Colleges and Universities: Non-Free Speech Zones
April 23, 2015 11:56 PM   Subscribe


 
I was attacked by a swarm of Stepford students this week. On Tuesday, I was supposed to take part in a debate about abortion at Christ Church, Oxford. I was invited by the Oxford Students for Life to put the pro-choice argument against the journalist Timothy Stanley, who is pro-life. But apparently it is forbidden for men to talk about abortion. A mob of furious feministic Oxford students, all robotically uttering the same stuff about feeling offended, set up a Facebook page littered with expletives and demands for the debate to be called off. They said it was outrageous that two human beings ‘who do not have uteruses’ should get to hold forth on abortion

I can't imagine why people would object to this debate, but the author sure looks like an impartial, objective POV if I ever saw one!
posted by sukeban at 12:23 AM on April 24, 2015 [24 favorites]


The shrill harpy who is against free speech has some valid points, OTOH:

The idea that in a free society absolutely everything should be open to debate has a detrimental effect on marginalised groups. Debating abortion as if its a topic to be mulled over and hypothesised on ignores the fact that this is not an abstract, academic issue. It may seem harmless for men like Stanley and O'Neil to debate how and if abortion hurts them; it’s clearly harder for people to see that their words and views might hurt women.

Access to abortion impacts the lives of women, trans and non-binary people every day, and the threat pro-life groups pose to our bodily autonomy is real, not rhetorical. If you don’t believe me, visit any abortion clinic and witness the sustained aggressions of pro-life pickets.

In organizing against this event, I did not stifle free speech. As a student, I asserted that it would make me feel threatened in my own university; as a woman, I objected to men telling me what I should be allowed to do with my own body.

posted by sukeban at 12:25 AM on April 24, 2015 [25 favorites]


sukeban: do you by chance have a list of topics that shouldn't be allowed for debate on a college campus?

Don't get me wrong, I certainly share your views on reproductive rights.

But personally, I find it objectional that people advocate for war and invading other countries, but I wouldn't want to stifle debate on the subject.

As it stands, I'm certain there are plenty of 'pro-life' people on college campuses; I for one would love to see them sit down and watch two people calmly discuss the matter without shouting and heated rhetoric - it might change someones mind.

I'm not terribly thrilled about the 'hecklers veto', even when I agree with the advocacy position of the heckler.
posted by el io at 12:33 AM on April 24, 2015 [33 favorites]


Debating abortion as if its a topic to be mulled over and hypothesised on ignores the fact that this is not an abstract, academic issue.

This approach appears to treat debate as an empty, even harmful activity that should be left out of 'real' issues (vs. "abstract, academic" issues). I don't see that as a valid approach at all - quite the opposite.

There's little point in arguing only about the things we all agree on.
posted by Palindromedary at 12:36 AM on April 24, 2015 [19 favorites]


Freedom of speech means the government can't compel you to speak or not to. Individuals are perfectly welcome to tell each other to shut the fuck up.

And frankly, Very Important People getting invited to universities to speak at people isn't exactly the ideal of democratic discourse.
posted by Zalzidrax at 12:36 AM on April 24, 2015 [23 favorites]


Genuinely promoting debate by featuring controversial speakers and tacitly endorsing asshats by giving them sweet speaking engagements are really hard to distinguish.

You don't need to feed trolls to learn about them.
posted by lumensimus at 12:40 AM on April 24, 2015 [10 favorites]


Yeah, it'd be great if Ann Coulter wasn't ever invited to speak at a university. Ditto with Kissinger (for fucks sake, just arrest the war criminal).

But I'm certain there are ton of people that don't think Noam Chomsky or Michael More or Kevin Smith or Edward Snowden should be speaking at Universities.

If the only folks allowed to speak in an auditorium are the ones that espouse non-controversial viewpoints, we might as well close down auditoriums.
posted by el io at 12:42 AM on April 24, 2015 [10 favorites]


It's interesting that the author can only find reactionary right-wing positions that offend these students; and yet he's quite sure that his positions are all conjured out of pure reason, untainted by social context or history, while the students who don't want to listen to him are just being closed-minded.
posted by clockzero at 12:43 AM on April 24, 2015 [5 favorites]


sukeban: do you by chance have a list of topics that shouldn't be allowed for debate on a college campus?

I do think that a debate between a pro-lifer and a MRA like the main link's author (and he does go on about how rape culture is a myth later on the article) about the rights of women to own their own bodies is somethink that I can do without.
posted by sukeban at 12:44 AM on April 24, 2015 [26 favorites]


Of course, a panel of neonazis discussing "human biodiversity" at the campus could be interesting, I guess, but I bet non-WASP students would object at being described as subhumans, too.
posted by sukeban at 12:46 AM on April 24, 2015 [4 favorites]


sukeban: "I do think that a debate between a pro-lifer and a MRA like the main link's author (and he does go on about how rape culture is a myth later on the article) about the rights of women to own their own bodies is somethink that I can do without."

That's an issue with the participants, though, not the topic. Saying "Person X should not come speak at our campus" is very different from "Topic X should not be debated at our campus".
posted by Bugbread at 12:57 AM on April 24, 2015 [11 favorites]


This approach appears to treat debate as an empty, even harmful activity that should be left out of 'real' issues

And I fully support it. "Debate" as it is practiced is totally worthless, a waste of intellectual time... it is by its very definition NOT a Search for Truth, but rather a game to be won or lost, like a less physical version of another popular college activity - Football... yet with all the brain damage in spite of the lack of physical contact.

I think it'd be great if NONE of the persons listed by el io, including the ones I agree with, were allowed to speak at Universities, but if you're going to invite Celebrity Guest Speakers, then don't set artificial standards - open it to all Celebrities... the students need to hear from Honey BooBoo.
posted by oneswellfoop at 1:00 AM on April 24, 2015 [6 favorites]


That's an issue with the participants, though, not the topic. Saying "Person X should not come speak at our campus" is very different from "Topic X should not be debated at our campus".

Which is great, since what feminists objected to was a debate about women's bodies in which only men were invited to talk.

(edit to add cite)
posted by sukeban at 1:00 AM on April 24, 2015 [4 favorites]


Oof. This is a terribly bad article.

Yes, Mr O'Neill - every single person who happens to disagree with you is a mindless automaton. It couldn't be any other way - it couldn't be that the world is complicated, that students actually have rather diverse opinions - no, it must be that they're all robots! And they must be stopped, because they're exercising their freedom of speech in a way that I dislike - namely, by deigning to choose what organizations and speakers they'd like to hear from. The gall! So this particular exercise of the freedom of speech must be halted at once, so that the freedom of speech which I prefer can be allowed to flourish. But you're all robots, so I am sure you won't understand.

STEPFORD STUDENTS! ROBOT BABIES!
posted by koeselitz at 1:02 AM on April 24, 2015 [12 favorites]


I am so fucking sick of overprivileged cishet white dudes getting all salty over trigger warnings and safe spaces. This particular asshole is really upset about the Blurred Lines thing and he's pretending to not notice the fact that it is a song that glorifies rape by just calling it "rude".

It's especially shitty when it's talking about rape culture shit and safe spaces where people can recover from sexual assault, since that's so incredibly pervasive on college campuses. God forbid students have a place where they can go and do fun stuff and be around soft things and not have to think about their institution failing to protect them from the assault that's already occurred and probably is failing to protect them from having to see their perpetrator on a regular basis too.

You get one of these fucking essays every time someone tells a white dude to maybe shut up or that he's not welcome somewhere and the entitlement starts oozing out of his fucking pores all over his keyboard. I'm amazed that I even have the mental energy to be annoyed with it anymore, since I've heard this shit so many times.
posted by NoraReed at 1:02 AM on April 24, 2015 [71 favorites]




Leaving aside the politics of the first link's author (not just reactionary but deliberately red-baiting), the overall thrust of this FPP is right, and reflects something quite surprising to me.

I expect college students -- as a fundamental property of their age and inherent attitude -- to prize FREEDOM! above all else. A legacy of the Sixties, maybe, but deep in the late-teenage mindset is a love of no-rules anarchy, everybody running around letting their personal freak flag fly and shouting four-letter words, as a supreme moral value in and of itself. Stop mollycoddling and protecting us, mom & dad & school & church! We want to mainline the Real World as it is, in all its craziness, because that's TRUTH. Because we're 18 years old and nothing can hurt us!

I live in a college town and sometimes read the campus paper. One young man wrote a letter to the editor in favor of the sort of restrictive speech codes and conceptual safe-spaces these articles decry. His argument was: all through grade school, middle school, and high school, our teachers kept us safe from things which were "inappropriate." Why shouldn't this be continued throughout our undergraduate school?

I would think that most Gen Xers and hippie-generation students would look at that boy and think he's got a few screws loose. That's the job of us oldies to value control and security -- youngsters are supposed to be immature in the same way we were. :-)
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 1:06 AM on April 24, 2015 [13 favorites]


el io: "do you by chance have a list of topics that shouldn't be allowed for debate on a college campus?"

Do you by chance have a list of things that college campuses shouldn't be allowed to decide for themselves? It would be easier to impose our vision of "freedom of speech" on people if we know ahead of time what freedom of speech we have to eradicate to do so. Maybe we could force the newspapers to print whatever people send them - they'll complain, sure, but then we'll have freedom of speech. Or maybe we could force the television stations to shoot and air whatever series any person proposes.

They'll say we're taking away their freedom of speech - but really, that's because they're confused, isn't it? Freedom of speech really means forcing everyone to support and publish and provide monetary compensation and community space for the ideas they find most execrable.
posted by koeselitz at 1:06 AM on April 24, 2015 [8 favorites]


"Debate" as it is practiced is totally worthless, a waste of intellectual time... it is by its very definition NOT a Search for Truth, but rather a game to be won or lost

Trouble is, foop, that there's a debating position. Maybe you should just be grunting and hitting people?
posted by Segundus at 1:09 AM on April 24, 2015 [10 favorites]


Also, bra burning never happened, so he's either lying or full of shit. (Well, he's both.)
posted by NoraReed at 1:09 AM on April 24, 2015 [7 favorites]


The problem with a lot of these articles is that they don't realize that their theories aren't airtight. Their arguments can't stand on their own because they lack a level of reflexivity. Take the Times op-ed, which attributes these conflicts to infantilization of the social aspect of college education. In that article, it doesn't seem to occur to the author that maybe what appears as infantilization from her value system is really something else under a more comprehensive, sociologically and historically informed model. The last article is a bit better because it tries to concretely link this purported neo-political-correctness to a post-9/11 social climate; but then it does the problematic thing by spinning it as, "no, it was [us] all along that taught [you/them] wrong" (teaching/learning is not an authoritarian/passiveagressive one-way street like that). Third example: one of the articles talks about the value of inhabiting the minds of people different than you—but does the author even do that?

So this problem as I see it is a number of writers getting bothered enough about something they experienced or heard about to write something public about it. What we need is someone to actually approach it systematically, first by mapping the extent to which this alleged phenomenon even exists. Yes, these internet authors can do the elephant-in-the-dark-room thing by attempting to twist concepts—such as sensitivity, tolerance, training, safe space, free speech, the list goes on—into their own argument. But without a more rigorous, systematically produced, analytical and synthetic picture of what is actually going on campus (meaning including but not limited to statistics), all I keep reading is this inefficient noise.
posted by polymodus at 1:10 AM on April 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


The central issue is this:

There is currently some controversy about what is more important: freedom or justice. The pro-freedom folks would rather not engage with something as thorny as justice, so they suggest that students are just asking for "their feelings to be protected," though it should be obvious considering how often the word "justice" is used (a la "social justice warrior.") Those of us, on the other hand, who think justice is more important tend to see these debates as fundamentally about the historical injustices involved with the various groups, and only look to freedom as a political condition to be preserved, not some abstract ideal where everyone must be allowed to speak their innermost mind.

These are really the difficult questions to answer - they're questions our civilization has been grappling with for the past two hundred years. To suggest that it's a new conflict brought about by soulless regurgitators of PC dogma is the height of disingenuity.
posted by koeselitz at 1:17 AM on April 24, 2015 [37 favorites]


also lol at the idea that the constant bombardment of racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, rape culture, etc is "unfamiliar ideas" and a series of micro- and macro- aggressions that regularly causes serious trauma to people in marginalized groups and requires significant time and energy to deal with

except not lol because i am super pissed, fuck all of these writers
posted by NoraReed at 1:17 AM on April 24, 2015 [25 favorites]


There have always been puritans in the universities. Whether sinful people should be prevented from speaking their impure views is not a 21st century issue - there was all that stuff about No Platform for Racists and Fascists back in the seventies, for example.

Back then it seemed to me the righteous fun of banning people was often a more important factor than any real fear about what letting them speak would do. Nobody was really inviting genuine 'rascists and facists' anyway, which was why we ended up with the ludicrous spectacle of student unions whose puritan instincts had been frustrated by lack of opportunity attempting to stop Keith Joseph talking about economics on the absurd grounds that he was an anti-semite.
posted by Segundus at 1:26 AM on April 24, 2015 [5 favorites]


Brendan O'Neil isn't the best advocate for free speech as he essentially makes his career in sneering at educated liberals but the fact that his rhetorical style is almost as self-parodic as Nora's does not make him wrong.
Left wing people would probably do better to read Frederick De Boer . Who does a better job of explaining the real problems with this kind of tactic from a left wing perspective.

Polymodus there is a comprehensive ranking of the extent of the problems in both UK and US universities. The UK one is a bit nascent but both are there.
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 1:26 AM on April 24, 2015 [13 favorites]


There's also more than a touch of the good old "suffering is good for the soul" bullshit in these arguments, which always puts my teeth on edge with these arguments.
posted by NoxAeternum at 1:27 AM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


Once again, my generation fails to uphold the glorious ideals of the 1960s.

Alberto Gonzales spoke at my university and was incredibly well paid to spout bullshit about enhanced interrogation techniques. It was so educational. Karl Rove was incredibly well paid to spout vitriol about Obama the night before the 2008 election. Ayaan Hirsi Ali came and told us all that Islam is the root of all evil. We gave Phyllis Schlafly an honorary degree. These people came and did exactly what they are known to do. They added nothing to intellectual discourse. They were rewarded for illegal, unethical, and/or hateful actions. I remain angry that a portion of my tuition (which was a lot of money) went to support them and their message through speaking fees.

Being protested or having your planned talk canceled is not actually a violation of free speech. Time and place matter, and nobody is obligated to pay to hear what you are saying.
posted by ChuraChura at 1:29 AM on April 24, 2015 [21 favorites]


Washington University? I was at a WUSTL graduation where Phyllis Schlafly got an honorary degree, and I'm sad to think she's been racking up more than one of those in recent memory.
posted by andoatnp at 1:35 AM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


Segundus: Trouble is, foop, that there's a debating position. Maybe you should just be grunting and hitting people?

Do I win this debate if I can point out that's a fallacy of false dilemma? Alternatives to debate include structured small-group discussion methods and public correspondence via peer-reviewed journals. Oh but, peer-review is also a violation of free speech! The horror!

The fundamental approach of universities to addressing difficult/controversial subjects is “academic freedom”—different from “free speech” in subtle but important ways. Among other things it prevents the conversation from being DDOSed by the overconfident and/or overfunded. I believe this is sometimes known as “sealioning”. It also requires as a prerequisite the sort of mutual intellectual respect based on, for example, being able to trust that one's arguments will be heard and understood, and likewise being able to offer that trustworthiness. There are quite a few people I disagree with that I just intellectually couldn't debate because I find them amoral bullshitters.

It's a bit easier to see if we're talking about something really concrete like creationism—how many times does the campus biology club have to “debate” the Discovery Institute before it's time to call it quits? What, intellectually, is being served by completely failing to challenge students by bringing in Alvin Plantinga to tell us all “I can prove it's rational to believe in God because [freshman-level error involving Bayes' Theorem]” (example taken from my university)?
posted by traveler_ at 1:36 AM on April 24, 2015 [8 favorites]


Oh, FIRE. The guys who defended a bigot's right to put blatantly racist questions on his exam, and have been pushing for the right of evangelical Christian organizations to demand that money from LGBT students to be given to them so they can discriminate against those selfsame students.

I think I'm going to quote myself from a prior thread on free speech at Reddit:

Why is it that "absolute free speech" seems to always coincide with "privileged bullies using their societal megaphone to bully and harass other people out of the conversation"?
posted by NoxAeternum at 1:40 AM on April 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


[I'm going to be a stickler for protocol here and say, please be mindful of the note under the comment box. If we can focus on the topic at hand as opposed to other members this will likely be more pleasant for all of us. Thank you.]
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 1:42 AM on April 24, 2015 [5 favorites]


Yep, Washington University!
posted by ChuraChura at 1:43 AM on April 24, 2015


I liked polymodus' comment above, and frankly it strikes me that nobody has demonstrated even the preliminary point to this discussion:

Are college campuses more restrictive of speech thereupon now than they were in the past?

It seems to me that they quite distinctively aren't; the notion that the 1960s (or 1970s? 1980s? 1990s?) were a dreamworld of open campuses and total freedom at universities does not ring true to me.

Even in the individual cases people are certain to point to, we're talking about an incredibly narrow band of "freedom of speech." Yes, "freedom of speech" can mean more than just freed from government intervention. But we are absolutely not talking about situations where colleges have even suggested that certain topics are never up for debate in any form or venue on campus. We are talking about situations where colleges (or their students) decided they didn't want to support a particular speaker or cause by lending support and campus space to that speaker or cause. Colleges have always had to make these decisions, and they have never shied away from them for fear of quashing freedom of speech.

Really, the first thing to do is establish, with at least some rigor, that there is a change afoot in how campuses approach freedom of speech. And apart from a lot of hand-wringing, I haven't seen it. Isolated examples aren't really a demonstration of anything, sadly.
posted by koeselitz at 1:43 AM on April 24, 2015 [6 favorites]


Left wing people would probably do better to read Frederick De Boer . Who does a better job of explaining the real problems with this kind of tactic from a left wing perspective.

Yeah, Freddie's a master of the disingenuous "difference of opinion" argument, which is an attempt to be overly reductionist in order to avoid actually discussing why people have a problem with what's being said, because he knows full well that he can't win that particular argument.
posted by NoxAeternum at 1:51 AM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


Debating abortion as if its a topic to be mulled over and hypothesised on ignores the fact that this is not an abstract, academic issue. It may seem harmless for men like Stanley and O'Neil to debate how and if abortion hurts them; it’s clearly harder for people to see that their words and views might hurt women.

Abortion is a concrete is a very real, necessary and difficult issue. From my perspective, it's something that needs perpetual defense and exculpation in order to make sure that it's enshrined as a right, and stays that way, both from a legal and a societal standpoint.

In order to achieve this, you have to lay intellectual foundations and then build on them. This is how we turn opinion and push back barbarism for all sorts of very real and BIG issues - interrace marriage, labor rights, friggin war, you name it. We talk about very real, very big issues in abstract and academic ways.

If you can't mull over and hypothesise about abortion, you cede the debate to your opponents, which will have very real, not abstract, non-academic consequences for all of us.
posted by tempythethird at 1:54 AM on April 24, 2015 [28 favorites]


O'Neill isn't the best person to make this argument, as there's always the feeling that he enjoys trashing people and things more than he likes to be constructive. Even so, the people he describes do exist in UK universities but they are a minority. Student Union politics is often an ignored part of university life for all but the most committed students on the left. Those on the right are much less involved in the union, and apolitical students really just get on with their studies. The saddest thing is that university administrations crumple to their whims.

Thankfully, most UK universities are not "campus" based. They are set in the middle of big towns with many opportunities to access the things that Student Unions often ban. Which is likely why their antics are ignored by most students.
posted by Thing at 1:57 AM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


Popehat is usually pretty on point but I just don't buy that 9/11 stuff at all, what a total stretch. The other links are kind of boilerplate for this sort of thing, nothing new. Sometimes they do hit on anecdotes where there has been some oversensitivity but we are still adjusting to focusing on sensitivity at all, and to me I don't think being sensitive has to conflict with being intellectually open at all.

If you don't like that you can't debate at a college though, stop whining in newspapers and find a different venue to debate at. You can still do that, and if you really have something super valuable to offer it shouldn't matter that a college didn't want you to say it there.
posted by Drinky Die at 1:58 AM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


Oh, and let's not forget that regarding that "debate" mentioned in the first link in the OP, one of the "debators" said that there was no issue because he "would be identifying as a woman" while debating. Which is both vile and said all you needed to know about the honesty of the whole thing.
posted by NoxAeternum at 2:10 AM on April 24, 2015 [42 favorites]


Thinkpieces about the shallowness of today's youth are neither new nor challenging. Going on at length about how intellectual freedom is stifled because today's college students are coddled, or because they grew up in a post-9/11 world, is just ridiculous. These don't come across as arguments about intellectual freedom as much as they come across as griping that there are people who don't want to listen to what the authors have to say.
posted by teponaztli at 2:10 AM on April 24, 2015 [4 favorites]


griping that there are people who don't want to listen to what the authors have to say.

The fact that a bunch of students organised the debate in question suggests that there are people who wanted to hear what the speakers had to say. That another group didn’t want them there doesn’t change that.
posted by pharm at 2:13 AM on April 24, 2015 [4 favorites]


The use of 'banter' in the first paragraph was the red flag for me. In a UK context, I only ever see that word used to excuse saying something offensive or just downright nasty, then covering by saying it was only 'banter'.
posted by Vortisaur at 2:17 AM on April 24, 2015 [6 favorites]


If you don't like that you can't debate at a college though, stop whining in newspapers and find a different venue to debate at.
Yes, let's bring back "Crossfire". Or even bring back those wonderful Dan Aykroyd/Jane Curtin debates that so perfectly defined the form for me. Although "Ignorant slut" is pretty tame for today's Free Speech advocates.

I'm here at a moderated website because one thing I have learned from six decades in the Land of the Free is that "Freedom of Speech" at its purest is the Freedom of Stupidity, Lying and Verbal Abuse.

there are people who wanted to hear what the speakers had to say
...or more likely, just to cheer on their team. You'll do as well with an arm-wrestling contest.
posted by oneswellfoop at 2:20 AM on April 24, 2015 [6 favorites]


Brendan O'Neil isn't the best advocate for free speech as he essentially makes his career in sneering at educated liberals but the fact that his rhetorical style is almost as self-parodic as Nora's does not make him wrong.
Left wing people would probably do better to read Frederick De Boer
Spot on on Brendan, not so much on Freddy, who is following the same career projectory as sneering, not very bright but able to use a great many big words leftist who never has much time for anything actually leftist.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:32 AM on April 24, 2015


traveler_: I've never seen a body of peer-reviewed work that doesn't have fundamental debates over fundamental issues throughout. Even in mathematics, there is disagreement over the importance of things and the direction the field should go. That's disagreement, of course, but it must necessarily be confrontational, and the same must go for structured small group discussion. It can certainly be less harrowing, but there are more and less stressful forms of debate.

The other, more important aspect of debates is usually not mentioned in discussions, and that is the educational value in and of themselves. Many people notice that debates rarely change people's minds, and this is a fundamental feature of confrontation in general. But less often noted is their educational value, which is usually far more important. It's probably not actually possible, as NoxAeternum notes, for some man to really debate as a woman for the duration of that debate, but after doing the preparations and thinking out the defenses for the arguments for the debate, does that man know less or more about abortion?

