Campus Protesters are Victims, but Not Like They Think
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.
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.