A Third Way for Campus Speech?

Fenster writes:

Shulamit Reinharz, the director of an academic center at Brandeis, has an op-ed in the Boston Globe calling for a third way on campus speech.  Alluding to the tension currently present between free speech and those who would curtail it in the name of other, presumably better, things, she writes:

Although the tension between these two positions now defines the educational discourse, I believe there is a sorely missing third point. My concern regarding this third point arose years ago when I wrote to the president of my undergraduate alma mater, Barnard College, asking why a certain faculty member was being considered for tenure when so much of her work was inflammatory and of questionable validity. The president’s answer was that Barnard seeks to present a wide variety of views.

What was missing in her answer was the question of whether some views have more value than others.

What is missing in the statement issuing from the University of Chicago is equal emphasis on the two words in the iconic phrase “free inquiry.” In our rush to embrace freedom of expression, we have forgotten about the meaning of inquiry.

Should a person espousing Nazi ideology, for example, be allowed to speak on a campus just because students or faculty invited her/him? I would choose to avoid such a speech not because I wanted to be safe, but rather because the speech would be based on faulty reasoning. Are all ideas valid? Can we use information to invalidate ideas and then not have those ideas repeated as part of the diversity of perspectives?

Reinharz is raising some important issues here worth grappling with.  But it is volatile stuff and one must proceed with care.  It is easy to call bravely for a new approach and then find some slipping, sliding and eliding in one’s own position.

Reinharz herself does some slipping in the passage above.  Note how she answers whether a Nazi should speak on campus following a faculty or student invitation: she slides by the question, saying that she “would choose to avoid such a speech” because it would be based on “faulty reasoning”.  The first part of the sentence (“would choose to avoid”) suggests that the speech is happening and she has just chosen not to go.  The second part (“based on faulty reasoning”) is just the argument she uses for her third way.  If she really believes the reasoning is faulty, why would she not oppose the speech?

The argument gets even dicier when the rubber is asked to meet the road of how to implement a third way.  Here, Reinharz is somewhat mealy-mouthed.

I believe that a great education falls neither in the “free speech regardless of what a person is saying” camp nor in the “protect students from being hurt by speech” camp. I believe, instead, that a great education requires, first and foremost, teaching students how to evaluate ideas, how to define criteria upon which reasonable people will agree.

Under this view, all we need to do it recommit to critical thinking and we will magically find consensus.  Reasonable people will agree.

Really?  In what world do reasonable people actually agree?  The fact that we have huge disagreement now on important matters between people who fancy themselves reasonable is not in dispute.  It is the problem.  Expecting more critical thinking to magically delineate acceptable from unacceptable (Nazis no; alt-right OK depending on topic) is just a tad utopian.  As the political writer Decius wrote recently in a very different context, expecting good thinking to result in consensus is “like saying health will save a cancer patient. A step has been skipped in there somewhere.”

Still and all, I think Reinharz is quite right to look for a third way. And she is looking in the right place: in the academy itself, and in its academic core not its administrative superstructure.  She is looking in the right place.  I don’t think she is analyzing the problem in the right way.  She needs to be willing to actually face institutional issues.

We all subscribe to what we think of as clear-cut, black-and-white morally-based views on things like free speech, academic freedom and the like. But a moment’s reflection–critical reflection of the very type Reinharz endorses–leads an honest observer to note that all such morally binary propositions quickly get ragged in practice. That’s especially true for academic freedom, a term that has so many slippery meanings that it often verges on the useless.

Of course it is the case in practice that there will always be boundaries for speech, and these boundaries will ebb, flow and vary over time and depending on venue. Speech denying the Holocaust should certainly be permitted in the public square. It is arguably OK at a campus event. But is it OK for a professor to teach it in class, especially if her peers consider it based on bad scholarship? Very likely not.

The point is that an Overton Window we will always have with us. And make that plural–Overton Windows–since what is considered in and out of bounds will and should vary.

So now let’s get to the heart of Reinharz’s argument, which really needs to deal more openly with Overton Window management in an academic setting.  In the end, a practical matter.

Her basic conclusion is that it is not enough in the academy to say that we must be open to all ideas and everyone should be able to say anything. I think she is right about that. The academy is not a collection of individuals who mysteriously gain entrance into a Magic Circle and then are permitted to say whatever they want, as self-absorbed cats. There is a dog quality too.

Entrance into the academy is via a community of scholars. The academy is–or should be–a kind of self-regulating enterprise, one in which the ideas of individual scholars and the ideas of the community of which the scholar is a part are in constant tension.

That does not mean Ward Churchill should definitely have been fired for calling workers in the World Trade Center “little Eichmanns”. But neither does it mean he definitely should have kept his position. That’s just the point to decide, and the question is less the precise metrics for a judgment as it is the proper venue for a healthy and muscular one.

You can’t always find a right answer but you might be able to get to the best possible one. And that should be done at the intersection between scholars and the communities of which they are a part.

Alas, faculty seem to do all of this kind of stuff rather poorly. All too often faculty shrug off any real world concerns, ignoring any responsibility they might have over things like resources, then retreating comfortably to a criticism of administrators to whom they have ceded the issue.  The same tendency is often on display as regards playing an active role in a community of scholars, one with a real backbone.

Indeed, a lot of the zaniness currently on display in our nation’s campuses is bound up with faculty unwillingness to play the kind of role that Reinharz’s critique implies. It was, after all, the academic department and not the administration that just cancelled James Watson’s talk at NYU.  And where is the faculty as a community to be found in many of the recent campus dust-ups? Unless faculty members are on the barricades themselves they are usually silent.

So two cheers for Reinharz.  A third way is needed, and it needs to be centered in the academic core.  But it is hard to see it will develop properly in the current climate.

In which regard–

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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3 Responses to A Third Way for Campus Speech?

  1. Trimegistus says:

    I’m dubious. I think she’s trying to keep some wiggle room for censorship.

    We need free inquiry but some things are of “questionable validity.” Translation: free speech for Leftists on campus but censorship for anyone who opposes them. When someone insults Christians that’s “free inquiry.” When someone insults Muslims or feminists, that’s “questionable” and deserves to be suppressed.

    This isn’t an ally, this is an entryist.


    • Fenster says:

      I agree that the way it is framed leaves ample room for censorship. She left the question of whether a Nazi should speak ambiguous but there was a lot of room in her comments to allow for censorship on the upstanding principle of incorrect ideas. So allowing certain speech and not other speech on the grounds of incorrectness it very trick. That’s the whole joke behind “politically incorrect” in the first place. Mao is be definition correct and it is off the the camp with you.

      That said I continue to believe all societies operate with Overton Windows. Culture is about what “we” believe and if x and y are antithetical then culture has some obligation to prefer x over y, or at least treat y with greater scrutiny.

      Some Oveton Windows are implicit. We don’t show porn (yet) on network TV. And we don’t give equal time for Holocaust deniers.

      But Some Overton Windows are to be managed. I do believe that academics have a responsibility for the integrity of their disciplines. That has to mean something. But what?

      Sure you can point to Galieo. Everybody trots that out as an instance of the hero against the reactionary and threatened group. Fair enough.

      But I can think of any number of instances in which an academic played fast and loose with his credentials, tenure and megaphone. In such instances the power of the faculty member is not unlimited.

      My practical problem of course is that if the institution is debased, and if faculty either have given up on this role my theory is not practical. To paraphrase Franklin: we have an academy. Let’s see if we can keep it.


  2. Pingback: Squirrel! | Uncouth Reflections

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