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Amor Mundi: You Are Not An Experience

You Are Not An Experience

Ulrich Baer argues that the so-called “liberal snowflakes” are actually right, that free speech should be sacrificed in the name of securing the legitimacy of personal experience. He is mistaken, but worth taking seriously. Baer writes:

“At one of the premieres of his landmark Holocaust documentary, “Shoah” (1985), the filmmaker Claude Lanzmann was challenged by a member of the audience, a woman who identified herself as a Holocaust survivor. Lanzmann listened politely as the woman recounted her harrowing personal account of the Holocaust to make the point that the film failed to fully represent the recollections of survivors. When she finished, Lanzmann waited a bit, and then said, “Madame, you are an experience, but not an argument.”

This exchange, conveyed to me by the Russian literature scholar Victor Erlich some years ago, has stayed with me, and it has taken on renewed significance as the struggles on American campuses to negotiate issues of free speech have intensified — most recently in protests at Auburn University against a visit by the white nationalist Richard Spencer.

Lanzmann’s blunt reply favored reasoned analysis over personal memory. In light of his painstaking research into the Holocaust, his comment must have seemed insensitive but necessary at the time. Ironically, “Shoah” eventually helped usher in an era of testimony that elevated stories of trauma to a new level of importance, especially in cultural production and universities.

During the 1980s and ’90s, a shift occurred in American culture; personal experience and testimony, especially of suffering and oppression, began to challenge the primacy of argument. Freedom of expression became a flash point in this shift. Then as now, both liberals and conservatives were wary of the privileging of personal experience, with its powerful emotional impact, over reason and argument, which some fear will bring an end to civilization, or at least to freedom of speech.

My view (and, like all the views expressed here, it does not represent the views or policies of my employer, New York University) is that we should resist the temptation to rehash these debates. Doing so would overlook the fact that a thorough generational shift has occurred. Widespread caricatures of students as overly sensitive, vulnerable and entitled “snowflakes” fail to acknowledge the philosophical work that was carried out, especially in the 1980s and ’90s, to legitimate experience — especially traumatic experience — which had been dismissed for decades as unreliable, untrustworthy and inaccessible to understanding.”

Baer goes on to argue that there are good philosophical reasons for rejecting free speech in favor of personal testimony and narrative. According to the cultural shift he suggests took place in the late 20th century, “personal experience and testimony, especially of suffering and oppression, began to challenge the primacy of argument.” Where many are understandably “wary of the privileging of personal experience, with its powerful emotional impact, over reason and argument,” Baer argues that the elevated importance of personal experience is founded upon good philosophical arguments.

Citing Jean-Francois Lyotard, Baer writes that we can no longer expect that freedom of speech will lead to truth. The old idea that in a marketplace of ideas the truth will win out is, Lyotard shows us, disproved by the “asymmetry of different positions when personal experience is challenged by abstract arguments.” In other words, vulnerable populations who speak their personal experiences may find that others deny the truth or at least the worldly relevance their experiences. In such an unequal situation in which some speech is privileged over other speech, free speech can be seen to re-enforce hierarchies.

Baer follows Lyotard in offering the example of Holocaust denial. When “invidious but often well-publicized cranks” confront survivors of the Holocaust, they place the burden on survivors to produce incontrovertible eyewitnesses and to argue over the Holocaust. For Baer, this challenges the “Jewish survivors to produce evidence of their own legitimacy in a discourse that had systematically denied their humanity.” Similar arguments are made today to justify the claim that colleges and universities should refuse to hear from speakers whose views are, according to some, racist, sexist, transphobic, xenophobic, or otherwise offensive.

Baer’s rhetorical claim that holocaust deniers put the burden on holocaust survivors to respond is, I think, not correct. It is the responsibility of all of us to confront ignorance and hate. If someone comes to our campus and spews racist or sexist vitriol, it should not only or primarily be those attacked who respond. I imagine some from the attacked community will seethe in silence. Others will walk out. And some will respond. That is a personal choice of each person. But it should also be the personal choice of everyone in the audience, not simply those who feel attacked in their persons. And it is also the personal choice of anyone not to attend the talk or to protest the talk from outside. These are all legitimate and I hope empowering potential responses to speakers one finds offensive.

Beyond his rhetorical claim, Baer offers an argument that underlies the rising support for censorship on college campuses today. When the Arendt Center invited Suzanne Venker to speak two weeks ago, we were told doing so was harming women. This coming week, we are hosting a panel conversation on talking across the political divide with those we dislike, and even those we find offensive. Amongst six wildly diverse panelists, one is a gay Trump supporter and former Bard graduate, Lucian Wintrich. We have been inundated with calls complaining about Mr. Wintrich’s participation. Thankfully, Bard has a vibrant intellectual community and most of these calls and emails have not insisted we disinvite Mr. Wintrich. But many have sought to make a nuanced point, one similar to that made by Baer.

These students affirm their commitments to free speech and intellectual plurality. They realize that disinviting offensive would be wrong and also tactically counterproductive. But, these students insist, Wintrich and Venker should never have been invited in the first place. The presence on campus of such people, they argue, creates a threat to the safety of vulnerable students on campus. The argument explaining why Venker and Wintrich’s mere presence on campus are threats is rarely spelled out. Especially in Wintrich’s case, as he was a student at Bard for four years and somehow the campus survived him. And yet, there is an insistence that Mr. Wintrich’s presence and talk poses a threat to vulnerable people on campus.

Baer’s essay articulates the argument for not allowing offensive speakers to speak on a college campus. When we allow views that “invalidate the humanity of some people,” we create asymmetrical speech situations and thus “restrict speech as a public good.” In such instances, Baer writes, “there is no inherent value to be gained from debating them in public.” It is enough, he argues, to read those offensive views on the internet or in the newspapers.

Let me give Baer as full a hearing as I can. Baer’s argument draws its force from an empathetic and well-meaning response to the undeniable reality of inequality and discrimination in our society. Given those realities, there is no such thing as truly free speech. Thus, faced with a choice between the values of safety and security on the one hand and the unreachable values of freedom and plurality on the other, we should sacrifice freedom and plurality in the name of safety and security. To ensure the emotional safety of their students, academic institutions should censor those whose speech offends.

The privileging of security over freedom is made easier by Baer’s claims that it is simply untrue that hearing dissenting ideas does aid the cause of truth. This argument addresses the claim that truth will eventually win out in the so-called marketplace of ideas. The classic statement of this idea is by John Milton, who wrote:

“Though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”

A second version of the claim that truth is the product of a free contest of ideas is by John Stuart Mill:

“The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

Baer dissents, first, because the “asymmetry of different positions when personal experience is challenged by abstract arguments” means that there is no free and equal marketplace of ideas. The marketplace is always structured and regulated in ways that privilege some and disempower others. And second, following in part from this first point, Baer argues that free debate—undermined by asymmetry and inequality—will not lead to the victory of truth. Thus, given that truth is a naive dream, we should privilege the safety and security of vulnerable community members above the apparent search for truth.

Baer’s argument is meaningful, and it deserves a response. He is undoubtedly right that there is never a level playing field, whether in politics or in science. There is, therefore, no guarantee that truth will win out in a free contest. In that context, we need to think about the role of the university in the post-truth world Baer imagines.

There is no need to contest the claim that there is no objective truth. But to end the matter there is to operate from a tragically misguided and neutered idea of truth. Objective truth is hardly the only meaningful idea of truth. The inquiry into truth, justice, and beauty need not assume that there is some verifiably certain answer to the questions we ask. That justice and beauty are not objects to be known with absolute certainty does not invalidate the search for truth, the quest for justice and the allure of beauty.

The aspiration of a liberal arts education is not to attain some incontestable truth; it is, however, to become practiced in the humanist, scientific, and artistic ways of asking after truth and reaching for both justice and beauty. The path to such a practice passes through argumentation. Feelings and testimony are of course relevant and meaningful in the human experience. But whether one is a scientist, artist, or poet, one first needs to learn to distinguish good from bad arguments and to distinguish fact from fiction. To say that an objective truth does not exist and to say that truth is stymied by asymmetries of power, does not invalidate the collective pursuit of truth that happens at a college or a university. It simply makes the quest for truth more challenging.

In writing about free speech, Hannah Arendt defends free speech on the grounds of plurality: “We know from experience,” Arendt argued, “that no one can adequately grasp the objective world in its full reality all on his own, because the world always shows and reveals itself to him from only one perspective, which corresponds to his standpoint in the world and is determined by it.” For Arendt, the freedom of speech means that we will always hear other opinions, other perspectives, and other arguments than our own. Free speech is the foundation of all expansive and right thinking. “Only in the freedom of our speaking with one another does the world, as that about which we speak, emerge in its objectivity and visibility from all sides.” For Arendt, free speech is about seeing the world as it is, in all its plurality and uniqueness:

“If someone wants to see and experience the world as it ‘really’ is, he can do so only by understanding it as something that is shared by many people, lies between them, separates them, showing itself differently to each and comprehensible only to the extent that many people can talk about it and exchange their opinions and perspectives with one another, over against one another.”

The freedom to speak one’s opinion is the root of politics and right thinking. This is true not because free speech leads to truth, but because it expands our understanding and forces us to confront the real plurality of the world. What Arendt understood is that free speech is not simply about a right to express oneself. And it is not to be defended on the metaphor of the “marketplace of ideas.” Free speech doesn’t necessarily weed out false ideas and confirm true ideas. Rather, free speech is important because only in listening to others with whom one disagrees does one come to expand one’s own understanding and love for the world.

Too often today defenders of free speech fall back on arguments from tactics. There is indeed a good tactical argument for hearing uncomfortable and dissenting views. We must always remember that you don’t win an argument when you and your friends are convinced that you’re right. We win an argument when we convince those who have meaningfully disagreed with us. If we want to change the world, we need to learn how to argue with and persuade others. If we give up and protect ourselves in gated communities of liberal purity, we will lose. But as rational as tactical arguments may be, they won’t win the day if we don’t also seek to persuade others that freedom of speech, academic freedom and intellectual openness are values important in themselves. Arendt’s argument that free speech is necessitated by plurality reminds us that there are essential political and intellectual values that can only be upheld in a world where we encounter and seek out dissenting views.

In one final twist, Baer writes that it is enough to simply read dissenting opinions, that offensive opinions can be experienced at arm’s length and kept out of the campus community. But It is not enough to simply read these views (or more frequently to read dismissals of them). A view we disagree with on the internet rarely argues back when we dismiss it. Actually arguing with someone who will respond to our arguments is the only to truly test our arguments. The practice of arguing with those with whom one disagrees is the best way to learn how to engage actively and effectively in the political life of a citizen. It is the only way to learn our weaknesses and our opponents’ strengths. And, at the very least, it is the only way to discover whether, despite our real differences, we share a common commitment to reason and decency.

And what if we or they don’t share that commitment? What if we invite someone to speak and they violate the norms of public debate? They might shout people down or personally insult people in ways that have nothing to do with reasonable and persuasive argument. If they act that way they will likely lose the argument. But to be honest, we are rarely so lucky that the people we disagree with act foolishly. It is easy to imagine that people we disdain with will resort to irrationality and insult because we are so sure that they actually have no rational arguments. But the greater danger is that they will not act that way and will make arguments to which we will have to respond. If we are confident in our arguments, we should welcome that challenge. And if we are not confident in our arguments, we should welcome the opportunity to hear our arguments challenged. As John Stuart Mill put it, even good ideas wither into “dead beliefs” when they are not openly contested.

Claude Lanzmann certainly understood the value of personal testimony. But Lanzmann had it right when he insisted that testimony cannot trump argument. It is true that arguments are messy, truth is unnerving, and politics is frustrating. In spite of political science departments, politics is not a science. It is an effort for a plural and diverse group of people to build a common life together. Politics is predicated on shared opinions, not on truths. And when there are divergent opinions in a political community, the two primary ways of overcoming those disputes are violence and persuasion. In the contest of personal testimonies, there is no possible resolution. Unless we are to resort of violence, our only path to building a shared world is through argument. Ulrich Baer to the contrary, nothing about philosophy in the 1980s and 1990s changed that basic political fact.

Radical Traditions

In an interview, writer and professor Michael Eric Dyson lays out the importance of considering the tradition, taking it in, modifying it for new times, and putting it back out into the world:

“In one sense, all of us are intellectually playing off of, riffing off of, the same thematics that have occupied the great jazz tradition of intellectual evolution over the last couple of centuries. We’re all playing a different grace note. You know, Louis Armstrong and, say, maybe, Duke Ellington or Billy Strayhorn or Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan—we’re all riffing off of those things, adding on our intellectual reflection, our social consciousness, our conscientiousness, our philosophy, poetry, and revelations. We’re all trying to grapple with that. And even though that great body, that great ocean, of literature and literary art exists, it is constantly being added to. I mean, was Claudine Rankine’s book,Citizen, necessary? Of course it was, because she added new dimensions to the discourse. Was it said before by Robert Hayden? Maybe, but in a different way.

It’s about the literary intensity that we generate to throw up against the bulwark of white supremacy. The poetic resistance to forms of oppression that we can generate in order to bear witness to that truth. I don’t mind the job of saying to white people, “Yes, this is what I think you need to know, this is what I think you’ve been missing.” And it’s my job to educate white folks every day. I teach at the well-known African-American school called Georgetown, so I’m just around white folk every day. I’m just challenging white supremacy at its intellectual heart every day. It’s a pedagogy that I deploy against some of the most vicious resistance to blackness that whiteness is able to throw up. I engage in a lot of intellectual combat with supremacists and with the predicate of white supremacy and white indifference to black identity, and brown and red and yellow identity too, for that matter. That is my job as an intellectual, as an extension of my vocation: to engage in a serious reckoning with the present manifestation of both white supremacy, white refusal to acknowledge culpability, and the attempts of black people to re-describe the harm and trauma we’ve endured, as well as to say afresh what it is that must be done if we are to be conscientious.

We have to explain to each other again why what we do is important. We have to understand and explain to each other what blackness is. For instance, I don’t know about you, but I didn’t know the story of Hidden Figures [three mathematicians who overcame discrimination, as women and as African Americans, while working at NASA in the early 1960s]. That ain’t nothing I knew. And I’ve been studying for a long time, bruh. And you’re a very bright guy, and I’m a relatively bright guy. That’s not a story I knew. So the more I learn, the more I learn what I don’t know. Blackness is an ocean, a universe, a possibility that can never be exhausted. And so we have to constantly reaffirm the necessity of excavation, of archiving and curating, but also exploring, and understanding afresh and learning for the first time what it is that we need to know, and what the limits and boundaries are, and what the themes and preoccupations should be, and what the redemptive character of that erudition is. I find myself in the exciting position of doing all that, and at the same time having the obligation to explain to white people what the deal is.”

Hatred Is Thrilling

Paul Berman offers a new take on the argument that we are witnessing a world-wide counter-revolution that is a response to the liberal revolution of the last 60 years. The modern revolution was a revolt against hierarchies of all kinds that were seen to be unjust. Feminism, civil right, gay rights, the rights of the poor, the rights of immigrants, the rights of non-native speakers, minority rights, the right to be free from authoritarian governments, and the right to democracy more generally were part of an over-arching modern revolution. For Berman, this modern revolution was to a previously unknown extent built on quicksand. And it is now unraveling. And the cause of that unraveling, he writes, is fear:

“What has brought about the counterrevolution? Fear has brought it about—a vague and unarticulated fear that life has spun out of control: a fear that assumes a different shape in each country, yet is visibly shared across half the world, such that people who experience the fear naturally feel a solidarity, even across the national borders. And what has brought about the fear? The liberal revolution itself has done this—its aspirations, its successes, its failures, and the gap between aspirations and realities.”

Berman explores a number of fears that now fire the counter-revolutions emerging around the world. There are economic fears, racial fear, and, in his telling most meaningfully, fears of women’s equality. And then Berman argues that there is an overriding fear, a panic really, that goes to the heart of reality that people simply cannot bear, a panic that turns people away from reality and towards fictional movements built upon hate.

—Roger Berkowitz

“Then again, I wonder if something larger still doesn’t loom behind each of these issues and controversies, a failure at still a deeper level, something epistemological, which generates a deeper panic yet. This is the panic that arises when people can no longer be sure of the nature of reality—when no one seems to be in charge of distinguishing the real from the imaginary. The failure is philosophical for some people on the intellectual left, with its home in the humanities departments of the universities, and it is theological for other people, with its home in the established churches and their crumbling foundations. But also it is an institutional crisis, and it is visible everywhere, and certainly so in the United States. It is a crisis in journalism. Almost half of the newspaper editorial jobs in America have disappeared over the short course of the present century, together with a large number of newspapers. The towns that used to have a respected newspaper of their own have no such paper today; the cities that used to have two now have one; the cities that used to have three, now have two. And the surviving papers, even the greatest of them, are smaller and feebler. Television journalism: a similar story of decline. The trade unions used to offer news commentaries of their own, but the unions and their newspapers have gone into a still greater decline.

Where do people learn about the world, then? Whole sectors of the population float on tides of electronic rumor and mischief, where the panic is promoted. In Donald Trump, those people have elected one of their own. And for those people, panic becomes self-sustaining. It is a stimulant. It is a variation of the opioid epidemic. Panic solves their problem. The liberal revolution has accomplished many things, but, as everyone has always recognized, liberalism does not address the profound questions of life. Liberalism prefers to leave questions of meaning to other people to answer. And people have come up with an answer. It is the answer that is suggested by panic. It is hatred. Do you feel a spiritual void? Hatred will fill the void. Therefore people hate. They hate foreign factories. If they are Americans, they hate Mexicans and Muslims. If they are English, they hate Poles and Pakistanis. If French, they hate Gypsies and Arabs. If Germans, they hate Turks. If Dutch, they hate Moroccans and Tunisians. Various populations hate blacks, and hate Jews. The Muslim immigrants are specialists in hating Jews. The haters hate women who have achieved an equal status with men. A magnificent graph of these hatreds could be drawn up. It would be a map of hell. But also it would be a map of emotional fulfillment. Hatred is thrilling.”

Living Intentionally

Joshua Rothman profiles the conservative blogger Rod Dreher:

“In South Louisiana, religion was everywhere, but, as a kid, Dreher was indifferent to it. Then, when he was seventeen, his mother, Dorothy, won a trip to Europe in a raffle and sent Rod in her place. He visited Chartres and felt judged by the beauty of the cathedral. He began to take religion seriously. When he was eighteen, he went to see Pope John Paul II at the Superdome, in New Orleans. The Pope appeared, and a thought flashed in Dreher’s mind: “I wish he were my dad.” In his twenties, Dreher wanted nothing more than to fall in love—he had a poster for the French film “Betty Blue” on his bedroom wall—but his romances felt increasingly shallow, even sad, compared with what he’d seen in France. At twenty-six, he converted to Catholicism. Fed up with what he perceived as his own caddishness—he had dated one girlfriend longer than he should have—he decided to embrace chastity until marriage. Three years later, he proposed to Julie in a church, kneeling before an icon.

Dreher left Catholicism in 2006; after covering the Catholic sex-abuse scandal for the Post and The American Conservative, he found it impossible to go to church without feeling angry. He and his wife converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, and, with a few other families, opened their own Orthodox mission church, near St. Francisville, sending away for a priest. It was Dreher’s Orthodox priest, Father Matthew, who laid down the law. “He said, ‘You have no choice as a Christian: you’ve got to love your dad even if he doesn’t love you back in the way that you want him to,’ ” Dreher recalled. “ ‘You cannot stand on justice: love matters more than justice, because the higher justice is love.’ ” When Dreher struggled to master his feelings, Father Matthew told him to perform a demanding Orthodox ritual called the Optina Rule. He recited the Jesus Prayer—“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”—hundreds of times a day.

Two life-changing events occurred after Dreher began the regimen of prayer. He was alone at home one evening, lying in bed, when he sensed a presence in the room. “I felt a hand reach inside my heart and put a stone there,” he said. “And I could see, in some interior way, that the stone said, ‘God loves me.’ I’d doubted all my life that God really loved me.” A few months later, Dreher stopped by his dad’s house to organize his medications. Ray was sitting on the porch, reading the newspaper and drinking coffee. When Dreher leaned down to kiss him on the cheek, his father grabbed him by the arm. Tears were in his eyes. “He was stammering,” Dreher recalled. “He said, ‘I—I—I spent a long time talking to the Lord last night about you, and the transgressions I did against you. And I told him I was sorry. And I think he heard me.’ ” Recounting the story in the back seat of the car en route to D.C., Dreher still seemed astonished that this had happened. “I kissed him, and said, ‘I love you.’ ””

Close Reading

In the case of President Trumps executive orders regarding immigration, David Cole wonders, how much does the text itself matter versus what the signatory says about the text?:

“The administration claims that both orders are justified by national security concerns, but this unsupported rationale is clearly a cover for pursuing other aims. Indeed, before the second order was released, two internal Department of Homeland Security memos called into question any national security justification for targeting the seven listed countries. The first memo reported that citizens from these countries are “rarely implicated in US-based terrorism” and that citizenship is not a good indicator of terrorist threats. A second memo found that “most foreign-born, US-based violent extremists likely radicalized several years after their entry to the United States,” meaning that the “extreme vetting” Trump says he can’t yet do with respect to individuals from the banned countries would not identify threats either. In March, 134 former national security and other high government officials—including twenty-six retired generals and admirals—wrote the president, stating that “the revised executive order is damaging to the strategic and national security interests of the United States.”

The government does not argue that the order can withstand constitutional scrutiny if the statements that have been made by Trump and his advisers about the ban’s intended purpose are considered. Instead, it maintains that the courts should ignore these statements and examine only the text of the order itself. The order doesn’t mention Islam, and invokes national security. In the government’s view, that should be the end of the matter. It cites a line of cases upholding immigration decisions if the government’s action is “facially legitimate and bona fide,” which the administration interprets to mean that the courts must accept the government’s proffered justification at face value, and cannot look behind the action for an impermissible purpose. Using that standard, the Supreme Court in Kleindienst v. Mandel (1972) upheld a decision to deny a visa to the Communist economist Ernest Mandel, on the ground that he had violated restrictions on his visa on a prior trip. And in Fiallo v. Bell (1977), the Court cited the standard to uphold an immigration statute that gave preferences in obtaining visas to the foreign children of unwed US citizen mothers but not to the children of unwed fathers.

If the challenge to Trump’s second executive order reaches the Supreme Court, much will depend on whether the Court considers the overwhelming evidence of impermissible religious purpose, as its Establishment Clause precedents dictate, or accepts the government’s stated justifications without further testing, as the administration urges. The question of which set of precedents should prevail has never before been addressed, because no prior president has ever tried to use the immigration power to denigrate a religion.”


Poet Arisa White draws a distinction between being silent (which, she says, is a kind of death) and being quiet:

“I have an aunt who’s a lesbian — but she doesn’t call herself that. She calls herself an aggressive. She’s in her early 60s and she came out in the late ’70s, when everyone was coming out. In 1979, when she came out, that’s when I was born. That’s when there was this gay march on Washington — 1979 was such a gay year! But my family had a difficult time accepting her: How are you gay when you had kids, and were married?

For her, it was like: No, the previous performance wasn’t true. But she maintained her relationship with my family, and we got to witness this queer, black female in relationship to us. We had to re-see everything. We had to break through our discomforts of what it means to be a woman, to be black, to be a mother. What we thought was the script was broken.

My aunt broke a silence. Silence is different from quiet. She was like: I’m going to be the kind of woman that I want to be. I’m going to break through and find a language for myself. When she did that, she pushed us all out of our expectations. Then we had to reside in a place of quiet. Quiet is a creative space; silence is death. In quiet, we get to incubate and bring into creation a new form.”

Hey Professors! Hello Administrators. Yo, Students!

Jonathan Haidt argues that it is time for professors, administrators, and above all students to step up and make the positive argument that an intellectual community dedicated to the pursuit of truth or at least the ideal of intellectual curiosity must be open to dissenting, provocative, and even offensive ideas.

“I do not doubt that many students face indignities and insults because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, or ability status. I respect students who take actions motivated by their concern for their fellow students. But these actions reflect choices that have far-reaching and potentially damaging consequences. First, there is the decision to appraise events in ways that amplify their harmfulness. A common feature of recent campus shout-downs is the argument that the speaker “dehumanizes” members of marginalized groups or “denies their right to exist.” No quotations or citations are given for such strong assertions; these are rhetorical moves made to strengthen the case against the speaker. But if students come to believe that anyone who offends them has “dehumanized” them, they are setting themselves up for far greater vulnerability and isolation. Life, love, and work are full of small offenses and misunderstandings, many of which will now be experienced as monstrous and unforgivable.

Second, students in the past few years have increasingly opted for collective action to shut down talks by speakers they dislike, rather than taking the two traditional options available to all individuals: Don’t go to the talk, or go and engage the speaker in the question-and-answer period. The decision to turn so many events into collective moral struggles has profound ramifications for the entire college. Everyone is pressured to take sides. Administrators are pressured to disinvite speakers, or at least to condemn their scholarship and morals while reluctantly noting their right to speak. Petitions are floated, and names of signers (and abstainers) are noted.

The human mind evolved for violent intergroup conflict. It comes easily to us, and it can be so emotionally rewarding that we have invented many ways of engaging in it ritually, such as in team sports. But the tribal mind is incompatible with scholarship, open-minded thinking, toleration of dissent, and the search for truth. When tribal sentiments are activated within an academic community, some members start to believe that their noble collective ends justify almost any means, including the demonization of inconvenient research and researchers, false accusations, character assassination, and sometimes even violence. Anyone not with the movement is against it, and its enemies — students, faculty members, administrators — are often intimidated into acquiescence. This is how professors and students are increasingly describing their campus climate, at least at elite four-year residential colleges.

What can be done to change course? College professors, more than anyone else in the country, have a professional duty to speak up for the freedom of scholars, authors, and journalists to present unpopular ideas, theories, and research findings, free from intimidation and harassment. The next time an unpopular speaker is invited to campus, professors should talk to their classes about the norms of the academy, the benefits of having one’s cherished ideas challenged, and the impropriety of making slurs and ad hominem arguments. Then they should attend the event themselves — especially if they dislike the speaker.

But while professors are best placed to act as role models, it is only administrators who can set and enforce rules. At New York University, where I teach, the policy on protests is detailed and reasonable. It allows silent protests and brief outbursts within the lecture hall, but it states clearly that “chanting or making other sustained or repeated noise in a manner which substantially interferes with the speaker’s communication is not permitted.” Most colleges have such policies, but they are rarely enforced, even after the college president offers fine words about freedom of speech. From now on, administrators must ensure that any students who violate protest policies will be disciplined or expelled. There must be zero tolerance for mob rule, intimidation of speakers, and intimidation of political minorities among students as well as faculty members. Alumni can help by making it clear that they will give no further funds to colleges that permit students to shout down speakers with impunity.

And finally, when responsible campus leaders all fail to create a campus where diverse perspectives can be heard and discussed, students who desire such a campus must stand up and make their wishes known. There are encouraging signs on this front. In the wake of the unexpected outcome of the 2016 presidential election, the editors of Harvard’s main student newspaper called on administrators and faculty members to “take active steps to ensure that students of all political stripes feel comfortable voicing their ideas, especially in the classroom.” More recently, Northwestern University became the first in the country whose student government passed a resolution calling on the administration to promote viewpoint diversity and to enforce its policies against disruptive protests.”

When Argument Fails, Turn To Insult

Suzanne Venker spoke at Bard College earlier this month under the auspices of the Tough Talks Lecture Series at the Arendt Center. She spoke about how feminism, in her understanding, has led to a demand that women value career success over having a family. She argued that programs seeking to create gender equality in corporate management positions are predicated on a mistaken idea of what many women want. While Venker acknowledges that many women do want a career, she argues that feminism’s commitment to career over family is insulting and devalues women who want to privilege family. Critical of feminism, Venker also is critical of college and university feminists who she argues are preaching and teaching an ideological worldview.

The students at Bard heard Venker with civility and poise, but they struck back hard. Surprisingly, at least to me, they largely ignored her argument about the labor force. They did not suggest that feminism could and should seek ways to re-imagine the workforce to make a career-track more enticing to both women and men who might want to balance work and family. Instead, the students challenged Venker on her implied racism, the fact that her idea of what women want was based on a narrow view determined by race and class. They asked about “rape-culture” and argued that rape-culture makes it dangerous for women to go to college. They asked Venker about her views on transgender issues. In short, they largely chose not to directly engage her argument about the misplaced priorities of feminism; instead, they sought to challenge Venker because of other views she holds, views that for the students undermined Venker’s larger project.

Venker was shocked. As she wrote about her experience after-the-fact, “somehow, the Q&A morphed into a discussion about race, white privilege and gender “fluidity.” And rather than redirect the students, I made a snap decision to answer their questions head on.” But the problem was that Venker was unprepared to soldier on. Just as the students were unwilling to consider Venker’s arguments, she was unable to understand or grasp the points made by the students. And so, for Venker, the evening was unsatisfying.

“It was as though I were an alien from another planet who couldn’t understand the way things work on earth. It was the students’ job to enlighten me, in other words, rather than the other way around. And so I find myself conflicted about my time at Bard. Yes, the silencing of speech is a huge problem on campuses today—and Bard did indeed rise above the fray. But as MacDonald adds, and as my visit to Bard proves, the silencing of speech is just a symptom of a much larger phenomenon on college campuses: a “profound distortion of reality.” At the end of the day, then, it doesn’t matter whether speakers are silenced or not. Because American universities are so divorced from reality they can’t fathom a word of what those speakers would say.”

Sadly, Venker draws precisely the wrong conclusion from her alien encounter at Bard. The fact that she came to Bard to enlighten the students and was shocked when they sought to enlighten her shows just how necessary it is for both sides to encounter those who are armed with arguments rather than soundbites.

My own view of the talk was more generous than Venker’s. First, I was heartened that the talk happened. Ms. Venker had been disinvited from numerous other campuses in the wake of intense protests and threats. The same week she spoke at Bard conservative speakers were shut down at UCLA and Berkeley. I was proud that at Bard the students reacted by engaging and arguing with her rather than by preventing her from speaking. Second, the turnout was large and enthusiastic. Ms. Venker spoke for about 20 minutes and then took dozens of questions for nearly 90 minutes. When we finally ended the question and answer period, there over ten hands raised with students still having questions. Clearly, