was not convinced that the administrators were necessarily unjustified in revoking his appointment. Thus we had the strange experience of the Zionist defending Salaita's academic freedom rights and the anti-Zionist suggesting that maybe the administration had a point in keeping him off campus.

Still, that I think is the exception and not the rule. I have an admittedly deep-seated suspicion of the argumentative line be taken here, and I think it results primarily from the fact that I don't think I'd be allowed to access it. And in this, I'm reminded of Patricia Williams' defense of formal legal rights as against the challenge of Critical Legal Studies professors who'd prefer more informal norms of relations. Williams liked rights not because they were ideal, but because she couldn't count on informal communal norms to be inclusive of her. The thin, threadbare, dispassionate, anemic rights-talk still gave her at least a bare foothold for asserting claims; the rich, casual, everyday modes of informal discourse often times would just casually and informally exclude her. And so it is with my instincts of discourse -- my preference to let as much as possible be admitted to the space of arguments that demand reasoned responses does not come from a belief that most arguments are worthwhile, it comes from a lack of confidence in the institutions -- be they college administrators or public legislators or, unfortunately, idealistic campus activists -- that are tasked with deciding what is drawn in and what is drawn out.

* I have to observe, though, that there is in fact no "hate speech" exception in First Amendment doctrine. This is a widespread misconception, and while I'm not sure from where it derives, it is unfortunate that it was forwarded here.


Pillsy said...

And then turning to the "free speech" claim, he asked the master where their free speech commitment was when Steven Salaita was denied his position at Illinois.

I remember that post (and of course I can't find the link either) and I took it more as highlighting a double standard that seems to afflict a fair number of commentators, you distinctly not among them. Your take on Salaita isn't significantly different to my own.

In any event, I can see where you're coming from, but at the same time I have to say that Julia Serano's argument about the boundaries of acceptable opinion is very compelling. I think fighting to define the boundaries of acceptable discourse is way too important a political end of free speech (and, perhaps even more, academic freedom) that it, to my mind, enhances the legitimacy of what the student protesters at Yale are doing.

David Schraub said...

I don't think we disagree. Certainly, the "dueling hypocrisy" element to be found in the Salaita case is strong (it is odd, though, how often hypocrisy is a double-edged sword: "Where was your concern about free speech when Salaita was unhired?" "Well where was your concern about safe spaces when he was hired?"). Likewise, I agree that the key question here is about where to draw the line (at points Serrano indicates that this is where free speech "ends", but I wouldn't say that. I think the free speech part has to be protected -- no official punishment, no physical or auditory blocking of the speaker -- but beyond that the criticism of the speaker and the assertion that their views are unworthy of consideration is simply counterspeech). The "draw the line" question goes to issues of epistemic curiosity that I think are better disaggregated from the "Free speech" question altogether, but Serrano is clearly right that nobody believes that there is no speech that is unworthy of being condemned in this way.