Campus Controversies and “Inclusion… in the Activity of Knowledge Seeking”


Last September, when the Department of Philosophy at Rhodes College invited Peter Singer (Princeton) to participate in a webinar on pandemic ethics, faculty in other units on campus objected and urged that the event be canceled.

Despite considerable pressure from colleagues and a condemnation by the college administration of a vague caricature of Singer’s views about disability, the Department of Philosophy went on with the event (you can read all about this story here.)

[Paul Klee, “Before the Lightning”]

Recently, two of the Rhodes philosophers involved in that controversy, Daniel Cullen and Rebecca Tuvel, had the opportunity to discuss what it was like being on the receiving end of the campaign to cancel the event, what they were thinking and doing at the time, and their broader reflections on disputes of this kind, on the “Banished” podcast.

Despite polemical promptings from host Amna Khalid (Carleton), the philosophers are quite thoughtful in their discussion. Professor Cullen was particularly good, I thought, at making clear some of the concerns of would-be cancelers, though he disagrees with them in several important ways.

Here are two excerpts from his remarks during the podcast:

It’s a good thing that colleges and universities have become more diverse, and it’s true that in order to create a sense of community one needs to work at sending the message that everybody is accepted and welcome… And yet I think strangely what’s happened is that in our focus on this, we’ve lost sight of the point: “what is the community assembled for, ultimately?” That’s why I keep asking the question, “inclusion in what?” [32:47]

It’s my perspective… that the way to practice, in an intellectual community, inclusion, is to remain focused all the time on inclusion of everyone in the activity of knowledge-seeking, and that can’t proceed without controversy, and it can’t proceed without generating feelings of offense. But the idea that those feelings would be a conversation stopper is the conclusion I think that is manifestly indefensible, if we intend to remain an institution devoted primarily to seeking knowledge. [17:29]

I’m interested in us fleshing out what “inclusion of everyone in the activity of knowledge-seeking” involves, brainstorming strategies for grappling with potentially controversial inquiries that fit with the message that “everybody is accepted and welcome,” and how, if need be, to offend responsibly, so that feelings of offense are less likely to function as “conversation stoppers.”

Inclusion of the sort Professor Cullen mentions, it seems, isn’t achieved through mere invitation (consider, for example, an invitation to seriously entertain the idea of one’s own inherent inferiority), nor by merely telling the potentially offended to toughen up. Inclusion requires preparation, understanding, and care. Inclusion may only be achievable by structuring discussions or events in certain ways. It may require the cultivation of trust, or a supportive background culture, or supportive background institutions. Efforts at inclusion may be more successful as proactive rather than rearguard measures. And what else?

This is all very vague and speculative, I know, but I’m hoping to avoid the dynamic in which I make a specific suggestion in regard to a problem and then nearly all of the comments are about criticizing that suggestion. That’s not because I can’t take the criticism (if you think that, I only have one thing to say to you: “Welcome, brand new reader of Daily Nous!”). Rather, it’s because it would be useful to hear others’ ideas on this. So please share more specific and concrete suggestions for, or good examples of, “inclusion of everyone in the activity of knowledge-seeking.” More general discussion of the issue is also welcome, of course.

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David
1 month ago

Here’s a start:

It would certainly help to stop reducing objections to platforming in these cases to “feelings of offense” and framing the question about whether we should let such feelings be “conversation stoppers.” I’ll quote Tuvel who did the exact same thing when the initial controversy broke out:

If that is the conclusion, we respectfully disagree, for its premise is that ideas that cause anger and dismay ought not, for that reason, be part of the exchange”

Yes, certainly, the outcry against Singer and other responses involve feelings of offense, anger and dismay but those feelings are grounded in judgments about Singer’s views. Those judgments have a substantive content, content which was expressed openly. In none of the quotes I saw did anyone say “Singer makes me feel angry/offended, and therefore should not be invited to speak.” The substantive content matters (whether you think those judgments are accurate or inaccurate).

Here are at least three reasons to stop using this framing:

(1) You cannot include those raising objections in the conversation while reducing those objections to feelings of offense because you are not then engaging with the grounds for those feelings.

(2) Rhetorically it presents those raising objections reductively, rather than as full interlocutors in the conversation whose reasons for objecting and feeling angry merit response as much as their feelings.