Lincoln and Douglas debated about slavery, but of course were not slaves themselves and never had nor wanted any opportunity in their lives to have any equal relation with a slave. But do you think that Lincoln ended the debates knowing more or less than he began about the institution of slavery? Do you think that his convictions on the matter were stronger or weaker?
posted by curuinor at 2:33 AM on April 24, 2015 [7 favorites]


Most of this Free Speach hysteria by the Brendans of this world is of course them insisting that the world owns them a platform.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:46 AM on April 24, 2015 [5 favorites]


One should also note that Brendan O'Neil is a product of Spiked Online/Institute of Ideas/Living Marxism/Revolutionary Communist Party, a group of professional provocateurs/assholes who switched from being obnoxious commies to obnoxious "libertarians" at the end of the cold war and whose highlights reel includes libeling ITN news by saying ITN had exagerrated reports of warcrimes in Bosnia.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:55 AM on April 24, 2015 [6 favorites]


Most of this Free Speach hysteria by the Brendans of this world is of course them insisting that the world owns them a platform.

It depends on who owns the platform, of course.
posted by topynate at 2:56 AM on April 24, 2015


I've never seen a body of peer-reviewed work that doesn't have fundamental debates over fundamental issues throughout.

Sorry, I was unclear and the word is annoyingly ambiguous. The sort of "debate" I was inveighing is the live, public debate taking place on stages before audiences, dominated by rhetoric and with little time for fact-checking. I find it almost useless for ideas and fundamentally political. But I completely agree with the need for slow, measured disagreement and investigation of alternative ideas. Heck the dark matter debate has been taking place for decades with only some progress.

And I don't mean to single out the natural sciences; I'm sure if I was more familiar with other disciplines I could come up with plenty of examples from other fields. Such as the moral philosophy of abortion, to bring it back to the underlying event. There's probably lots of good ideas and argument on that subject but a stage and fancy repartee is not a good venue for it. In fact the dregs of my memory tell me of a college philosopher writing about the justification for "fourth trimester" abortions -- in other words infanticide. Now that's academic freedom, and I don't believe he was for it so much as he was challenging the moral framework of any justification of abortion.

I expect (hope in fact) there are some great arguments against his views. But I'm very sure an off-the-cuff retort during a real-time staged debate would be extraordinarily weak -- unless the debater had prepared a response ahead of time or was clever on the spot. And that sort of "debate" is just walking a conversation tree to its leaves, live on stage for an audience to cheer or boo. I'll pass.
posted by traveler_ at 3:15 AM on April 24, 2015 [5 favorites]




I would argue that it's not the case that the thoughts had in live debate are just weaker versions of the thoughts had in writing, not necessarily because it has to be quick and lively repartee, but because it has to conform to the cadences of speech, not writing, and it has to stick in the memory of those listening as spoken ideas, not written ideas.

Moreover, the act of cross-examination is more interesting than you think, because it will inevitably be the case that unexpected questions like the "fourth trimester" questions will come up. It's not the case that thinking on the spot is just an inferior version of slow, deep thinking, but that they have different contents and character: it's simpler, but that doesn't mean it's worse. It must also necessarily be highly redundant, and you can examine the redundant character, and the person making the speech must necessarily think about the redundant character (in other words, not a tree so much as a more dense DAG with densifying paths).

And it is also telling and not too hard to see if someone has prepared not enough or too much, as long as you have some experience looking at the things - which if you dismiss the whole enterprise, you might not have. You lose many of these things in televised debate, though.
posted by curuinor at 3:27 AM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


Since I'm about to turn in for the night, while I haven't fully read the whole thing I will comment on this part:
Isn’t it “reductionist” to deny me the right to see something?
No, no it is not. I'm having trouble figuring out how that even makes sense. Some people, not understanding this terminology and convinced it has no meaning, wield it randomly as some sort of retort I've noticed. Like old people mispronouncing Pokemon to needle the younger.

Anyway from what I know the Vagina Monologues is intended to be customized by its performers, and Mount Holyoke is just customizing theirs for better trans* perspective, so no harm no foul, just another PC-run-amok molehill.
posted by traveler_ at 3:37 AM on April 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


Vagina monologues cancelled by Mount Holyoke College as transphobic.

Really? If a theater department decides to stop putting on a production they have hitherto regularly performed, that's censorship? They didn't even cancel it, they didn't schedule it in the first place.
posted by PMdixon at 3:38 AM on April 24, 2015 [6 favorites]


Replacing the play will be Mount Holyoke’s own version that will be trans-inclusive and fix the “problems” supposedly perpetuated by Ensler. Murphy also claims that there are problems with race, class, and “other identities” within the play.

Society moves on, hooray.
posted by sukeban at 3:44 AM on April 24, 2015 [7 favorites]


Vagina monologues cancelled by Mount Holyoke College as transphobic.

It would have been better to have quoted the actual title, "Holyoke Is Too PC For Vagina Monologues," so people could have saved the time spent clicking the link.
posted by these are science wands at 3:46 AM on April 24, 2015 [9 favorites]


As I said the last time the free-speech carousel wailed its way around, the Holyoke Vagina Monologues business was only in any sense a free speech issue if every theatre group's decision to perform one piece and not another is a free speech issue. What's notable is that this is exactly the outcome the debate fandom tells us justifies all the hate speech we're supposed to feel a moral compulsion to enable; the theatre group listened, discussed and made a decision without, as far as anyone can tell, being pressured or forced or overruled.

But it was the wrong decision, so I'm sure we'll all be seeing it trotted out as cast-iron evidence of the march of the sensor sheep for years to come.
posted by emmtee at 4:03 AM on April 24, 2015 [8 favorites]


A Portuguese colleague of mine here in Belfast who does film studies was interrogating me (an American) about the fact that another Portuguese film scholar who teaches at a university in the US has to warn students if "objectional" material is going to be in a film clip. She asked why American students were so conservative, and I responded that these warnings are -- today, though not as much as in the past -- typically seen as something coming from the left. She was dumbfounded. She said that she shows her (Northern Irish) students film clips and expects them to handle them, as adults who chose to follow a course on film.

Of course, here in Belfast, we are not immune to shying away from "controversial" topics.
posted by dhens at 4:13 AM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


So... this is another line item in Brendan O'Neill's ongoing and somewhat quixotic campaign to be James Delingpole?

(Quixotic given that James Delingpole pretty much has that gig nailed down.)
posted by running order squabble fest at 4:14 AM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


There is currently some controversy about what is more important: freedom or justice.

I am frequently amazed by folks who seem to take it on faith that freedom to - generally their freedom to, or that of people like them - should always and everywhere trump other people's freedom from.
posted by flabdablet at 4:30 AM on April 24, 2015 [11 favorites]


Almost. Freedom from always requires a justification, notwithstanding that it might be a very good or plainly obvious one. Freedom to doesn't.
posted by topynate at 4:36 AM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


Okay, I got as far as "Brendan O'Neill" and just noped my way out of it because he has nothing of value to say on any subject. Especially not on "PC run amok". O'Neill is even stupider than he generally appears to be if he doesn't see the problem with a couple of men "debating" about women's bodily autonomy. And abortion may be something that needs to be debated in the US; in the UK, polls show something like 75% of the public in favour of legal abortion, and agreeing that it's a woman's right to choose to terminate a pregnancy.

I also find the third link to be weirdly US-centric and not very relevant to an article about student protests at a university in the UK. (And the use of the American royal "we" grates, a bit.)

Also there's a deeper context to the claims that "free speech is being repressed" --most of which consists of high-profile bigots using the platform of a national newspaper or magazine to complain about how awful it is that a university LGBT society objects to a transphobic feminist being invited, or how awful feminists get upset at a man presuming to speak for them on abortion, or something else. These people being met with protests is like David Duke being invited to speak on his vision for America and being met with protests by a black student group; "here, I'm going to talk about this thing that affects you, but you know, I don't think you belong here, 'African-Americans' don't exist, it's a made-up identity", or a student Jewish group protesting a debate between Noam Chomsky and a Palestinian activist on the I/P question..."yes, this is something highly relevant to you, but don't worry, I'll pretend to be a Zionist".
posted by Pseudonymous Cognomen at 4:39 AM on April 24, 2015 [15 favorites]


They said it was outrageous that two human beings ‘who do not have uteruses’ should get to hold forth on abortion — identity politics at its most basely biological

I should probably go to bed but this has been bothering me in the back of my head for hours. The uteruses thing was obviously an attempt to be inclusive of people who don't identify as women who still have a stake in the abortion debate because they have uteruses and their bodies are under siege as much as cis womens' are. It pisses me off to see that gesture towards inclusivity used like that, especially since this is the same debate that had the "it's cool I'll pretend I'm trans for a day" bullshit.
posted by NoraReed at 4:51 AM on April 24, 2015 [7 favorites]


The comments on that Daily Beast link are absolutely disgusting: "they let men in now, but they have to pretend they're women." "So now men who want to be women can tell women how to express themselves."

Sensitivity to peoples' concerns is not the same as being told what to do. These narratives, by O'Neill, popehat, etc. are framing everything as a loss of freedom. So of course the issue becomes one of Holyoke restricting the freedom of women who want to see the Vagina Monologues, rather than one of sensitivity to trans women. Therefore this must be a stifling of free expression by doe-eyed, spoiled college students who can't face the fact that the real world sometimes offends them (and have you seen how much time they spend on their phones?). Yes, like popehat says, clearly the problem here is that they've [grown up differently from how I did].

Why is this not about the theater group's freedom to reinterpret a significant feminist work to include the advances that have been made in the last 20 years?

I'll admit that it can be hard to keep up with sensitivity to other people. There are plenty of groups that I don't fully understand, but you make an effort to do so out of basic respect to them. Shutting this down as "censorship" because you don't understand the decision, or can't relate to the people affected, is a great way to bring the focus back to yourself. Acting as though these are terms that have been laid out for time immemorial - only to be changed now by internet-addicted kids who are scared of critical thinking - is ludicrous; intellectual environments change constantly. It's one thing to look closely at current changes, but it's another altogether to pretend that yours is the only point of view based on intelligent thought, or that these kinds of challenges to the status quo are anything new.
posted by teponaztli at 4:54 AM on April 24, 2015 [12 favorites]


One — a bloke — said that the compulsory sexual consent classes recently introduced for freshers at Cambridge, to teach what is and what isn’t rape, were a great idea because they might weed out ‘pre-rapists’: men who haven’t raped anyone but might. The others nodded. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Pre-rapists! Had any of them read Philip K. Dick’s dystopian novella about a wicked world that hunts down and punishes pre-criminals, I asked? None had.

Hey, I volunteer to go and punch this guy in the penis.
posted by angrycat at 4:59 AM on April 24, 2015 [14 favorites]


What often seems to get missed in these discussions is that universities aren't just towers of pure academic thought. They're also places where people live and work, and those people have some rights too.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 5:10 AM on April 24, 2015 [5 favorites]


Right to be comfortable. That is quite an Orwellian phrase. Sounds so sensitive, yet it is so sinister on every level.

People have the right to the truth. They have the right not to applaud your likely stories. They have the right to say "enough," even if it wrecks your self-serving narrative that you are blameless, perfect, and without sin.

I am sure certain oppressive regimes would love the right to be comfortable and I will not give it to them.

Sometimes in life, you are not the hero or victim. Sometimes you are a villain and no matter how hard you try to spin it and shield yourself from the truth, you are not in the right.

In that case, your privilege to be comfortable is null and void. The right to find the truth takes precedence. Stand up for what you believe in, but no one has to keep silent just because you have no idea what truth and reality is all about.
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 5:15 AM on April 24, 2015 [10 favorites]


It's especially shitty when it's talking about rape culture shit and safe spaces where people can recover from sexual assault, since that's so incredibly pervasive on college campuses.

If you're talking about safe spaces for recovery that's one thing, but there does need to be a place where kids learn to get outside the bubble and deal with people who say things they don't like. University is supposed to be about getting outside an echo chamber, and yeah, learning to deal with reactionary trolls (as well as genuine good faith disagreement). It shouldn't be a place where you can go to just be intellectually comfortable.

Debates aren't "academic" in the sense that they're hollow and don't matter. Debates in University should be practice runs and demonstrations of what's out there. Debates are where you learn how to take the arseholes on, see what their tactics are and how to deal with them. If a reactionary comes to campus, use that opportunity to look at how to be effective against them.

Students frequently want to take an easy path, to be comfortable. That's another word for lazy. In a university setting, in particular, if the students are getting "comfortable" they need a kick in their asses. Of course students should have a choice in what they do, and how to react to asshats. Niamh McIntyre probably learned a bunch in successfully working against them.

But the university failing to keep inviting these sorts of debates and events would be depriving their students. This isn't, in my view a free speech issue so much as a pedagogical one.
posted by bonehead at 5:36 AM on April 24, 2015 [11 favorites]


If you're talking about safe spaces for recovery that's one thing, but there does need to be a place where kids learn to get outside the bubble and deal with people who say things they don't like.

good thing there is literally the entire world outside of the safe space islands for people to learn about things that they don't like, which in this case are "how fucking awful and misogynist everyone is", "why people think you shouldn't have control over your body and will use money and access that is not available to you to attempt to wrest that control from your hands", and "sexual violence exists on a scale from harassment to rape and very few women manage to escape it, you probably will have to arrange your life around fear of it, and you will still probably be blamed if someone chooses to do it to you; you can't actually expect anyone, especially anyone associated with an institution, to help you or probably even treat you with basic decency"
posted by NoraReed at 5:43 AM on April 24, 2015 [25 favorites]


Does "the entire world" provide intellectual frameworks, teaching and and extra-mural support structures specifically to learn how to take on those issues?
posted by bonehead at 5:50 AM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


colleges sure as shit don't
posted by NoraReed at 5:57 AM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


The debate controversy looks more like a one-off shutting down of a worthless gasbag, and now he is trying to frame that as a free speech issue, rather than a rejection of his useless ass.

She was dumbfounded. She said that she shows her (Northern Irish) students film clips and expects them to handle them, as adults who chose to follow a course on film.

I've seen people give warnings and other people not do so; there's not some national US convention on protocols for showing disturbing material in a classroom. Personally, when I have taught, I have found it more effective to give students some indications of what they will be seeing or reading, because otherwise people tend to simply focus on the one aspect that shocked or surprised them, and with more careful prep they can contextualize those aspects much better.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:59 AM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


One — a bloke — said that the compulsory sexual consent classes recently introduced for freshers at Cambridge, to teach what is and what isn’t rape, were a great idea because they might weed out ‘pre-rapists’: men who haven’t raped anyone but might. The others nodded. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Pre-rapists!

"Weed them out" how?

If you're not intellectually capable of understanding what is and isn't rape, you are probably too dumb to be at a university. It's likely you would have flunked out at some point. If that's going to happen, it's probably best if it happens early on, before you've wasted too much time.

If that means they learn what rape is, and don't do that, the problem is what, exactly?

I don't see a problem with either of those outcomes.
posted by Anne Neville at 6:00 AM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


I think we're entering an era where social justice is beginning to transform into it's own kind of conservatism.
posted by Avenger at 6:01 AM on April 24, 2015 [11 favorites]


I enjoyed this piece by Popehat. Yes, the War on Terror had spurred on authoritarianism more broadly, including censorship.

In theory, these "no platform" policies are meant to deal with fascist political organizations like the BNP, specifically the NUS No Platform Policy bans the EDL, BNP, and three Islamic organizations.

We should expect No Platform Policies to be interpreted more widely eventually because people always find avenues to abuse power. In particular, I worry they'll be employed to silence debate on reforming drug policy and policing.

In this case, Sarah Ditum's assertions appear premature though : Alan Johnson being booed off stage, means he was given a platform, but students didn't like him. No the same thing.

Anyways, the U.K. was never a bastion of Free Speech, what with its noxious libel laws, etc.
posted by jeffburdges at 6:01 AM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


Well, the thing is that there's varying levels of uncomfortable. I'd argue that making students deeply upset about some aspect of their lives and identities hinders their ability to learn. For example, consider the example of teaching evolutionary biology to students who have only encountered creationism. Present them with Richard Dawkins telling them that their religion is a cloud to clear thinking and evolution is the obvious truth, and I promise you most of them will shut down and refuse to listen to what he's saying. Present them with someone saying "You know, I'm part of your group, I believe in God, I share your identity--but actually, I think creationism is deeply flawed, and together we should examine why" and they can process the material much better because they're not being threatened on an identity level. AND, in that example, the second speaker isn't going to threaten the atheists, either--they might be sitting there eyerolling but that isn't going to inhibit their focus any. Not everyone is comfortable, but people aren't dealing with a level of discomfort that interferes with their ability to listen.

I had a professor--of the philosophy of logic, actually!--start out a classroom discussion of logical fallacies with a study of abortion, coming from a cis male perspective and clearly treating the topic as an intellectual game. I promise you, I was not able to distract myself from being angry about what he was saying about my body and my bodily integrity to focus on the considerably less charged concepts he was ostensibly trying to teach, and his choice of subject is in many ways one of the reasons I think the man was a piss-poor teacher. If you're trying to teach logical concepts, use a structure for debate that isn't going to grab your students at a deeply emotional level and distract them by pissing them off.

I would argue that keeping levels of discomfort to a certain sweet spot is the best way to encourage learning, and that anyone who is horrifying students at the level of a "debate" between men on the ethics of women's bodily integrity or the level of "biodiversity" proponents telling students of color that they're inherently inferior on matters of learning is not exactly broadening anyone's horizons. And I think that's a subject people miss when they talk about this and things like free speech in classrooms and whether classrooms should have trigger warnings--because hey, I promise, a rape victim in the process of being triggered isn't learning jack. Of course different students are going to be deeply threatened by different things, but it's important to weigh the benefit that segments of the student population will get from, say, a speaker on a particular topic against the cost to learning and engagement to other segments of that student population.
posted by sciatrix at 6:02 AM on April 24, 2015 [17 favorites]




All of these grousing, flatulent articles make it sound not so much like a defense of freedom, but rather a complaint that now the wrong sort of person has freedom. Even the feminists, trans activists, and anti-racists who are supposedly ruling universities like kings have to put up with all sorts of abuse when they actually do exercise their right to free speech (and right to assembly) by challenging university policy that offends them and makes them feel marginalized. Being able to get together and defend your right to feel safe in a university is freedom - it's just freedom that these assholes don't appreciate because it impinges on their heretofore (and still largely uncontested) total grip on society.

To flip their rhetoric around, I would say that they've had their own 'safe spaces' for years and years and year, where they've been able to say awful things about people who aren't like them, and then say "only kidding!" or "just exercising my free speech, you totalitarian!" Well, now those other people are gaining political capitol, and creating their own safe spaces. Perhaps instead of appealing to a misinformed idea of what is and isn't free speech (here's a hint: you're free to say whatever you like, but now you have to recognize the fact that a growing portion of people will judge you harshly for it), they should pay attention to the desires that are driving people to demand respect in the first place.
posted by codacorolla at 6:05 AM on April 24, 2015 [20 favorites]


colleges sure as shit don't

So there's no point to philosophy or gender studies, well-stocked libraries and university-funded student organizations?

I'm honestly not trying to be an asshole here. In my direct experience, this is exactly what happens at university, what happened to me and my friends, and what continues to inform me today in the work I do. The issues I focused on were more environmental than gender-based, but having the MacBlo industry folks come on campus, even though they were asshats of the highest water, was instrumental in the successful protests and organizing that happened against them. We fucking saved the Carmanah Valley and I don't count that as useless.

That's why this is important, in my view. Kids need pushes, certainly I did, and university is the right place to do it for most. It's the place where most of our most effective activists are minted. Allowing universities to be comfortable safe places means we lose that. If students aren't organizing and being loud and occasionally making mistakes, then the system, and we adults, are failing them.
posted by bonehead at 6:07 AM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


That's why this is important, in my view. Kids need pushes, certainly I did, and university is the right place to do it for most. It's the place where most of our most effective activists are minted.

I'm going to go out on a limb, and say that people who are organizing against hate speech and terrible speaking events have already had a number of "pushes". In fact, I would wager that's what has lead them to be actual activists by organizing to change university policy. For many years, despite being branded as lefty spaces, universities have replicated the larger tendencies of society to favor white men in positions of power. Maybe the "pushes" that we should start giving university students isn't to make women, transpeople, and people of color uncomfortable so as to hone their activist powers, but to create an atmosphere where the people in the dominant majority learn to respect other viewpoints, and that they aren't the default rulers of the universe.
posted by codacorolla at 6:17 AM on April 24, 2015 [16 favorites]


"Everything should be up for debate" is itself, never up for debate. It's an axiom, which is weird, because it should have to be proved.
Otherwise we're re-establishing frameworks and mutual intelligibility all day.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 6:20 AM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


Maybe the "pushes" that we should start giving university students isn't to make women, transpeople, and people of color uncomfortable so as to hone their activist powers, but to create an atmosphere where the people in the dominant majority learn to respect other viewpoints, and that they aren't the default rulers of the universe.

Maybe, sure. And giving students with conventional viewpoints a bunch of new perspectives is important. But I also don't see universities as places where students should continue to be just passive learners. It's equally about providing them the tools to do something about the problems they face.
posted by bonehead at 6:30 AM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


Well the Debating Society isn't a classroom, nobody has to go in and nothing that goes on there is part of the curriculum. It's a recreational club.

Furthermore the debates have set noted fatuous windbags against other noted fatuous windbags for as long as I can remember. Victoria Gillick comes to mind, remember her? I heard she wasn't in any way an effective speaker. But she was controversial, that's how they bring the punters in. And amazingly, a consequence of speaking freely is that others may in turn voice objections to what you're saying, a fact that fatuous windbags characteristically fail to grasp. They always think their opponents are completely mindless otherwise wouldn't be their opponents. Plus ça change.

Anyone wanting a safe space from this particular debate can just go around the debating society, but it's a lot harder to avoid newspaper headlines and billboards about the controversy.
posted by tel3path at 6:39 AM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


Your argument is pure concern trolling. Universities have policies, and those policies are created by political actors. A subset of universities are making it so that in officially sanctioned areas there is greater respect for marginalized populations. This is being done because the people who are affected by harmful speech have taken the effort to make their university experience more enjoyable. They are, in a literal sense, doing something about the problems they face.

Your ideas of what a university for are strange: they're places where classes are held and degrees are awarded. The mystical activist generating powers that you (and largely, that ridiculous Pope Hat article) are conferring to them is a white male fantasy that represents a single slice of the population's ideation of higher education. Policies that make it so marginalized populations are able to use universities for what they are designed to do isn't some clamping down of free speech - it's an opening up of opportunity for people who haven't had equal access up to this point.
posted by codacorolla at 6:41 AM on April 24, 2015 [9 favorites]


My goodness...obviously, unless straight white cis men can be paid a lot of money to debate on stage in front of a quiet and attentive audience, eg, whether some races are superior, whether it's acceptable to stone the gays, whether women are lying about sexual assault, etc, etc...why then, we have no free speech!

What this really illustrates is that "free speech" is a civil fiction, not an axiom or a really-existing thing. It's something that in certain areas most people think produces the best outcome, but it also has its own internal contradictions - for instance, if I have to deal with a social environment where some people think it's okay to debate loudly and publicly whether women are stupider than men and whether they really enjoy harassment, etc, then my lived free speech is impinged on - I'm in a position where the social cost of speaking is high, I experience minority stress, I am less likely to speak and when I do speak it is extremely costly both socially and emotionally.

