More on Free Speech

Fenster writes:

As I have written before I am not a free speech absolutist.  This is part of a broader pattern, since I aspire to be an anti-absolutist in all things.

Or most all things.  I would not want to be overly absolutist in my anti-absolutism.

But on free speech I do come close to absolutism, and my default tendencies are in favor of more, and robust, speech.   Since I see free speech as fragile and threatened, especially on college campuses, I typically pay attention to dust-ups.  I also pay attention to the debate itself.  It’s good to debate free speech, if only to see what the other side is up to.  Perhaps good arguments can be made against free speech, or at least clever ones.

So here in that regard is a very worthwhile debate on the issue, courtesty of IQ2.

IQ2 performs a valuable public service in sponsoring debates on major topics.  Two teams of two square off to argue yes or no on a stated proposition.  It is pretty old school in format, redolent of the Ivy League and Firing Line.  But that’s welcome in this day and age, when presidential debates turn on penis size,


talk shows devolve to mud wrestling and the debate form itself is being hacked.

In the properly constrained format of a civil debate, much rides on the framing of the proposition.  In this case, the question was “free speech is threatened on campus.”

That is, I think, a good way of putting it, at least for the affirmative side.  You don’t have to argue there is no free speech on campus, and you don’t have to even argue that free speech is being actively throttled by institutional action.  You just have to argue that it is threatened.

The affirmative side here is handled by the attorney and civil liberties advocate Wendy Kaminer and the semi-apostate though still left-oriented black linguist John McWhorter.  The negative side is handled by Shaun Harper, the director of a center and education at Penn, and Jason Stanley, a philosophy professor at Yale.

It is worth viewing if you are interested in seeing how both sides present their cases under the polite assault of the other side, and in the judgment of both live and online audiences.  The live audience is asked to vote (affirmative, negative, undecided) at the outset and then again at the end, with the winner being the side picking up the most points.

Spoiler alert: the affirmative side won both the live and online audiences, and decisively.  Of course, too much can be made of who wins something like this.  The live audience can be packed, voters can game the system and there is a large self-selection problem with the entire concept.  I mean what kinds of nerds would spend two hours actually watching this stuff?

But to me at least the fact that the affirmative side won had the ring of truth to it.  Going in the vote was split, with about half in favor or the affirmative and with negative and undecided each getting a quarter.  At the end, while negative stayed about the same around one-quarter, affirmative rose from half to two-thirds, courtesy of a shift in the undecideds.  So affirmative gained in the process of the debate.  But underlying the before-to-after shift is a strong tilt for the affirmative, which can be fairly read, I think, as a strong endorsement of the value of free speech.

Such is the power of the idea of free speech that even the negative team effectively endorses it.   The negative team argues in effect that all that is happening on campuses is the exercise of free speech by people that didn’t have to strength to use it before.  Truth to power, that argument.

The problem with this line of argument is that it is not hard to counter.  First, affirmative can argue that they, too, favor robust speech on the part of marginalized populations–but that that is not what we are witnessing.  Cases are presented of institutional power directed against speech as well as the overall chilling effect on campus climate.  Negative argues that the few cases mentioned by the other side are outliers; affirmative directs negative to the many cases documented by FIRE of overly aggressive speech codes, as well as their overly aggressive implementation.

So I liked very much that the affirmative side won.  What I particularly liked was what it might be saying about the smarty-pants types who watch this kind of thing.  The audience for IQ2 offerings is, I would reckon, pretty elite, even elite academic.  Just the kind of people who you might expect to swallow the “who whom” PC line.  But the clear majority here appears to be more stalwart than that.

At least that’s the case in the privacy of the voting booth.  They may send out a different signal over the water cooler tomorrow.  That’s not positive.  But I would rather see support for free speech among this crowd, even if muted, than the opposite.

About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
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