Saturday, February 20, 2016

Terrible Speakers from Williams to Vassar

The President of Williams College, Adam Falk, has prevented a student group from hosting a speech by right-wing pundit John Derbyshire. I've actually written once before about a similar flare-up concerning speeches at Williams, concerning the same student group ("Uncomfortable Learning"). But whereas in the last post I argued that the student protesters had struck the right note (protesting the decision to invite the speaker in question, Suzanne Venker, but not demanding that she be "banned"). President Falk's decision is a whole different kettle of fish. It is an outrageous assault on academic freedom, despite the fact that I whole-heartedly agree that Derbyshire's views (and the likely content of his speech) are abhorrent and racist.

The distinction between what happened previously versus in the instant case is simple. As I explained in my Academic Freedom versus Academic Legitimacy essay, academic freedom is a constraint on remedies -- when academics engage in terrible speech, it takes certain responses (banning the speaker, punishing the host group) off the table. It does not, however, preclude arguments that the hosts made a mistake in extending their invitation to someone who ought not be considered a useful contributor to academic discourse; nor does it preclude efforts to convince (not require) the group to reconsider its invitation once extended. These latter moves still need to be justified, of course, and we can fairly object in cases when they seem to be abused. But I don't think they are in of themselves academic freedom violations -- they are academic counterspeech, vital to the project of academic exchange.

By all accounts, it was this latter set of moves that were deployed in the Venker case. And, as Ken White lucidly argues, these arguments would have had considerable purchase against Derbyshire as well (though one significant -- though not necessarily dispositive -- counter-argument is that the African-American President of "Uncomfortable Learning" wanted the opportunity to confront and refute Derbyshire in person). But instead of forceful counterspeech the college administration jumped straight to one of the prohibited remedies. It banned Derbyshire in defiance of the wishes of a student group generally authorized to invite such speakers. There's simply no way to justify such a blunt exercise of administrative coercion against members of the academic community within the constraints of academic freedom.

In reflecting on this case, what jumped to mind was another recent case of a seemingly-terrible, bigoted speaker being invited to present at a northeastern liberal arts college -- Jasbir Puar at Vassar College. Dr. Puar was also invited by duly authorized members of the college community; her hosts (presumably cognizant that she would prove "controversial") even pleaded with the audience not to record her speech (a request, which, incidentally, I find independently outrageous and wholly unwarranted under the circumstances). Her talk was apparently a litany of vicious accusations of Israeli barbarity -- virtually none of which were supported by anything other than raw speculation buttressed by "knowledge" of the innately depraved hearts of Zionist Jewry. She complained that Jews had effectively hijacked the language of victimhood to box off global knowledge of their genocidal tendencies, that Israeli scientists engaged in widespanning medical experiments on Palestinian children to stunt their development and wage genetic warfare against them, and that accordingly boycotting Israel should be part and parcel of a broader strategy of violent attacks against it. The speech appears to be entirely beneath the standards of legitimate academic dialogue. That many academic departments at Vassar considered her to be a worthy contributor to such discourse speaks poorly of their judgment as academics (an assessment which is hardly challenged by the response of one of the inviting professors when challenged as to whether he believed Dr. Puar's allegations: "You prove to me that anything she said wasn’t true." This is an academic talking?).

I do not think Dr. Puar's speech should have been banned. I am perfectly content with responses of the sort I identified above: critiquing the judgment of the invitation while affirming the right of the invitation to be extended. Of course, that's cheap for me to say since her speech already has occurred. And it's possible that the reason the option of an outright ban doesn't appeal to me is simply because I know it's not viable for people in my community; the check President Falk writes is one I know I'm not entitled to cash. I don't think my position is merely a case of sour grapes, but I do think that line of analysis points to a real problem -- what Eugene Volokh has termed "censorship envy". If we are going to censor certain offensive speakers, those outgroups who still are forced to endure speech they find hateful can fairly wonder why they aren't entitled to the protections extended to others. The Jewish student at Vassar can read the goings-on at Williams College and justly ask "why not us? Why should we have to endure what others don't?" It's a fair question. I'm not sure it's an answerable question.

Better, then, to make it a moot question. The fact that we cannot have confidence that college officials or other authorities will distribute the fruits of censorship fairly or equitable is one excellent reason (among many) to deny them that power. Perhaps John Derbyshire should not have been invited to Williams in the first place; perhaps the same can be said about Jasbir Puar. There is much that can be said and perhaps should be said in defense of those points. But academic freedom means respecting the difference between a critique and a prohibition. When that distinction isn't acknowledged, the harm does not just extend to the community deprived of the right to confront those views, or even to to the barred speaker whose views have been deemed out of bounds. It is also felt by the members of all the other communities who know that they will be forced to endure their particular slings and arrows, that hurting them or spewing hate at them is apparently perfectly in bounds. Simply put, Williams College should be just as tolerant (and no further) of John Derbyshire as Vassar College should have been towards Jasbir Puar.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

For what it's worth, I made a list (this is the first of 2 parts) of guidelines to help people criticize Israel without lapsing into antisemitism.