There is no "free speech" as a pure thing; because of difference in power, access and social position, one group's free speech is always about reducing the really-existing freedom of another group. (For instance, if we shut down the "free speech" of astroturf-y Koch brothers lobbying organizations, we increase the "free speech" of everyone else because everyone else (even other conservatives who are off-message) know that they can speak without being crushed by all the Koch.) We use the idea of free speech in certain situations because it's the best heuristic, but then we treat it as if it's a virtue in and of itself.
posted by Frowner at 6:41 AM on April 24, 2015 [42 favorites]


In particular, I worry they'll be employed to silence debate on reforming drug policy and policing.

Based on... what exactly?
posted by kmz at 6:44 AM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


in officially sanctioned areas

Sorry, does this mean that universities officially sanction some areas as 'safer', or that they are declaring to be safer all areas to which they lend their official sanction? The former wouldn't actually be objectionable to anyone involved, AFAICT.
posted by topynate at 6:48 AM on April 24, 2015


It should be noted that these controversies often involve controversial women and minorities speaking as well. Conadaleeza Rice, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Christina Hoff Summers. It's about people with ideas perceived as noxious, not a particular skin color or gender.

As for the value of debate itself...one thing I have noticed when listening to Intelligence Squared podcasts is that the side I am pulling for usually ends up being the one that changes the most minds in the audience. That can be a good feeling, to learn that a position you support that isn't widely supported can actually be very persuasive when it is well presented in a long form even when it is directly challenged by the other side. It gives you hope that you aren't involved in a lost cause.

That doesn't mean you should welcome any topic or any debater. You want someone who can respectfully lay out a case who is not such a fundamentalist on the issue that they will lose a debate just by refusing to honestly see the perspective of the other side.

At the very least, debate is a much better format for a controversial character because at least there is some formal challenge to their positions. The thing with commencement speakers is just so different.

The other thing I noticed with Intelligence Squared is that UK debating is much more snarky and can often border on mean, but it does seem a little more rigorous. I generally prefer the American version though because it is more genial and respectful. So I think one reason people are sensitive about inviting asshats to debates in the UK is that they can really let the asshat flag wave pretty hard in that debate tradition. I wouldn't want to go to a debate just to hear my sincerely held beliefs actively mocked and insulted, that's not the challenge I want.
posted by Drinky Die at 6:58 AM on April 24, 2015 [5 favorites]


Frankly this just strikes me as yet another "you're taking away my freedom to oppress you!" that we've heard from every priveleged class ever.

I don't see any value in "debating" in an academic setting the same old stupid tired shit, from the same old stupid tired shitheads, that has been going on for the last 50 years or so.
posted by Foosnark at 7:04 AM on April 24, 2015 [8 favorites]


There is no "free speech" as a pure thing; because of difference in power, access and social position, one group's free speech is always about reducing the really-existing freedom of another group. (For instance, if we shut down the "free speech" of astroturf-y Koch brothers lobbying organizations, we increase the "free speech" of everyone else because everyone else (even other conservatives who are off-message) know that they can speak without being crushed by all the Koch.) We use the idea of free speech in certain situations because it's the best heuristic, but then we treat it as if it's a virtue in and of itself.
posted by Frowner at 6:41 AM on April 24 [6 favorites +] [!]


When you argue that speech is a zero-sum game -- that is, when you argue "more free speech for you means less for me" -- then you're basically arguing for authoritarianism. You're saying that the Enemy Tribe must be silenced, because more resources for them means less for us.

That isn't philosophy or ideology, it's just tribalism.
posted by Avenger at 7:05 AM on April 24, 2015 [10 favorites]


The New Thought Police
"Civility" has become a watch word for academic administrators. Earlier this year, Inside Higher Ed released a survey of college and university chief academic officers, which found that "a majority of provosts are concerned about declining faculty civility in American higher education." Most of these provosts also "believe that civility is a legitimate criterion in hiring and evaluating faculty members," and most think that faculty incivility is directed primarily at administrators. The survey brought into the open what has perhaps long been an unarticulated requirement for promotion and tenure: a certain kind of deference to those in power.

But what exactly is civility—and is it a prerequisite for a vibrant intellectual climate? As it turns out, the definitions on offer are porous and vague.
A review of Terrified: How Anti-Muslim Fringe Organizations Became Mainstream by Christopher Bail touches on this:
There is a nice irony here that Bail doesn’t quite bring out. A traditional defense of free speech, dating back to Mill’s On Liberty and famously endorsed by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in his 1919 dissent in United States v. Abrams, maintains that a free “marketplace” for ideas facilitates the identification of truths—via adversarial contestation and testing of factual and normative claims. Scholars and commentators have long criticized this idea. The marketplace for ideas, some have pointed out, lacks a mechanism for sorting between truth and falsity. By providing painstaking evidence of perverse selection effects in the media, Bail shows that the contemporary marketplace for ideas is not conducive to truth (however defined); in fact, it beckons pernicious falsehoods into the public sphere."
posted by the man of twists and turns at 7:06 AM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


I Didn't Get to Speak at a Debate and All I Got Was This Lousy Column in a National Newspaper
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 7:08 AM on April 24, 2015 [22 favorites]


When you argue that speech is a zero-sum game -- that is, when you argue "more free speech for you means less for me" -- then you're basically arguing for authoritarianism.

When you live in an era where speech is money and bribery is legal, less money naturally means less speech.
posted by Drinky Die at 7:09 AM on April 24, 2015


Also I hope nobody arguing for more restricted speech is pro-Palestinian (or even anti-Settler), because you're going to have a very, very hard time being heard at a lot of American universities, where any kind of pro-Palestinian discourse is widely perceived as anti-semitism.
posted by Avenger at 7:11 AM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


Your argument is pure concern trolling.

No, I think we have a genuine disagreement about what a university should do.

Your ideas of what a university for are strange: they're places where classes are held and degrees are awarded.

That's trivially true, but I think, shows where we disagree. University isn't high school. A university degree isn't (or shouldn't be) just about reading some books and passing a bunch of tests. It's about learning how to deal with multiple and complex viewpoints, and developing skills to navigate those thickets. Critical thinking, debate, analysis, whatever you want to call the skill sets. You can't do that with no challenges and only safe spaces. If everyone agrees, the practice of analysis turns inward and is greatly weakened.

Universities shouldn't be places where reactionary trolls have free reign to spout off. That's not what I'm arguing. There are real issues with making teaching environments welcoming enough that those who feel inhibited and unsafe develop those tools as well. But I don't think that larger purpose is served well by taking away all or most challenges, either in the formal setting or in the extracurricular life of the institution.
posted by bonehead at 7:13 AM on April 24, 2015 [4 favorites]


Ward Churchill also comes to mind.
posted by Drinky Die at 7:14 AM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


codacorolla The mystical activist generating powers that you (and largely, that ridiculous Pope Hat article) are conferring to [universities] is a white male fantasy that represents a single slice of the population's ideation of higher education.

Your experiences appear to have been different from mine. In the places I grew up and went to school, this is/was a latino/a fantasy [1][2]. Although I don't activist much any more (for personal reasons), I still have close ties to many activist latino/a organizations with this idea as a guiding principle. Sometimes, they even succeed. In my experiences, and the experiences of many of my fellow university latino/as, white men were trying to shut down the activism generating powers of universities.

[1] And occasional reality. We were inspired by real events like the 1993 Day Hall takeover.

[2]This was enough of a thing in the 90s that LA comedy group Culture Clash parodied the latino/a university activist several times, most notably in "The resurrection of Ché" (@ 7 min 19 sec), still one of my most quoted comedy sketches of all time.
posted by yeolcoatl at 7:14 AM on April 24, 2015 [5 favorites]


But I also don't see universities as places where students should continue to be just passive learners. It's equally about providing them the tools to do something about the problems they face.

"So therefore, female students should not be allowed to protest when straight white males come on campus to say stuff they find offensive."

Do I have your argument right?
posted by happyroach at 7:16 AM on April 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


Sorry, does this mean that universities officially sanction some areas as 'safer', or that they are declaring to be safer all areas to which they lend their official sanction? The former wouldn't actually be objectionable to anyone involved, AFAICT.

Universities have certain areas of student life that they can influence. Off campus housing, most social media, greek life (unfortunately), sports locker rooms, student clubs, alumni associations, etc. are mostly off limits until something bad happens (like a leaked email or a whistleblower coming forward). So, yes, some areas are safer in universities, and many are decidedly unsafe. They can, however, directly influence areas like who gets paid thousands of dollars to debate in a speaker series, or what language can be used in course curriculum, or how to validate student complaints about course content.
posted by codacorolla at 7:16 AM on April 24, 2015


When you live in an era where speech is money and bribery is legal, less money naturally means less speech.

It goes beyond that, though. The reality is that "absolute free speech" often devolves into a situation where the loudest and often times most base voices crowd out everyone else. By setting ground rules and not allowing certain sorts of speech that crowd out others, we actually enable those voices that would have been pushed aside to be heard, which improves the freedom of speech.
posted by NoxAeternum at 7:17 AM on April 24, 2015 [3 favorites]



When you argue that speech is a zero-sum game -- that is, when you argue "more free speech for you means less for me" -- then you're basically arguing for authoritarianism. You're saying that the Enemy Tribe must be silenced, because more resources for them means less for us.


That's such nonsense. What I'm arguing is that "free speech" is a strategy. Sometimes saying "anyone can say anything they like and we will ignore differences in access and social power" generates what the communities involved agree are the best results. Sometimes saying "you can't shout "tr***y" at our staff or we'll boot you out on your ass" is the best strategy. Unrestricted "free speech" has a social cost. Sometimes we decide that's a social cost worth paying, sometimes we decide that it gets in the way of other goals that are more important in that moment. My doctor can't call me a faggot freak or I will report him to the AMA and make a stink in the media, no matter how much that infringes on his free speech, for instance. (Not that he would; he's a lovely person.)

If there's one thing that strikes me as very characteristic of the US, it's the idea that if we just get our heads right, we will discover the underlying rules of society that are always true and always produce the best results (most of which we will probably assert are already enshrined in the constitution), and then we will be on wheels - there's no space for any kind of pluralism, or the idea that a strategy which produces terrific results in one situation can produce lousy results in another.
posted by Frowner at 7:19 AM on April 24, 2015 [10 favorites]


You can't do that with no challenges and only safe spaces.

There is a rather large difference between being challenged and being abused.
posted by NoxAeternum at 7:20 AM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


Do I have your argument right?

You have it exactly backwards. Students should absolutely be protesting. Otherwise, what would be the point?
posted by bonehead at 7:21 AM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


Oh, but if their protests have actual results, that's bad, right - you can protest a speaker as much as you like, but only as long as everyone recognizes that your protest will never change anything.
posted by Frowner at 7:22 AM on April 24, 2015 [9 favorites]


None of this addresses the central issue of free speech, which is that there are a great many people out there who think you are the asshats and blowhards, and one day the wheel will turn once again and they will be setting the rules of what may and may not be said. Surely not every last one of you can have forgotten "free speech zones."

Because the wheel always turns. Can you know for certain that the future holds no more September 11th-style events, no more major recessions, no more eras in which the climate of opinion is set by fear? You cannot. There will be more Bushes, more Nixons. Whatever power you assume today to discard basic established rights (but, reasons! good reasons!) is power you hand directly to them to use against you when their day returns.

Whatever you permit to be done to others will also be permitted for others to do to you.
posted by jfuller at 7:24 AM on April 24, 2015 [16 favorites]


By setting ground rules and not allowing certain sorts of speech that crowd out others, we actually enable those voices that would have been pushed aside to be heard, which improves the freedom of speech.

Depends who is setting the rules. On a very conservative campus you will likely reduce free speech compared to a more absolutist free speech culture and end up with the college version of Free Republic where no liberal or even centrist ideas will be heard. Some level of absolutism regarding (non-hate or personal attack) content probably has to be involved to get the most variety of free speech, just because humans aren't great at making the rules on a case by case basis.
posted by Drinky Die at 7:25 AM on April 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


There is currently some controversy about what is more important: freedom or justice. The pro-freedom folks would rather not engage with something as thorny as justice, so they suggest that students are just asking for "their feelings to be protected," though it should be obvious considering how often the word "justice" is used (a la "social justice warrior.") Those of us, on the other hand, who think justice is more important tend to see these debates as fundamentally about the historical injustices involved with the various groups, and only look to freedom as a political condition to be preserved, not some abstract ideal where everyone must be allowed to speak their innermost mind.

The idea that universities are spaces unsuitable to unpopular, offensive, or challenging ideas and opinions is anathema to me.

The world is full of offense and contrary ideas, and the goal posts for what is offensive and contrary are constantly in flux. There is no ideal world at the end of an ideological struggle where people are free of unhappiness or pain and accepting this is a healthy step in human maturation and not at all at odds with progressive values.

Universities are exactly the place where students should be challenged to adapt and thrive in an often ugly, unfair, and uncharitable world that is totally impervious to their feels.
posted by echocollate at 7:26 AM on April 24, 2015 [6 favorites]


You have it exactly backwards. Students should absolutely be protesting. Otherwise, what would be the point?

Then what's the problem here? Assholes came on campus, people protested. Student activism safe.

And the thing is, in my time in campus I see all kinds of activism- rallies, priests, marches, the union guys with the big skeleton...the notion that students are closed off from the world of activism our engaging with issues is ridiculous,

I think we may be dealing with an old-fashioned stereotype here; universities as isolated incubators of adulthood, taking naive children and making them into adults. And that hasn't been the case in ages.
posted by happyroach at 7:31 AM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


There is no "free speech" as a pure thing; because of difference in power, access and social position, one group's free speech is always about reducing the really-existing freedom of another group.

I think this is a very important point. I'd like to see more discussions of "free speech" framed in terms of the specific circumstances that would constitute lack of freedom in that instance, because, for my part, the particular power dynamics involved seem extremely relevant to whether the position I'll take will be an absolutist free speech position or the complete opposite. There are scenarios in which each of these positions is appropriate, and that seems like evidence that a disembodied concept -- free speech -- spoken of independently of context is indeed fairly meaningless.

The argument that restrictions on free speech are "authoritarian" is ridiculous, for example, except given a narrow interpretation involving a certain power imbalance between the person whose speech is being restricted and the person restricting the speech. This assertion falls apart when the balance of power changes. For example, the Obama administration's treatment of whistleblowers is a clear case of authoritarian restriction on free speech; a protester heckling an administration official on that subject at the official's public speaking engagement is clearly not a "restriction of free speech" in the limited meaningful sense of the phrase "free speech", even if the protester is so loud that nobody hears the official.

Disagreement about restrictions on or protection of "speech" should be focused on disagreement on what exactly the balance of power in the situation is, but they don't typically seem to be framed that way.

Part of the difficulty with having a discussion about "free speech" with a bunch of USese people involved is maybe that it's part of the civic religion, and it's hard to think carefully about concepts that are understood to be agreed-upon, universally understood components of social identity.
posted by busted_crayons at 7:32 AM on April 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


Universities are exactly the place where students should be challenged to adapt and thrive in an often ugly, unfair, and uncharitable world that is totally impervious to their feels.

Ah, that good old "suffering is good for the soul" routine. We should not seek to actually fix the problems with our world, but instead learn to route around them.

And by the way, if the world really was as "impervious to their feels" as you claim, we wouldn't be having this conversation. The fact that the world is being changed by people who are acting on their life experiences and yes, their feelings is at the heart of this issue.
posted by NoxAeternum at 7:33 AM on April 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


if their protests have actual results, that's bad, right

That's not what I'm saying either. The world never stays still. This isn't a game.

I was a very small, peripheral part of bunch of student groups and NGOs that made a real change in the world, and that years-long experience completely changed what I chose to do with my life. That happened because we, I, as students, got exposed to some very harsh realities about commercial exploitation of natural resources. This was mostly mediated through the universities and had their direct financial support.

It's wasn't fun. We were scared and desperate. I still talk to those communities today, in my professional life, and I'm still working with similar issues twenty five years on.

I want the next generation to be able to do that too, in their own way and time, even if that offends me right now (as I'm fat and old). I would be in a very different place right now, had I not had those experiences at the right time of my life. I'm much happier I chose this path instead.
posted by bonehead at 7:36 AM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


The argument that restrictions on free speech are "authoritarian" is ridiculous, for example, except given a narrow interpretation involving a certain power imbalance between the person whose speech is being restricted and the person restricting the speech. This assertion falls apart when the balance of power changes. For example, the Obama administration's treatment of whistleblowers is a clear case of authoritarian restriction on free speech; a protester heckling an administration official on that subject at the official's public speaking engagement is clearly not a "restriction of free speech" in the limited meaningful sense of the phrase "free speech", even if the protester is so loud that nobody hears the official.

Disagreement about restrictions on or protection of "speech" should be focused on disagreement on what exactly the balance of power in the situation is, but they don't typically seem to be framed that way.


I think I see what you're getting at here. Restricting the rights of the powerful is good, because it allows the oppressed more freedoms? Is that it? Maybe I haven't done your nuance justice, but would you say that is the crux of the matter? It sounds very straightforward.

Question, though: how do we decide who is "powerful" or not? How do we decide which group is "too powerful" and illegitimately benefiting from free speech?

Should campus Jewish groups disrupt Palestinian rallies? "We're keeping our campus safe from violent anti-semitism" they might say. Should Palestinians do the same to campus Jewish groups? "We're denying Zionist settlers the right to silence us" they might say. Is there some sort of Social Justice Tribunal where the Oppressors can be sorted out from the Oppressed?
posted by Avenger at 7:45 AM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


Even aside from the dubious records of these particular writers on issues I care about, I have a hard time taking any "kids today!" handwringing seriously.

Kids today are just the same as we were, doing the best the can with the shit they were handed. But they are not living in the same world we did, so they are not doing the same things we did (except when they are, of course).

I don't think they value freedom less. They may very well understand the limits of things like protests and fear the power of the police state more than we did, because those things are more obvious now. As a college student, I would not have believed something like the cop coldly pepper-spraying seated students in the face...and getting away with it...that happened a few years ago. I certainly didn't realize how bad rape victims had it on college campuses, or how badly minorities were treated by police. I was sheltered and only knew what was in newspapers or TV news. Which made it easier for me to believe in ideas like "the US is a just nation."

And yes, I do think we should be past the need to debate the ethics of abortion, just as we are past the need to debate whether women should have the right to own property, or whether slavery is bad. Abortions will always need to happen for various reasons. They are not abstract events; they exist and happen for very concrete reasons. Trying to eliminate them involves putting women into the status of state-owned property, which should not be allowable for any reason. The vast majority of those who support abortion restrictions have shown themselves uninterested in effective ways to lower the abortion rate (contraception, etc.) and uninterested in the fate of the child that is eventually born. They are not credible. They cannot and should not be taken seriously, any more than a Klansman's views on race should be taken seriously.
posted by emjaybee at 7:45 AM on April 24, 2015 [5 favorites]


Ah, that good old "suffering is good for the soul" routine. We should not seek to actually fix the problems with our world, but instead learn to route around them.

Suffering is a fact of fucking life that can't be "fixed," and learning to accept it and deal with it in a healthy way does not preclude striving to make the world a better place.

And by the way, if the world really was as "impervious to their feels" as you claim, we wouldn't be having this conversation. The fact that the world is being changed by people who are acting on their life experiences and yes, their feelings is at the heart of this issue.

The struggle for a better world is ceaseless. The world we live in by and large doesn't care about our emotional state. If it did, we wouldn't be having this conversation.
posted by echocollate at 7:46 AM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


This isn't challenging speech that is being blocked. This is the speech of the status quo, which is misogynistic, soaked in rape culture, racist, homophobic and transphobic at every level from personal to institutional. This is the mainstream shit that kicks at people in marginalized groups all the time. If it's not traumatizing, it's wearing, and pretty much everyone has seen it on TV, in locker rooms, in hallways, and online for years before they got to college. They're asking for some places to be a break from these pervasive and constant influences, and they know that even then, shit will probably get in.

But there's nothing challenging about big-name bigots. There's nothing new that they're gonna say in their dick v. dick argument about uteruses. We've seen literally everything these people have said before, because they are the Opinions Of Important White Dudes, and Important White Dudes are physically incapable of shutting up.
posted by NoraReed at 7:46 AM on April 24, 2015 [13 favorites]


Question, though: how do we decide who is "powerful" or not? How do we decide which group is "too powerful" and illegitimately benefiting from free speech?

Exactly; I'm saying that handwringing about restrictions on speech should be replaced with discussion of the particular situation's instance of this question. "Powerful" might even just be defined in this context as "going to be heard on way or another, whether we like it or not, so their speech doesn't particularly need protection".
posted by busted_crayons at 7:50 AM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


But there's nothing challenging about big-name bigots.

This is where we disagree. I think you're taking as read something a lot of people, even now, simply accept as the way things are.
posted by bonehead at 7:52 AM on April 24, 2015


If you can actually prevent someone from speaking, you have power over them.
posted by topynate at 7:52 AM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


Powerful" might even just be defined in this context as "going to be heard on way or another, whether we like it or not, so their speech doesn't particularly need protection".
posted by busted_crayons at 7:50 AM on April 24


So in the example that I gave, it's clearly the Palestinians who are the underdogs, and the Jews who require no protection?

Or the other way around?
posted by Avenger at 7:56 AM on April 24, 2015


If you can actually prevent someone from speaking, you have power over them.

Yes, absolutely. If you can merely deny them one particular venue, then you don't, necessarily.
posted by busted_crayons at 7:57 AM on April 24, 2015 [7 favorites]


"Powerful" might even just be defined in this context as "going to be heard on way or another, whether we like it or not, so their speech doesn't particularly need protection".

I don't think the power construction is enough alone. There are unpopular hate positions that have difficulty being heard, and popular tolerant positions that are generally accepted by society. So I think we probably need to look at some other content related factors if we are trying to best regulate a marketplace of ideas to see what deserves free speech protection and what does not.
posted by Drinky Die at 7:57 AM on April 24, 2015


So in the example that I gave, it's clearly the Palestinians who are the underdogs, and the Jews who require no protection?

Or the other way around?


It depends on the situation; your hypothetical scenario has insufficient detail. There are many situations where the balance of power is unclear and the parties involved should just fight it out. I'm by no means taking an anti-controversy position.
posted by busted_crayons at 7:59 AM on April 24, 2015


Suffering is a fact of fucking life that can't be "fixed," and learning to accept it and deal with it in a healthy way does not preclude striving to make the world a better place.

My personal experience is that suffering is far from being a "fact" of life, but is instead the result of choices that people make, whether individually (such as choosing whether or not to use hateful language) or collective (like societal policies that prefer the 1% over the rest of us.) Of course, that view makes us responsible for the suffering in the world, while calling it a "fact" serves as absolution.
posted by NoxAeternum at 8:01 AM on April 24, 2015 [6 favorites]


I do think we should be past the need to debate the ethics of abortion

In the theoretical sense, perhaps. Though even in theoretical circles there's always place for new analysis and understanding.

But as long as there are groups out there that sincerely believe otherwise, people need to be equipped to deal with that debate. Not presenting the arguments, not dealing with them appropriately (even if that means joining a movement and suffering the roughs and bruises of that because it's critical dammit) doesn't help the reality of poor or restricted abortion access. It's also not going to be a place where kids from those restrictive subcultures can learn about other viewpoints and get kicked out of their comfort zones.
posted by bonehead at 8:05 AM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


Students need to learn to deal with unfairness! *students organize in order to deal with unfairness* Ergh, well, now reset it so the next group can too!
posted by codacorolla at 8:05 AM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


So I think we probably need to look at some other content related factors if we are trying to best regulate a marketplace of ideas to see what deserves free speech protection and what does not.

I probably agree with this, although I think that there are limited scenarios in which obviously odious speech should be protected. For example, I don't think the state has the right to stop a bunch of neo-Nazis from having a rally, but I think that the public has the right to confront such a rally and express strong disapproval. (I even think the latter right even trumps the state's interest in maintaining order in that setting.)

In other words, "freedom of speech" can only be understood as "freedom from restrictions imposed on specific parties by specific parties", and a complete discussion of a "free speech" situation has to depend heavily on the relationship between the parties involved. It's also true that it's rarely clear who the parties even are, much less how they are related.
posted by busted_crayons at 8:06 AM on April 24, 2015


Yes, absolutely. If you can merely deny them one particular venue, then you don't, necessarily.

Well, it's situational. You have the power to stop someone from speaking in that venue; they have the power to stop you speaking on their blog. I'd like to link it back to the earlier comment: "one group's free speech is always about reducing the really-existing freedom of another group." If that's true, then we're talking about freedom in the domain of that free speech, so the relevant consideration, to me, would be who has power over whom within that domain. In other words, if the position adopted isn't free speech absolutism, then the issue is actually the regulation of power between different group in a particular venue. And frankly I don't see why a hall set aside for debates is a venue that needs such strong regulation of power between the groups involved here.
posted by topynate at 8:07 AM on April 24, 2015


C'mon. There are no resets, ever.

There are always reasons to push forward.
posted by bonehead at 8:07 AM on April 24, 2015


This is the speech of the status quo, which is misogynistic, soaked in rape culture, racist, homophobic and transphobic at every level from personal to institutional. ... There's nothing new that they're gonna say in their dick v. dick argument about uteruses.

I don't understand. Is the objection that the debaters were very unlikely to say anything that hasn't been said before or that they were men or that they didn't represent enough of the position-space or something else or all of the above? I'm not sure I have a clear picture of the event, but I thought it was supposed to be a debate with one person on the "pro-choice" side and one person on the "pro-life" side. Which of those views is the status quo? Or is the idea that this is a topic worth debating the thing that is the status quo? Maybe things are different in the UK, but in the US, the population is pretty split on the question of abortion. If those of us who favor choice are to persuade those who don't, shouldn't we invite debates of this sort? Maybe there is some alternative that makes debates anti-useful?

One thing maybe to consider is that while the debaters are unlikely to say anything new in the absolute sense (I agree about that), people listening -- maybe even a large number of them -- might be likely to hear something new or to hear something old expressed in a way that finally clicks.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 8:08 AM on April 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


Freedom from always requires a justification, notwithstanding that it might be a very good or plainly obvious one. Freedom to doesn't.

That's an absurd position. If it were valid, it would mean that my right to freedom implies that I may simply do as I please, up to and including breaking down your door at 3am, gassing you with Fentanyl, sexually abusing your cat and taking a huge dump on your kitchen table.

Your freedom from the likelihood of that kind of thing happening to you is indeed good and plainly obvious and therefore does not require justification. My freedom to take such a course of action, on the other hand, simply could not be justified in any workable ethical framework of which I am aware.
posted by flabdablet at 8:20 AM on April 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


we could just refer back to the prior thread on this subject
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:23 AM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


"There is no "free speech" as a pure thing; because of difference in power, access and social position, one group's free speech is always about reducing the really-existing freedom of another group."

"Always reducing"? Somebody exercising their right to free speech is automatically taking that right away from somebody else? IS speech like gold then? A rare commodity?


"I think this is a very important point. I'd like to see more discussions of "free speech" framed in terms of the specific circumstances that would constitute lack of freedom in that instance, because, for my part, the particular power dynamics involved seem extremely relevant to whether the position I'll take will be an absolutist free speech position or the complete opposite."

Complete and total opposite? So if somebody is more privileged than somebody else they need to be completely silenced? Because that's what the complete opposite of absolutist free speech is.

"When you live in an era where speech is money and bribery is legal, less money naturally means less speech."

What you're basically saying is: who controls the press controls the flow of speech. But that's not what Frowner said. What Frowner said is that using free speech always takes away free speech from somebody else. That, quite frankly, isn't true at all, in my opinion.
posted by I-baLL at 8:24 AM on April 24, 2015


Ergh, well, now reset it so the next group can too!

You seem to be labouring under the misapprehension that I'm arguing this as a purely teaching exercise where the pieces go back on the shelf after the end of class.

IMO, this is actually about keeping universities as places of transformation, both of the students and society at large. The university is a place to teach yes, but it must teach using the real world, not some made-safe, reusable teaching dolls.
posted by bonehead at 8:24 AM on April 24, 2015


I had sort of a related experience

I was on a lefty law review, and one of our activities was setting up a colloquium on welfare reform, which was The Thing in 1995/6.

Heather McDonald was at the time and maybe still is a conservative mouthpiece. She was working for a neoconservative think-thank -- I forget the name -- and she was promoting the idea that welfare is evil. I don't remember her being racist, but it was definitely a thing where she blamed people on welfare for their predicament. Her attitudes were basically shit, but they were sort of eloquently phrased shit, not at the same level but somewhat like Scalia will say evil shit but in a really beautiful way.

Anyway, we were planning this thing: people against welfare reform, people for it. And my co-organizer was on vacation and unreachable, and I had this opportunity to invite Heather McDonald, and she accepted.

When my co-organizer came back, the shit hit the fan. She insisted that H.M. be uninvited. I was not pleased by this and waved the first amendment around a lot. But my colleague was unimpressed. I don't remember her reasoning but for the fact that she was implacable, and it was basically a choice between uninviting Heather McDonald or I don't know, get beat up, it was intense.

I uninvited Heather McDonald in probably one of the most awkward phone conversations I've had in my life.

I sort of vaguely resented the thing for years, but now when I think about it, my colleague was right. H.M.'s ideas were actively pernicious. We saw and see the effects of welfare reform and it is not a happy story for many people.

I'm glad we didn't give H.M. a platform to parade her bullshit. She could and did do it in various journalistic outlets. Sometimes ideas are poisonous. Hers were/are.

So all I know about this douchebag in England is that what he wrote about the experience is full of some serious bullshit. Why would the university need to endorse this? Why can't students be all, fuck this noise.
posted by angrycat at 8:31 AM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


It depends on the situation; your hypothetical scenario has insufficient detail. There are many situations where the balance of power is unclear and the parties involved should just fight it out. I'm by no means taking an anti-controversy position.
posted by busted_crayons at 7:59 AM on April 24 [+] [!]


See, this is important: It's not immediately obvious who is the oppressor and who is needing their speech restricted. To most people on Metafilter, it's fairly obvious who the oppressors are: the 1%, white supremacists, anti-gay bigots, TERFS and other assorted transphobes, etc. We all know and agree that those people are oppressors and (presumably) their speech deserves no special protection. Indeed, some would even argue that to protect their speech would be to subsidize it, in a way.

What's lacking here is any understanding of how an idea or a group of people gets to be labeled as "oppressors" or how they could ever hope to lose that status. I asked (in a somewhat humorous tone) earlier about a potential Social Justice Tribunal, some kind of due-process where people could make the case that they're not really oppressors and where the Social Justice Prosecution (or whatever) could make some case against them. (Incidentally, this too would require a debate and for odious ideas to be aired).

In the absence of that, what we have is just tribalism. Group A decides they are oppressed by Group B. Group A may very well be correct. They decide to disrupt the speech of Group B because Group B expressing their odious opinions creates an "unsafe environment" for Group A.

There is no due process involved here. There is no contemplation. Indeed, the idea of a Social Justice Tribunal (or any due process for restricting speech) is dead in the water, because discussing the merits of Group B (even in an adversarial courtroom setting) would be allowing Group B to express it's opinions, and we can't have that.

So instead we have the exercise of raw power. Group A is oppressed and they have the right to silence and restrict their oppressors in any way they see fit. They have an absolute right to be free from Group B's terrible, horrible opinions and their oppressive thoughts.

People on the outside of this struggle -- people like you and I -- really have no way of determining who is right, because Group A (and maybe Group B at this point) have basically given up with trying to convince anyone of their rightness. The time for talking, as they say, is over.

Group A and B are now just locked into a ritualistic struggle, as each views itself as a victim and each believes they have a right to be free from the evils of the other. Each seeks only to silence and aggrieve the other -- like two villages fighting for centuries over a water well or a grove of fruit trees. The ideological context has been lost -- all that remains is power.

I guess that's what bothers me the most about all this. Modern Social Justice has become, basically "Try to figure out who is the underdog in the situation and support them. Figure out who the Oppressor is and attack them". But all of us -- every one of us -- lack the information to make that decision perfectly. We can't even agree if Jews are more oppressed than Palestinians or vice versa.

In the absence of such universal and unimpeachable knowledge, maybe it's better to just let people speak their peace and allow people (and groups) to make up their own minds about what's true and what isn't -- rather than trying to perpetually "manage oppression" on college campuses and in the wider society.
posted by Avenger at 8:31 AM on April 24, 2015 [12 favorites]


Man, now this is a freaking advocacy post that feels like it exists just to be the stick that pokes the hornets' nest.
posted by byanyothername at 8:35 AM on April 24, 2015 [4 favorites]


Your freedom from the likelihood of that kind of thing happening to you is indeed good and plainly obvious and therefore does not require justification. My freedom to take such a course of action, on the other hand, simply could not be justified in any workable ethical framework of which I am aware.

Well, if it's your house, the 'Fentanyl' is really nitrous or something as part of harmless consensual sex-play, and the cat is a plushie, then why not? Seriously though. What I was saying there was that it is precisely and exclusively my 'freedom from' that limits your 'freedom to'. Further, these 'freedoms from' do require justification. In your example they would be basic rights in property and person, which emerge naturally in more or less all systems of moral reasoning (btw - your cat may have some rights in person, but in any case is your property...)

What you are doing is straw-manning my position. You are in fact claiming that I believe the very thing I replied distinguishing myself from: that freedom to "should always and everywhere trump other people's freedom from".
posted by topynate at 8:43 AM on April 24, 2015


Holy shit we literally got to I/P how did we get to I/P

It's interesting to compare this discussion at Mefi to the New York Times discussion, which seems to be pretty solidly on the side of "safe spaces are immature". See the reader's and NYT picks on the comments on the Shulevitz article, esp. Joan from San Francisco, where she literally suggests therapy.

The psychology I've done is mainly theoretical and cognitive, not clinical, but even I know that the great behaviorist clinical success (no matter their theoretical failures) was with phobias and PTSD. We know what the effect of comparatively harmless exposure is for PTSD and it's an effective treatment that gets pretty systematically underused because patients hate the living shit out of it and therapists are uncomfortable about it. (effective meaning signs and symptoms are repeatably and reliably reduced). Fairly alright reason for not using the thing, maybe, but maybe not, I don't know.

Now, obviously it's not the case that people debating in a room is the same as exposure therapy, because exposure therapy is systematically thought out to be in a non-harmful setting, but I've always thought it an interesting thing to think about the consequence of the trigger warning as a thing in itself for avoiding the trigger. This is also interesting because the usual state of the art with regards to exposure therapy, which is virtual reality systems, will probably gain much proliferation in the next half-decade.
posted by curuinor at 8:49 AM on April 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


Putting the (seemingly-obvious?) moral questions related to abortion aside, this whole 'abortion should be outside the scope of permitted debate' idea is very strange, practically speaking. The United States, at least, is a country where 46% of the population is pro-life, and there's little evidence that this figure is reaching any kind of tipping point, as we saw with gay marriage. Hundreds of millions of people center their spiritual and community lives on organizations that staunchly oppose abortion and are vanishingly unlikely to change this view.

What, exactly, is the endgame here? Will shutting down abortion debates make these people disappear?
posted by corcovado at 8:59 AM on April 24, 2015 [6 favorites]



I guess that's what bothers me the most about all this. Modern Social Justice has become, basically "Try to figure out who is the underdog in the situation and support them. Figure out who the Oppressor is and attack them". But all of us -- every one of us -- lack the information to make that decision perfectly. We can't even agree if Jews are more oppressed than Palestinians or vice versa.


The interesting thing about this line of reasoning is that you assume that actual marginalized people are somewhere else, being "protected" by...mefites, or social justice warriors or whatever. The idea that, for example, a critical number of women on campus actually might think it harmful to their interest to hear another spiel about how women make up rape accusations, etc etc and therefore might protect themselves...that seems to vanish. The reason I don't want to hear a lot of homophobic garbage day-in-day-out isn't because I want to protect the gays; it's because I am a gay (so to speak), and it just fucking wears me down.

I spend a lot of my life worried about very routine stuff because I am visibly gender non-conforming. I worry about whether my conservative professor is going to grade me down if I speak up - regardless of what I say - and he learns to recognize me; I worry about my grade if I don't speak up and he dings me for not participating. I worry about getting into the elevator with women because homophobic women think that people who look like me are giant perverts. I worry about getting fired because I know that in my institution there are several senior people who have advocated for the firing of visibly queer staff. I worry about my relations with clients. I worry, god knows, about being in the locker room at the gym. That's minority stress, it's real, it impacts both my mental and my physical health. Having to hear officially sanctioned garbage from my institution debating my normalcy or humanity is an actual material harm to me, and I don't want to hear it because it makes my life literally worse.

As to the PTSD angle: I think it's a mistake to conflate "we can't have a rape apologist speak on campus" with the trigger warning issue. I don't get PTSD symptoms from hearing someone debate whether homosexuality is immoral. I get the joy of once again being reminded that the people at my institution are not on my side, and the joy of hearing, once again, all the bullshit arguments about why I should hate myself and go back in the closet. Not everything that sucks and causes minority stress is PTSD.
posted by Frowner at 9:03 AM on April 24, 2015 [29 favorites]


I get reminded, too, that I am not as full a member of my institution as a straight person - that it's okay to debate my humanity, but that no one is ever interested in or paid for debating the humanity of straight people.
posted by Frowner at 9:05 AM on April 24, 2015 [5 favorites]


The job of universities should be to teach students how to use their brains but not what to use them for.
posted by rankfreudlite at 9:06 AM on April 24, 2015


Palindromedary: "There's little point in arguing only about the things we all agree on."

YES THERE IS!
posted by symbioid at 9:06 AM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


Wait. I mean NO THERE ISN'T!
posted by symbioid at 9:06 AM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


You are in fact claiming that I believe the very thing I replied distinguishing myself from: that freedom to "should always and everywhere trump other people's freedom from".

I must be having an attack of terrible reading miscomprehension, if that is the case. You wrote

Freedom from always requires a justification, notwithstanding that it might be a very good or plainly obvious one. Freedom to doesn't.

I construed the last half of that to mean "Freedom to doesn't require a justification". Is that not what you meant?

But even if your intended meaning was the somewhat less absolute "Freedom to doesn't always require a justification", I still disagree that there's any inherent difference in the amount of justification required for freedoms from vs. freedoms to.

Bringing that back to the specific freedoms under consideration in the OP: the Freedom Of Speech Good, Safe Spaces Bad brigade seems to be arguing that the freedom of a well-known bullshit artist and provocateur to spout worthless crap on campus is somehow more valuable than the freedom of the student body to create a space with a lower-than-usual incidence of worthless crap. I think that's a specious claim.
posted by flabdablet at 9:07 AM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


So, one day I was at a relatives house who had cable, and had some time on my hand.

Flipping through the channels, I couldn't find anything worth watching, it was all worthless dreck. Then I came across CSPAN (or CSPAN2) and saw a long program featuring Phyllis Schlafly speaking to a classroom of students at the Citadel. The class was about "Conservative Intellectual Tradition in America"; she was an invited speaker.

As I expected, I found her viewpoints to be noxious and disturbing. But it was transfixing to hear her speak - her political impact on cultural conservationism cannot be overstated (well, maybe it can, but she really was an important figure in the beginning of modern cultural conservatism).

I honestly expected a military academy in the south to be filled with young cadets that would largely agree with her general positions. But when it came for the Q&A section I found the opposite - the students there obviously found her positions to be repugnant. They didn't shout her down, but respectfully questioned her assertions and had great decorum doing so.

I'm very glad she got invited to speak at that institution (undoubtedly paid for by US tax dollars), it gave me an in-depth view of her perspectives and then importantly gave me hope for the future as a group of what I would imagine to be some of the more conservative students in the US in a classroom to soundly knock her down (metaphorically speaking).

Now, I wouldn't be interested to see her as an invited speaker (as there wouldn't be pointed questions from the audience, I would imagine), but I also wouldn't stop a student group that wanted to bring her on campus either. I would support the protesters outside the venue, and their right to protest, but certainly wouldn't want to stop her from speaking.
posted by el io at 9:08 AM on April 24, 2015 [6 favorites]


Seriously, though. While I consider myself on the side of Social Justice, and I think we do well to consider our words and how we speak and how it affects others, there is a line that's preposterous. To act as if speaking about a vital issue means you're harmed by it? Like even if someone is on your side (but just *privileged* and not having a direct stake), I get wishing for some women to have a voice in this debate; not just men. But to demand the debate be shut down totally?

If it were two women taking opposite sides, would it be ok? Or would it still be wrong to have a debate? I guess that's what I don't understand. I suppose if I read the thread/article I might get a better insight here, but certainly, while you can discuss the problematic nature of man discussing abortion without input from women, to say that free speech in itself is violating you and thus wanting to ban a debate, that's bullshit.

The whole POINT of free speech is for minority view to have a chance. It was free speech in the first place that brought you the Social Justice movement, what with the whole Berkeley free speech movement and all (granted, that was more about war/communism/capitalism; not what we consider today "social justice" but obviously we can trace it back to that movement), and now the pendulum swings back again. Is it because we now have the limited right for abortion (and getting smaller everyday) that you wish to ban any discussion of it, so as to prevent, I dunno, a complete loss?

This strikes me as exactly the same bullshit that MRAs and bigots and all those others cry about (and giving them good ammunition, too): "You're trying to censor me!"

No - we are arguing against you, we are telling you you're wrong. We are not using the power of government to come in and forbid you from saying racist things. We are exerting social pressure. You have every right to say stupid racist shit, but we have every right to point out that you're fucking bigot.

"The answer to speech is more speech"...

It's like sometimes this shit starts to enter self-parodying territory, and I think it's important for people to point out that there's a line that's dangerous to cross that ultimately reinforces the opponents view of you (who knows, maybe for some small segment, they're right! but for a lot of us, that's not what we stand for (silencing people absolutely) - in fact, it's almost as if it's a little democracy where we all have different views and healthy dialog and debate help strengthen arguments).

But shit like this makes the critics of Social Justice movement start to look right. And to say that sometimes these are trolls is one thing, but when it's people who ardently believe these things going out and saying "ban shit" then you're starting to metamorphose into the image they're projecting of you.
posted by symbioid at 9:16 AM on April 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


Having to hear officially sanctioned garbage from my institution debating my normalcy or humanity is an actual material harm to me, and I don't want to hear it because it makes my life literally worse.

I get that.

Does it help, however, to have that biliousness contextualized by analysis, re-interpreted in terms of social, psychological and religious factors in a formal setting? To look at it from a remove and understand how it works? To practice and rehearse offering alternatives? Is it important that the institution offers a place (and often direct monetary support) for like-minded people to find each other and start to hear other viewpoints they may not have seen before? To build communities of mutual support?

And here, does it help to have those supports, academic and social when confronted with the nastiness in real life? Does that give you tools and allies to respond with?

It's possible to do all of that outside of a university setting, but it's amazingly harder. I've worked with NGOs and with student organizations, and the students always have cushions and advantages the NGOs have to scrape and scramble to approach. This is so stark with the smaller geographically-isolated ones. If they've got someone who has been to university, or even better to graduate school of some kind, their interests are so much better advanced than not. We spend piles of time trying to work with local groups, and level of education in the community is, by far, one of the best predictors of their effectiveness and abilities to get what they need.

I see universities as places to prepare to confront the real world in all its horrors, but with tools and supports for the students to help balance against those with social and structural advantages.
posted by bonehead at 9:21 AM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


"The answer to speech is more speech"...

That's a fine and worthwhile principle to apply in situations where all parties are prepared to deal in good faith.

It doesn't work so well when regardless of how many times the same old crap has been trotted out and "more speeched" to scorn, it still keeps on coming back and coming back and coming back like some kind of demented Energizer bunny. See also: climate change denial.

At some point, the only reasonable response to "are we there yet?" becomes "if you kids don't knock that off, I'm stopping this car right here."
posted by flabdablet at 9:32 AM on April 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


Not all speech is equal. If a university wants to have an abortion debate then they should invite some women to debate.

It's not that hard.
posted by gucci mane at 9:34 AM on April 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


I construed the last half of that to mean "Freedom to doesn't require a justification". Is that not what you meant?

Yes. I don't need a justification to paint a picture, or shout obscenities into the wind. That doesn't mean that any freedom to do something is unqualified - it's qualified by the freedoms others ought to have from your actions. If I was saying that one should have the freedom to do anything regardless of what it did to anyone else, my talk of "freedom from" would be empty of content.

Returning to the specifics: the "freedom of a student body to create a space" regards the student body as an undifferentiated mass. Plainly there are elements of the student body that have diverging wishes, else the debate would never have been scheduled.

In fact, what you're defending is the right of some students to make part of that space everywhere a debate might be held on university property. That necessarily involves the restriction of others' ability to say and do certain things in a venue that they paid money towards, owned by an institution they affiliated with on the promise of certain liberties and equal considerations. On my analysis, that would have to be justified by a right to a "freedom from" that cannot be protected by any lesser measure.
posted by topynate at 9:35 AM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


This is a debate, it's not like the guy is lecturing and his ideas are being taught as part of the curriculum. They're not having a referendum on university policy. They are arguing literally for the sake of arguing. There will be an opposing side arguing against him.

In pointing out how questionable it is that two men have been invited to argue about what should be done with women's bodies, the protesting students have raised an important issue.

This whiner's response suggests he isn't able to reason very well, so that also raises the question of whether the society couldn't have found some better speakers. But he's good enough for the Times, so hey.

I mean, having inflammatory debates featuring public figures - including public trolls - arguing for unpopular opinions is exactly what the debating society has done successfully for decades. They know how to draw attention to themselves. They continue to do it very, very well.

I don't mean to minimize that the content of the argument is concretely threatening to a lot of people's interests, but that is also what makes the debate more impactful and less like just hot air. Which makes it worthwhile for someone to be arguing the opposing side!
posted by tel3path at 9:38 AM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


you're starting to metamorphose into the image they're projecting of you

There are cases where this is the least bad outcome available, simply because responding politely and factually to specious arguments that exist only to score rhetorical points with fellow travellers can easily involve an unjustifiable amount of work.