(3) Many (all but the most absolutist defenders of free speech) will hold that there are genuine conversation-stoppers when we start talking about the substantive judgments underlying feelings of offense. I hope no one would suggest that the best question to ask when considering objections to the invitation of a speaker planning to call for genocidal violence “But should we let feelings of offense involved be conversation stoppers?” Obviously anyone (rightly, I hope we can agree) angry at the prospect of such a speech would be offended because it involves calls to genocidal violence and so the question is whether such calls should ever be platformed in academic discourse. (Note: In case this isn’t clear, I am using an extreme example to illustrate, not implying that Singer’s views are equivalent).

Charitably, I expect part of the reason this framing is adopted because it makes it easier to speak generally about ‘cancelling,’ since there may be more commonality in the emotions involved in objections than in the judgments underlying them. But this is a mistake. There probably is no general answer regarding how best to work through objections to platforming (and similar objections) as a knowledge-seeking community because those objections probably often have very different underlying reasons in ways that matter. To the extent we can identify general principles to adopt about what to include or not include in the conversation or where its boundaries rightly are, those are going to be about the kinds of reasons involved.Report

Preston Stovall
Reply to  David
1 month ago

I’m not convinced that these three reasons show that we shouldn’t frame the issue, in part, as one of young people feeling offended and, as a result of the strength of this feeling, trying to shut down the conversations that offend them. Concerning (1) and (2), it’s possible to hold both that a behavior manifests an unhealthy sense of the normative significance of a person’s own feelings, and that those feelings are directed at or grounded in something worth critically evaluating.

Concerning (3), it’s precisely because the question is not whether calls such as genocide should be platformed that it is of little consequence that everyone of sound mind and good will agrees that there are some positions (like the genocidal ones) that shouldn’t be platformed. And in communities such as ours, where the vast majority of people develop and defend views on the basis of sound minds and good will, we fall under a standing obligation — rarely defeated — to not only permit one another to develop and defend different views but, in some cases, to actively try to understand the merits of those views. If our students don’t appreciate this feature of our education system, that system will have failed them.Report

Caligula's Goat
1 month ago

I see three distinguishable issues here though only one, in my view, leads to the no platform conclusion:

(1) A view is seen as offensive but one’s impression of what the view entails is actually false and based on bad second-hand information or uncharitable readings of a person’s argument

(2) A view is seen as offensive and one genuinely and correctly understands both the argument and its conclusion

(3) A view is seen as unacceptable to entertain, for genuine reasons, due to a larger socio-political concern about what “platforming” that view might entail

In my view, (1) and (2) are never a justification to cancel or de-platform an academic speaker (as opposed to a Tucker Carlson). In the case of (1) the solution is to correct someone’s misunderstanding so that they no longer hold false beliefs and then can come to assess a speaker’s actual views, which may end up morphing into (2).

In the case of (2) it seems clear to me that we should agree that the best response to someone’s bad arguments is to counter them with your own better arguments. De-platforming or canceling doesn’t allow for this to happen and so does damage to the process of knowledge seeking and/or reflective equilibrium (however you want to understand what the purpose of higher education in general or philosophy in particular to be). This can sometimes also blend into (3).

In the case of (3) I think that there is an argument to be made, and it *must* be made if someone intends on acting on it, that some views may be pernicious enough that it is a kind of “intellectual emergency” with real socio-political outcomes. I take it that this is how many people understand deplatforming of someone like Kathleen Stock (though sometimes these are cleary instances of (1) or (2) as well). In that case, we still need to engage in actual discourse, produce arguments, and do so in the name of both intellectual humility, honesty, transparency, and reflective equilibrium. If (3) is ever acted upon unliterally (as it often is by university adminstrators who are always, at bottom, liability oriented), then I think we’ve failed to function as a university.Report

Louis F. Cooper
1 month ago

Instead of de-platforming controversial speakers, have a person or persons comment on or respond to their presentations. The commenter or commenters could be chosen from among those with strong objections to the speaker’s views — hence satisfying, at least to some extent, the criterion of “inclusion” — provided there is some assurance that the commenter will engage in something approximating reasoned debate, as opposed to simply a stream of invective. (Admittedly, the line between invective and reasoned debate can be fuzzy and subjective at times, I suppose.)Report

Preston Stovall
1 month ago

Inclusion of the sort Professor Cullen mentions, it seems, isn’t achieved through mere invitation (consider, for example, an invitation to seriously entertain the idea of one’s own inherent inferiority), nor by merely telling the potentially offended to toughen up. Inclusion requires preparation, understanding, and care. Inclusion may only be achievable by structuring discussions or events in certain ways. It may require the cultivation of trust, or a supportive background culture, or supportive background institutions. Efforts at inclusion may be more successful as proactive rather than rearguard measures. And what else?

Trust is clearly important, as people who distrust one another are less likely to give each other the benefit of the doubt. And you can’t feel included in a community where you are not given the benefit of the doubt, or where you do not give it to the members of that community. So trust involves a mutual willingness or disposition to shift one’s perspective over potential offenses so as to come to understand the other’s point of view, and to search for the good willed in that perspective (see Brandom on Hegel on trust).

But what about the “potentially offended” Justin refers to? I’m not sure about telling people to “toughen up”, but there’s some evidence that teaching young people resilience in the face of what upsets them is a good strategy for shaping stable and mature adults. Still, it would seem a minimal negative condition on building an inclusive community that people not try to intentionally offend one another. And in some cases it may be right to actively try not to upset people. That can’t be a universal all-things-considered rule, of course, otherwise we’d have nothing that merits the title “university” (or “comedy club”, for that matter).

If we’re looking to build inclusive educational communities in the face of the potentially offended, we face three at least three questions worth addressing up front. How should we act so as to avoid intentionally offending people? How should we set up institutions, either formally or informally, that create and enforce norms over what counts as an offense? And how should young people be taught to respond to a perception of offense?

I don’t think enough attention has been given to the last two questions, though with the growing interest in media literacy over the last few years, the creation of organizations like the Heterodox Academy and F.I.R.E., and outputs like the Young Academy of Scotland’s “Charter for Responsible Debate”, there’s reason to think the tide is turning.

Taking a stab at answering that third question, it may help to frame education as collective play. For one way of building a sense of inclusion across a community is to work together at a common project. If we think that inquiry is something like a common project, and if we treat the educational context as one in which we are engaged in a kind of shared play — a free exercise of cognition in concert with other people — then we might build information-exchange networks that better allow for conversation over contentious issues. Play can be competitive or cooperative, and the conceptual resources of one kind of play or the other might be more useful in different contexts of inquiry.

To at least feint in the direction of an answer to the second question, it would seem important to foster this sense of inquiry as collective play in such a way as to distinguish norms concerning a seminar room of a dozen people, norms for an auditorium lecture course, and norms for an invited speaker.Report

C Miley
Reply to  Preston Stovall
1 month ago

I worry quite a bit about ‘offending’ having risen to such prominence today, that it can even be considered as a valid reason to curtail academic debate and inquiry.

The trouble with ‘offence’ is that it is almost wholly subjective and it accords primacy to people’s feelings, emotions. Academic debate and university education in general used to be based on factual data, reasoned argument and development of the ability to understand opposing positions.

Cancel culture has elevated feelings, especially feelings of ‘offence’ to a status above all other considerations and weaponised them in a way that not only abrogates human and civil rights, but threatens intellectual discourse itself. That’s why it must be strongly resisted at all costs.

There are many options for people who are offended by Singer’s or anyone else’s views, starting with not attending his lectures. In the past, students might mount a demo of opposition, for instance. But when the offended call for sackings and bannings, is when you realise that this isn’t about ‘offence’, it’s about control. Power. Not inclusivity.Report

C Miley
1 month ago

Prof Cullen’s comments as quoted sum it up for me. “Inclusion in what?” is the point. In these arguments, it seems to me that inclusivity has become a shibboleth and the point of the exercise has been forgotten in pursuit of adherence.

If the point of universities/academic debate is to air ideas and improve knowledge, then placing restrictions on speakers and topics is antithetical to that. Debate involves the airing of controversial views and their discussion and critique.

I dislike Singer’s views personally but he must be allowed to speak. Unless the point of universities is to provide an uncontroversial ‘safe’ environment, in which case they are educationally fairly useless IMO.Report

Leslie Glazer PhD
1 month ago

our universities, to the degree that they participate in the notion and ideals of liberal education, just as our liberal democracy, are places where opposition and conflicting interests and points of view are constitutive. The trend towards ‘cancel culture’ is as destructive of this sensibility as was/is the nazi burning of books, school boards today banning books, Putin’s control of the media in Russia, or the banning or excommunication of unacceptable beliefs and dangerous ideas in the church up to the modern era. All are anti liberal. The only difference is which side one is on. Liberal education and liberal democracy answer to the ‘included in what’, and the answer regarding its limits are the institutional conventions and expectations of civility and ideals of rational communication The only thing excluded would be forms of discourse that do not accept those liberal ideals. That would exclude someone espousing hate speech and fascist programs but would not exclude these ideas from being debated and analyzed. Also excluded would be activists of cancel culture based on some ideology if they aren’t open to analysis and debate as well. So, the question is whether we still believe the university is a place of liberal education or whether it is something else, perhaps more like medieval universities where oaths of belief were common. I don’t think we are there yet, but something itself to analyze and debate perhapsReport

ABD
ABD
1 month ago

“Inclusion in what?” is a clever rhetorical pivot to limit “inclusion” to compatibility with knowledge-seeking. However, “inclusion” is a euphemism for the absence of oppression (ideologically defined). “Inclusion in what?” won’t get any more traction than attempts to derive viewpoint diversity from “diversity” (because “diversity” is a euphemism for affirmative action and quotas). These are political words, just like “death tax” (i.e., estate tax), “Obamacare” (coined by Rush Limbaugh), “Patriot Act,” “enhanced interrogation,” “collateral damage,” etc. Perhaps in this frame, some people will realize how pernicious it is to ask job applicants for “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” statements (i.e., any placement officer that tells their graduate students to write their statements honestly would be guilty of malpractice).Report

Maggie
1 month ago

Who wins certain debates in the court of public opinion or in the corridors of power can determine who lives and who dies. When so much is at stake, some of those who want their side to win are willing to sacrifice some free speech/academic freedom/civil discourse/etc. if they think that doing so will make victory for their side more likely. I would certainly de-platform a speaker, for example, if I thought it would help further certain important causes, e.g., preventing the murder of disabled infants. Moreover, thanks to the internet and social media, free and open debate is often manipulated to spread lies and propaganda. That has weakened the presumption in favor of free and open debate. (Blame Putin, not me.) I would like to see some serious foundational discussion of the value and limits of free speech and academic freedom at Daily Nous. Sacred cows can stifle debate, which is bad, right?Report

Jay
Jay
Reply to  Maggie
1 month ago

I would certainly de-platform a speaker, for example, if I thought it would help further certain important causes, e.g., preventing the murder of disabled infants.”

This leaves open other doors, e.g., “I would certainly de-platform a speaker, for example, if I thought it would help further certain important causes, e.g., preventing the murder of innocent fetuses.”

Shouldn’t philosophers be among those who are least prone to use their certainty that they occupy the moral high ground to justify abandoning liberal attitudes toward speech?Report

Preston Werner
Preston Werner
Reply to  Jay
1 month ago

Hi Jay (and indirectly, Maggie),

I think moral issues surrounding de-platforming are quite interesting and non-trivial, and I am not sure what I think about it. But I think there is a tendency to kneejerk reject position’s like Maggie’s for the kind of reason you say:

“Shouldn’t philosophers be among those who are least prone to use their certainty that they occupy the moral high ground to justify abandoning liberal attitudes toward speech?”

Can you fill out this argument in more detail? One way of understanding this is along the lines of some kind of Millian faith that if we just let all ideas and arguments on the table, the truth will emerge, and if we suppress certain ideas we may be preventing certain truths from emerging.
It’s a beautiful idea, especially for us philosophers who pride ourselves in our reason-responsiveness and rationality. But I think its false. Mill was wrong on this ‘marketplace of ideas’ stuff. Humans, us included, are not Cartesian minds free of manipulation, bias, and believing things because of social pressure. The argument for the truth is not always the argument that will convince the most people. (You may disagree with me, and that is reasonable, but let’s set that aside!)

The other sensible reading I can make of the argument is something like the ‘what if you’re wrong?’ argument. That is: De-platforming requires something like a very high degree of confidence, and philosophers should know better than to have such a thing when it comes to moral beliefs.
I agree with the second conjunct, but why should we think the first conjunct is true? And if so, should we draw the conclusion that philosophers should be morally complacent, never willing to take ‘moral risks’?
In any case, this argument cuts both ways. I could easily say something like “Shouldn’t philosophers be among those who are least prone to use their certainty that they occupy the moral high ground to pontificate on issues like the moral permissibility of de-platforming?”

