Free Speech, Safety and the Triumph of Neoliberalism

By Peter Dorman, a professor of economics at The Evergreen State College. Originally published at Econospeak

I’m reading another article about debates over free speech on campus, this time at Williams College, an elite school in the northwestern corner of Massachusetts.  A faculty petition asks to formalize and tighten the college’s policy on free speech by adopting the Chicago Principles, which state that “concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.”  Over three hundred students, however, have signed a counterpetition arguing that speech which harms minorities should not be allowed.  These disputes are interesting to me, partly because my own school, Evergreen State College, went through a conflict along these lines.

Consider for a moment the idea that speech activities can be evaluated by the emotional effects they engender.  One person’s speech makes me feel good: fine.  Another’s makes me feel terrible and should be disallowed.  What this amounts to is assessing political acts according to the utility or disutility experienced by those affected by them.  The “do no harm” criterion is a bit problematic, however, since people can also be subjected to disutility by restrictions on their speech as well as by hearing the speech of others.  If one person feels unsafe because of being silenced, but if they talk, another will feel unsafe because of the speech content, a purely rights-based framework becomes inconsistent.

I can see two ways out.  One is to put forward a hierarchy of rights-bearing, a ranking that resolves rights disputes between any two such individuals.  This seems to be implicit in the way disputes like this actually play out, but if you subscribe to the principle of intersectionality (or more subversively, the principle that individuals are not reducible to their “identities”) the ranking is indeterminate.

The other would be to allow for bargaining and side payments.  Yes, your speech makes me feel unsafe, but I will consent to it if you simultaneously agree to adopt a program I favor, give me additional personal guarantees or something else I value.  Then we are in MarketWorld, where different parties buy and sell pieces of their political agency.

You can probably sense where I’m going.  The neoliberal worldview holds that as many actions in as many spheres as possible should be evaluated according to the effect they have on individual preferences, as revealed by market choices.  Take the example of restoring salmon habitat by taking down a dam.  This is an action with economic consequences, but it is also a matter of social values—how much a community values having an environment in which wild fish, among others, can prosper.  The neoliberal approach is to interpret that value as a consumption good: what affect does salmon restoration have on your sense of preference satisfaction, on your utility or disutility?  There are various techniques that can be used to estimate this, such as a contingent valuation survey.  Instead of having to deliberate politically on the values which we want our community to uphold, giving reasons for them to try to persuade one another, we should take our preferences as given and simply record the overall effect of a proposed choice on well-being.

My reading is that the core psychological principle of neoliberalism, that life is an accumulation of moments of utility and disutility, is alive and well within certain sectors of the “left”.  A speech (or email or comment at a meeting) should be evaluated by how it makes us feel, and no one should have the right to make us feel bad.

I realize I will be accused of trivializing, that I’m not appreciating how bad speech can make some of us feel.  And I agree that the degree of disutility in relation to the political context matters.  Some speech has as its primary purpose making others suffer, through insult or instigating fear, and has little or no persuasive intent.  That’s hate speech, and I don’t see a problem with curtailing it.  Arguably, much of the “provocative” right-wing babble, whose goal is to demean and threaten rather than change minds, falls under this stipulation.  But what distinguishes hate speech is not simply the degree of anguish it evokes but also its lack of any other motive.  Giving an antiwar speech may well cause similar anguish among family members who have lost loved ones in battle, but if the purpose is political, to persuade and enlist, it should be evaluated on political grounds, not its impact on utility.

It’s the greatest power of an ideology that it can seep into the worldview of those who claim to oppose it.

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66 comments

  1. Disturbed Voter

    Nobody was as conformist, as the anti-establishment, during the 60s. Hive mind of the social insects.

    Reply
    1. pretzelattack

      they were pretty united in opposing the vietnam war, not sure avoiding getting your ass shot off for no apparent cause should be classified as conformity.

      Reply
      1. Disturbed Voter

        I remember how it was back then. Opposition to the Vietnam War was a special case. Being right on that one thing doesn’t validate any of the other things that happened in that decade. At the time, my family had no clue as to LBJs culpability, as we didn’t find out until later. Pacifist opposition is principled (perhaps MLK), but that wasn’t necessarily the reason for opposition at that time, many had perfectly selfish reasons to be opposed. Pacifists could get conscientious objector status. Others, not so much. Basically given what was known then, others simply were virtue signaling, much as people like to do today.

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        1. Michael Fiorillo

          It was possible for non-pacifists to have principled opposition to the Vietnam War, and many/most did, in particular those who actively opposed it in the streets (and were sometimes gassed, beaten and shot for their trouble).

          To say that “many” people who opposed the war were doing so out of moral vanity might be numerically correct in the narrowest sense, but it’s statistically and substantively meaningless.

          Reply
          1. Harold

            “There is one thing I must confess,/I am not a pacifist./ If a country invaded this land of mine,/ I’d be the first one on the firing line.” — Pete Seeger

            Reply
            1. Anon

              And that is what started the US involvement in Vietnam in 1954. The colonial French were leaving (unceremoniously) and the US decided to intervene/invade.

              The Vietnamese (under Ho Chi Minh) were the first to see the “invasion” and determined to go to the firing line. Billions of US dollars, 50K US soldiers, and 3-4 million dead/maimed Vietnamese later we decided (1975) it wasn’t “worth it”.

              (The lesson of Vietnam: The Government Always Lies!)

              Reply
    2. Chris Cosmos

      Not so in my experience. We were pretty diverse. We had very political college students who were into academics, some straight, some various shades of stoned. We had women who were “chicks” and in the group I was a part of an early feminist who burned her bra, ex military vets, true blue hippies, street-fighting men. Some were primarily libertarian in outlook others various degrees of socialist and communist. It was all happening. We had one thing in common we were young and fed up with the lies we were told and believed in a sense of freedom, justice, and democracy. Nearly all of that unity and openness disappeared over time as we entered the meat grinder of the American Dream.

