Campus Protesters are Victims, but Not Like They Think

In this March 2, 2017, file photo, Middlebury College students turn their backs to Charles Murray, unseen, during his lecture in Middlebury, Vt. Hundreds of students protested his lecture, forcing the college to move his talk to an undisclosed campus location from which it was live-streamed to the original venue. Since the beginning of 2016, more than two dozen campus speeches have been derailed amid controversy, according to the Foundation For Individual Rights In Education, a group that monitors free speech on campuses.

By Clint Roberts Published on June 10, 2017

Ideas have consequences; bad ideas have victims. A bad idea has been spreading on college campuses: that free speech can be harmful, and that sometimes it needs to be stopped, even with force.

One person taking up this view is professor Ulrich Baer of NYU, whose April 24 New York Times article sought to make a case in favor of anti-free speech violence on campus.

Baer argues that free speech needs to take feelings more into account than ever before, since society gives them more weight now than in the past. So when we think about whether and how freely to share beliefs, we must now consider the validity of people’s experiences.

Baer then claims that some beliefs make certain groups feel devalued or dehumanized. Jews listening to a Holocaust denier, for example, may feel dehumanized. Likewise a transgender person, listening to Ben Carson maintaining that biology determines gender, is likely to feel the same way.

So certain beliefs cause certain groups to feel less than “fully human,” Baer writes. And the effect of this, he claims, is to limit or even squash their free speech.

The beauty of free speech is that every person or group has equal time, on a level playing field, to respond and make a defense.

Then the clincher: any speech that takes away or limits another group’s free speech should itself not be permitted. In other words, some people’s free speech must be denied for the sake of others’ free speech.

Problems With the Argument

But if I have rightly understood Baer’s case, which he doesn’t state as clearly as I have just summarized it, all three main parts of his argument are flawed.

First, Baer claims that dehumanizing people restricts their free speech. But how does that follow? Suppose I held some view that clearly denied someone’s full humanity. That person would still enjoy every freedom to disagree and attack my view (as well he should).

When Baer says that “dehumanized” groups “cannot debate them on the same terms,” he is simply wrong. The beauty of free speech is that every person or group has equal time, on a level playing field, to respond and make a defense. It is a grand equalizer and a vital check on anybody peddling falsehoods.

Second, Baer speaks of today’s shift toward subjective experience as part of postmodernism’s view of truth, but he does not defend this shift. He offers no reasons why we should think in those terms.

In place of that he assures us (most humbly) that he is “especially attuned to the next generation’s demands to revise existing definitions of free speech to accommodate previously delegitimized experiences.” He’s speaking in distinctly postmodern terms when he says this.

But whatever that means exactly (which, as with much postmodern language, is hard to tell), the question still requires an answer: are these demands reasonable? Baer just assumes they are. In fact a strong case could be made that postmodernism is itself part of the problem with the anti-free speech movement.

To disagree is not to dehumanize.

Third, it’s not at all clear that offending a community is equal to dehumanizing its members, as Baer suggests. He says that a Holocaust-denier denies the full humanity of Jews (if not all Jews, at least Jews who were directly affected by the Holocaust). But is that necessarily so?

Certainly the Nazis denied Jews’ full humanity, by speech and by action. They justified what they did partly through their belief that their victims were less than fully human. Likewise a Holocaust-denier may indeed hold that Jews are less than fully human. But this view is distinct from his (deluded) view of past events.

None of the speakers being protested on campus have either said or shown that they deny anyone’s full humanity. To disagree is not to dehumanize anyway. If we want to say it is, conservative speakers on campus could just as easily play the same game and claim that the protesters are dehumanizing them.

Anti-Free Speech Protesters are the Victims

Baer’s argument runs against all of classical liberal thinking. Where someone like John Stuart Mill taught that an open forum is the best way to combat wrong ideas, Baer teaches the opposite. Mill saw the highest value in the debate of opposing points of view. Baer says “there is no inherent value to be gained from debating them in public.”

Baer is wrong, and dangerously so. But if today’s campus protesters buy into his shoddy defense of their childish reasoning and actions, they will simply believe that a critical analysis like the one I have offered here dehumanizes Baer and everyone who agrees with him.

These anti-free speech protesters have been victimized — not by the campus speakers whose opinions they are protesting, but by the twisted reasoning of people like Ulrich Baer. As I said up front, bad ideas have victims. The free speech haters have allowed themselves to become the victims of bad ideas.

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  • Gary

    If these deniers of free speech are allowed to use violence on campus to silence those they disagree with, they will soon be trying to silence their opponents in other locations. Either the police stops the violence, or citizens will.

  • Robert Hightower

    Ravi Zacharias, in reference to post modernity, tells a story about three CNN stories. News reporters on the street ask the question “Do words have meaning or do we give them meaning?”. This after what the meaning of ‘is’ is. ” Does morality have a point of reference, or do we have our own morality?”. The answer received is we make our own meaning to words and morality. Then Washington warned Saddam Hussein “If he did not stop his word games, the US would start bombing him.” Post modernity gives the privilege to itself that it does not want to give others.

  • Andrew Mason

    Lets accept Baer’s premise that free speech must take into account feelings, and that speech which makes certain groups devalued or dehumanised should be curtailed so as to avoid curtailing the free speech of the devalued or dehumanised groups. Who decides whose speech is curtailing whose freedom? Basic Christianity says homosexuality is wrong. Homosexuals say that anyone contesting their lifestyle choice is wrong, bigoted and worse. Is Baer suggesting that homosexuals should be stripped of their right to free speech to protect the devalued or dehumanised Christians? Somehow I suspect not, in which case the argument that free speech should be curtailed to protect free speech is in reality a demand that ‘untermensch’ be stripped of their rights to protect the feelings of the ‘ubermensch’. Thanks but no thanks!

  • Ryan

    Those protesting against freedom of speech, are protesting against their own future. P C imploding.

  • Jim Walker

    If the left doesn’t want free speech, they too should stop talking.

  • Charles Burge

    It seems to me that the reason people are so quick to feel dehumanized is that we as a society have forgotten where human dignity comes from in the first place. If I understand that my humanity is grounded in the fact that I’m created in the image and likeness of God, then nothing can ever take that away. But when society rejects that teaching, they have nothing else to base human dignity on; it’s basically tethered to thin air. In a situation like that, of course people are going to feel dehumanized. But it’s not others who have done that to them; they have done it to themselves.

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