Again, I’m genuinely not trying to be snarky here. I don’t know what to think about de-platforming. But I do think there is this weird free speech absolutism that comes out in contexts like this which philosophers are not prone to endorse in other contexts, and I’m not sure what to make of it.Report

David Wallace
Reply to  Preston Werner
1 month ago

At least for myself I’d want to distinguish
(1) It is always true, in each individual case, that truth and wisdom will be advanced better by free speech than by its suppression; and
(2) A norm of free speech much better serves truth and wisdom than a case-by-case judgement, not least because it is naive to suppose that those who control any putative limits on free speech will always do so wisely and benevolently.

I agree (1) is implausibly strong. I think the case for (2) is very powerful and not usually addressed by advocates of case-by-case exceptions to free speech.Report

Last edited 1 month ago by David Wallace
Preston Werner
Preston Werner
Reply to  David Wallace
1 month ago

Hi David,
No strong disagreement here, just to note that what we think about governmental deplatforming (by, say, making certain speech illegal) need not be the same as what we think about deplatforming as is discussed in this post (by, say, shouting down or disinviting speakers to give a talk at a university).Report

Preston Werner
Preston Werner
Reply to  Preston Werner
1 month ago

Ok, *one* disagreement (I can’t resist) –
I think (2) is the wrong way to frame how norms function, at least outside of certain legal contexts.
Here’s an analogy:
I endorse a standing norm in favor of telling the truth. I don’t consider each utterance on a case by case basis. But that doesn’t entail that I think lying is never permissible. When is lying permissible? Presumably when there is some very important good or very important bad at stake. When should the norm give way to considering whether to lie in some particular circumstance? If I have strong evidence that the burden may be met, I need to not follow my standing norm and do the hard work of deliberating.

This, I take is, is analogous to the deplatforming case. We as individuals should endorse a general norm of free speech, unless and until some context where serious harms are at stake. Then we need to think hard about all of the considerations, because morality is sometimes hard and rule consequentialism is false.Report

Jay
Jay
Reply to  Preston Werner
1 month ago

Hello Preston. Sorry about the slow response.

It seems to me that philosophy, and intellectual life more generally, induces a healthy level of epistemic humility. After we’ve studied philosophy and learned some science, much of what we took as beyond doubt comes to look wrong, or suspect, or at least much more challenging to justify than we assumed.

There are many examples:
×         that spatially separated events occur simultaneously or not, full stop (no need to specify their reference frames)
×         that creatures as complex as we are can only have resulted from ingenious design
×         that objects have their properties (location and momentum, say) determinately
×         that thought and speech have their contents settled prior to interpretation
×         that I am not a brain in a vat
×         etc., etc.

Maggie said, “I would certainly de-platform a speaker, for example, if I thought it would help further certain important causes, e.g., preventing the murder of disabled infants.” It seems to me that before justifiably attempting to suppress the speech of another thinker because of your moral disagreements with them, you must feel overwhelmingly certain of a number of things: that, to begin with, there are objective moral truths; that in general we can know what those truths are; that in this particular case you know what the relevant moral truths are; that the net overall effect of suppressing the expression of what you take to be moral falsehoods will be morally better than if they were not suppressed, …

My point, I guess, is that this attitude seems like a kind of epistemic hubris, and is at odds with the epistemic humility that (in my eyes) characterizes many of the lessons of philosophy.Report

Edward Cantu
Reply to  Maggie
1 month ago

Maggie, your harm-reduction justification for limiting open debate is precisely the justification governments have historically employed to restrict the expression of controversial ideas in the United States. In each of these now notorious instances, courts and legal culture have subsequently deemed them to be huge mistakes. In particular, the reasoning used to support these restrictions is now seen as pernicious, such that law students are taught to be on guard against it lest it rear its head in the name of “pragmatism” or some such.

Importantly, the modern speech-protective norm exists even though the pernicious reasoning used to justify past censorship is largely true. That is, the modern condemnation of past speech restrictions exists alongside the recognition that speech can be a causal link to concrete harm. I think it worthwhile to consider how legal culture can at once be very speech-protective and yet understand that less protection for speech can indeed reduce some harm.Report

Maggie
Reply to  Edward Cantu
1 month ago

IMHO, legally restricting state censorship is vital to a healthy society. In fact, I would go further than the first amendment in legally restricting the control of speech by both the state and by powerful private parties. These opinions do not conflict with what I have already expressed in this thread.Report

David Wallace
Reply to  Maggie
1 month ago

Conflict? no. But I think there is a tension. Between this comment and your earlier one, we are left with the principle that some private parties are allowed to limit speech but others (the ‘powerful’ ones) are not. I’d worry about how that distinction is defined, and, more importantly, who gets to define it and who gets to change the definition. (This is a variant of my previous worry: the powerless, by definition, usually don’t get to set the rules.)Report

Maggie
Reply to  David Wallace
1 month ago

I would worry about these things too.Report

Maggie
Reply to  Maggie
1 month ago

What I have in mind, in part, are laws granting speech rights that the First Amendment does not grant and that impose speech-facilitating duties that the First Amendment does not impose, e.g., laws that protect employee’s speech by prohibiting an employer from firing the employee for certain kinds of speech. There are already many such laws, but I think there should be more. Of course, such legislation can be good or bad.Report

David Wallace
Reply to  Maggie
1 month ago

That makes sense.Report

Edward Cantu
Reply to  David Wallace
1 month ago

I’d worry about how that distinction is defined, and, more importantly, who gets to define it and who gets to change the definition.”

Yes, of course these are the things to worry about. Which is why First Amendment doctrine generally eschews utilitarian line-drawing. As the Supreme Court seems to recognize, once we decide that a line must be drawn we’ve already lost the game.Report

David Wallace
Reply to  Maggie
1 month ago

If we accept that free speech should sometimes be sacrificed for larger political goals, the obvious question is: who decides which goals outweigh free speech? And the tautological answer is: those with de jure or de facto coercive power in the community where the speech is going to happen. So speech constraints are a method by which those with power in a given community can advance their goals coercively.

Putting aside the ethics of so doing, it is going to be *prudentially* advisable to undermine a shared free speech norm for larger goals only if you are confident that your power, both in the university and the wider political community, is stable and reliable. If so, you should probably restrict speech. (Autocratic governments are in this situation, and reliably restrict speech; it’s prudentially wise of them to do so.) But if your power is restricted and transient – if, say, you take yourself mostly to be an advocate for the powerless and oppressed, operating within an economic and political system that disproportionately empowers your opponents – then you should think really seriously about whether it’s in your long-term interest to weaken the free-speech norm, even if in some particular short-term context you have the power to control speech in a way that favors the good.Report

Maggie
Reply to  David Wallace
1 month ago

Thanks for the thoughtful response. I guess I am a little worried about the way you frame the issue. My worry is that your framing might lead some to suppose that, because there is a moral presumption against coercion, there is a moral presumption against violating free speech norms. There are many ways to violate conventional free speech norms that are not coercive. And not all coercion infringes rights.

Realistically, I can’t imagine myself forgoing a strategic advantage in an important political battle for the sake of not weakening a free speech norm. This is not because I would be unwilling to weigh the possible costs of weakening a useful norm into my consequentialist calculations. It’s just that, given the stakes, it’s not likely that consideration of such costs would make a difference. Moreover, I am quite sympathetic to the idea that American free speech norms should change in ways that would make opportunity for speech less unequal and would provide less opportunity for harmful speech. This rethinking of free speech norms can change one’s thinking about, for example, the conditions under which disruptive protests and the like violate the free speech norms that ought to be embraced.

In terms of prudential reasoning, my general take is that it is almost always a strategic blunder for the relatively powerless to try to advance a political cause by limiting the speech of their opponents. Often such strategies serve only to amplify the voices one is trying to silence. It appears, then, that we are not too far apart on the question of whether suppressing speech is prudentially wise.Report

Last edited 1 month ago by Maggie
J. Bogart
J. Bogart
Reply to  Maggie
1 month ago

ways that would make opportunity for speech less unequal and would provide less opportunity for harmful speech. 

what does that mean?Report

Maggie
Reply to  J. Bogart
1 month ago

There are a wide range of proposals aimed at making speech rights and norms more egalitarian. Some of these proposals are aimed at moving first amendment law in a more egalitarian direction, but others are aimed at passing legislation or establishing norms and practices that would increase the speech opportunities of individuals or groups that, for economic or other reasons, currently have little real opportunity to fully participate in the marketplace of ideas.

As for undermining opportunities for harmful speech, that can bring to mind legal restrictions on speech such as hate speech laws, laws regulating pornography, and laws aimed at preventing the spread of (foreign) state propaganda. But social norms that facilitate harmful speech can also change and, I think, have been changing, mostly in positive ways, although there is lots of pushback. The use of racial slurs, for example, has become largely socially unacceptable, and that is a good thing, of course.Report

J. Bogart
J. Bogart
Reply to  Maggie
1 month ago

Thank you.Report

Edward Cantu
Reply to  Maggie
1 month ago

This is not because I would be unwilling to weigh the possible costs of weakening a useful norm into my consequentialist calculations. It’s just that, given the stakes, it’s not likely that consideration of such costs would make a difference.”

This is assuming that one can truly understand the breadth of the costs involved. There’s a sort of a prophylactic aspect to the modern speech-protective norm, seemingly a product of the recognition that tinkering with free speech limits with good intentions is dangerous for the unintended consequences that are likely involved. Report

Justin Kalef
1 month ago

Imagine some sort of big criminal trial in which you are particularly invested in the verdict. We can charitably assume that you have good objective reasons for thinking that it’s very important for the defendant to be found guilty or not guilty. Under what circumstances would you favor allowing only the prosecutor, or only the defendant, to make arguments? Or, if you prefer, under what circumstances would you favor using coervice power to prevent the matter from reaching the law courts at all, thus preventing one side from making a case you think should not be heard?

Even if we decide to take a purely pragmatic approach here, there’s a difference between smart and stupid pragmatism. Stupid pragmatism would consider only the immediate consequences of the trial: a certain verdict would be guaranteed, which would make the relevant people happy or unhappy, avoid discomfort or offense or worse for people who might be directly affected by the trial, and so on. But to a smart pragmatist, these considerations are just a prelude to the important things on the horizon. Trust in the justice system would plummet; a very dangerous precedent would be set for future shenanigans whenever people aren’t happy with the likely outcome of some fair trial; the decision of whether to make exceptions will become a matter of which side has the political power to enforce its will; and so on. The long-term fallout of the decision to pervert the course of justice by blatantly stacking the deck easily dwarfs the short-term concerns that the stupid pragmatist mistakes for the whole issue.

A university, or more properly the community of intellectuals who make up academia, serves as a courtroom for ideas. While we have the luxury of taking this for granted today, a little thought (or knowledge of history) can help us remember why what we have is vastly better than the terrifying alternatives like leaving it up to political leaders, tradition, religious authorities, or mob rule to distinguish right from wrong.

To a smart pragmatist, the question in a no-platforming issue must be: would the harm or discomfort avoided by refusing to give the other side a fair hearing exceed the immense, possibly civilization-ending damage we all face if we proudly and repeatedly turn what is meant to be a fair courtroom of ideas into a place that affirms well-intentioned (and possibly correct) verdicts without allowing the opposing side a fair chance to argue back?

It is difficult for me to see how the answer to this question, even on a smart pragmatist rather than principled basis, could be anything other than a clear no. I would be interested in hearing why, on a smart pragmatist account, I am mistaken about this. But what I usually hear from the other side is just stupid pragmatism: all the justification has to do with improving things for those who would be affected by the discussion, with no sign whatsoever that the long-term damage from the erosion of trust in universities (etc.) is even considered.Report

Dale Miller
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 month ago

If the university is a courtroom for ideas, then surely it’s more like the Supreme Court than a trial court. In a trial court defendants have a right to make their case, whereas no one has a corresponding right to be invited to speak on a campus. At the Supreme Court, decisions are made about which cases are worth hearing. So no-platforming might be understood as analogous, not to preventing one side in a trial from making arguments, but to denying cert. Taking the analogy in this direction steers our attention toward questions about who gets to decide who is allowed to speak on campus and what makes a topic worthy of discussion. Which seems productive.Report

Margaret Shea
1 month ago

A couple people have thought that the comments above are mine – just clarifying that they are not written by me, Maggie Shea of Princeton University!Report

Maggie
Reply to  Margaret Shea
1 month ago

Are you sure? Sometimes people repress memories of their crimes.Report