      Reply
      1. JBird4049

        Not surprised that the unity and openness disappeared as that is what the Great American Meat Grinder is supposed to do with Identity Politics(Racism and “White Privilege”), “Commun-ism(-ity)-is-Slavery, Money-is-Speech, are just some of the teeth.

        The definition of hate speech too, has gotten so broad that it now includes disagreement, which rather makes mutual understanding and cooperation impossible.

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    3. Lost in OR

      Interesting take. I remember the 60’s as a struggle against the conformity of the establishment. The anti-establishment battles against war, racial and sexual inequality, and environmental degradation make today’s “resistance” seem puny. The strides made by the yippies of yesteryear and the Last Great President (Tricky Dicky) stand as grand monuments impeding the conformist establishment of the present.

      I’m feeling kind of like, offended. Do you have anything to offer, that I value, for tolerating this nattering negatively? Something special for a social insect?

      Reply
    4. Jeremy Grimm

      Wow! What is your concept of “conformist”? I think it must differ greatly from my own.

      My impressions of the anti-establishment 1960s — not being in college until the early 1970s — was of an era of cats somehow forming coalitions and spontaneously herding themselves to act against the hive minds of the state establishment. I still remember going to student council meetings where an action might be decided with alacrity while long debates contested proper motives and sometimes an action’s “revolutionary” rectitude — which the debates revealed as a very squishy concept.

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      1. Disturbed Voter

        Hive mind isn’t limited to the anti-Establishment types. I didn’t yet work in an office at that time, I was a student too, but I think Mad Men covers that era pretty well, outside of Woodstock. Perhaps almost everyone is guilty of the false god of collectivism.

        Perhaps only the anarchists are really anti-hive-mind. And probably some of the anti-Establishment types back then were anarchists, not Marxists. They usually are, in every period.

        What I do see is that history is rhyming again, we are back to SDS etc, but this time, ironically pro-war.

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    1. Jeremy Grimm

      If people just want to study in peace they might go to the library. If people dislike being told they’re subhuman at school in locations other than the library they can either sing “La, la, la …” or complain out loud about noise from some form of lower animal life disturbing their peace and with great show put a pair of ear-plugs into their ears. If the lower animal life form making noise about subhumanity is truly obnoxious gather a few humans around you, and/or go to the local constabulary and suggest that you have or may be going to gather a few humans around you because of unruly noise from a lower life form and you are concerned that one of your larger friends my grow bored and step on the annoying lower life-form. Your concern for all life moves you to seek to avoid this unhappy event.

      If you lack a ready supply of fellow humans — befriend some! That is a wise action with or without the motivations of noises from lower lifeforms. You might also learn a martial art like ju jitsu that offers many painful but temporary and invisible after-the-fact holds to help persuade a lower life-form to slither back into its hole.

      Reply
    2. ambrit

      Well, “school” is much more than a simple ‘knowledge factory.’ It is also a primary method of “socialization” of the young into conformity with the status quo.
      I recently saw a lecture where the lecturer mentioned that he was a male freshman in a campus of the California State University system back in the 1960’s. As such, he was required to be in ROTC for the first two years of his enrollment in college. Required, not optional. Since that system was designed for the general population, not the elite, the onus of service was on young draft age males of the “lower classes,” ie. those not able to afford attending a more expensive ‘private’ university. ROTC developed much of the junior officer corps of the Military back then. Now, one has to “bend the knee” to the Powers before going to university on the Army’s dime.
      The one cardinal sin in Academia is thinking independently. Indeed, make that the one cardinal sin in society at large.
      Lonely are the brave.

      Reply
  2. Plenue

    Who gets to decide what is ‘hate speech’? Is this a “I’ll know it when I hear it” situation, or is there formal criteria? Should there be a campus committee to pass decrees on what is and isn’t allowed?

    I’ve just kind of given up trying to understand the point of view of those on the left who are okay with certain censorship. It just seems to me to be a variant of the right wing habit of banning or regulating things that are ‘morally polluting’.

    In fact what the impulse to ban things that might upset someone reminds me most of is a common type of Christian homeschooler. They don’t like evolution and think even words like ‘butt’ and ‘crap’ are too uncouth (and that isn’t hyperbole; I speak from personal experience), so they simply ban them from their carefully insulated child’s upbringing. But if nothing else these kids will have to one day leave their bubble and enter the real world, where they are horribly ill-equipped to function.

    Specific incitement to acts of violence is one thing, but outside of that, if you don’t like it, don’t listen to it.

    Reply
    1. Tom Bradford

      Concur.

      Dorman writes: Some speech has as its primary purpose making others suffer, through insult or instigating fear, and has little or no persuasive intent. That’s hate speech, and I don’t see a problem with curtailing it

      The problem with curtailing it is that this drives it underground. Politicians in particular are all too happy hiding their true thoughts and intents – which they know would not be well received – in the pursuit of power they are all to prone to use to further their true inclinations if achieved.

      In any case a speech that has as its primary purpose making others suffer is only as effective as those others allow it to. My own mantra from primary school was “Sticks and stones can hurt my bones but words can never harm me”, to which I can now add Oscar Wilde’s “I may not agree with you, but I will defend to the death your right to make an ass of yourself”. (Well, perhaps not ‘to the death’.)

      Moreover if someone does say something with the primary purpose of instigating fear I’d rather hear it than not know of a real threat, if I judge it so. “Better the Devil you know.”

      Someone who’s ‘hate speech’ is truly off the rails offers the opportunity to engage with them and perhaps ‘make them see the error of their ways.’ Those who are clearly a danger to others can be dealt with in whatever way society deems fit, whereas all too often those who’s expression of their views are ‘curtailed’ are liable to add their silencing to their list of grievances and to express them instead in violence.

      Reply
      1. Carolinian

        Perhaps we should be clear that one reason we are having this debate is that campus advocates of Israel accuse BDS proponents of “hate speech” on the theory that opposition to Zionism is an attack on Judaism even though equating Judaism and Zionism was not that long ago itself considered a form of bigotry (all Jews are not Zionists and all Zionists are not Jews).

        M.L. King recognized that you are not going eliminate racism by making it illegal and that integrating the races where possible was a better strategy. These hate speech laws do just the opposite by hiding from bad attitudes instead of allowing social interaction. Some of us would contend that they are profoundly un American in our “melting pot” nation and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of ambiguity in the Constitution.

        https://theintercept.com/2019/04/26/in-case-brought-by-school-speech-pathologist-texas-federal-court-becomes-the-third-to-strike-down-pro-israel-oath-as-unconstitutional/

        Reply
        1. rob

          I think the BDS stuff is a great example of the dysfunction of the free speech debate.
          Right now, we have a supreme court who in citizens united says it is ok for the uber wealthy to use their money to assure them “free speech”…. no matter how it skews the system…

          while at the same time there is a movement to deny the ordinary citizens in ?26 states the ability to use their meager(in comparison) buying power to voice their opinion about the zionists of the isreali government and their policies.
          I’m glad those three cases lost in court, (at least), but still the fact that these unamerican, laws or codes, or whatever they are. have infiltrated the border to be included in any american governing body, is a problem.

          Reply
        2. jrs

          I’m not sure why we are having the debate, I tend to think of things like protests of Ann Coulter and the like on campus, and I do tend to be skeptical of why our public colleges (yes our public taxpayer supported colleges, what Harvard does really is outside my concern) are paying hefty sums for nonsense like that with no academic value. Mostly shouldn’t they be better than that, have higher standards, serve the community better? Yes universities are plenty compromised institutions, they do serve the status quo to a degree, AND they exploit their interns, but nontheless.

          But student free (as in freedom and as in beer) speech is a very different issue than paying a bunch of celebrity millionaires who got their money spewing nonsense. I’d tend to air on allowing pretty much all student speech unless it falls into harassment and bullying.

          Reply
          1. OpenThePodBayDoorsHAL

            It’s one thing to say or show that you object, it’s another thing entirely to say that the person may not speak.

            It’s been appalling to see colleges leading the Thought Police charge. Where would we be if the students at the Sorbonne did not have the freedom to challenge the orthodoxy of the Church: no Enlightenment, no Reformation, no Renaissance.

            Sorry but as soon as you say “you may not say that” you need to install an arbiter. “Because somebody somewhere might have their feelings hurt” is a totally lame justification. Harden up. Hone your arguments as to why that opposing point of view is wrong. Parents should monitor what their kids see, I know it borders on impossible but it’s always been the case. My parents confiscated Playboy mag when I was a teen and I just found new places to hide it. And when kids see something make sure they have been taught the values you believe in. If you won’t or didn’t teach them your values then it’s your fault, not the nanny state’s responsibility.

            Go protest Ann Coulter for her views that you find offensive. Yell and scream. But as soon as you tell her she may not speak we’re doomed. Today it’s men in the workplace who may no longer say “hey you look nice today”. Anything remotely in opposition to a person wearing a yamulka is verboten. Tomorrow? Who knows. People of Germanic descent must be silenced to atone for the sins of Nazism? We already have The Atlantic Council filtering Facebook’s news feeds, oh goody ridiculous NATO war mongers making sure nobody gets to hear the truth about the American Permanent War Machine.

            We’ll slide down this slope to oblivion. Resist.

            Reply
  3. PKMKII

    To keep things within a “leftist” materialistic perspective, perhaps the “harm” factor should be evaluated as relative to the actual threats posed to the various groups by the ideologies behind the various speech, rather than trying to find some abstract, platonic standard. If some M-L group on a campus goes around saying “gulags for the modern-day kulaks,” well that might be violent in the abstract, but the actual threat to private property owners by the handful of M-L’s out there is rather small. Alt-right violence in recent years, however, has been much more prevalent. So by that logic, it makes sense to put more limits on a speech by, say, Richard Spencer than it does one by a PSL member.

    Reply
  4. GordonK

    In many cases, speech which is thought of as uncomfortable or troubling can in the long run be the right one, or at least one in which the majority of the population begins to agree with. The fight against the Vietnam war is one example. My fathers best friend lost a son over there and hated the “Hippie Protesters” with a passion. Thought they should all be locked up as un American. By the end of the war, he’d come over to their side and opposed the war and even went to a few protests.

    Then there’s that whole “Gay” thing. The early protests and advocates were pushing back at a very aggressive population that in many cases hated them and their message. It made them uncomfortable and terrified that it would turn their own kids gay. Silly in hindsight, but over time, the unpopular message became the more popular outlook.

    Any time we minimize speech, we lose the chance for growth and change. That, I think is part of the reason why speech is always under assault. Change is always scary.

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  5. ambrit

    From this jaundiced perspective, what makes the proposed “neo-liberal speech” Marketplace(TM) inauthentic is that it bases it’s existence upon the realm of ‘social ephemera.’
    If the long run winners in the hurly burly of ideological struggle are at present unknown, then it behooves us to place no limits upon the nature of the originating “entry level” concepts, memes, etc. Such early selection is a purely serendipitous process. Then, not reason, nor “utility” determines the eventual outcome, but chance. Now there’s a philosophy for you. Chaos Theory as Political determinate.

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  6. David

    ´….how bad speech can make us feel.´
    Sorry, no. How we feel is up to us. We are not machines and we are not robots. We are in charge of our emotions and our reactions.
    What I find astonishing about this line of argument is that it completely ignores thousands of years of wisdom literature, from ancient India through Greece and Rome to the mystics of different traditions up to today’s Cognitive Behavior Therapies , all of which remind us’ in different ways, that whilst we cannot control the outer world, we can control our reactions to it. If I didn’t know better I would think that the current ´don’t say that it makes me unhappy’ movement was a Russian plot to destroy the West by promoting a epidemic of mental illness.

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    1. Chris Cosmos

      Amen. This attitude of fearing speech reflects a deeper problem which is valuing fear and cowardice as a virtue. It reminds me of the male attitude towards upper class women in Victorian times as hopelessly in need of protection from crude language and the dirt from the hoi poloi. Sometimes I feel like being part of the alt-right because this perverse form of political correctness is way too Maoist for my taste.

      Reply
      1. Amfortas the hippie

        the version of american liberalism i was apparently born with(given where i come from, where’d i get it,lol?) says that even the frelling Klan has free speech rights…and that those rights are to be defended, tooth and nail, lest our own free speech be threatened.
        same goes for a bunch of things…like due process…to be afforded to the worst serial child molester.
        the last maybe 8 years or so, I’ve been very discouraged by the apparent trend in Team Blue Land where all such universal rights are suspect and contingent.
        growing up a weirdo smart kid in rural east texas, I’ve had my share of persecution…from rednecks and cops, mostly(overlap, there)…and it served to make me more robust and mighty.
        I wouldn’t be the same outspoken curmudgeon that i am today without the baseball bats and nightsticks.
        (Amor Fati is Hard!)
        the world those sorts of illiberal liberals would create would be just as bad as that of the christofascists and randian market worshippers that they fear…and that they use to justify their own versions of pogrom and inquisition.
        on my more tinfoily days, i wonder if this utter misuse of intersectionality and dividing ourselves into the tiniest constituencies imaginable as a result couldn’t be a sinister plot by the vichy dems to further undermine the Left.
        from early 2015 on, I yelled at those people…that i was more interested in what we all share than all these little things that separate us….that i care not what’s between your legs, whom you find sexy, or what your level of pigmentation happens to be.why can’t we talk about policy, fer dog’s sake?
        these woke torquemadas would have none of it.
        it will be interesting to see how how this cohort presents in the next 2 years.

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    2. clarky90

      The “fight” against “Hate Speech” is a cunning maneuver of Our Ivy-League overlords. They are materialists, living A Bucket List existence. Their lives are “felt” as a succession of positive and negative experiences. “God is dead. We are gods!”

      “The decor is fabulous. The waiters hair is unkempt. We had to wait to be seated. My fork was not polished. The soup was delicious. The crab was over salted……”

      The empty lives of “the feelers”.

      The People of the Land watch incredulously; this slow motion train wreck.

      Reply
    3. Sanxi

      ‘we can control our reactions to it.’ – Indeed we can with training and with that on occasion it’s good to listen to those that are [family blog] because it’s good to know what’s going on inside their heads. It also good to know where they are. Hate to say it but the founders of this country really encouraged free speech and then all loyalists were rounded out of it or made extremely miserable.

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  7. Ignacio

    Thus if someone says for instance “migrants come to steal your job or reduce your salary” this is not purely hate as it has a persuasive intent so it can pass. Then if you “say migrants are ugly thieves” it has more hate content but still a persuasive intent so it can pass under this free speech rule. If you finally say “migrants are ugly” it is pure hate and forbidden. Did I get it?

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    1. Sanxi

      Ya, but its all free speech. You’d need to say a lot more than ‘ugly’. The whole notion of ‘hate speech’ is problematic. As it usually is associated with illegal actions, i.e., crimes it has not become a first amendment issue but it should be. Historically, one had a right to say what one wanted and historically, the people often did everything, up to and including, killing one for doing it. The question then becomes what speech is tolerated in what manner. There are no absolute answers, just absolute people.

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  8. a different chris

    Slightly sideways, but another indication that neo-liberalism is just another religion:

    >what affect does salmon restoration have on your sense of preference satisfaction, on your utility or disutility?

    What affect does it have on the salmon, (family blog) what *I* feel, is my reaction. And saying that, I do notice the further hogwash where “utility” which sounds all manly and right-thinking is actually all about our tender feelings.

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    1. Anarcissie

      ‘What affect does it have on the salmon, (family blog) what *I* feel, is my reaction.

      That’s what ‘utility’ means: ‘stuff I like’, such as getting basic survival needs met, and so on up. Most people don’t care about the utility of the salmon because the salmon have no power, not because they lack feelings. So generally we only consider people’s feelings about the salmon.

      So when we come to considering the social environment inside a bourgeois institution like a university, we must consider it from a certain point of view, a certain framing, connected to its purposes and performance from the point of view of those who have relevant power. The primary purposes of most such institutions currently seem to be class filtering, indoctrination, and vocational training. These purposes (utilities) seem to be damaged or impeded by certain kinds of speech and other social practices, so those forms of speech and practice are likely to be restrained or forbidden on the institution’s turf. I don’t see how the ruling class and other elites can do otherwise if they want to preserve their system as it stands, which of course most of them do because it is the system which supports their way of life and privileges.

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  9. h2odragon

    Few are able to have their errors explained without feeling bad about being wrong. I hate being wrong, don’t you? And yet I’d rather learn of, and from, my mistakes than cheerfully continue being wrong.

    Therefore, in the spirit of the Golden rule, I have to say “no one should have the right to make us feel bad.” is WRONG. If that means I am speaking hate, and need to be ignored and de-platformed and possibly further censured by society… I’ve never been that social anyway. Fuck ’em.

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  10. Tom Doak

    I tend to think it would always be better if people just said what they were really thinking, instead of trying to figure out what they can say that will be politically correct.

    If what they have to say is hateful, at least you know where they are really coming from, and you can treat them accordingly going forward.

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  11. Jeremy Grimm

    This post makes an interesting encapsulation of Neoliberalism: “life is an accumulation of moments of utility and disutility”. I am not convinced this formulation is sufficient to characterize Neoliberalism. How well would this formulation distinguish between Neoliberals and Epicures?
    “Although Epicureanism is a form of hedonism insofar as it declares pleasure to be its sole intrinsic goal, the concept that the absence of pain and fear constitutes the greatest pleasure, and its advocacy of a simple life, make it very different from “hedonism” as colloquially understood.” [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epicureanism]
    Is ‘utility’ greatly different than ‘pleasure’ as Epicures frame that word?

    I do like the last sentence of the post: “It’s the greatest power of an ideology that it can seep into the worldview of those who claim to oppose it.” I think that applies to all too many of those debating about how to deal with Climate Chaos in terms of the economic costs, price per kilowatt, carbon taxes, or jobs lost or created. Economic issues are not unimportant but some of the consequences of Climate Chaos are clearly “priceless” to ape a recent credit card commercial.

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  12. vegasmike

    I think Peter Dorman is being coy. In 2017 at his college there was the “Day of Absence” Controversy. A biology professor refused to cancel his classes on the Day of Absence and became the subject of much rage. He and his wife left the college and taught else where. I remember the Free Speech movement of the earl 60s. At some public universities, members of the communist party were banned from speaking on campus. We protested this ban. Eventually the bans were lifted. Nobody cared whose feeling were hurt.

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  13. Jeremy Grimm

    The topic of free speech per se free speech was excellently covered by Howard Zinn in his talk “Second Thoughts on the First Amendment”. [I received a copy of the mp3 of this speech as a premium from my contribution to Pacifica Radio WBAI. The lowest price mp3 or written transcript for the speech was at https://www.alternativeradio.org/products/zinh006/ transcript for $3 or mp3 download for $5.]

    Zinn’s speech made it clear that free speech was no simple matter contained within the meaning of the words ‘free speech’. There are questions of the intent of speech — the effects of a speech … bad feelings? … inciting a riot — capacity for speech that spreads fear … spreading unwarranted panic the classic yelling “Fire” in a crowded building — questions of the forum? There is free speech on a street corner and free speech on television, and they differ greatly in kind, and there is defamatory and slanderous speech.

    I am open to allowing any speech. I heard enough unpleasant and upsetting speech from my ex-wife to last several lifetimes … but my ears grew deaf to the sounds she made and remained acute to other speech, even became more acute. The equation between speech and money our ‘Supremes’ made is little short of the complete debasement of the Supreme Court as a forum of jurisprudence. The ‘prudence’ must be expunges from any characterizations of their judgements FAVORABLE or otherwise. The Supreme Court does not interpret the laws of the land. Like our Legislatures they are ‘bought’ and ‘bot’ to the whims of money.

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  14. Carolinian

    All about the motive, eh? That is neoliberal–i.e. sure we wrecked the economy and bombed the smithereens out of some foreign countries but we meant well.

    My library just put a sign next to the entrance saying “This is a safe space–no racism or sexism allowed.” I haven’t bothered to object to what was doubtless considered boilerplate–nor will I–but that’s a highly political statement and especially for a library where free speech should be paramount. For example some claim that Huckleberry Finn is racist (and it is a bit). Off the shelves? Once you start judging motives then the slope is quite slippery.

    IMHO we should be worrying about the real dangers and abuses and not the imagined ones. Those college students need thicker skins.

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  15. dutch

    1) No one has a right not to feel bad.
    2) Everyone has a right to speak his/her mind.
    3) Everyone has the right to ignore someone.

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      1. Disturbed Voter

        Unfortunately death is guaranteed. It is unavoidable. We all try to avoid it. And most of us try to not be responsible for causing it (in humans). But there are systemic ills that magnify the risks of mortality (lead in water supply etc). And the limits to “paying attention” are part of those systemic ills. Deliberately ignoring someone, of course, is callous.

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  16. RWood

    Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too.
    a translation of the famed passage by Voltaire, Essay on Tolerance

    In college, an antidote to what is called “hate speech” used to be teach-ins. Setting these up could be an exercise in arguments or debates, depending on the vehemence and sanctimony of participants, and taking part in the selection of moderators and agendas, but it could be done so long as there were those dedicated to hearing, sharing and holding onto the value of information and debate.
    Shutting off debate is the worst way to prepare for a society that is undergoing undying stresses and even deformations of freedoms plastered over the word democracy.

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  17. twonine

    Heard on Democracy Now this afternoon, that U Mass Amherst will be allowing an appearance/discussion re Palestine with Roger Waters and others, to go on regardless of protests against.

    Reply
  18. Adam Eran

    I’d suggest the dispute is theological. Everyone wants a “higher power” to bless their particular approach. The neoliberal preference for comparing measurable effects, scoring them as costs or benefits, is the standard MBA religion. Why if you can’t measure it, it mustn’t exist!

    The whole approach doesn’t require too much thinking, and has the imprimatur of “science” and “reason” both… Excellent gods, all. Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years makes a good case for the way our confusion of monetary with ethical comparisons has managed to bamboozle humanity for literally thousands of years. You see rich people deserve their wealth. They are good, and you can tell by the amount of money they have. See!

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  19. Code Name D

    Some speech has as its primary purpose making others suffer, through insult or instigating fear, and has little or no persuasive intent. That’s hate speech, and I don’t see a problem with curtailing it.

    The problem is just about anything “becomes” “hate speach” as a means of censorship. Calling out Isrial’s influence on US politics becomes antisimitism. Being critical of Hillary is misogany. Hell, not liking Campain Marvel is an example of hate speach. Recently negative reviews of the movie were removed from Rotten Tomatos as an example.

    You might imagin that a line could be drawn some where. But when ever you draw that line, it always migrates over time.

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  20. Bernalkid

    Isn’t part of the question what intellectually backs up drone strikes that demonstrably cause innocent casualties along with the various physical aggressions against the enemy by the empire. Mirror shot time with Nuremberg principles in the background for the now grizzled neo leaders one hopes.

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  21. The Rev Kev

    I can imagine a professor at Evergreen State College having firm views of freedom of speech after what has been happening to that place over the past coupla years. Last year it ranked as one of the worst colleges in the US for free speech-

    https://www.thestranger.com/slog/2018/02/14/25815286/evergreen-ranks-as-one-of-the-worst-colleges-in-the-us-for-free-speech

    A college tailored to the demands of these extremist students would be a very sterile place indeed for original thinking. In college, ideas are supposed to undergo savage debate and examination to sort out the wheat from the chaff. Of course at this point I will not bring up the fact that CalPERS’s Marcie Frost is a graduate from here as being an example of what is being produced.
    Those more recent students will find themselves in a radically new environment when they graduate. It will be called the real world. But I have no doubt that many of them will be able to junk their ideas when it comes to earning a living as those ideas would have served their purpose of giving them power while in college.
    An example of how this plays out mentioned in comments is about the conflating of anti-Israel and antisemitic being the one and the same. But if you give this idea a pass, who is to say that in a generation’s time that a new wave of students may define pro-Israeli as being anti-American? It could happen you know. Until a few years ago the obvious flaw of conflating two such different identities would have been taken down promptly but no longer. And why? Because it has been found to be an expedient tactic, especially by politicians. A way of shutting down critics and right-thinkers. But there will be blowback for making this part of the norm and I predict that it will be massive.

    Reply
    1. Anon

      Of course at this point I will not bring up the fact that CalPERS’s Marcie Frost is a graduate from here as being an example of what is being produced.

      But she’s not.

      Reply
      1. The Rev Kev

        My mistake. I meant to type “is an attempted graduate” but lost track of my thread of thought. Thanks for the pointer to my mistake.

        Reply
    2. jrs

      Being very circumspect in one’s speech is a REAL WORLD tool. Nothing could be more so! Sure debating on the internet and maybe one says what one wants if one wants to, one maybe speaks freely as well around friends and family.

      But surviving in corporate America, it pays to be very circumspect, to know exactly what to say and what not to say to what audience. And it just grows more so as earning a middle class income increasingly depends on very few employers in ever harder to get jobs, in ever more consolidated monopoly capitalism. It’s hard to get in anywhere, and very few employers, everything matters including “being a fit”.

      Reply
  22. meadows

    A point to remember is that to obtain a conscientious objector status (which I had in 1971) one had to object to ALL war as a pacifist and not just the Vietnam War…

    Try telling that to a bunch of WW2 vets on your draft board!

    Reply
  23. Peter Dorman

    I fear my post was overly subtle. Let me be more explicit and see if that helps. My argument was not about “free speech versus social justice warriors” or anything of the sort. It was about a relatively new response to politics I saw first hand at Evergreen and have read about at other institutions.

    I lived through the experience of hearing activists protesting against emails and statements at public meetings on the grounds they (the activists) were being subjected to emotional distress. Even more remarkably, no one else openly questioned the basis on which this argument rested. The whole tenor of discussion had shifted, and the line between public and private had apparently been redrawn such that the private criterion of “how does this make me feel” could be employed as a reason to suppress, or at least discourage, political action. It struck me that this was the characteristic shift of neoliberalism, reinterpreting the public sphere as simply another venue for applying the hedonic calculus of individual pleasure/pain. (Virginia-style public choice theory does something similar but in a very different way.) I grant that much more was entailed at Evergreen, just as neoliberalism entails far more than this one characteristic; nevertheless, the it-makes-me-feel-bad argument for narrowing the public sphere is historically new—yes?—and coincides with the more general neoliberal view that “the political is personal”. Our feelings of personal well-being become political criteria of what is right and wrong for the community, just as our political agency is reduced to personal choice. (What am I not supposed to buy? What is the right language for me to use when talking to someone of identity X?)

    I don’t want to add more to the stew, but one further point is relevant. The stories, all of them, that have been disseminated about what happened at Evergreen during 2017 and the runup to those events are incomplete if not simply false. This includes the testimony of Bret Weinstein, who is factually correct about the direct experiences he underwent but has no clue about the forces and interests that instigated them. Suffice it to say that the faculty and perhaps students of the political left were mostly bystanders in this imbroglio. (Anecdotal evidence: my radical students were not involved, and my students who were involved were not the radicals.) They may have taken sides after the event, but the conflict was not about leftism, Marxism, radicalism or even social justice in any substantive sense. That’s worth pointing out because it provides a further dimension to the argument I made in my post. No significant political change was either proposed during or eventuated from the 2017 protests, except the ongoing dismantling of some of the college’s more experimental features in the face of a devastating budget crisis.

    I am trying to understand how an ostensibly political event could be so deeply anti-political. There are structural aspects I haven’t brought up and don’t have time or space for: who did what and through what institutional mechanisms, etc. In this post I am simply trying to identify some of the underlying assumptions behind the rhetoric.

    Reply
    1. TroyMcClure

      Isn’t there one step before all of this? The shift in the concept of student from learner to consumer. In this neoliberal view of education teachers become the educational equivalent of flight attendants and colleges merely vendors.

      With this in mind is it any wonder we have students centering their feelings and demanding to see the manager?

      Reply
  24. Sound of the Suburbs

    Neoliberalism destroys itself, don’t panic.

    A ridiculous economic model was rolled out globally that had no long term future.

    The standard debt fuelled growth model of neoliberalism.

    The UK:
    https://cdn.opendemocracy.net/neweconomics/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2017/04/Screen-Shot-2017-04-21-at-13.53.09.png

    Japan, UK, US, Euro-zone and China:
    At 25.30 mins you can see the super imposed private debt-to-GDP ratios.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vAStZJCKmbU&list=PLmtuEaMvhDZZQLxg24CAiFgZYldtoCR-R&index=6

    China has seen their Minsky Moment coming and the debt fuelled growth model can no longer be used.

    Adair Turner took over at the FSA when Lehman Brothers collapsed and this gave him the incentive to find out what was going on.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LCX3qPq0JDA

    Adair Turner has looked at the situation prior to the crisis where advanced economies were growing by 4 – 5%, but the debt was rising at 10 – 15%.

    This always was an unsustainable growth model; it had no long term future.

    After 2008, the emerging markets adopted the unsustainable growth model and they too have now reached the end of the line.

    We are trying to maintain an economic model that never had a long term future as it only worked by adding more and more debt in an unsustainable way. The debt didn’t grow with GDP.

    How can banks grow GDP with bank credit?

    The UK:
    https://cdn.opendemocracy.net/neweconomics/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2017/04/Screen-Shot-2017-04-21-at-13.53.09.png

    Before 1980 – banks lending into the right places that result in GDP growth (business and industry, creating new products and services in the economy)

    After 1980 – banks lending into the wrong places that don’t result in GDP growth (real estate and financial speculation)

    What happened in 1979?

    The UK eliminated corset controls on banking in 1979 and the banks invaded the mortgage market and this is where the problem starts.

    This is the key to a sustainable economic model that has a long term future as debt and GDP rise together.

    Reply
  25. Steve Ruis

    I have a problem with any argument based upon hurt feelings. Just what the heck are “hurt feelings?” How do we tell when someone is sincere or faking said? How do we tell when someone is emotionally fragile? How do we tell when someone has distorted values (But Hitler is my hero!)? How do we shock college students out of their complacency? How do we challenge them with new ideas? Are we to stop talking about the theory of evolution because someone’s religious sensibilities are offended?

    Having said that it is my generation that jettisoned good manners and we are now suffering the affects of that. The foundation of communication is knowing your audience and how much information that can receive at a time and some forgoe any consideration of that effect to make a controversy where there is none. And … political free speech is absolutely necessary if we are to be a country that governs ourselves.

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  26. The Heretic

    The free exchange of ideas, and the evolution of ideas via exposure of new facts and interpretations and disagreements is vitally important; all progress comes from this. However fake news, bullshit arguments, and its long lasting effects cannot be underestimated. An easy example of is the ‘the measles vaccine causes autism’ bullshit debacle, which both caused numerous children and adults to now needlessly contract measles and more importantly, caused ordinary people to doubt the integrity of the medical professionals, and even science in general.. the discussion needs to expand from between speaker and the hurt listener, to third parties who are listening, who may or may not have their agendas, but whose opinion can be shifted based on the debate.

    Btw, tobacco industry bullshit, climate change denial bullshit, are other huge sources of untruth which has polluted the discussions of today

    We need to have a discussion/teaching on how we can again have truthful debate, however painful, and be able to distinguish from bald lies , false narratives or bullshit which unfortunately clouds many debates.

    We need to accept that the truth exists and that we must seek to discern it. We need a deep discussion on what is truth and how to search for it and understand it, realizing that although the truth exists, that one person’s perception and experience of it may differ from that of Another persons. And we need this discussion and skill set to be widely distributed, in a sense like a mental vaccine to help combat against the Bullshit virus that pervades the discussion today.

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  27. The Heretic

    I would also add that the forum of the discussion must also be understand… any forum which attract attention of bystanders and lends credibility to the speaker must be protected from bullshitters and liars ( the lancet journal, the New York Times) va forums which do not do either (reading the Sunday Sport, standing on a soapbox on a street corner…)

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  28. martell

    I too have noticed a shift in rhetoric. A recent incident at my own institution comes to mind. A letter appeared in the student newspaper complaining about an awards ceremony for university athletes. Apparently, a male tennis player of color had given a speech in which he thanked the university for having provided him with the opportunity to sleep with lots of white women. The author of the letter of complaint, a female student-athlete of color who’d attended the ceremony, claimed that this made her feel “unsafe,” and wondered why the university president, who was in attendance, had not put a stop to the offending speech. In the course of the discussion which followed publication of the letter, no university official publicly questioned whether the complaining student should have felt afraid in that setting (an awards ceremony on a university campus with hundreds of people, including the university president, in attendance). No university official publicly questioned whether feelings of fear, reasonable or not, are grounds for stopping a speech. Some faculty members did however create a circular letter supporting the complaining student and at least strongly suggesting official punitive actions against the offending student and his coaches. Debate then focused on whether his coaches should be fired.

    Note that in this case the feelings in question are not just any unpleasant feelings. The problem with the offending speech was not that it provoked anger or sorrow. The problem was that it made her afraid. So, I’m skeptical of the explanation for the shift in rhetoric offered above, the one having to do with neoliberal habits of thought. Its not specific enough.

    Reply
    1. Peter Dorman

      Thanks for giving me a chance to take up a tangent I left out of the post in the interest of curtailing sprawl. The safety version of the I-feel-bad argument is interesting.

      Here is one interpretation, very provisional. Despite its increasing popularity, the general claim that certain types of political debate or social expression should be off limits because it makes me feel uncomfortable has an uncertain status. Institutions don’t have an explicit obligation to promote the moment-to-moment subjective well-being of participants. (Even neoliberal approaches to governance, like cost-benefit analysis, avoid this by basing their justification on postulates that identify current and prospective “utility”, however dicey they may be in practice.)

      Into the breach jumps the safety trope. Institutions do have an obligation to protect the safety of those they include and touch. Movements against rape and domestic violence as well as pathological police violence have invoked this responsibility, and rightly so. And student movements, in an apparent effort to establish a parallel, have expressed the feeling-bad argument as feeling-unsafe.

      The problem, as you point out, is the difference between feeling and being unsafe. I’m not in a position to question whether you feel bad (I’m sure I would have felt furious if I had been in the awards ceremony you describe and heard a predatory remark like the athlete’s), but I can question whether you really are as unsafe as you claim. (I agree with your point about the objective safety of being in the awards audience.) The catch, however, is that there is another cultural trope at work, the conflation of belief and knowledge. This is now firmly ensconced in the worldview of much of the left, or “left” as I would put it. It underlies the doctrine of positionality, transforming it from a version of ideology theory (which I respect) to an epistemology (which is preposterous). Come to think of it, its failure to admit the enormous sphere of intersubjectivity, the portion of reality we share and is subject to the rules of evidence, has a sort of neoliberal (specifically Hayekian) tinge to it.

      So no, you don’t get to say, “Actually, you are quite safe here.” There is no shared reality to examine that could possibly overrule someone’s feeling that they are unsafe. I have had this exact conversation with several students, but I also see versions of it in the popular media and even in a lot of “scholarly” work. The mantra of those faculty and administrators supporting (or in some cases collaborating with) protesters at Evergreen was “listen to the students”, as if what we hear—and yes, of course we should listen to them—was thereby the factual state of the college we had to respond to. It’s also a reason why about a tenth of the student body, which excluded many or most of the radicals (see above), had to be referred to as “the students”. The “subjective perception = reality” formulation is incoherent in the face of competing, incompatible subjective perceptions.

      There’s always more, but I should stop here.

      Reply
  29. ymetca

    The terms “free” and “speech” appear antithetical to me. For words are an “imprisonment” of an unfathomable whole. And, if you are not careful, a mob may crucify you for using some of them.

    I blame this on a complete lack of psilocybin in our daily diets!

    Reply
  30. Luke

    What no one will ever ask in such discussions, is who the universities were founded to benefit? Just look at the founding documents; Harvard and Yale were created to educate white male clergy. Foreigners and nonChristians were rarely if at all in the minds of college founders. Women and blacks? Some, but those exceptions (Radcliffe, HBUs, small places effectively just “finishing schools”) are well enough known. Like immigrants (and blacks and Indians) allowed U.S. citizenship that wouldn’t pass the “posterity” sentence in the U.S. Constitution’s Preamble, there arguably should be much more gratitude on the part of those people to be enrolled at all, and much less troublemaking.

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  31. SOMK

    Yikes, this is bad…

    Many crypto-fascist right wing agitators ranging from Richard Spencer in the US, Steve Bannon internationally to a recent outbreak in Ireland are all on record acknowledging that this protesting has been highly effective, in that it has severely constrained their ability to activate people and organise. This can only be a good thing, it’s not about people’s ‘feelings’, it’s about as much as possible not giving right wing fanaticism the air to breathe, strangling it at birth and it works, one need only examine the career trajectory of Bannon protegé Milo Yiannopoulos for evidence of that.

    This article is all over the place, what’s the difference between speech that is only upsetting “feelings” (which it is against curtailing) and out and out “hate speech” (which it is for curtailing)?

    As ymetca points out above the term “free speech” is one which falls apart under scrutiny, it has the same oxymoronic quality as the term “free will”, 100 people in a room simultaneously exercising their “free speech” makes “free speech” impossible. As for the Mill’s argument in that we can never be sure if we are right therefore we should always allow our enemies to be heard, this makes sense in the context of state censorship and the 19th century, but in an age where anyone’s who has anything worth babbling has already babbled it online and it is only a mouse click or two away (never mind how the youtube algorithms are geared currently to favour “provocative content” with high levels of engagement meaning, one you click on one video it’s very easy for young people to get sucked down the rabbit hole). It’s less about denying speech itself (which is impossible & not desireable) than denying the chance to organise, congeal and grow, especially through using the legitimacy of institutions of which the students themselves are members and deserve a say. It’s not necessarily nice, it’s not infalible, but it is highly effective.

    Student politics have always been immature, they wouldn’t be student politics if they were anything other. The stretching here to make it fit some kind of hypothetical neoliberal marginal utility framework (isn’t that just plain old neo classical economics, or am I missing something here?) belies the fact these are hardly new tactics, besides every epoch leaves it’s taint, it shouldn’t be mistaken for permanence.

    The author would be well advised to read Satre’s ‘the anti semite and the jew’…

    “Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti-Semites have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past.”

    There’s a certain type of right wing agitator who see no merit in words, who have no love or passion save for their passion for passion itself, not all of them compose themselves with naked irrationality, but ultimately they define themselves not by what they are or what they are for, but by what they are against (usually threats too an imagined natural social order which their audience are presumed to have benefited from), or rather the passion with which they are against it, but you don’t have to scratch too deep to find it. This is horse shoe theory stuff (and it strikes me as ironically quite neoliberal in outlook), or to put it another way.

    Reply
  32. Peter Dorman

    I hate getting into a back and forth, but I do have to point out that SOMK has completely misread what I’ve written, no doubt because of an initial assumption that I was supporting some version of the FIRE position. No. I honestly don’t care about right-wing provocateurs and bigots. That’s a different conversation. I’m talking about a stance, which I’ve experienced first hand, that holds that any speech coming from anyone that makes me feel bad should be disallowed. You will find versions of it in college handbooks, diversity trainings, etc. I’m interested in where it came from. Personally, I do not have settled opinions on the conundrums of free speech in general. (I tend to take it inductively, thinking up from cases rather than down from principles.)

    Reply

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