Stirring up shit takes far less effort than settling it, and sometimes the best thing you can do with a serial shit-stirrer is refuse to cooperate with his desire to set the agenda.
posted by flabdablet at 9:43 AM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


At some point, the only reasonable response to "are we there yet?" becomes "if you kids don't knock that off, I'm stopping this car right here."

Yikes.
posted by corcovado at 9:46 AM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


When you troll people and they get upset you only really have yourself to blame. Mission Accomplished, ya know?

If they had invited the top bioethicists in the world and the only two available to make the debate were men, then fine, maybe there is a decent case to be made that it's oversensitive not to hear them out. When they invite trolls, not so much. So both debates are kind of going on here at the same time. Should we have this debate if it only features men? Should we have this debate if it features these two men?

Some people are definitely arguing the "no two men" position, but I don't think it's the most widespread perspective on this like the whiners are making it out to be.
posted by Drinky Die at 9:46 AM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


Really, the first thing to do is establish, with at least some rigor, that there is a change afoot in how campuses approach freedom of speech. And apart from a lot of hand-wringing, I haven't seen it. Isolated examples aren't really a demonstration of anything, sadly.


Actually, there is a change afoot, but it has been afoot for ~200 years. Now the chickens are coming home to roost. The change is that universities are now job training academies where students are taught to do one thing. An accountant really only has a specific set of thought patterns, necessary thought patterns, that need to be applied in order to be a competent accountant. Universities used to be such that earning a degree would make one competent to do anything. Today's centers of vocational training cause students to take the path of least resistance. Least resistance means fitting in. When students graduate they move into jobs where corporate culture is important. There is no longer right vs wrong. There is only expediency and kissing the butt of whatever asshole managed to claw their way to the top, not through ill-will but through expediency. I don't think the problem lies in the universities, but in the university's role in society. We just can't see the forest because of the trees. It used to be that people valued learning. Now they only value $$$$$$$$.
posted by rankfreudlite at 9:47 AM on April 24, 2015


It doesn't work so well when regardless of how many times the same old crap has been trotted out and "more speeched" to scorn, it still keeps on coming back and coming back and coming back like some kind of demented Energizer bunny.

It is necessary to do this with each new crop of students though, for as long as the old crap persists. it's not like you can do this once and done. There are new kids every September who don't know "the old arguments".

University can seem repetitive to an outsider---it is! But you still need to keep teaching Feminism 101 every year.
posted by bonehead at 9:52 AM on April 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


Well since they only value $$$$$$$$, I guess they can shut down the debating society since that's a purely recreational endeavour and requires actual critical thinking to boot.
posted by tel3path at 9:53 AM on April 24, 2015


I don't need a justification to paint a picture, or shout obscenities into the wind.

And I don't need a justification for a desire that my home is not subject to frequent break-and-enter, or that my family is not subject to violence.

My point is that freedoms are always contextual, frequently multi-sided, and that arguing for freedom of speech as if it were always an absolute good is a wrong-headed pattern I've seen distressingly often.
posted by flabdablet at 9:53 AM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


They are arguing literally for the sake of arguing.

And they are implicitly assuming that their proposed venue for arguing that particular topic simply for the sake of it ought to be accepted without question, because Tradition.
posted by flabdablet at 9:57 AM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


I think they are anticipating that it will be questioned, because that's why they choose inflammatory speakers. And indeed it has been questioned.
posted by tel3path at 10:02 AM on April 24, 2015


Not all debates are created equal and not all points of view are created equal. There are issues that should no longer be subject to debate. And the determination of which issues are not debatable carries significant political and social weight. Should a university host a debate on whether slavery should be legal? What about whether women should have the right to vote? What about whether spousal rape is "rape"? What about whether global warming exists? What about whether a man can marry another man? What about whether apartheid should exist? What about whether birth control should be legal? What about whether a woman should have access to a safe, routine medical procedure without input from people other than her doctor?

Stating that access to safe, legal abortion is no longer subject to debate is politically and socially valuable. There may be issues tangential to these non-debatables that are still up for discussion (such as expenditure of public funds and regulation of the medical profession -- though these are often just a proxy for restricting access). But I'm not going to debate whether abortion should be legal, with men or with women. Just as I'm not going to debate whether global warming exists, whether evolution is real, whether gay people have a right to get married or have children, whether a husband can rape his wife, or whether a person can kidnap and enslave another person. Treating everything as open for debate as long as "both sides are represented" opens to door to re-litigating every social advancement we've made.
posted by melissasaurus at 10:02 AM on April 24, 2015 [9 favorites]


When you troll people and they get upset you only really have yourself to blame. Mission Accomplished, ya know?

O'NEILL: I strongly believe women should have the right to have an abortion, but didn't get to explain my strongly felt position. My essay, which is 100% about why women should have the right to have an abortion:
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 10:04 AM on April 24, 2015


The reason freedom of speech proponents can seem so absolutist might not always be because they see free speech as a wonderful benefit to humanity, but because they very very rarely see sufficient reason for restricting it. It might even be a category error to assess speech as a thing that has an assignable amount of value; it's an action that people perform, not a loaf of bread. I mean, suppose we decided we didn't have enough free speech. Should we force people to speak freely in order to generate 'enough'? It's a voluntary act.
posted by topynate at 10:06 AM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


Here is the speech he intended to give. He can superficially possibly be read as focused on abortion only if you can't hear the dog whistle in framing his argument in terms of "blank culture" being a bad formulation.
posted by Drinky Die at 10:09 AM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


I don't think the state has the right to stop a bunch of neo-Nazis from having a rally, but I think that the public has the right to confront such a rally and express strong disapproval
Right? No, duty!

The Nazis should always get to march. We can refuse to show up to their parade, or we can show up and turn our backs or we can protest loudly the offensiveness of their perspectives, but they should be allowed to march.
As for non-governments, no school could ever invite every possible speaker, discretion is not discrimination. On the other hand, inviting someone and then uninviting them due to the content of their beliefs (not scheduling issues etc) is inappropriate.

[My beliefs are influenced by my strong feeling about campaign finance reform. I think campaign spending should be contained because everyone's voice should be heard. Letting some people speak with a bullhorn in the public square has the effect of drowning out the voices of the unamplified.]

As for if someone wants to argue that people like me should be reenslaved, I'd like to think they harm themselves by espousing a patently ridiculous notion.
posted by Octaviuz at 10:10 AM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


"Should a university host a debate on whether slavery should be legal? What about whether women should have the right to vote? What about whether spousal rape is "rape"? What about whether global warming exists? What about whether a man can marry another man? What about whether apartheid should exist? What about whether birth control should be legal? What about whether a woman should have access to a safe, routine medical procedure without input from people other than her doctor?"

Well, what about a debate on weather we should have trade relations with, and buy oil from countries that still have slavery? Arguably we are still profiting from slavery as a country. Certainly slavery should be on the debate table, because it's a part of our global society, and we are benefiting from it financially (without the ugliness of seeing slavery).

Again, should women have the right to vote? Well, should we have normalized trade relations with countries that don't allow women to vote? Should we sell arms to countries that oppress their women? Again, we are financially befitting from countries (via oil sales) that engage in systematic oppression of their female population. Hell yes that shit should be debated. It's a shamed its not now.

Gay marriage has come a tremendous way in the last 10-20 years, holy cow. But there is still nearly half the population that doesn't believe in equality in marriage. Should we try to change the mind of the 40+%? Um, yes? Should that topic be taboo for discussion? Hell nos.

Should have discussions about consent? Um, yes. Should they be debates? I personally don't think so, but if people don't have a clear understanding of what constitutes sexual assault they are probably more likely to engage in it.

Should we have debates discussing weather apartheid should exist? For fucks sake, YES. Those debates are how we helped (through global pressures) eliminate apartheid in South Africa. It's possible those continued debates will change the situation in Israel.

Debates regarding the availability of birth control are vital as well - given the reduction of availability in health plans (due to religious objections), birth control availability is under attack in this country. If we aren't allowed to discuss this (even debate this), then the attacks will continue without debate. Debating the availability of birth control is the first step to ensure that minors have consistent access to birth control.

"What about whether a woman should have access to a safe, routine medical procedure without input from people other than her doctor?"" Again yes. This debate is crucial because women DON'T have access to safe routine medical procedures. Abortion availability is on the decrease - the anti-choice side is winning. Do you think the pro-choice side will win the battle for reproductive rights if we silence debate on the topic? Because the debate is occurring in state legislatures, and the pro-choice side is losing.

In summary, deciding that we shouldn't discuss some things because discussing them is beyond the pale and offensive to our sensibilities ignores the outside world... It ignores the fact that all of these rights are under attack and silencing discussion is not the way to win the argument, it's a way to cede it.
posted by el io at 10:17 AM on April 24, 2015 [7 favorites]


Just as I'm not going to debate whether global warming exists, ...Treating everything as open for debate as long as "both sides are represented" opens to door to re-litigating every social advancement we've made.

In my view, as long as students need to deal with those questions, then having these debates and learning about in class is valuable.

University isn't quite real life, but it is but one step removed. Students have to be prepared for social conservatives or climate denialists and know exactly how and where those arguments fail. Giving time to fringe groups, perhaps not so much, but there's still value too in teaching how Turkish nationalism and cynical real-politik of the Pashas caused the Armenian Genocide, even though there are relatively few Ottoman supporters left.

On a place like here, I agree with you. We can be more discriminating, know that some basic understandings can be assumed. But with kids fresh out of high school, no such basis for common understanding exists, particularly if the institution draws from a diverse set of backgrounds.
posted by bonehead at 10:18 AM on April 24, 2015


Here is the speech he intended to give. He can superficially possibly be read as focused on abortion only if you can't hear the dog whistle in framing his argument in terms of "blank culture" being a bad formulation.

oh man lol the second half of that speech is basically Why The People Protesting This Debate Are On The Same Side As The Anti-Abortionists

no dogwhistle necessary
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 10:18 AM on April 24, 2015


What about whether a man can marry another man? What about whether apartheid should exist? What about whether birth control should be legal? What about whether a woman should have access to a safe, routine medical procedure without input from people other than her doctor?

Like it or not, actual debate exists about these issues. People with opinions other than yours exist. In a free society, you cannot ban debate on a topic people hold genuinely diverging views about.
posted by corcovado at 10:21 AM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


Some more context in the matter of what the debating society is and is not allowed to debate.

I am very uncomfortable with the suggestion that a university debating society, especially one which draws its membership and audience from a young cohort who are still forming their opinions, should consider certain topics off limits either because they are settled or because they are subversive.

In high school, two of my teachers announced that they were left-wing in their views and that they were going to teach from that point of view, and that they trusted us not to be so malleable and stupid as to simply accept their opinions uncritically. I appreciated their saying this right off the bat, in particular because I had, like most of my peers, only been exposed to the very right-wing media and opinions that were the "mainstream" "default". No doubt such indoctrination shouldn't have been allowed in a taxpayer-funded public education, but I appreciated it then, and still do.

Likewise, should my religious studies teacher when I was 13 not have set the class the task of coming up with situational cases where it would be right to break each of the ten commandments? "Thou shalt not kill" is not open for debate, is it? So why give impressionable young minds the idea that it is? What if we had strayed onto the topic of whether or not abortion is killing, and whether or not that affects whether abortion is justified? Should we, as teenage girls, have been allowed to discuss that out loud or should we simply have accepted that it's not debatable and shut up about it?

Conversely, it's not at all an open-and-shut case that Nazis should be allowed to march. It is illegal to make the Nazi salute in Germany, and for very very good reason.
posted by tel3path at 10:24 AM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


In my view, as long as students need to deal with those questions, then having these debates and learning about in class is valuable.


And just to reiterate, the Oxford Union isn't "in class", it's not even actually part of the University - which is why topics can be discussed there that are taboo in the University itself.
posted by tel3path at 10:26 AM on April 24, 2015


Conversely, it's not at all an open-and-shut case that Nazis should be allowed to march. It is illegal to make the Nazi salute in Germany, and for very very good reason.

Well certainly different countries have different traditions (and laws) regarding free speech. In the US, however, this is very much settled law, and it is open-and-shut, as it were.

Germany has shown that outlawing the Nazi salute hasn't stopped people from holding those abhorrent beliefs, it's merely driven them underground more.
posted by el io at 10:28 AM on April 24, 2015


the Oxford Union isn't "in class"

Fair point, though I was trying to generalize. This topic would not have been out of bounds for discussion in some classrooms I've been in.
posted by bonehead at 10:30 AM on April 24, 2015


Right, but the Oxford Union isn't in the US. For the sake of context, in the UK, subjects have a negative right to freedom of speech.
posted by tel3path at 10:32 AM on April 24, 2015


Germany has shown that outlawing the Nazi salute hasn't stopped people from holding those abhorrent beliefs, it's merely driven them underground more.

Because they've had a good look at the effects of having those beliefs out in the open.
posted by tel3path at 10:33 AM on April 24, 2015


Well, there's "debate" in the sense of "a formal contest in which the affirmative and negative sides of a proposition are advocated by opposing speakers" and "debate" in the sense of actually-existing political wrangling. That something is the subject of dispute in the broader political arena does not necessarily make it an appropriate subject for a formal debate, where the usual ground rules strongly imply that both interlocutors have a viewpoint worth considering.

I mean, there are activist white supremacists in the world, and thus there is "debate" over whether an explicitly racist organization of government and society is best. But it doesn't follow that a debating society should take up this question, since doing so will necessarily require people to at least pretend to respect and hear out the pro-white-supremacy position. The problem with the approach is particularly acute where there are potential participants and attendees for whom the pro-white-supremacy position is not only intellectually repulsive, but also actively threatening to their physical and emotional well-being.
posted by burden at 10:35 AM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


It's important to note that it's this schoolmarmish attitude - so perfectly exhibited in the comment above - that drives fear and distrust of progressive ideas. Truth be told, they're right to be suspicious of anyone who sees half the country as backwards children who need to be brought into line.
posted by corcovado at 10:36 AM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


Like it or not, actual debate exists about these issues. People with opinions other than yours exist. In a free society, you cannot ban debate on a topic people hold genuinely diverging views about.

So, let's have a debate about whether or not you should be a full member of society. After all, as you said, people with opinions other than yours exist.
posted by NoxAeternum at 10:45 AM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


The problem with the approach is particularly acute where there are potential participants and attendees for whom the pro-white-supremacy position is not only intellectually repulsive, but also actively threatening to their physical and emotional well-being.

Conversely, what about people who want to argue against an intellectually repulsive position but don't know how? Are they simply to be left feeling that since the other side has their arguments, and they don't, that they have to cede the point? How will they learn to recognize dogwhistles and other forms of evil argument in its many fair disguises?

I can certainly remember being young and feeling this way, and perhaps it makes me exceptionally weak-minded that I didn't simply come marching out of the womb just knowing these things to be true beyond debate, in which case I salute my fellow MeFites for their intellectual strength, but some people - especially those brought up with nonprogressive ideas by default - have to work to get to the point where you started.
posted by tel3path at 10:46 AM on April 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


This isn't an issue of who has freedom of speech. I bet any of these speakers are perfectly welcome to go down and argue their points face to face with the protesters face to face on an equal footing.

This is a question about who gets institutional power.

Inviting someone to speak at a university is implicitly saying that this person's ideas or ways of speaking have more merit than the average person's. Deciding who gets to speak in such a setting requires consideration beyond 'free speech so anything goes!' For example, it is neither useful nor wise science department isn't going to bother inviting or debating any one of the countless quacks that send them barely coherent 'papers.' There has to be some sort of standard.

Now, the argument that it can be good for people to be exposed to opposing viewpoints in the right setting can be a good thing. Emphasis on the 'can.' But it has to be done carefully. It can't advantage those promoting discrimination and hate over those who are discriminated against. And frankly, having a debate on the topic of the control of women's bodies, in the context of a society where men routinely still assert the right to tell women what to do just because they are women... that's pretty damn sexist. It is not the right setting for a 'polite' debate, because it is implicitly an insult to women to begin with.

And as for the assertion that it's just tribe A vs. tribe B in some sort of abstract equal confrontation? That's oversimplified crap. Freedom of speech is important because the content of the speech is important. Advocating that people be harmed or treated worse for any reason is not the moral equivalent of advocating acceptance and equality.

To take an extreme example, if someone holds the view that gay people should all just die, and are invited to give a talk on a topic where they're going to present some of these viewpoints... Advocating that this person not be allowed to speak in this one particular context isn't doing worse than that person's speech. It's not even a hypocritical mirror of that viewpoint. The equivalent of some person up in a podium spouting off about how god wants all those gays to die is that person being greeted by a gang of burly, angry, yelling students with a giant banner proclaiming "DIE BIGOTS!" Do you think those students would be allowed to do that? Do you think such an event could possibly fail to raise a bigger shitstorm than any of these protests against these bigoted speakers? Do you think that not only would these students experience no personal repercussions, but also that the university would pay their expenses like they do speakers they invite? That would be ridiculous!
posted by Zalzidrax at 10:46 AM on April 24, 2015 [8 favorites]


So, let's have a debate about whether or not you should be a full member of society. After all, as you said, people with opinions other than yours exist.

Okay! I imagine it'd be a pretty poorly-attended one, given that I think most people would recognize me as, indeed, a 'full member of society' by any robust definition of the word.

My point is that in a free society, where there is difference of opinion, there will be debate. What does it accomplish to "declare" these issues off-limits to debate? Who, exactly, is bound to respect your "declaration"?
posted by corcovado at 10:52 AM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


Once again, this is not the University inviting a speaker and thereby implicitly endorsing their views. This is the Oxford Union, who are apart from the University and thus allowed to invite people who would be unqualified for - or, in the case of extremists, actually banned from - speaking in the University itself.

The invited speakers are public figures who have some influence on public opinion whether we like it or not.

For the record, the termcard for the upcoming debates. Six of those debates are ones that the average MeFite would likely consider to be not debatable.
posted by tel3path at 10:59 AM on April 24, 2015


corcovado: “My point is that in a free society, where there is difference of opinion, there will be debate. What does it accomplish to ‘declare’ these issues off-limits to debate? Who, exactly, is bound to respect your ‘declaration’?”

This is pretty far afield of the topic, though. No topic has been declared off-limits. No college campus anywhere in the United States or the rest of the English-speaking world has, as far as I know, declared any issues or topics off-limits for discussion. That is absolutely not what this debate is about. This debate is about whether colleges and student unions have a right to cancel certain events and certain schedules speeches on the basis of whether they agree with those events and speeches. That has nothing to do with silencing debate on a particular topic, frankly.

In fact, it's likely to foster debate on those topics. When we're all listening to a speaker, or attending an event with a particular slant, we're not debating, and we're not having a conversation. The power imbalance makes that impossible. When we restore the power balance, and give an equal place at the table to all groups concerned, then the conversation can begin.

So let's not get confused about what's going on here. Nobody is banning certain topics or subjects from being discussed. As I said, almost the opposite is happening: events that put a disproportionate emphasis on the point of view of one particular group are being cancelled.
posted by koeselitz at 11:08 AM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


I just read that wikipedia link to the negative right to freedom of speech.

An excerpt:

"However there is a broad sweep of exceptions including threatening, abusive or insulting words or behavior intending or likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress or cause a breach of the peace (which has been used to prohibit racist speech targeted at individuals),[126][127][128] sending another any article which is indecent or grossly offensive with an intent to cause distress or anxiety (which has been used to prohibit speech of a racist or anti-religious nature),[129][130][131] incitement,[132] incitement to racial hatred,[133] incitement to religious hatred...."

So my question in regards to this: how is the Daily Mail still allowed to exist? I am honestly distressed every time I read one of their articles. Also a bit alarmed. I find it grossly offensive, it causes me anxiety, and I certainly find it racist (and inciting racist hatred).
posted by el io at 11:09 AM on April 24, 2015


"The answer to speech is more speech"...

And that works so incredibly well on Reddit and 4Chan!


The change is that universities are now job training academies where students are taught to do one thing.

Aside from the fact that this doesn't jive with the university graduation requirements, there's just one tiny problem with your nostalgia for the Universities that Were.

The universities of 200 years ago didn't accept women or people of color. Which I think would definitely affect the types of free speech allowed. So maybe you want to rethink your position that it's been all downhill since 1815?
posted by happyroach at 11:10 AM on April 24, 2015


You don't even have to go back 200 years. My alma mater didn't accept women until 1972.
posted by rtha at 11:15 AM on April 24, 2015 [5 favorites]


So my question in regards to this: how is the Daily Mail still allowed to exist?

With you on that one. It's a dark and mysterious world.

Make no mistake, the Oxford Union's choices of debate topics and speakers are a matter of considerable controversy. Just run your eyes over this, FFS. They have a track record of selecting speakers for shock value, and of being criticized for it. The quality of the debates on offer is extremely questionable.

It's still important not to mix this up with the University inviting such a speaker to give a talk or lecture. That is not what happened, not at all.
posted by tel3path at 11:17 AM on April 24, 2015


In fact, it's likely to foster debate on those topics. When we're all listening to a speaker, or attending an event with a particular slant, we're not debating, and we're not having a conversation. The power imbalance makes that impossible. When we restore the power balance, and give an equal place at the table to all groups concerned, then the conversation can begin.

This is oddly slippery. Do you honestly believe that pro-lifers benefit from anything like a 'power imbalance' on American university campuses? A pro-life speaker - on 9 out of 10 American college campuses - is someone espousing a distinctly minority view.
posted by corcovado at 11:17 AM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


So my question in regards to this: how is the Daily Mail still allowed to exist?

Relevant - though in this case it's a Sun columnist.
posted by topynate at 11:19 AM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


A pro-life speaker - on 9 out of 10 American college campuses - is someone espousing a distinctly minority view.

Who the fuck cares. C'mon.

It's not at all the case that the anti-woman side of the abortion debate doesn't have any spaces to put their viewpoints across, so it should also be invited to one of the few places it's not welcome.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:23 AM on April 24, 2015


me: “In fact, it's likely to foster debate on those topics. When we're all listening to a speaker, or attending an event with a particular slant, we're not debating, and we're not having a conversation. The power imbalance makes that impossible. When we restore the power balance, and give an equal place at the table to all groups concerned, then the conversation can begin.”

corcovado: “This is oddly slippery. Do you honestly believe that pro-lifers benefit from anything like a 'power imbalance' on American university campuses? A pro-life speaker - on 9 out of 10 American college campuses - is someone espousing a distinctly minority view.”

At the moment that a pro-life speaker is speaking, they're enjoying a power imbalance, yes. And my point was really that the imbalance created when an ideological speaker explicitly espousing one side of the debate isn't really great for education.

In other words, yes: I'm taking the radical stance that inviting outside speakers probably isn't a great idea, and freedom of speech tends to suffer as a result. Suggesting that what we really need is to invite more outside speakers, create more events where there's a power imbalance and only one side gets to speak its mind, seems problematic to me. It's an endgame that we're unlikely to win. Actual discussion is the only way out of this.
posted by koeselitz at 11:26 AM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


> A pro-life speaker - on 9 out of 10 American college campuses - is someone espousing a distinctly minority view.

They command power and dominate the discussion where it counts: in legislatures.
posted by rtha at 11:26 AM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


And "you always let the nazis march"? Hell the fuck no.

Only in the US, with its free speach for some fetish and lack of direct experience of fascist/nazi rule would that fly. Some viewpoints don't deserve any consideration: actual Holocaust supporters are one of those.

Free speach absolutists always go handwringing about potential harm if we don't let history's greatest scumbags the freedom to spout their evil in our faces, always ignore the harm done by them.

The most hilarious sort of argument about this is always "but if we have rules about hate speech then the bad guys might use them on you", always brought as if it's an amazing revelation nobody else ever thought about, rather than a tawdry piece of received wisdom. Free clue: the bad guys aren't hindered by rules; that's why they're the bad guys.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:27 AM on April 24, 2015 [9 favorites]


It's not at all the case that the anti-woman side of the abortion debate doesn't have any spaces to put their viewpoints across, so it should also be invited to one of the few places it's not welcome.

No, but it might be a good idea to invite it to one of the few places that will argue cogently against it.

Of course that risks strengthening the opposing side's ability to argue, but I can live with that.
posted by tel3path at 11:28 AM on April 24, 2015


Who the fuck cares. C'mon.

It's not at all the case that the anti-woman side of the abortion debate doesn't have any spaces to put their viewpoints across, so it should also be invited to one of the few places it's not welcome.


I genuinely don't understand this false consensus thing. What is it? A weird liberal form of braggadocio?

I'll just say it again. In the case of the United States, 46% of people are pro-life. What have you accomplished by pretending these people - who have just as much right to their opinions as you do - and their points of view don't exist?

They command power and dominate the discussion where it counts: in legislatures.

"They command power and dominate the discussion where it counts: in legislatures. Therefore they should not be debated." (???)
posted by corcovado at 11:30 AM on April 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


Okay! I imagine it'd be a pretty poorly-attended one, given that I think most people would recognize me as, indeed, a 'full member of society' by any robust definition of the word.

And my point is that for many people, they don't have that assurance of being a full member of society, and thus their rights and membership in society are routinely on the razor's edge. And thus when their rights are put up for debate, they get reminded of the tenuousness of their position in society.
posted by NoxAeternum at 11:31 AM on April 24, 2015 [5 favorites]


No, but it might be a good idea to invite it to one of the few places that will argue cogently against it.

Why? What on earth do you think that will matter? Nobody is ever convinced by those debates, they're only opportunities for grandstanding and it won't change a whit about the political realities the right to abortion struggle is fighting in. It just wastes everybody's time and energy.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:31 AM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


And my point is that for many people, they don't have that assurance of being a full member of society

Indeed.

It's only a special kind of person who can find the sort of hate filled "debates" Brendan O'Neil want to subject people to as "challenging" rather than "threatening". A very special kind of person indeed who can also so neatly split politics from their daily lives, for whom all these issues are just debating subjects, not everyday reality.

Anybody not a white, straight cis middle/upperclass male will have their doubts.

If you're on the receiving end of transphobia, inviting the very same people responsible for so much of it to your debate club or campus is not a neutral act.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:36 AM on April 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


Who wins or loses in a student debate is almost totally irrelevant, except to the participants.
posted by bonehead at 11:38 AM on April 24, 2015


> "They command power and dominate the discussion where it counts: in legislatures. Therefore they should not be debated." (???)

No. Don't put words in my mouth. That's a bullshit "debating" tactic. If you have a question, use words and ask it.
posted by rtha at 11:39 AM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


And thus when their rights are put up for debate, they get reminded of the tenuousness of their position in society.

So we shouldn't debate things that might hurt people's feelings? I don't mean to be glib here, but that's the takeaway from your post.
posted by corcovado at 11:39 AM on April 24, 2015


Also, universities should be one place where you can get away from 101 contrarian, he said/she said debates that only add more noise to signal.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:39 AM on April 24, 2015


The change is that universities are now job training academies where students are taught to do one thing.

Aside from the fact that this doesn't jive with the university graduation requirements, there's just one tiny problem with your nostalgia for the Universities that Were.

The universities of 200 years ago didn't accept women or people of color. Which I think would definitely affect the types of free speech allowed. So maybe you want to rethink your position that it's been all downhill since 1815?

I agree with you that universities still try to give students a well-rounded education. I just feel that this is becoming a lesser part of their mission. Also, I believe that teaching the students to think helped us as a society to see that racism and sexism were intellectually faulty. If we teach students to do only what is expedient, then all sorts of moral shenanigans become permissible if it increases $$$$$$. So, for expedient's sake, group-think is valued more.

posted by rankfreudlite at 11:44 AM on April 24, 2015


Why? What on earth do you think that will matter? Nobody is ever convinced by those debates, they're only opportunities for grandstanding and it won't change a whit about the political realities the right to abortion struggle is fighting in. It just wastes everybody's time and energy.

Great, no reason for you to go to these debates then. Not so great if it's your position that these debates shouldn't be allowed to occur.

Only in the US, with its free speach for some fetish and lack of direct experience of fascist/nazi rule would that fly. Some viewpoints don't deserve any consideration: actual Holocaust supporters are one of those.

Personally, I think the USA's commitment to free speech is one of the strongest things it has going for it. The first amendment (in its entirety, including the lack of establishing a state religion) is one of the most important bedrocks of the country.

And while I won't have a long conversation or debate about people that support (or deny) the Jewish Holocaust... After 9-11 I had a long conversation (that spanned a couple of weeks) with a coworker that finally *convinced* him that committing genocide in the middle east (he was an ex-military dude that thought we should just blanket the entire region in nuclear weapons, killing everyone) was immoral and inappropriate. If his belief in genocide was made illegal and him voicing his opinion was illegal he would have never shared it with me. I would have never had the opportunity to convince him that genocide was wrong.

So I've had a debate about genocide, and changed someones opinion on the matter as a result of the debate. If he had been afraid to espouse his (horrid) viewpoints, I would have never had a chance to change them.

"Some things shouldn't be debated" is a viewpoint that is pretty disturbing to me. Without debate and engagement with abhorrent ideas, there is little chance of ever changing anyone's mind on anything; ensuring that abhorrent ideas will continue to be unchanged.
posted by el io at 11:45 AM on April 24, 2015 [4 favorites]


Debates, specifically, in the club context, are typically a structured way to learn how to argue effectively (though I don't know about these celebrity debates), without putting your self-worth on the line. It is distanced and deliberate, so people can learn how to do it well. It is highly structured, regimented, timed and refereed. It is exactly one of those tools used to get people able to handle hard and damaging subject matter without crushing them emotionally.

Baby debates are about trivial matters (Be it resolved: Red is better than Blue), but substantial ones are required at the university level, both for the ability of the debaters to manage their own emotions during the debate and to give full practice to the arguments. You do have to know how to go toe to toe with an anti-abortionist or a climate denier, where their weak points are and what they can't defend against.

IOW, it's exactly the kind of training you want for people going on to a court-room or a legislature, who have to deal with very emotionally-charged issues. That's why winning and losing doesn't matter too much---it's practice and a teaching tool.
posted by bonehead at 11:50 AM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


Personally, I think the USA's commitment to free speech is one of the strongest things it has going for it. The first amendment (in its entirety, including the lack of establishing a state religion) is one of the most important bedrocks of the country.

Free speech is a joke in the US. Like the second, the first amendment only counts when you're white and rich. In all important aspects, speech in the US is far more limited to what the powers that be find allowable than in any other democracy.

And free speech absolutism is always about forcing the powerless to listen to the status quo and the powerful, never the other way around.

Nazis get to march in Spokane. MOVE gets bombed in Philly.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:50 AM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


"Some things shouldn't be debated" is a viewpoint that is pretty disturbing to me.

So are you disturbed by the idea that any comment saying "I'd hit that" gets deleted here? If not, why not?
posted by MartinWisse at 11:52 AM on April 24, 2015


Also, universities should be one place where you can get away from 101 contrarian, he said/she said debates that only add more noise to signal.

You don't get there by not debating though, you get there by striving for 200 level debates.
posted by Drinky Die at 11:54 AM on April 24, 2015


Seriously? This thread is going this far down the "debates" rabbit hole? Framing this as about "free speech" and "civil debate" is an obvious misdirection tactic, because the things we're really talking about here are cases where one of the "sides" are advocating against or actively working to diminish human rights. There actually are a number of arenas in which public opinion has largely decided that some people are not in fact full members of society. We don't actually need to debate that! We lose nothing at all by not acknowledging that as a serious academic viewpoint. In fact, most of the people who are throwing a fit about "free speech" are those who have for some time enjoyed positions in academia, publishing and the media; and most of them still have those platforms. Only now they can be criticized for using them to promote questionable, hateful, awful things and they're just losing it.
posted by byanyothername at 11:56 AM on April 24, 2015 [4 favorites]


So are you disturbed by the idea that any comment saying "I'd hit that" gets deleted here? If not, why not?

I'm in someone else's living room (as it were), on someone else's server. I've intentionally joined a community that has norms that are enforced by moderators. I accept the moderation (happily).

I'd be pretty upset though if idhitthat.com was removed from the internet by a government force. I'd be happy to boycott the advertisers of idhitthat.com, however.

I'd be upset if the government tried to stop Time magazine from printing stupid shit. I'd be pretty happy if people quit buying Time magazine because they printed some stupid shit.

It really isn't that complicated.
posted by el io at 11:57 AM on April 24, 2015 [4 favorites]


Note: The second and third paragraphs of my previous comment should be in italics. I don't want it to appear that I am arguing with myself. I only do that when no one's looking. : )
posted by rankfreudlite at 11:57 AM on April 24, 2015


Free speech is a joke in the US. Like the second, the first amendment only counts when you're white and rich. In all important aspects, speech in the US is far more limited to what the powers that be find allowable than in any other democracy.

Um - what? Your profile says you're in Amsterdam - have you ever spent a day in this country, in your life? I'm asking genuinely. Right now I can walk down the corner to some Black Hebrew Israelites who will be glad to tell me, through a megaphone, that I'm the spawn of Satan. Universities have entire departments dedicated to cataloging the various sins of white, rich men. You're typing this nonsense on a US-hosted website run by a US company. Do white men have lots of speech? Sure. But there's very little stopping anyone in this country from speaking their mind.

This is a country where people take this stuff somewhat seriously, and these hilarious attempts to short-circuit debate reveal how disconnected progressives are from American culture.
posted by corcovado at 11:58 AM on April 24, 2015 [5 favorites]


I do not think that there is a significant National Socialist element in the status quo and among the powerful, whether in open or in secret. This is from my experiences with Stanford and Harvard kids and venture capitalists and investment bankers and people like that: they are rich and they are powerful and there are bad and good people among them and unanimously they don't support Nazism.

But this is a debate about the right to debate itself, and it should be an ideological point that people should not be silenced on their political views, no matter how terrible, no matter how loathesome and discriminatory.
posted by curuinor at 12:00 PM on April 24, 2015


In all important aspects, speech in the US is far more limited to what the powers that be find allowable than in any other democracy.


As a Brit I must disagree!
posted by tel3path at 12:05 PM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


Of course you did say "democracy", not "constitutional monarchy".
posted by tel3path at 12:06 PM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


We don't actually need to debate that! We lose nothing at all by not acknowledging that as a serious academic viewpoint.

This is what I disagree with. There's lots to learn from proxies or even live specimens of people you find repellent and dehumanizing. Should we no longer study the Holocaust or the history of slavery? Should current social issues, even repressive ones, be off the table because they trigger people? Is there educational value in having full-faith representatives of those groups come and speak to students?

I think so. I gather a lot of folks disagree with me, but I'd much rather learn from those I oppose than ignore them and be surprised later.
posted by bonehead at 12:08 PM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


So we shouldn't debate things that might hurt people's feelings? I don't mean to be glib here, but that's the takeaway from your post.

No, what I'm saying is that the right of people to be regarded as such regardless of their race/gender/orientation/etc. should not be up for debate. The fact that you keep trying to reduce that matter to "feelings" shows that you've never truly been on the receiving end of that sort of depersonalization.

To go back to your argument regarding anti-choice (no, I will not call them "pro-life", because they are far from such), just because they may have a plurality of support doesn't change the fact that their position would reduce women to a second class citizen status. To say that there is a legitimate argument there is to say that the right of women to bodily autonomy is up for negotiation. There's a really big problem with that.
posted by NoxAeternum at 12:08 PM on April 24, 2015 [4 favorites]


In all important aspects, speech in the US is far more limited to what the powers that be find allowable than in any other democracy.

In Canada, we have hate speech and obscenity law that is quite a bit more restrictive than the US. Though seemingly quite a bit more academic freedom than the UK now.
posted by bonehead at 12:10 PM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


To say that there is a legitimate argument there is to say that the right of women to bodily autonomy is up for negotiation. There's a really big problem with that.

And again, I don't mean to be glib here - ignoring the actual moral, ethical, and philosphical arguments in opposition to abortion, of which there are many, the simple fact is that 'the bodily autonomy of women' is indeed up for negotiation, if you include the developing fetus as part of a woman's body. It is up for negotiation, no matter how badly you wish it weren't so! So what good does it to to pretend otherwise?
posted by corcovado at 12:13 PM on April 24, 2015 [4 favorites]


To go back to your argument regarding anti-choice (no, I will not call them "pro-life", because they are far from such), just because they may have a plurality of support doesn't change the fact that their position would reduce women to a second class citizen status. To say that there is a legitimate argument there is to say that the right of women to bodily autonomy is up for negotiation. There's a really big problem with that.

Right. And if you refuse to allow debate in an academic setting, how are you going to win the debate in the state legislatures? Because right now we are losing those debates. To say "I refuse to discuss this" is to cede the argument; it doesn't win the argument.
posted by el io at 12:14 PM on April 24, 2015 [10 favorites]


But this is a debate about the right to debate itself, and it should be an ideological point that people should not be silenced on their political views, no matter how terrible, no matter how loathesome and discriminatory.

And this debate seems to be getting on quite well with no one actually having to go and speak on a particular university campus.
posted by Zalzidrax at 12:17 PM on April 24, 2015


In all important aspects, speech in the US is far more limited to what the powers that be find allowable than in any other democracy.

What a patently ridiculous, fact-free assertion.
posted by Fidel Cashflow at 12:19 PM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


As mentioned above, this isn't just a theoretical discussion for me.
posted by bonehead at 12:20 PM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


Amused to note that in the sidebar to the FPP there is a link to an article "why bedbugs are outsmarting us".

It's readily apparent, at least to me, why a bedbug is outsmarting a columnist in the Spectator.
posted by tel3path at 12:21 PM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


When I first saw this post I assumed it was a link to this little spurt of glurge, but it's not! It's a bunch of other functional identical droppings. Kind of feels like someone sent out some talking points this week, TBH.
posted by selfnoise at 12:44 PM on April 24, 2015


I went to a conservative Christian college. I think most of us would have agreed that while free speech and open debate are vitally important (and believe me, we had some barn burners on the topic of theistic evolution and postmillenialism), there are certain viewpoints that didn't need to be debated in that particular setting. For example, everyone at my college had to sign a pledge not to have premarital intercourse, and none of us expected or wanted to have a debate on the merits of sexual liberation on campus. We also understood that were were living in a sheltered community with very specific history and theological underpinnings, and didn't need the college to take on the role of arbiter of free speech on all the issues that concern our society. We all knew that we would be leaving in a few years and would have a chance to talk about those issues ad nauseam in a largely secular culture, and felt that being in the college was a special time and place where we could share some foundational beliefs and practices, which would allow us to focus on other issues that don't normally get a lot of air time in our culture. Coming from that background, I am sympathetic with many of the students who want a similar cushion against certain kinds of speech during their time in college. I just feel bad about the cognitive dissonance some of them must be experiencing because they have been told conflicting things about what the University is supposed to be. I guess it depends on the particular institution.
posted by fraxil at 1:00 PM on April 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


Free and open debate is not fostered by further amplifying voices who are already loud.
posted by Zalzidrax at 1:42 PM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


In Canada, we have hate speech and obscenity law that is quite a bit more restrictive than the US. Though seemingly quite a bit more academic freedom than the UK now.

The only way Martin's comment makes sense to me is if he considers monetary contributions to politicians to be the only form of "speech" that matters at all. Which, first, seems to fully accept the controversial proposition that monetary contributions are speech and, second, seems completely wrongheaded to me even if one accepts that.

Freedom of speech is the bedrock of American society and for all the problems we have here it isn't controversial to say that it has stronger protections than virtually anywhere else.
posted by Justinian at 1:52 PM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


Free and open debate is not fostered by further amplifying voices who are already loud.

Which was the point made in the article. So the disagreement is about whose voices are louder. The columnist thinks it's his opponents.
posted by tel3path at 2:25 PM on April 24, 2015


And given that no women were offered a place at the table in the debate, he is clearly wrong.
posted by Zalzidrax at 2:33 PM on April 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


OK, so here's how this situation works when you reduce it to the most simple level:

Person with Controversial Views: I want to come and talk to you about my feelings and beliefs!

Objecting Students: No, we're good thanks, you can stay where you are!

Whose rights to free speech are being violated here? Is it MORE free for the person with controversial beliefs to say "I am coming to talk to you about my feelings and beliefs and you have to keep your mouth shut about your objections!" ? That's ridiculous.

That's even leaving aside the patently absurd notion that not only do students need to be exposed to racism, sexism, imperialism, etc. in order to get good educations, but that this is the only way for them to hear those views. If I'm a college student in 2015, I'm already paying around $75K-$100K for this degree; why would I want to have that money be spent on listening to drivel that I can get for free by reading YouTube comments or turning on Fox News?
posted by KathrynT at 2:41 PM on April 24, 2015 [8 favorites]


It's evidence of how far 'round the bend we've gone, when opinions that were held by Democratic presidential candidates 6 years ago are now so far beyond the pale that they must never be uttered on college campuses, comparable to YouTube comment-level trash.
posted by corcovado at 2:55 PM on April 24, 2015 [5 favorites]


Person with Controversial Views: I want to come and talk to you about my feelings and beliefs!

Objecting Students: No, we're good thanks, you can stay where you are!


Except it's more like

Person with Controversial Views: I want to talk about my feelings and beliefs.

Objecting Students: You need to stop talking about your feelings and beliefs because they offend me.
posted by laptolain at 3:01 PM on April 24, 2015


Did he ask to participate in the debate, or was he invited by the Oxford Union?

In any case, the protesters argued successfully that the terms and quality of the debate weren't good enough, and I actually agree with that. (Though saying "I am talking to you about my feelings and beliefs and you have to keep your mouth shut about your objections" isn't - and it pains me to acknowledge this - quite fair to him, since he was intending to participate in a debate, and what he's objecting to is that the debate itself was cancelled.) I hope the Oxford Union will dial back the shock value a little as a result of this.

I should point out, though, that nobody is required to attend a single debate in order to get an Oxford education. For the record, I only attended one, and it was one where the proposition was that the ideal woman measures 34-24-34. I didn't have those measurements, not even then, so the proposition should theoretically have been so massively offensive to me that I should probably have pelted them with fruits and various meats for having the debate at all. Anyway, I can't even remember if it was two men debating or not, but the one arguing for the proposal was definitely a man, and he was so completely and obviously fuckwitted that the floor was wiped with him, good and proper.

But then, I didn't pay for it, either. We had socialised education back then. Also there was no charge for attending a debate.

What I did get was an unfolding of some actual arguments, presented according to a rational system of order, live and in real time. This is not quite the same as reading YouTube comments or Fox News. Not to mention that we all tend to live in reality tunnels of self-censorship and - very reasonably I might add - avoid exposing ourselves to media that makes our blood boil.

My late father, who had been a journalist, had a policy of NEVER reading a newspaper that was aligned with his own political views, lest he become complacent.
posted by tel3path at 3:01 PM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


It's evidence of how far 'round the bend we've gone, when opinions that were held by Democratic presidential candidates 6 years ago are now so far beyond the pale that they must never be uttered on college campuses, comparable to YouTube comment-level trash.

Yeah, that's a fair point no matter how you slice it. The left was overflowing with people who had ten thousand and one reasons it was okay for people like Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and Barack Obama to be opponents of gay marriage until very, very recently.

That said, I'm not shedding tears for people who still aren't on board. It's just as inexcusable now as it always was, so don't try and present this as an excuse. If you want to not be considered a bigot...stop being a bigot. Better late than never.
posted by Drinky Die at 3:05 PM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


Except it's more like

Person with Controversial Views: I want to talk about my feelings and beliefs.

Objecting Students: You need to stop talking about your feelings and beliefs because they offend me.


Well, most people do find being depersoned to be offensive, because being told that you are a lesser person because of race/gender/sexuality/etc. is by its nature offensive.
posted by NoxAeternum at 3:12 PM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


It's evidence of how far 'round the bend we've gone, when opinions that were held by Democratic presidential candidates 6 years ago are now so far beyond the pale that they must never be uttered on college campuses, comparable to YouTube comment-level trash.

Hey now, that was a different time and those people were a product of their generation. You can't compare the enlightened standards of today with the dark ages of 6 years ago. They just didn't know any better.

But yeah, I have little sympathy with the CEO of Bigots 'R' Us signing up for a debate and then whining because he's being called a bigot. Especially when the proposition is "This house believes that bigotry is fun!" and he sent in his own bio in which he self-describes as "Noted bigot Joe Bigot realized early that bigotry would be his vocation when, at age 6, he called his best friend a $SLUR and pushed him into the duck pond. He went on to... [achievements in bigotry, etc.]"
posted by tel3path at 3:12 PM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


Speaking as a young student myself, I feel that these incidents of speakers being disinvited to universities are actually very pragmatic for our current social, educational and economic climate, and I'm surprised at the number of people who keep trying to impose their own context upon current ones by waxing about the "good old days" rather than trying to understand the ones that students are currently immersed in.

People do realize that, even just a few decades ago, universities were pretty much homogeneous in their makeup of cis white men as opposed to the diversity of backgrounds that we see now, that the Internet didn't exist, and that a university degree wasn't a crippling life-long debt, right? That has all elevated expectations for discourse at universities. For one, the increased diversity means that you actually have minorities present to criticize crappy viewpoints - we demand our speakers actually think about the implications of their arguments, rather just wax on in abstract terms about women or POC or queer people as if they weren't there. We can instantly fact check and educate ourselves, and we're highly informed about global injustices and implications of media due to having grown up with the internet at our fingertips - coupled with the massive debt we are accumulating, why the hell would we bring in an uninformed speaker to wax on about basic facts we could pull up from Wikipedia? We are paying so much these days that we rightfully demand that we have a stake in shaping our education, and having grown up in the information age, we recognize the value of filtering viewpoints and information; we are humble about how much a single person can know, and aim to learn about the subjects valuable to us. In other words: we aren't passive recipients of education that an authority stocks with whatever they deem to be "good for us", but active consumers of knowledge.

Basically, I'm sorry if pretentious white guys are hurt by the idea that they actually have to critically think about what they're saying to be paid to speak at our institutions these days - that's certainly a huge leap from their culturally-taught expectations of having a captive audience for their "wisdom" whenever they deign to give an uninformed opinion. I seriously don't get the argument that we have to be exposed to these viewpoints through university talks to "prepare us for the future" - if I wanted to read poor arguments for the purpose of debunking them, I'd read YouTube comments and not pay people for shitty opinions while granting them institutional power.
posted by Conspire at 3:18 PM on April 24, 2015 [12 favorites]


Like, that raises the quality of discourse, not abolishes it; no one has time for shitty arguments they can just look up on Google and that will just make everyone with actual lived experienced in the matter exasperatedly roll their eyes, all while wasting our money.
posted by Conspire at 3:19 PM on April 24, 2015 [4 favorites]


Well, most people do find being depersoned to be offensive, because being told that you are a lesser person because of race/gender/sexuality/etc. is by its nature offensive.

I agree but there must be a better way to have that conversation besides shutting it down completely. Imagine the "person with controversial views" is a progressive vs objecting conservative students.

Talking down to people who don't think like you is a great way to feel superior and win points in your community but it's effectiveness in changing the status quo is questionable.
posted by laptolain at 3:20 PM on April 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


It's evidence of how far 'round the bend we've gone, when opinions that were held by Democratic presidential candidates 6 years ago are now so far beyond the pale that they must never be uttered on college campuses, comparable to YouTube comment-level trash.

Yeah, that's a fair point no matter how you slice it. The left was overflowing with people who had ten thousand and one reasons it was okay for people like Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and Barack Obama to be opponents of gay marriage until very, very recently.

That said, I'm not shedding tears for people who still aren't on board. It's just as inexcusable now as it always was, so don't try and present this as an excuse. If you want to not be considered a bigot...stop being a bigot. Better late than never.


It speaks to a level of fine-tuning, of synchronization, that's suddenly expected of everyone. For people who spend all day online, maybe, it's really easy to keep up with the bounds of acceptable opinion, and not get caught out on a time-scale where 6 years can take a position from left-liberal to anathema. But for others, it's demanding a high level of plugged-in-ness, of hawkishly following the zeitgeist. We're demanding everyone be in sync, everyone keep pace with the narrow band of acceptable opinion as it sweeps this way and that (it would be silly to suppose that all of these sweeps are in the direction of progress). It's like everyone (or everyone who is publicly visible -- even fleetingly, even non-consensually) is expected to act like a politician with a team of full-time pollsters.
posted by grobstein at 3:21 PM on April 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


How many of the people whose appearances are being protested do you think are surprised to find that their views are controversial, grobstein?
posted by KathrynT at 3:24 PM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


Objecting Students: You need to stop talking about your feelings and beliefs because they offend me.

Show me one place where students have demanded that anyone cease writing, publishing, or speaking about their feelings and beliefs. They just don't want their school to shell out funds to give them a platform.
posted by KathrynT at 3:26 PM on April 24, 2015 [5 favorites]


For people who spend all day online, maybe

Yup, that's us students these days. Good old products of the Information Age. Tell us again why we are going into debt to listen to old bores of speakers who tell us basic 101 stuff we already know and basically contribute nothing new to the debate?

As a speaker, your obligation is to know your audience. If you can't keep up to the demand that your discussion of issues must be informed by current context, maybe you should be giving speeches at the senior's center.
posted by Conspire at 3:29 PM on April 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


I agree but there must be a better way to have that conversation besides shutting it down completely. Imagine the "person with controversial views" is a progressive vs objecting conservative students.

Talking down to people who don't think like you is a great way to feel superior and win points in your community but it's effectiveness in changing the status quo is questionable.


This is a perfect example of the difference of opinion fallacy I was talking about earlier. These students aren't objecting to these individuals because they are "controversial", they are doing so because the specific viewpoints being espoused are noxious attempts to say that certain people aren't allowed to be full people. You can't argue that there's a difference of opinion without noting what that difference is.
posted by NoxAeternum at 3:31 PM on April 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


Would the proponents of those viewpoints agree with that characterization? So why should it be determinative?
posted by topynate at 3:34 PM on April 24, 2015


Basically, I'm sorry if pretentious white guys are hurt by the idea that they actually have to critically think about what they're saying to be paid to speak at our institutions these days

Just curious, I don't think her speech should be excused when offensive, as a young student, how you think about Ayaan Hirsi Ali feeling hurt by those requirements?
posted by Drinky Die at 3:34 PM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


I am not a man, never have been, and I've spent most of my life accustomed to hearing that my disability makes me ineligible for normal human experiences. At least within the context of a debate, I might get to answer back, which is usually not the case in a real-world context like say employment with a company. You can filter YouTube comments, but they represent the reality of people's views that doesn't go away simply because you click the show/hide button.

Anyone equating live debate against people with opposing views - yes, even offensive and inflammatory ones - with YouTube comments that one can simply show or hide, are missing the point in a way that has consequences. Some of us actually move in circles where debating skills have impact and consequences and aren't merely a toy exercise for interested students.

Furthermore, nobody is required to attend a live debate any more than they're required to read YouTube comments. Since more people are at risk of exposure to YouTube comments, though, it would seem a better use of one's energy to demand that YouTube disable comments altogether and purge past comments from their archives. Or I guess what we should ask for is for YouTube to purge Their comments while retaining Our (a priori progressive and enlightened) ones.
posted by tel3path at 3:38 PM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


There's lots to learn from proxies or even live specimens of people you find repellent and dehumanizing.

Or you can hit your head against a table (any good, solid object will do, really, doesn't need to be a table specifically) until you lose consciousness, which is a much more productive way to spend your time than offering academic/publishing/media platforms to people who don't believe women should have autonomy over their own health, trans people don't exist and/or should be forcibly exterminated and black people can get a turn to talk but first must listen to this moneyed white guy explain their own experiences to them. I encounter lots of people who want to deny me basic rights all the time. For lots of people, this is not a rare, exotic or abstract experience. It's not a thought experiment. There are people that actually do honestly hate minorities. They're welcome to run blogs for all I care, but they have absolutely no place at a university, newspaper, reasonably civilized website and so on.
posted by byanyothername at 3:38 PM on April 24, 2015 [4 favorites]


It speaks to a level of fine-tuning, of synchronization, that's suddenly expected of everyone. For people who spend all day online, maybe, it's really easy to keep up with the bounds of acceptable opinion, and not get caught out on a time-scale where 6 years can take a position from left-liberal to anathema. But for others, it's demanding a high level of plugged-in-ness, of hawkishly following the zeitgeist.

I find that most opponents of gay marriage are not out of touch with the zeitgeist, they are very in touch with it until the moment it passes them by. Barack Obama was passed by when Joe Biden had an apparently inadvertent slip of the tongue just a few days before Obama was going to announce his own evolution.

The best way to stay ahead of the zeitgeist on acceptable bigotry against minorities is to reject acceptable bigotry against minorities as a concept. You don't even have to stay that plugged in to do it.
posted by Drinky Die at 3:39 PM on April 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


Would the proponents of those viewpoints agree with that characterization? So why should it be determinative?

Because when you say that women do not have the right to full autonomy over their bodies, you are saying that they are lesser people.

Because when you say that two individuals cannot marry because they are of the same gender, you are saying that they are lesser people.

It's determinative because the arguments are about making certain groups lesser people, no matter what the shiny front they put on it is.
posted by NoxAeternum at 3:41 PM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


Furthermore, nobody is required to attend a live debate any more than they're required to read YouTube comments.

YouTube comments aren't paid for by the tuition that's putting me into debt for a decade at least.
posted by KathrynT at 3:45 PM on April 24, 2015


Neither are Union debates.
posted by tel3path at 3:46 PM on April 24, 2015


Just curious, I don't think her speech should be excused when offensive, as a young student, how you think about Ayaan Hirsi Ali feeling hurt by those requirements?

Given how much you participate in identity-based threads, I think you would very much understand that my reference to identity here is one to the way white men in our culture are brought up to feel entitled in their sharing of viewpoints - a phenomenon that while is not synonymous with identity, is highly correlated to the point it becomes a useful heuristic.
posted by Conspire at 3:48 PM on April 24, 2015




OK, so SPECIFICALLY the Oxford Union isn't an official college organization, but so what? The students don't want this guy to come and talk there, and the Union values their opinions over the opinions of the other guy. Where, exactly, is the problem? Should the students not voice their concerns? Should the Union not value those concerns? Or is the issue really that the students shouldn't HAVE these concerns?
posted by KathrynT at 3:53 PM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


Oh, they very much should. It is completely arguable that this debate shouldn't be had on these terms, i.e. two men debating what should be done with women's bodies.
posted by tel3path at 3:55 PM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


Sorry, which event involved the Oxford Union? I read the OP as involving an event sponsored by Oxford Students for Life that was to be held at Christ Church, which I understand is an official part of Oxford University. Is my understanding wrong or are we talking about some other event?
posted by burden at 3:57 PM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


These students aren't objecting to these individuals because they are "controversial", they are doing so because the specific viewpoints being espoused are noxious attempts to say that certain people aren't allowed to be full people.

The problem is many seemingly ignorant arguments are made in good faith by people who are open to being educated. When you shut these arguments down out of hand you're making enemies out of potential allies. You talk about not being allowed to be a full person, what is more stifling than telling someone their opinion doesn't matter. I see this happen all the time on metafilter where in a thread about women's issues a man says something innocently ignorant and is skewered for it. What is the point in behaving like that?

There are of course vicious bigots in the world and I might sound like I'm asking you to "hold whitey's hand" but there must be a better to have these conversations besides playing "racist/sexist until proven otherwise."
posted by laptolain at 3:59 PM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


> what is more stifling than telling someone their opinion doesn't matter.

A lot of things are more stifling than being told your opinion doesn't matter. So many things. The Treaty of Westaphalia is not longer than the number of things more stifling than that.
posted by rtha at 4:03 PM on April 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


It's determinative because the arguments are about making certain groups lesser people, no matter what the shiny front they put on it is.

If the vast majority of people who are involved in the debate society agreed about that, then that would carry the day. But in fact my experience is that there's normally a 2-to-1 or 3-to-1 split at most. I agree with you on the issues, but I don't see how you treat strongly held opinions equitably in general if knowing that you're right on a sufficiently important issue is reason enough to block a debate on it.
posted by topynate at 4:03 PM on April 24, 2015


When you shut these arguments down out of hand you're making enemies out of potential allies.

Anybody who will only move away from bigotry if people are sufficiently nice is not really that motivated to move away from bigotry. People should move away from bigotry the way they move away from vomit in the street, not like preschoolers being enticed away from the TV.
posted by KathrynT at 4:04 PM on April 24, 2015 [4 favorites]


A lot of things are more stifling than being told your opinion doesn't matter. So many things.

Opinions in this case aren't limited to things you put on paper but also lifestyles and societal matters.
posted by laptolain at 4:05 PM on April 24, 2015


KathrynT, the question isn't 'do the students have a right to protest opinions they don't like', because, well, of course they do. Rather, the question is 'Why does a certain type of student want to insulate themselves from debates that are already happening in society?'

I think we're seeing this phenomenon for a lot of reasons - in part, college millennials seem thoroughly ensconced in ideological filter bubbles, so of course they think their college campuses should conform to the handpicked ideology of their Twitter and Tumblr feeds.
posted by corcovado at 4:05 PM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


Anybody who will only move away from bigotry if people are sufficiently nice is not really that motivated to move away from bigotry. People should move away from bigotry the way they move away from vomit in the street, not like preschoolers being enticed away from the TV.

It's not about being nice it's about allowing someone to be wrong with the expectation that given evidence they will understand what is right.
posted by laptolain at 4:07 PM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


The students here aren't insulating themselves from debates happening in society; instead, they're jumping into the fray and demanding (with some success) that those debates take place on their terms. They're not taking soma, they're organizing.
posted by burden at 4:09 PM on April 24, 2015 [4 favorites]


Rather, the question is 'Why does a certain type of student want to insulate themselves from debates that are already happening in society?'

What makes you think that these students feel isolated from these debates? Perhaps they feel overwhelmed by them, as they are, like you say, already happening in society, and don't feel like they need to be exposed to them even more.
posted by KathrynT at 4:11 PM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


It's not about being nice it's about allowing someone to be wrong with the expectation that given evidence they will understand what is right.

What makes you think that expectation is at all founded? Why would you insist that others share it?
posted by KathrynT at 4:12 PM on April 24, 2015


> I think we're seeing this phenomenon for a lot of reasons - in part, college millennials seem thoroughly ensconced in ideological filter bubbles, so of course they think their college campuses should conform to the handpicked ideology of their Twitter and Tumblr feeds.

It's not a bubble - it's a phenomenon older than I am, and I am getting to be an Old.

> Opinions in this case aren't limited to things you put on paper but also lifestyles and societal matters.

Then you should have made that clear; for what it's worth, I cannot equate "I disagree with your position on abortion" with "Gay people should not have the same rights I do," but I guess some people do. In conclusion, the world is a land of contrasts.
posted by rtha at 4:15 PM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


Trigger warnings do not always result in someone avoiding the trigger, for the record. A lot of people just need to be prepared for their triggers to come up. And the comparison of random, unmarked exposure to triggers to exposure therapy is preposterous. It also assumes that TWs are only used for PTSD, which isn't true; they can be really helpful for a wide range of people.
posted by NoraReed at 4:17 PM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


What makes you think that expectation is at all founded? Why would you insist that others share it?

What is the alternative? To assume everyone who disagrees with you is an irretrievable bigot?
posted by laptolain at 4:18 PM on April 24, 2015


Btw, I'll believe that these guys just want the opportunity to teach their students how to form critical thinking skills about opposing viewpoints when Liberty University invites Dan Savage and Chelsea Manning to come speak.
posted by KathrynT at 4:19 PM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


The blog post defending the idea of "safe spaces" seems to paint a pretty vivid false dichotomy: either students are allowed to express their ideas without judgment or criticism so that the (unnamed) values we want to instill in them can take hold, or groups that are larger than them will steamroller them into a life that no one, liberal or conservative, would chose for themselves.
The blog post also has the very repugnant feature of giving several hotlinked examples for every claim it wants to make, without presenting the claim in such a way that it can be examined, judged, or criticized. Does this have a name? If not, I propose, "decon/recon." Someone else's argument has been decontextualized and then recontextualized to fit neatly into what someone else was trying to say with, sadly, very little discussion of the issue at hand. It's the high-tech version of the "Gish gallop," I tell ya!
On a more sober note, I think the best place to learn and test the values we want to instill in others is in the real world, where those people are free to disagree with us, and we show them same respect and tolerance we deserve. It would be wonderful if people could be forced to agree with us, but nobody really wants that. It would make us look just as bad as the corporations and/or governments that we might be tempted to believe are trying to steamroller us, after all. And our beliefs don't really mean anything when we know other people are going to agree with them, anyway.
posted by Mr. Fig at 4:19 PM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


What is the alternative? To assume everyone who disagrees with you is an irretrievable bigot?

Why on earth would that be the only alternative?
posted by KathrynT at 4:20 PM on April 24, 2015


Btw, I'll believe that these guys just want the opportunity to teach their students how to form critical thinking skills about opposing viewpoints when Liberty University invites Dan Savage and Chelsea Manning to come speak.

They are surely doing it wrong when they do not.
posted by Drinky Die at 4:20 PM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


What is the alternative? To assume everyone who disagrees with you is an irretrievable bigot?

No, because not every disagreement is about bigotry. But in the cases where the disagreement is, I tend to have a very dim view of people who make arguments in defense of the idea that some group of people are lesser because of some attribute.
posted by NoxAeternum at 4:22 PM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


Yeah, this wasn't an Oxford Union thing, but a soc that wanted to hire a room. The Oxford Union is a private club that does what its members want (it's been known to hold votes on particularly controversial invites). Sometimes protestors break in and disrupt debates with people they really don't like, but generally we're talking about the "literally a fascist" sort of person. I doubt they'd be very interested these days in a debate on abortion, not for the most elevated of reasons though: the antis would most likely all be devout Christians, who aren't very trendy.

By the way, check out the debate at the Cambridge Union for the end of this month.
posted by topynate at 4:23 PM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


Indeed, this debate wasn't at the Oxford Union. The speaker was invited by Oxford Students for Life, a pro-life special interest group of the Oxford branch of the Students' Union. The Students' Union is not the Oxford Union. The latter has a history of going to extremes about free speech; the Student Union is part of the NUS.

Which is to say it was a student-organized debate and not one that was funded or endorsed by the University. Nevertheless, it was a debate and not a rally. The Student Union is allowed to have a special interest group, which means they are allowed to express pro-life/anti-choice views and to do so while at university. You could argue that this group should be disbanded, but I don't know how you'd do that without being a member of the NUS yourself.
posted by tel3path at 4:24 PM on April 24, 2015


who's arguing that the group should be disbanded? dissent is not violence, critique is not censorship.
posted by KathrynT at 4:35 PM on April 24, 2015


It just occurred to me that my link to the Cambridge Union's termcard will rot in a week, so for posterity, the motion to be debated on the 30th is "This house believes in the Unconditional Right to Offend". To be discussed is whether "our single-minded pursuit of ‘Free Speech’ really is justified."
posted by topynate at 4:42 PM on April 24, 2015


If you're not intellectually capable of understanding what is and isn't rape, you are probably too dumb to be at a university.

This is endearing, but misinformed.
posted by running order squabble fest at 4:43 PM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


Well then, the complaint we have left seems to be that an anti-choice group of the student union chose an anti-choice speaker for a debate that took place on University premises, and that the debate should not have taken place because it would have given a platform to an anti-choice speaker and the anti-choice position reduces women to lesser beings. It's not enough that the debate would also have given a platform to a pro-choice speaker, nor that the terms of the debate were successfully challenged and the debate called off. Rather, the problem is that the debate would have allowed opinions to be voiced that should not be voiced, at least not in any way associated with a university.
posted by tel3path at 4:44 PM on April 24, 2015


" dissent is not violence, critique is not censorship."

Well, the debate was called off in part for 'security concerns'... In my mind this excuse to cancel speakers is used too often, and implies that the protesters will be violent (when there is no indication that this is true).

I certainly don't blame people for planning to protest (outside of the venue), that too is part of free speech; hell, I might have joined said protest (if I was in physical proximity).

It also seems unfair to blame protesters when an administration decides to cancel a planned event for vague 'security concerns' - it feels like a chicken-shit approach (that somewhat defames the protesters as being violent in nature).

I completely agree that dissent is not violence, and critique is not censorship. But preventing an event (like an abortion debate) certainly is censorship; but the blame for this censorship shouldn't be placed upon the protesters of the event, but right on the feet of those that decide to cancel said event.
posted by el io at 4:50 PM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


The depends, doesn't it? Is Anita Sarkessian to blame for cancelling her appearance at Utah State?
posted by Justinian at 4:53 PM on April 24, 2015


Well then, the complaint we have left seems to be that an anti-choice group of the student union chose an anti-choice speaker for a debate that took place on University premises, and that the debate should not have taken place because it would have given a platform to an anti-choice speaker and the anti-choice position reduces women to lesser beings.

It's the bolded part that puzzles me. The complaint seems to me that the anti-choice group of the student union chose an anti-choice speaker for a debate that took place on University premises, and that that other students felt that they did not want their University to host that speaker, and that on balance, the University agreed with them. I don't see anyone arguing that the debate should never take place anywhere.
posted by KathrynT at 4:54 PM on April 24, 2015


The depends, doesn't it? Is Anita Sarkessian to blame for cancelling her appearance at Utah State?

It's my understanding that there were credible threats of violence in that case. Which is an extreme version of a hecklers veto, in my mind.

But if a school can provide security for a football game (thousands of people drinking who have been known to riot if their team win/loses) they should be able to provide adequate security for a controversial speaker.
posted by el io at 5:10 PM on April 24, 2015


That's my point. One can't assign blanket blame to one side or another but have to look at all of the facts in context. If there were threats of violence here, the blame is on the protesters. If there were not and the "security concerns" were a smokescreen, the blame is on the university.
posted by Justinian at 5:15 PM on April 24, 2015


This was not an issue of security, it was an issue of them not being allowed, by law, to disallow people from bringing guns from her speech.
posted by NoraReed at 5:16 PM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


Yeah,

Oct. 14, 7 p.m.
Anita Sarkeesian has canceled her scheduled speech for tomorrow following a discussion with Utah State University police regarding an email threat that was sent to Utah State University. During the discussion, Sarkeesian asked if weapons will be permitted at the speaking venue. Sarkeesian was informed that, in accordance with the State of Utah law regarding the carrying of firearms, if a person has a valid concealed firearm permit and is carrying a weapon, they are permitted to have it at the venue.


Welcome to this bizarre beyond belief country.
posted by Drinky Die at 5:19 PM on April 24, 2015


I mean seriously, can even the most hardcore of the "Debate is awesome!" crowd here of which I am probably one defend weapons in the auditorium at all, much less after threats?
posted by Drinky Die at 5:20 PM on April 24, 2015


Yeah, the only time guns belong in an auditorium is during a gun show.

Also, we should probably stop gun shows.

/gun control derail
posted by el io at 5:23 PM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


It just occurred to me that my link to the Cambridge Union's termcard will rot in a week, so for posterity, the motion to be debated on the 30th is "This house believes in the Unconditional Right to Offend". To be discussed is whether "our single-minded pursuit of ‘Free Speech’ really is justified."

Nobody's really disputing that there's an "unconditional right to offend", mainly because the way people are, they're going to do some things that offend others.

No, the problem is the unwritten codicil that always comes with that sort of statement - that you do not have the right to act upon that offense, except in certain proscribed ways, lest the person who caused the offense lose their "freedom". Because the argument is that without freedom of repercussions for what one says, there is no freedom of speech. That it is wrong to hold someone accountable for what they say. And it's this unwritten codicil that is the reason that the difference of opinion fallacy exists, because the only way you can always shift the blame off to the person being offended is to reduce their arguments down to a "difference of opinion", and after all, you can't blame someone for believing something different, right?

It's disingenuous bullshit, and it exists because the people pushing this unwritten codicil know they can't win the argument on the merits.
posted by NoxAeternum at 7:23 PM on April 24, 2015 [4 favorites]


"Some things shouldn't be debated" is a viewpoint that is pretty disturbing to me.

How do you feel about "Some speakers should not be invited to debates, on the grounds that their contributions are 100% certain to consist of nothing more than the endless rehashing of long-refuted and wilfully ill-informed talking points"?
posted by flabdablet at 11:35 PM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


Well, the debate was called off in part for 'security concerns'... In my mind this excuse to cancel speakers is used too often, and implies that the protesters will be violent (when there is no indication that this is true).

There may well be a good reason for that in this case. The Education Act (1986) places upon UK universities this legal duty:

"persons concerned in the government of any establishment... shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers."

All universities are required to have a Code of Practice which shows how this will be achieved; how the university will ensure that university premises are not denied to anyone on the grounds of their beliefs or views. The 'within the law' bit has to sit alongside the fact that universities are also bound by the Equality Act and other legislation on, for example, incitement to racial hatred. But if the speech is lawful, then in theory universities have a duty to ensure that freedom of speech on campus exists.

However...universities are able to take into account the need for public order, and can refuse to allow an event to take place if it might lead to public order issues, breaches of the peace etc. So that issue can be a legitimate hook on which to hang a refusal, rather than risking the institution breaching the law by failing to do what the Education Act (which was brought in under the Thatcher govt, so you can guess why) requires.
posted by reynir at 12:21 AM on April 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


"Also, universities should be one place where you can get away from 101 contrarian, he said/she said debates that only add more noise to signal.

You don't get there by not debating though, you get there by striving for 200 level debates."

...which is a great reason to oppose this particular debate without opposing the existence of the Oxford Union debating society. Like people did.
posted by Dysk at 2:13 AM on April 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


Also, we should probably stop gun shows.

But... I have free tickets to this gun show.

*Flexes*.

(Sorry.)
posted by running order squabble fest at 3:15 AM on April 25, 2015


100 percent agreement Dysk. There does seem to be a couple folks in the thread who are a bit skeptical of the utility of debate in general though so my comment was directed there.
posted by Drinky Die at 8:31 AM on April 25, 2015


I would rather have fascists, racists, anti-Semites, and any other hateful group speak on campus than have them silenced. I say this because this sort of silencing has historically been used to reinforce the power of those same fascists and racists. Most politically active students today are more-or-less liberal, but that wasn't historically true: my relatives lived and studied in Hungary when university mobs forcibly expelled Jewish academics and successfully lobbied for quotas restricting the entry of Jews.

Students are stupid. Mobs are ugly. They should not have the power of veto, even if they're using it for mostly-good reasons. A vestige of liberal academic norms protected some Jewish academics and students in the lead-up to the Holocaust; a surprisingly large number of academics today are no more than one generation removed from those survivors. We need to protect these academic norms even if they protect fascists, because liberalism is more vulnerable than fascism and you never know when the wheel of history is due for another turn.
posted by Joe in Australia at 8:36 AM on April 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


[One comment deleted. Go ahead and dispute the point, but please don't do it by putting words in the other person's mouth that they obviously don't endorse, on an incredibly sensitive subject.]
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:15 AM on April 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm not impressed with the argument that liberals/progressives must establish rules enshrining the right of any extremist to speak at a public university. I'm not impressed with the vague threats of "let us speak now or we won't let you speak once our reclaiming of political power is complete." I have no faith whatsoever that a fascist regime is someday going to be impeded by a precedent of unchecked free speech that was once to their advantage but now isn't. And I resent the vague threat, the implication that the cozy liberal university environment is just a bubble waiting to be popped.
posted by daisystomper at 10:43 AM on April 25, 2015 [4 favorites]


It's obviously no panacea, but I have to imagine the United States would be more resistant to blatant restriction on free speech than nations that already embrace it to further degrees than we do here. Slippery Slope is not 100% always a fallacy.

But yeah, I have family members who lived through an era in their country when all the educated "elite" university types were vilified and systematically murdered or forced into labor by a communist authoritarian regime. Ultimately, trigger warnings and safe spaces aren't going to make a difference on if that sort of thing can happen or not and it's hyperbolic to raise that idea in this sort of discussion.
posted by Drinky Die at 11:35 AM on April 25, 2015


Okay, let's break this down:

The specific act of not inviting certain people to speak at universities in no way eliminates their viewpoint from academia. In modern university systems, the ability to speak at a public institution carries significant political power. Sometimes, the issue is not strictly the viewpoint, but the way it serves as a proxy to advance certain political agendas - with the advent of the internet, it is easier to check a speaker's history and motivations. Furthermore, the act now carries significant economic power in that the students themselves are now making tremendous financial sacrifices to sponsor these speakers. People frequently claim that young people don't learn from the mistakes of the previous generation, but I argue the opposite is happening here: we've seen the way older generations have completely screwed up their sociopolitical systems by trying to run a "free market" of ideas through being blind to the political consequences of certain platforms. What happens when you claim certain platforms such as universities as an unmoderated neutral, only those with institutional power and privilege can actually make use of these platforms, reinforcing status quos - and contributing to the clear state of unchecked institutional racism, sexism, and homophobia North America is currently in. Speakers who evoke this Just World Fallacy of political neutrality to get their views espoused by a university are typically doing so to covertly drive a political agenda - if all they wanted to do was air their viewpoint out equally within an academic system, they could go for a more neutral platform like publishing a paper. Otherwise, they can acknowledge that their intent is actually to lend political power to their viewpoint, and aim for a platform that explicitly aligns with their viewpoint - a university is not the only public (or private) institution in which one can speak at.

If we recognize that granting a political platform cannot be a neutral act, we need some criterion for distinguishing which speakers merit access. And this is where people always get tripped up, because the current standard of justice is not synonymous with law. Modern day, student-driven conceptions of justice do not divorce themselves from the human agent - they are free to make judgment calls. A judgment call does not set a precedence or rule for all future decisions to be based off of. Similarly, it does not evaluate an opinion or viewpoint as a pure logic, but factors in social condition and context - motivations of a speaker, power dynamics, audience, and so forth. To suggest a decision to not espouse a speaker known for advocating for the removal of human rights of certain classes of people sets a precedence for viewpoints asking for the exact opposite to be "censored" implies a profound lack of understanding of what modern day social justice is.

Obviously, there is some subjectivity inherent in the process - which is why it makes no sense to portray students as a single bloc, nor call a student decision a "veto". First, the majority of these incidents are student groups debating against each other - one student group brings in a speaker, another protests it. The beliefs, values, and moral compasses of students are not all identical. Second, even if the majority of a student body agrees with a decision, they traditionally don't have the power to actually enact it - that's why students have to protest in the first place. Negotiating with administration, faculty, or student councils/groups to reach compromises is an inherent part of the process - and just because students manage to convince these groups of the validity of their interests and successfully enact action doesn't mean that they have a "veto power". In modern day universities, where students increasingly demand more control over their educations especially due to economic realities of pursuing higher education, students are increasingly being heard out reflecting a greater shift in power towards students - but they are still in no means the sole driving agent behind a public post-secondary institution.

Social justice is by no means the only criterion in which a speaker is assessed by. If you read the reasons why a may student body argue against sponsoring a speaker, some will be purely economic - they don't want to bring on a speaker that won't contribute any value to their education at their own expense. Perhaps the speaker is known for being factually inaccurate, or otherwise not an appropriate level of knowledge for the department at the university. And so forth. Similarly, speakers and lecturers are not the only source of knowledge for students. Indeed, part of the reason why we see an increased level of backlash against certain speakers is because students are better equipped than ever to research and self-educate; in other words, they can actually form coherent critical stances against viewpoints presented to them. In this way, I would argue that the traditional one-sided speaker approach of education is actually starting to break down as a model. At the very least, the bar has been raised - we now very commonly expect our speakers to bring a level of critical insight and awareness of context of their arguments that has been elevated.

Overall, what I'm getting at is that these decisions come from a coherent stance that reflects current reality - and not just hysterical students going into naive tantrums over mildly offensive stances, as these articles would imply. And it makes no sense to vaguely point at the consequences that arise from these stances, state that they vaguely resemble (aka: not at all) what happened fifty years ago in a completely different context and from completely different stances, and then claim that students are enabling a slide into a fascist regime.
posted by Conspire at 11:37 AM on April 25, 2015 [10 favorites]


That's a damn good point about the financial investment, Conspire. The power wielded by administration on these sorts of situations (and many others) is ridiculously disproportionate to how much they have at stake in the university experience compared to the students who have had to mortgage their future just to attend. They have every right to demand input on what their experience will be like especially when it comes to discussions which are more political than educational.
posted by Drinky Die at 11:43 AM on April 25, 2015


The thing is, this was an extracurricular society holding a debate which was not part of the curriculum. Saying the speaker "won't contribute any value to their education at their own expense" is beside the point in this particular instance.

It wasn't the university administration that chose to invite this speaker. A student group invited them, another student group protested, the administration cancelled the debate ostensibly on security grounds. Whether they actually anticipated unrest or whether there was some other reason, we will probably never know.
posted by tel3path at 12:08 PM on April 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


I would also add that talking about the breakdown of the "one-sided speaker model" of education, and the emerging ability of students to challenge what they are taught - that's great, but are you aware that in Oxford, the tradition is for one-to-one or two-to-one tutorials in which an hour is spent discussing the week's homework which usually comes in the form of an essay? There is absolutely no way anyone can get through even one week without the ability to "research and self-educate" - it was required of Oxford students long before this thing you call Internet. What we have had for several centuries is the Bodleian Library, a copyright library which retains a copy of every book published in the country. The students there have always had exceptional resources to "research and self-educate" because of this.
posted by tel3path at 12:27 PM on April 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


Tel3path, please tell me exactly which step in this process should not have occurred:

1) Student group invites speaker
2) Other student group objects to this speaker being present
3) Other student group voices their objections to their university
4) University listens to the objections and elects to cancel the speaker

Because you are clearly upset with this situation and yet I cannot figure out what you think should have been done differently.
posted by KathrynT at 1:00 PM on April 25, 2015


I'm not quite sure how your cherry-picking of two narrow counterexamples detracts from my larger point? First, I implicated financial rationales as only one slice of the larger picture of students demanding a bigger say in what speakers deserve a political platform - my argument is that students see the implications of speakers from multiple angles, not just social justice as detractors who will accuse students of only narrowly considering one angle will imply. Individual cases will vary, and I don't understand the "gotcha" when students apply different methods to different cases. Second, I'm not sure how you can really deny the impact of the internet on the sheer scale and ease of accessing resources - and when I state resources, I'm implicating not only strictly academic ones but also those reflecting public and activist opinion, student collaboration, and knowledge from identities that may not necessarily be well-represented in academic circles - and especially, more current ones that have less of a delay in publication than academic resources. I mean, it's nice that Oxford had those standards, but that doesn't detract from how wide-spread and deep the phenomenon has become with the advent of massively more accessible, timely, condensed, and diverse resources - not to mention, how the attitude towards research has almost become an entirely casual reflex of "go google it" rather than an academic formality.
posted by Conspire at 1:07 PM on April 25, 2015


Freedom of speech is the bedrock of American society and for all the problems we have here it isn't controversial to say that it has stronger protections than virtually anywhere else.

You're living in a country where you can be fired for having a bumper sticker for a Democratic candidate on your car...
posted by MartinWisse at 1:18 PM on April 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm not upset. I'm not sure why you would think I was.

For the record, though, I am concerned by the opinions, which some have clearly expressed upthread, that certain subjects are not appropriate topics for debate in universities.

As to what I think could have been done differently, a debate on the same topic could have been organized with female speakers, or with a speaker who isn't an obnoxious twunt like Brendan O'Neill.

This isn't a case of students having a voice in what speakers the university invites. This is a case of one student group protesting another student group's choice of speaker in an extracurricular situation, and the university having the only actual power of veto in the matter. They used the only justification they legally can, which is security, i.e. they were afraid of unrest and violence if the talk went ahead. I find it hard to believe they were actually afraid that students would riot, so their real reasons remain unknowable.

Oh and Conspire, I'm not "cherry-picking", I'm actually making a point about the context of the immediate case under discussion since many people don't know how the Oxford system works.
posted by tel3path at 1:27 PM on April 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


1) Student group invites speaker
2) Other student group objects to this speaker being present
3) Other student group voices their objections to their university
4) University listens to the objections and elects to cancel the speaker


Step 4 is probably illegal on those grounds. See reynir's comment above. You could argue that the university cancelled the speaker not on the grounds of the objections, but of 'security and welfare', which is as may be. However, cancelling speakers who don't have the requisite "level of critical insight and awareness" is not allowed: the speech prohibited has to be against the law or create a risk that the university can't reasonably counter.
posted by topynate at 2:02 PM on April 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


For every bullshit law there is an equal and opposite bullshit workaround.
posted by flabdablet at 6:39 AM on April 26, 2015


Conspire, protesting speaker invites are not new conflicts. They've been happening on university campuses for at least 50 years, likely quite a lot longer. I certainly recall them happening 25 years ago when I was in school. We had very similar protests then against controversial speakers too. In my time and place, it was often Israel/Palestine or Jewish student group/Holocaust-not-quite-denier, which is why I suspect it was raised up thread. The university would occasionally use the security bullshit excuse then as well.

I agree that the negotiation between the various student societies and the university proper is at least as important that the actual events themselves. That's a point I was trying to make earlier in this discussion too. To deny the opportunities for these to happen, is also, in my view, a net negative.

Is the access the internet provides enough stimulus to counter-act the need for direct contact? It's an interesting question, but I'm inclined to disagree that it does. The internet, is, in my experience, less a grand community, more of a community of communities, where self-selection and ideological isolation is entirely possible. Secondly, there's a great deal of immediacy lost in having a fairly cold mediation between viewpoints, in contrast to a live event.
posted by bonehead at 8:25 AM on April 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


Amusingly Don't Be Butt-Hurt by Scott Fernandez is now what you'd think. ;)
posted by jeffburdges at 10:07 PM on April 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


KathrynT:
"1) Student group invites speaker
2) Other student group objects to this speaker being present
3) Other student group voices their objections to their university
4) University listens to the objections and elects to cancel the speaker"


topynate: "Step 4 is probably illegal on those grounds. See reynir's comment above. You could argue that the university cancelled the speaker not on the grounds of the objections, but of 'security and welfare', which is as may be. However, cancelling speakers who don't have the requisite 'level of critical insight and awareness' is not allowed: the speech prohibited has to be against the law or create a risk that the university can't reasonably counter."

reynir's comment above says no such thing whatsoever - it only says universities are required to respect freedom of speech, not that they have to give up their own.

Since "cancel the speaker" in this context means "withdraw their special invitation" - a fancy way of saying "not pay or promote" - and nothing more, it's hard to see what you mean by this. If someone wants to stand outside the hall and give a talk, the university can't stop them, and they haven't said they would. Indeed, this sort of thing happens all the time - students invite a speaker, and universities generally don't have a lot of say in it unless their own resources are being used or their name or money is being employed to promote that speaker. The issue is that lots of speakers demand money for their trouble, but that's not the problem of the university.

I'm not sure how exactly it's against the law for a university to decide they won't pay or promote a particular speaker; if it is against the law, then that constitutes quite a significant constraint on the freedom of speech of the university itself.
posted by koeselitz at 11:27 PM on April 28, 2015


that constitutes quite a significant constraint on the freedom of speech of the university itself

Yes, but you need to bear in mind that universities are well-known hotbeds of that awful Leftism, so their freedom of speech doesn't count.
posted by flabdablet at 4:32 AM on April 29, 2015


reynir's comment above says no such thing whatsoever - it only says universities are required to respect freedom of speech, not that they have to give up their own.

Since "cancel the speaker" in this context means "withdraw their special invitation" - a fancy way of saying "not pay or promote" - and nothing more, it's hard to see what you mean by this. If someone wants to stand outside the hall and give a talk, the university can't stop them, and they haven't said they would. Indeed, this sort of thing happens all the time - students invite a speaker, and universities generally don't have a lot of say in it unless their own resources are being used or their name or money is being employed to promote that speaker. The issue is that lots of speakers demand money for their trouble, but that's not the problem of the university.

I'm not sure how exactly it's against the law for a university to decide they won't pay or promote a particular speaker; if it is against the law, then that constitutes quite a significant constraint on the freedom of speech of the university itself.


You simply haven't understood reynir's comment.

Your personal interpretation of freedom of speech may be a fine one. But reynir is describing an actual law, not just an airy ideal. From the Education Act 1986:
The duty imposed by subsection (1) above includes (in particular) the duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that the use of any premises of the establishment is not denied to any individual or body of persons on any ground connected with—

(a)the beliefs or views of that individual or of any member of that body; or

(b)the policy or objectives of that body.
You can see (I hope) that the law in question explicitly rejects your personal interpretation of freedom of speech, that an institution exercises its own right of free speech by saying that speakers it doesn't like can't use its premises. Again, this might be a truly wonderful idea of freedom of speech! (Perhaps the United States can exercise its free speech by deporting Communists! Delightful!)

Ahem.

But anyway the university is legally barred from exercising its free speech in this way, which is what reynir's informative comment was about. Hence why the university doesn't say that it is canceling the event because it disagrees with it (again, illegal!), but because it is supposedly a security risk.

(This whole about "special invitations", "pay and promote", etc., is of course a red herring, since the event was organized and promoted by a private group. The university's only lever here is control over its physical premises, which is legally restricted.)
posted by grobstein at 8:30 AM on April 29, 2015 [2 favorites]




Curiously, that is rhetorically almost identical to Brendan o'Neill's piece. Truly, politics is a circle rather than a line.
posted by running order squabble fest at 9:25 PM on April 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


It is, but with a different topic at stake (Islam vs abortion) which I think does suggest that the complaint (that there’s a movement within academia to censor topics which ought to be within the bounds of reasonable discussion) has a real base to it.
posted by pharm at 5:33 AM on May 1, 2015


... or that it is possible to sell that basic article to the Spectator with a couple of different "x" values.
posted by running order squabble fest at 7:58 AM on May 1, 2015


grobstein: “You can see (I hope) that the law in question explicitly rejects your personal interpretation of freedom of speech, that an institution exercises its own right of free speech by saying that speakers it doesn't like can't use its premises.”

But nobody anywhere said that anybody couldn't use any premises. That's the whole point. There was no banning of anyone from any premises. I think you misunderstand what it means when a university "cancels" a speaker.
posted by koeselitz at 3:06 PM on May 1, 2015


Ech, maybe I'm wrong. I'll let this go. I don't know as much about UK universities; I only know that in the US people are free to speak wherever the hell they want, and it's only speaking fees that are at issue.
posted by koeselitz at 3:09 PM on May 1, 2015


It is, but with a different topic at stake (Islam vs abortion) which I think does suggest that the complaint (that there’s a movement within academia to censor topics which ought to be within the bounds of reasonable discussion) has a real base to it.

Considering that one of the topics that Cohen considers reasonable to discuss is "exactly which gender is a transgendered individual?", I'm more inclined to think that he doesn't actually understand what tolerance actually means.
posted by NoxAeternum at 3:12 PM on May 1, 2015


good thing there's no such thing as a "transgendered" individual because transgendering isn't a verb, you don't get transgendered, you are transgender, so that's an easily solved question

may all his shoes be eternally filled with legos and cat vomit
posted by NoraReed at 3:35 PM on May 1, 2015


Eh, some of us prefer transgendered for reasons of grammar and it only being a thing because we are in a meaningful sense because society genders/has gendered us contrary to our actual gender.

Let me just say gender a few more times: gender gender gender.
posted by Dysk at 5:52 PM on May 1, 2015


It's the -ed suffix that converts a noun to an adjective, not the one that makes a participle from a verb. It's the same pattern as redhaired, for instance.

(I have to make this Linguistics degree do some work, otherwise I'd have to face the fact that I poured money and years down a rat hole...)
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 7:18 PM on May 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


Except gender is also a verb, and 'gendered' doesn't really work as an adjective, whereas it's in regular use as a verb. "She's redhaired" is fine, "she's gendered [female]" needs that last bit in the parentheses.

It's not like English is consistent in any way shape or form anyway, so this seems like a weird one to pull up to tell a community that they're technically wrong in how they describe themselves.
posted by Dysk at 3:47 AM on May 2, 2015


I mean, that is sort of an unspoken thing here, leaving aside the discussion on word choice (since I have nothing of value to add to it).

There's an big noise in parts of the British left-wing commentariat at the moment, and has been for some years, about the evils of "no-platforming", which essentially boils down to "the Julies Bindel and Burchill don't get invited to speak at as many events as they used to".

(The latest version of this was probably Tim Lott's article "If leftwingers like me are condemned as rightwing, then what's left?", where he painted a picture of a dystopian world in which David Mamet did not get as many dinner party invites as he used to. For those keeping track, Tim Lott first abandoned the left in 2005.)

The problem for these members of the media is that if people start being told off for this sort of thing, or lose out on speaking fees, then it's hard to know where that stops. Nick Cohen was one of a number of notionally left-wing columnists who approvingly shared content from Julie Burchill's article "transexuals should cut it out", before it became clear that the public mood had been badly misjudged on that one.

(It should surprise nobody that Julie Burchill, after the Observer's editorial staff removed and apologised for that article, started writing for the Spectator.)

So on the left, you have a group of largely (although not entirely) middle-aged columnists who are increasingly more concerned about the issue of "postmodern multiculturalism", which coincidentally has the potential to impact on their and their friends' writing careers, speaking calendar and personal brand. "Postmodern multiculturalism" here seems primarily to involve differences of opinion on trans people and Islam - I take the phrase from a Nick Cohen article on Stieg Larsson:
More to the point, as he aged he didn't turn into a postmodern multiculturalist. He would never tone down criticisms of racism or misogyny if prejudice came from a different culture or a poor world regime or movement. Alongside his denunciations of white skinheads, he produced condemnations of "honour" killings. "It was the same thing to him," Eva told me. "If it was neo-Nazis or some Islamic group, it was the same violence, the same hatred."
(Funnily enough, Cohen subsequently recanted and condemned Larsson when a friend of his read the aforementioned condemnation of "honour" killings and found that it wasn't condemny enough.)

The relevant part here being that it isn't that left and right are, generally and severally, experiencing being quote-unquote censored. It is that certain part of the left and right happen to have the same views, specifically, about trans people and Muslims, and are therefore experiencing the same responses.
posted by running order squabble fest at 5:11 AM on May 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


I think it's a good deal more complicated than that. Here's something that's been going on here, in Australia:

Associate Professor Jake Lynch, Director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies is in hot water over an incident that took place last month. Colonel Richard Kemp was giving a talk on "ethical dilemmas of military operations in relation to recent conflicts". I think the context of the talk was the recent Israel/Gaza war, but that wasn't necessarily its topic. Anyway.

Jake Lynch was apparently seated up front. A bunch of protestors barged in and tried to shut the talk down. Some of the people at the talk got upset and came down and shouted back at the protestors. I don't know why Lynch got involved (Kemp says Lynch and his offsider, lecturer Nicholas Riemer were "leading and encouraging" the protesters), but he reportedly ended up waving money in an elderly Jewish woman's face, presumably as part of the "Conflict" bit of his duties. Lynch was asked to explain himself, and the university decided that his actions didn't amount to anti-Semitic conduct.

OK, so we have established that a group on campus doesn't like pro-Israel speakers, very shocking. But it get better: apparently Lynch's offsider wrote an open letter arguing for the university to lift its ban on talks by Uthman Badar, a so-called "Islamic radical", saying “Perhaps, if the university was less selective in the speakers it offers platforms, there’d be less motivation for protests like the one at the Kemp lecture”.

Per...haps.

This created a lot of angst among academics at USyd, one of whom pointed out that
Uthman Badar is a spokesman for Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is an explicitly political movement the goal of which is to reinstall a caliphate and to do so worldwide. I won’t get stated on the group’s attitudes to women.
So we have a lot of disagreement about what sort of "speech" should be allowed on campus, and at least one person is simultaneously a censor and someone claiming to be oppressed by censorship. Along came another academic to pour petrol on troubled fires:
Asked if an IS supporter should be allowed to “express their anti-Semitism” and give a lecture about why the west is wrong and they are right, lecturer and fellow BDS supporter Yarran Hominh wrote: “I would say yes, we should ‘allow’ them to express their anti-Semitism — within bounds, of course.”

But he added that the question “reveals a deeper issue, which is namely why Richard Kemp was invited in the first place”. “Inviting such a speaker, as would inviting an anti-Semitic IS supporter to speak, seems to me to invite polarisation of the sort that is to my mind not conducive to a proper discussion of the issues,” he said.
I hope you can sort all that out. It has me baffled. The only thing that academics at the USyd seem to agree on is that some people should be shouted down. What an ideal place for studying Peace and Conflict.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:38 AM on May 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


« Older I've got 96 tears in 96 eyes   |   Sherlock's One Weird Trick Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments