Safe Speech vs Free Speech: Higher Education’s False Dilemma

Yves here. It’s taken a while to see someone willing to stick their head above the parapet and challenge the “safe speech/safe spaces” fetish. And as this post implies, overprotection isn’t necessarily in students’ best interest. Fredrick Douglass stressed how not merely free speech, but aggressive advocacy was fundamental to promoting social justice:

The general sentiment of mankind is that a man who will not fight for himself, when he has the means of doing so, is not worth being fought for by others, and this sentiment is just. For a man who does not value freedom for himself will never value it for others, or put himself to any inconvenience to gain it for others….

The world in which we live is very accommodating to all sorts of people. It will cooperate with them in any measure which they propose; it will help those who earnestly help themselves, and will hinder those who hinder themselves. It is very polite, and never offers its services unasked. Its favors to individuals are measured by an unerring principle in this—viz., respect those who respect themselves, and despise those who despise themselves. It is not within the power of unaided human nature to persevere in pitying a people who are insensible to their own wrongs and indifferent to the attainment of their own rights. The poet was as true to common sense as to poetry when he said,

Who would be free, themselves must strike the blow….

If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.

This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both.

Lambert noted years back that as a college debate judge, it was disconcerting to see college students so conflict-averse, that they apparently saw what his cohort would view as energetic and entertaining give-and-take as rude. Lambert was also disturbed by their resulting reticence to speak up. It looks as if our culture has managed to turn even its supposed future leaders into the sort who will too often quietly submit to injustice out of fear of seeming too stroppy.

By Albena Azmanova, the author of Capitalism on Edge: How Fighting Precarity Can Achieve Radical Change Without Crisis or Utopia (Columbia University Press, 2020). She is Associate Professor of Politics at the University of Kent’s Brussels School of International Studies. Originally published at openDemocracy

Pericles, supporter of democracy, in front of the Greek Assembly|Wikicommons/ Philipp Folz. Some rights reserved

Universities in the US and the UK have become a battleground in the war between safe speech and free speech. I believe that this is a false dilemma – and understanding its falsity can enable us to detect the social forces imposing it on us.

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear,” wrote George Orwell in 1945 in an introduction to Animal Farm. The introduction was so controversial that it was not made public until 1972.

In it, Orwell relays how hard it was to get the novel published. Significant sections of the English intelligentsia in the 1940s held Stalin in high regard, so a book that was a thinly veiled attack on the Soviet Union and its dictators was scarcely timely. Four publishers, afraid to expose themselves to public scrutiny, rejected it. One said: “I think the choice of pigs as the ruling caste will no doubt give offence to many people, and particularly to anyone who is a bit touchy, as undoubtedly the Russians are.”

Intellectual Freedom in the West

Orwell’s diagnosis of the malaise in 1945 is worth a fuller quotation, as it is so prescient for today:

There is now a widespread tendency to argue that one can defend democracy only by totalitarian methods. If one loves democracy, the argument runs, one must crush its enemies by no matter what means. And who are its enemies? It always appears that they are not only those who attack it openly and consciously, but those who “objectively” endanger it by spreading mistaken doctrines. In other words, defending democracy involves destroying all independence of thought.

While the public sphere has always been somewhat hostile to contrarian opinions, there has been one place stubbornly free of this danger – the university. At around the time that Orwell expressed his fears about the loss of intellectual freedom in the West, the American Association of University Professors adopted an important document known as the ‘1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure’.

The document said: “Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good. […] The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.” In 1970, an addition to the text explicitly stated that controversial speech should not be discouraged: “Controversy is at the heart of […] free academic inquiry.”

Academia has been the bastion of the freedom of thought and speech that first emerged in Ancient Athens, because of the conviction that unconstrained intellectual freedom is the engine of both scientific advancement and societal progress. The university, for more than 2,000 years, has been a place for experimentation – the only place, in fact, where one had the right to be wrong.

In its search for truth, scientific reason has not been weighed down by what Immanuel Kant described as “the scandal of reason” – the propensity of reason to waiver between dogma and uncertainty. On the contrary, the advancement of knowledge has been animated by that very scandal, as I have argued in my exploration of critical judgment.

Importantly, freedom of speech has been a weapon for fighting oppression from two sources: central authority and public opinion. John Stuart Mill famously observed that the chief threat to free speech in democracies was not the state, but the “social tyranny” of one’s fellow citizens. This is what Orwell was alluding to when he decried “the general weakening of the Western liberal tradition”, appalled at ‘how easily totalitarian propaganda can control the opinion of enlightened people in democratic countries”.

Safe Speech and Safe Spaces

The university has consistently been a fortress, sheltering freedom of speech from both prevailing public opinion and the intrusions of political authority. And yet, in a curious shift, over the past decade universities have transformed into spaces for safe speech – as students claim that the university is akin to a home.

College campuses in the US and Europe have experienced major student protests, because some students feel that absolute freedom of speech on campus promotes a hostile environment that harms minority students and hinders their ability to learn.

They have argued, compellingly, that denying hateful or historically ‘privileged’ voices a platform is necessary, so that the marginalised and vulnerable can finally speak up. They demand censorship and prohibitions against giving offence.

As a result, universities have created ‘safe spaces’ in which offensive or disagreeable speech is prohibited and punished. ‘Cancel culture’ and ‘de-platforming’, codifying ‘protected categories’ of students: these are all now part of university life. The ‘equal respect agenda’ is enforced through disciplinary and grievance procedures, and ‘safe space marshals’ patrol events looking for macro- and microaggressions.

Fighting Dogma

Is this the end of free speech in the university? I don’t think so. We can resolve the deadlock between safe speech and free speech if we remember the original mission of free speech. It was not meant as a tool of information, but one of liberation; it was conceived as a political weapon – a weapon against the oppression of dogma and the abuse of power.

To quote George Orwell again, freedom of speech is a right to express “what one believes to be true, without having to fear bullying or blackmail from any side”.

Exactly because the original vocation of free speech is to fight dogma, we should not transform it into a dogma. And to ensure this, we must consistently use it as a tool for fighting oppression. Whenever speech is used to oppress, to bully or to humiliate, it is no longer free speech because it violates the very spirit of the concept.

This means that the grievances of those calling for a ban on offensive speech because it deepens existing injustices are valid. But they are valid because our societies have been subjected to massive precarisation, which has indeed left many feeling homeless. Public authority has responded to the growing social decay with autocratic shortcuts: for example, sending the police into schools or speech marshals into universities.

By admitting the validity of the grievances behind the ‘cancel culture’ , we have made the first step in breaking the deadlock. The second step is to find the right way to respond to these grievances.

Banning Speech

The gut reaction is often to censor offensive speech – from banning the use of certain terms as forms of microaggression (for instance, addressing women as “guys”) to banning controversial speakers. But these solutions, though effective in the short-term, incur long-term costs.

When we exclude some views from public debate for being dangerous and unsavoury, then we miss the opportunity to rigorously contest these views. They will, however, thrive in private, safe spaces, and will continue to poison society.

Civil rights law in the U.S. and many European countries prohibits discrimination based on characteristics such as skin colour, religion, national origin, sex, disability, familial status. On this basis, school regulations often codify the protection of certain groups, identified in terms of race, religion, gender and so on. The problem is that, as the number of recognised identity categories proliferates, this apparent increase of cultural diversity does not, in fact, foster a culture of diversity.

Instead, these designated collective identities entrap individuals into boxes of belonging, which deepen divisions in society. Cultural identity becomes a prison – not despite, but because of the effort to allegedly protect that culture. This brings us further from the ultimate goal of the fight against discrimination: that people be judged not by the colour of their skin, or their gender, but (in the words of Martin Luther King Jr.) “by the content of their character”.

When sheltered in this way, packed in categories of protected groups, students are infantilised and develop the habit of being patronized. They fail to learn the skills to stand up and defend their positions with solid arguments. Malcolm X was right to say “If you have no critics you’ll likely have no success.”

Efforts to replace free speech with safe speech open the door to autocratic rule. There is no limit to what any individual might define as disrespect. Who is to decide what exactly is to be protected? And so, we pass this judgment to administrators and hand them the keys to discretionary power.

And finally, the biggest harm of all: the policing of unwelcome speech eventually generates self-censorship, which nurtures intellectual cowardice. This is the foundation of a totalitarian outlook and the ultimate blow to freedom. I grew up in such a society and, as a university student, fought against this oppression by joining the dissident movement against the dictatorship in my native Bulgaria.

Remember, the enemies of freedom of speech are twin sisters: the bigot who attacks vulnerable minorities and, paradoxically, the militant who tries to protect these minorities.


Is there an alternative? Well, yes. It will help to remember that the original purpose of free speech was to empower the weak, not to shelter them. The university should empower the vulnerable, not protect them via safety measures. Here is what we can do:

First, we can give bigotry a tribune in order to expose it via rigorous questioning. Even though all positions have the right to be heard, not all deserve equal respect. Respect is gained, not granted. We need rules about the conduct of debate, but should never prevent speech that is lawful.

Second, we should abstain from placing people into the rigid boxes of collective identities. We should speak not of identity, but of a sense of self that is multidimensional and constantly changing. That is, we should build a culture of diversity, not diversity of cultures, to draw on Arjun Appadurai’s insightful distinction.

Third, and most importantly, we should be equipping students with the knowledge and skills to create the kind of society that does not generate inequalities and exclusion. The kind of society that does not create victims in need of protection. Only then can the university stop being a home, and return to being a laboratory, a place for experiment and learning, not a shelter from a society infested with injustice.

This is a more difficult road to take than imposing prohibitions. But this is the only road that leads away from the covert harassments of self-censure and the overt cruelties of political oppression.

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  1. vlade

    The problem IMO is that way too much of what goes in the current academia is result of a vague hand-waving of “everyone is right” and “all opinions are equal”.

    The “Safe” speach means, in reality, the ability to spew stupidity (at best) and lies (at worst) without the danger of being called out as an idiot and/or liar.

    That is not to say there can’t be differences of opinions, even polarly opposed. There can, and indeed should. But at the same time, there needs to be a recognition that opion is an opinion, and few opinions have the same weight. That the Earth is flat can be held as an opinion. That it’s an opinion whose only worth is what it says about its holder is a different story.

    What we have to be careful with here is not that stupid opinions are squashed, publicly. But how do we determine that they are stupid.

    Because “only my (authority etc..) opinions are valid” is as bad as “all opinions have the same value”.

    It’s an eternal struggle between doubt and belief – but again, we must to allow both the struggle (no-one has a monopoly on truth), and recognition that the existence of an eternal struggle does not mean there are no local victories (not all opinions have the same value).

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Haha, from our Policies:

      When in doubt, consider this quote as a guideline:

      You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant.

      -Harlan Ellison

      1. KLG

        This was also a major theme throughout the work of the late, great Christopher Lasch! Especially when applied to so-called liberals, who these days use a version of “Because I say so” to justify themselves. Or to put it in the vernacular, opinions are like a——-. Everyone has one. The key is to have one that is informed. Then and only then should anyone take you seriously. You want to ape Milton Friedman, fine. Then we can talk. Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow, not so much.

      2. Terry Flynn

        Hehe. Brilliant guy and I love that quote, but those geeks like me who know the circumstances surrounding his involvement with Star Trek and other franchises know how the guy was a real Richard ;-)

        (I can’t bring myself to discuss academia – it’s just too soul-destroying).

      3. Starry Gordon

        But everyone is ignorant. As an argumentum ad verecundiam is requisite, I will quote Albert Einstein: “If you want an idea of infinity, consider human ignorance.”


      4. ROBERT ABER

        Trust an educated Trumpster like Senator Josh Hawley to reinvent himself from his Jan 6 “embarrassments,” then articulate in 2024 what Trump 2020 never could. OTOH, why not Ted Cruz, Ron DeSantis or Rick Scott or….

        See new Tweets
        Josh Hawley
        Oh dear, I’ve offended the delicate sensibilities of The Guardian! ? I didn’t get their approval before I wrote my book. Order a copy today and own the libs
        Quote Tweet
        Martin Pengelly
        · Apr 26
        Scoop: in new book, @HawleyMO attacks ‘woke capitalism’ and claims to be victim of cancel culture – but skips mention of his raised fist to protesters at the Capitol on 6 January, the day of the riot.
        11:13 AM · Apr 26, 2021·Twitter for iPhone

  2. John Siman

    I’d suggest that we take a lesson from the 1530s and, just as Henry VIII ordered the Dissolution of the Monasteries back then, find the national courage to proceed with the Dissolution of our Universities now. For just as back then, as Erasmus observed, the obscenely endowed monasteries were filled with entitled, slothful monks and nuns who promoted self-serving intellectual poison like the veneration of relics, our absurdly expensive universities are filled with an anti-intellectual professoriate and, worse, a parasitical system of administrators which together are inflicting a veritable Anti-Enlightenment of Critical Theory upon our nation. Make them all get real jobs, and maybe we’ll see a new Erasmus come to teach us!

    1. KLG

      Henry VIII was also a greedy, head-chopping, homicidal maniac…among other things. And this was known before Hilary Mantel transformed Thomas Cromwell into a misunderstood genius while throwing shade on Thomas More ;-)

      For a recent appreciation of Erasmus, Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther, and the Fight for the Western Mind. Michael Massing. Highly recommended.

      1. DJG, Reality Czar

        KLG: There’s also the little problem pointed out by Hannah Arendt of rulers in the north of Europe suppressing monasteries to get the land. It wasn’t like the rulers then engaged in land reform, and many of the functions of the monastery, as a place to pray, as a source of charity, as a dispensary, just never came back.

  3. davie

    Personally, I’m just tired of this mere “rights” discussion across the board.
    Rousseau told us a social contract depends on rights and responsibilities.
    It’s been a long running con of the liberals to only focus on rights, i.e. voting is a civil right not a civil responsibility.
    We never take time to codify what responsibilities need to be upheld, and handing out rights to people who behave irresponsibly, increasingly intentionally and opportunistically.
    It’s a pretty easy gut punch to any bad faith argument to ask what responsibility are they trying to fulfill with their stated position. But that framing is pretty much unimaginable.
    There’s a responsibility to include minorities and marginalized, to question authority, to say the unsaid assumption, to publish inconvenient truths, etc.
    There’s no responsibility in allowing the gish gallop, what-ifs and what-abouts, misanthropes, motivated tacticians, etc. Let alone outright “untruths,” “inaccuracies,” “disinformation,” and capital L, Lies.
    “Between equal rights force decides” – Papa Karl

    1. Donald

      I disagree with “ There’s no responsibility in allowing the gish gallop, what-ifs and what-abouts, misanthropes, motivated tacticians, etc. Let alone outright “untruths,” “inaccuracies,” “disinformation,” and capital L, Lies.”

      Who decides which speech falls into your forbidden categories? Take lies. In many political arguments the whole issue is about what statements are true and what statements are false. Do you want some higher authority deciding what we must believe? Am I obligated to believe every overwrought claim about Putin’s influence, when corporations, billionaires and even some other countries have far more influence on our politics?

      On “whataboutism”, I think the term “whataboutism” is overused. People use it to criticize someone who distracts attention from issue A by saying “ What about issue B?” The problem is that there is often a good reason for doing this. For example, we are constantly bombarded with information about the crimes of our official enemies, to use Chomsky’s phrase. I think it is often a moral obligation under those circumstances to point out the crimes of the US and its allies. Not always— it depends on the circumstances. But charges of ”whataboutism” are sometimes used to brush off people who are pointing out hypocrisy. It’s impossible, I think, to make some blanket statement condemning “ whataboutism”.

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        This is nonsense. You are conflating structures of argument with facts. There are numerous structures of argument that are bad faith or logically invalid, regardless of the informational content.

        And “whadaboudism” is in our 1.5 million comments experience on this site (plus Lambert’s and Jules’ considerable prior experience before NC) in bad faith. It’s a deliberate diversion at best or at worst, an emotional lash-back due to the inability to refute the claim presented.

    2. Sparagmite

      Interesting thought experiment: In these universities, who are the “minorities and the marginalized”? Can they be “included” at Princeton, Harvard, or Yale, etc., etc.? What about the real majority: Proles and Lumpenproles? I’m sure they’ll be there to contribute their thoughts on where to place trigger warnings.

      I’m not “sassing” you davie, just tweaking the meaning of “minority” or “marginalized.” The language police should know that according to their ideology, their responsibility is solely to themselves. Their safe spaces change nothing in Camden.

      Yves is correct that it takes someone unusual to put an oar in on this side of the boat, but this article remains fairly tepid given the radical nature of academic discourse and its twin, corporate branding.

  4. Thuto

    It seems the historical precedent of cultural winds that nearly always find a way to blow in the direction of tyranny is repeating itself. This time around, it’s the cavalry of the woke that is charging over the hill to stage a coup and appropriate for themselves the power to police speech and thought, take away livelihoods and de-platform people. On the other side of the debate are those who defend free speech under false pretenses, championing the right to express oneself without constraint to give cover to all sorts of extremist zealots to spew their nonsense unimpeded. We are in the early innings of this tug of war between these two groups and unlike in the past, today’s technology has created a globally networked sandbox where each side pushes the envelope on its agenda more and more with each passing day.

    Moderate views seem to be the ones being pushed underground because the echo chamber is a cesspool of radical voices with very low tolerance for alternative “middle-of-the-road” views. Which apple to bite and where to pledge allegiance is presented as a binary choice, advocating for free speech within the confines of exercising that right with attendant responsibilities or pointing out the obvious that the wokist coalition, in its crusade to protect the vulnerable, is itself a purveyor of totalitarian methods, gets you labeled a “sell out”. People holding moderate views have been thrown overboard and are nowhere to be found when it comes time to shape the cultural narrative in today’s world. As for universities, well, if the degradation of the economics profession is anything to go by, they’ve shown an uncanny ability to throw in their lot with whichever thought/cultural movement has social/political momentum so expecting that they’re going to swoop in and save the day is a tad misguided.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      What I find most infuriating about wokism is that it has either deliberately or accidentally driven anyone who doesn’t sign up to their own little personal obsessions into the hands of the right. I’ve often found myself in this argument on the side of some pretty repellent right wingers (who of course don’t believe in free speech usually, unless it suits them). No space has been created for reasonable objections from ‘the centre’ however you definitely it. You need only look at the abuse hurled at Matt Taibbi and Glen Greenwald for daring to question some of the woke assumptions. Yet all they are doing is defending positions that would have been deemed entirely normal and progressive a couple of decades ago.

      1. Thuto

        I’m not on social media but my few (tepid) forays into twitter after following links sent by friends from time to time exposed me to a world where the most virulent strain of wokeism resides. The most merciless attacks seem to be reserved for people “arguing from the centre” and presenting measured, reasonable takes on issues. What’s even more troubling is when you head to mainstream newspapers to observe how coverage of hot topics is handled, you realise that journalists are now tweaking their writing to placate the most radical voices on either side of the debate (usually skewing heavily towards the woke version) instead of discharging their mandate to cover the truth objectively and without fear or favour. The moderate voice is everywhere being drowned out and replaced by the views of zealots.

        I saw the other day two charts on the labour participation rates in the US, one for men and one for women: US men’s figures are the their lowest since the 1960s and women’s at their highest. Now I don’t expect the NYT or WaPo to lead with such a story as it pokes holes in the official “patriarchy denies women opportunities” narrative, but even a reasonable person sharing these charts on twitter would be inviting the lynch mob to hurl “misogynistic apologist/enabler” abuse at them. Objective truth is the casualty of this woke crusade.

        As an aside, I looked at those charts and wondered whether all these men that are seemingly being left behind by the system point to a possibility that Biden is just keeping the seat warm for the next Trump like figure to tap into that seething anger and listlessness. I’m too far removed to have an informed opinion

    2. David

      Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s as simple as “moderate views.” In my life I’ve been treated with great politeness and consideration by some labelled “zealots” (Afrikaners in the last days of apartheid for example) and I’ve been screamed at and spat on by alleged adherents of the Left. In universities today, moderation is a crime: the only safe position to be is at the extreme cutting edge of any tendency, from where you can lecture your less extreme colleagues on how unwoke they are and how they should be sacked.

      A case in point from France. last Friday we had another ghastly Islamist murder: a woman police functionary stabbed to death at her place of work. Her killer, like the murderer of the schoolteacher Samuel Paty last year, was a first-generation refugee from a Muslim country (in this case Tunisia). He had entered the country illegally but had later been given a residence certificate. It now turns out he’s become steadily more radicalised over the last few years, but no-one knew. This is the tendency since the dismantlement of the Islamic state: there have been a large number of such attacks, usually fatal, over the last few years. Understandably, voices have been calling for a re-examination of residence criteria. Understandably, you say? Well, not from the point of view of the PMC and its tame media. In their view, any discussion of such issues, even the pronouncement of the word “immigration,” is “encouraging the extreme right” and “stigmatising the vulnerable”, such that ill-intentioned people might theoretically make unkind remarks about Muslims in general. (In general, they haven’t, by the way). Now the killer, whose full name has yet to be revealed, made a great thing of sharing Twitter posts about “Islamophobia”, against which, apparently, this killing was a protest. So where did he get that from? The universities, of course, where the “struggle against islamophobia” is the single great motivating cause of the day among students. At Sciences Po Grenoble, two members of staff who were thought insufficiently anti-islamophobic had their names and personal details painted on a wall, with demands that they be sacked. French TV interviewed one of the organisers, whose only argument was that “islamophobia kills”. Invited to name a case where a Muslim in France had actually been murdered for that reason (none) she started talking about New Zealand, before repeating robotically “islamophobia kills.” There has been complete silence from such quarters since Friday’s attack.

      Oh, and I learn from this article that addressing female students as “guys” is a form of micro-aggression and should be banned. I’ve been told the complete opposite by US and Canadian students: that it’s no longer acceptable to say “ladies and gentlemen” because gender is socially determined, so that we should use neutral or inclusive terms, including “guys” which, since my time, is apparently a gender neutral word.

      1. Thuto

        In my experience zealotry doesn’t preclude the ability of zealots to dole out kindness to others (usually others recognized as in-group). I imagine you’re a white male and chances are had you been anything else the treatment meted out to you by Afrikaaners during the tail end of apartheid would have been different. On the issue of moderation, we are in total alignment, see my response to PK’s comment which mirrors views similar to yours on this.

  5. David

    “This means that the grievances of those calling for a ban on offensive speech because it deepens existing injustices are valid”

    No it doesn’t, and once you start to make concessions like this to the censorship lobby, you are playing their game, and they’ll demand more and more. Remember, we are talking Universities here, and much of what is being demanded now is not just the censorship of books or the sacking of teachers, but the suppression of whole areas of study, in case they produce results which people find upsetting. If you follow the site Retraction Watch, for example, you will note that an increasing number of studies are being retreated because, whilst their conclusions are robust, it has been argued by critics that the results could be used to promote ideas which could be considered racist ™ or sexist ™ and so possibly offend people. In such circumstances, the researchers generally withdraw the studies (in psychology, genetics and other subjects) before somebody throws a brick through their window.

    The whole argument (and much of this article) is predicated on the assumption that there are “right” and “wrong” ideas, that there is “bigotry” and “hateful voices” and that they can be easily identified, which is manifestly false. In any academic subject worthy of its name, there are opposing viewpoints, sometimes held with great passion by different, equally eminent, people. In any case, it’s far from clear what “vulnerable” groups at university are supposed to be. Who is being “excluded” at universities? Who is being unequally treated? In my day, it was those of us who were first-generation university students, from working-class or lower middle-class families, thrown into a completely alien environment, at a time of great political and social turmoil. But we were given no special consideration and, although a small number simply couldn’t take it and dropped out, most of us enjoyed out time and succeeded well enough.

    Unless this (rather confused) author can actually explain what she means by some of these words (as a good academic should, after all) I’m not buying it.

    1. vlade

      My take on this is “it offended people? Good. Then they should hard to find good arguments to invalidate it”. I realise it’s in a way naif, but IMO anything else leads down the hole of 1984.

      1. Jesper

        The book that comes to my mind is “The Joke” by Milan Kundera:

        I am sure that more than a few of the woke-warriors would like outcomes such as this:

        His colleagues and fellow young-party leaders did not see the humour in the sentiment expressed in the postcard. Ludvik finds himself expelled from the party and college and drafted to a part of the Czech military where alleged subversives form work brigades and spend the next few years working in mines.

        The similarities might be that undoubtedly some people believed in communism but at least a few used it as a cynical power-play and the merits of wokeism is probably believed in by some but at least a few are using it as a cynical power-play.

    2. MRLost

      “In any academic subject worthy of its name, there are opposing viewpoints, sometimes held with great passion by different, equally eminent, people.” – Hence Max Planck’s observation that science advances one funeral at a time. The freedom of ideas in the pursuit of truth also brings to mind Niels Bohr’s famous comment, “We (referring to a bunch of physicists) are all agreed that your theory is crazy. The question that divides us is whether it is crazy enough to have a chance of being correct.”

      And on a slightly different tack, I did not know “guys” is now considered offensive. Thank you for warning me. I always considered “guys” as a mass noun that encompassed … you know … everybody. What about “fellows”?

  6. Douglas Kulp

    I find it necessary to split “free speech” into two categories; Civil speech – where you are free to say anything, and Academic speech – where you are free to speak to evidence, facts, and truths. The two are not the same and even hold some contradictories qualities.

    For example, civil speech includes the right of neo-nasi’s to espouse holocaust denialism without sanction. Where in academic speech, the holocaust denier hasn’t even earned the right to speak. The foundation of civil liberty resides where these two contradictory ideas meet; where the holocaust denier is aloud to make his case without sanction – but still be confronted with the evidence as presented from the academic wing.

    I even like to call this the “Rational Nasi test.” Suppose you have a “rational” Nasi who wants to make the argument for the holocaust denial. Obviously, his position would fail once confronted with the evidence, but once confronted by the evidence, because he is – by definition, rational; will modify his argument accordingly. And this test should work both ways, regardless of if the Nasi is a layperson challenging authority, or if the Nasi is authority being challenged by a layperson. The result should be the same, the denial position should collapse when presented with the evidence.

    The so called “safe space” movement not only fails; but is counterproductive. Most denial movements come with the assumption that “they don’t want you to know the truth.” So “canceling” the Rational Nasi only affirms this position, and he would be perfectly rational to conclude so. This in turn lends reliability to the rest of his position. Of course, his position is wrong – but his position has not been challenged with the evidence. So, its rational for him to retain his denial position in the absence of that evidence. Worse, his attempt at the most obvious pathway too that evidence, was just punished.

    It fails from the other end as well. If the Rational Nasi is the academic, then anyone attempting to challenge that position will be shouted down and sanctioned, leaving the academics position unchallenged – despite his rational position. But because his academia represents the state of academic knowledge, the academic position will also not be challenged, even if the academics are rational. This is why discredited neo-liberal ideas remains the state of political academia.

  7. Jesper

    As far as I can tell Wokeism is at its strongest where the competition for jobs is at its strongest (universities, media etc).
    If that is the case then it might be a coincidence, might be an unimportant correlation or maybe there is causation. I believe there would be less wokeism if the competition was less intense. I honestly do not know how that theory can be tested so take it for what it is worth: an opinion. ‘Wokeism’ is in my opinion a weapon.

    If students are afraid then it does make some sense, the students see how even tenured professors can be kicked out so what might happen to an unimportant student saying or doing something ‘wrong’?
    My guess is that speaking up against ‘wokeism’ is also a sin so keeping quiet and away from the witch-finders wielding the weapon of wokeism might be a sensible strategy.
    The loudest voices are not always loudest due to coming from a majority, a strategy early singling out and targeting of dissenting voices might make the minority the loudest.
    There is a reason why votes are kept secret, by keeping votes a secret then people can freely express their opinion if they are not risking to be shamed. I would no be surprised if there were to come a proposal to make what people voted to be made public just to be able to shame the people who vote ‘wrong’.

    Btw, didn’t ‘safe space’ once upon a time mean a space where anything and everything could be said without fear of judgment? And now ‘safe space’ is a place where anything and everything being said is judged on some criteria of how ‘good’ it is and if it is not judged to be good then it is banned?

  8. Randy

    Greenwald, Taibbi, and other free speech fanatics have no good answer for how to treat things like Trump lying about the election being rigged or Russiagate (aka the liberal version of “the election was rigged”). Their answer is… more free speech. Their own experiences should show them the utility of screaming into the wind, especially Taibbi who got himself cancelled, to the point of even groveling, for doing nothing wrong.

    Free speech is inherently a bourgeois right to boot. People who don’t have platforms don’t get heard. The internet has not proven to be the great leveler, with 90% of discourse running through the automated censors and algos of Facebook, Twitter, and Google.

    I don’t pretend to have a good answer. I’m aware that censors will happily target causes I support as much as causes I detest. I’ll just note that human history ambled along just find before the first amendment ever saw ink.

    1. vlade

      We’re not discussing Trump blowing his hot air.
      We’re discussing special setting, academia.

      In Academia, you’d be able to say what you like, but with a condition that you can expect to be called an idiot. Crying because you were won’t do you any good.

      A bigger problem in academia is the pretence of doing science, but, as David wrote elsewhere, the fact that a principle is not kept to doesn’t invalidate the principle.

  9. Nick

    I am sympathetic to arguments against speech restrictions on campuses, but there is little evidence in this article, or elsewhere that I’ve seen, that the serious threats backing up those restrictions comes from woke people. Biggest threat bar none is waking up on the wrong side of a business-minded administration whose agenda is typically more responsive to right wing ideology, legislators, and donors that it is to students.

    Most of the people I have seen lose jobs recently over speech are either targeted by those from their right (e.g. that guy at Ole Miss) or do things that are on their face racist or sexist (e.g. law professor who kept saying slurs, the UNH professor who impersonated a POC, the UNC professor who ranted about Covid restrictions as slavery and against feminists). And there is certainly fear around voicing sympathy or support for Palestinians. I might be missing some of these but I did not see any mentioned in the article.

    That’s not to say that woke/left student activism doesn’t conflict with instructors’ self-perceived duties, and speech, but as far as I’ve seen this has related to how tactics employed by student activists with IMO plausible targets (e.g. armed campus police, investment in fossil fuels) veer from persuasion into things that disrupt and make uncomfortable others who are not activists.

    1. Left in Wisconsin

      I completely agree. The notion that the modern American university is taken over by woke-ism is delusional. Instead, it’s been taken over by a) (hard) scientists, who raise most of the money that doesn’t come from alums or tuition – which is not necessarily bad, though most seem to be urged to be mini-capitalists these days rather than “pure” scientists; b) economists – university administrations are overloaded with them, and they are way more influential than the administrators; and c) super-competitive (and hard working) members of the PMC.

      I agree with the post author that anti-free woke-ism needs to be wrung out of the university. It absolutely inhibits free speech and in the long run that will hurt more than it will help. I think what is missing from the analysis is that woke-ism on campus is driven by the students, not the administrators. The administrators are completely on their heels about this, they wish it would all just go away, and they have no idea what to do. That is why they are happy to spend $$ on consultants telling them what to do – they honestly have no idea. And the reason why public speech in campus so constrained over these issues (reminder, speech is not at all constrained when it comes to the commercialization of the university) is that no one has any idea of how to move forward.

      A big part of this is that the modern American university is a complete failure when it comes to real diversity initiatives and, given the reality of how universities are staffed and managed – via selection among a very small cadre of “winners” of a brutal credentialization arms race, nearly all of whom start the race on 3rd base (to mix metaphors) – campus leaders really have little interest in anything that will fundamentally change that. But “in their hearts” they really want their universities to be “welcoming spaces” to all, so they are up for virtually any PR exercise that anyone tells them might help. (And just because I call it a PR exercise doesn’t mean I don’t realize it has real victims – for those not aware of the case(s) at Smith, they should really be required reading.)

      Lambert noted the other day how much of the talk around the George Floyd verdict consisted of huge numbers of people using the exact same words. Same in this case. This is not because these people all think alike. The reason everyone is using the same script is that virtually no ones knows what to say, and so simply parrots the handful of people that appear “authentic” to them (or that consultants tell them to listen to).

      The contradiction at the heart of the modern American university is the same contradiction at the heart of neoliberalism. Society’s “best” – the “winners” – are at once ruthlessly brutal in their own self-promotion, which requires savagely punishing anyone who makes a mistake, thinks differently, or who is honest enough to admit to actually being less-than-perfect – while at the same time being completely clueless about the social cohesion required to make society actually function for the rest of us. Woke-ism is hardly the driver of this; it is just one noticeable symptom.

      1. Nick

        Thanks for the reminder about those cafeteria workers at Smith. They did get done dirty, and was connected to wokeness, but in defense of my forgetting not really about speech.

        But yeah it’s still the administrators’ outsourcing of campus food service to Sodexo or Chartwell that’s been orders of magnitude worse for those workers in recent decades. And that’s on account of neoliberal ideology valuing short term appearance of cost cutting.

  10. Chris Hargens

    What is the correct form for addressing a mixed-gender group? Perhaps “you people”? Or how about, “you guys and gals”? When upon leaving the office, I say to my coworkers, “I hope you people enjoy the rest of your day,” does this come off as too formal? Or is it just a matter of getting the ear used to hearing it expressed that way?

    1. Bruno

      “You people”. No cat, no dog, no horse, nor any other intelligent being would regard that phrase as anything but speciesist.

  11. Alex Cox

    The author has a rather rosy view of George Orwell, who towards the end of his life was quite a different person from his early self. Frances Stonor Saunders writes at length about the support Animal Farm and 1984 received from the US and British intelligence agencies in the form multiple foreign translations, promotions, and publications. In the case of Animal Farm, CIA funded an animated feature film (which gave the story a happy ending, in which the animals overthrow the pigs). Her book Who Paid the Piper? aka The Cultural Cold War is fascinating, and also talks about “intelligence” support for abstract art and the promotion of the career of Jackson Pollock.

    Orwell spent the last couple of years of his life compiling lists of communists and leftists for British intelligence. He was in his early years a great writer and a serious thinker; by the end he was an embittered turncoat. It’s important to keep both these aspects of his life in mind.

    1. David

      I don’t think that’s fair. Remember, in the late 1940s, Communism was Stalin, and Stalin’s people had tried to kill Orwell when he was in Spain. He remained faithful to his vision of democratic socialism (wildly radical by today’s standards), which was equally opposed to fascists and stalinists. You also need to remember how shamelessly grovelling was the attitude of many English intellectuals to Stalin in the 30s and 40s. Orwell didn’t produce the list for British Intelligence, but for the Foreign Office, which wanted to know who he thought would be suitable, or unsuitable, to produce anti-Soviet material for distribution.

      1. wilroncanada

        He chose/recommended whom?
        He dismissed/dissed whom?
        On what basis? On personal opinion?

  12. Adam Foster

    The article provides no specific examples of the speech it is worried about. Most of those I can remember being made into a fuss were students objecting to the Universities paying people to turn up and insult them, either directly (commencement address) or indirectly (come speak on campus while we spend many many dollars putting on the show and security).

    If the issue was actually a really significant one, the author would have been able to list a range of specific examples where not only was speech banned by the left, but also that the speech was worth hearing.

    Someone turning up to give a 1 hour speech, with no questioning or response allowed, is not actually free speech and free academic enquiry.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      You aren’t hearing about it because cases like this don’t get covered by the New York Times. They do get covered by the right.

      This one is fresh:

      A Medical Student Questioned Microaggressions. UVA Branded Him a Threat and Banished Him from Campus.

      Bhattacharya expressed a scientific skepticism that a microaggression could be distinguished from an unintentionally rude statement. His doubts were wellfounded given that microaggression theory is not a particularly rigorous concept.

      But Nora Kern, an assistant professor who helped to organize the event, thought Bhattacharya’s questions were a bit too pointed. Immediately following the panel, she filed a “professionalism concern card”—a kind of record of a student’s violations of university policy….

      Dad who wrote scathing letter to Brearley about race focus: ‘Someone had to’

      A father fed up with an elite Manhattan prep school’s heavy-handed focus on race won’t re-enroll his daughter in the fall, accusing the school of trying to “brainwash” kids with woke philosophies rather than teaching them how to think on their own.

      In a scathing 1,700-word letter Andrew Gutmann mailed to 650 families — a screed since gone viral — he blasted the posh, all-girls Brearley School’s “cowardly and appalling lack of leadership [for] appeasing an anti-intellectual, illiberal mob.”

      The April 13 missive — published this week on journalist Bari Weiss’ blog — became public the same day the headmaster of the famed Dalton School resigned over controversial “anti-racism” curriculum and policies that had outraged many parents.

      College applicants—and Americans generally—are increasingly asked to recount how through great difficulty they have succeeded in taking the self as the object of their love, a stage of narcissism that for earlier generations of psychoanalysts appeared not as a challenging achievement too often thwarted by an oppressive culture, but as a falling back into an infantile condition.

      Members of less obviously oppressed groups had variant strategies. A number of Asian American students, for example, told me that they had written their admissions essays to demonstrate that they weren’t “like other Asians,” with narratives of how they had to challenge their strict parents and limited cultural horizons to develop passions for, as one wrote, beat-boxing and hip-hop.

      These are not students’ own stories. Many students in my class received tremendous amounts of help on their admissions essays from dedicated tutors at their high schools as well as private writing coaches. Their letters are a collective output, a kind of shared fantasy of the ruling class. They should not be read for their insight into what students are really like, but for the purposes they serve their supposed authors and the society that has trained them to speak of themselves in these terms.

      Students told stories that were variations on a theme we often find in modern American culture, in phrases like “black excellence,” or in the endless exhortations to recognize women’s intellectual achievements and potential. In this vision of the world, racism, patriarchy, etc., have long warped our society by obscuring the talents of certain groups. This perspective allows us to reconcile our commitment to meritocracy with our new moral sense that any state of affairs that does not see Black people, women, etc., represented in a given field in at least (but preferably greater than) their proportion of the general population is necessarily racist, sexist, etc….

      These came in in my inbox in the last month, meaning they were sent by readers, who are hardly right-wing in orientation. I searched only for “woke”. Probably would have found some more had I searched for “cancel”.

      I suggest you try using Google. “cancel culture college campuses” might get you out of your dated views on this topic.

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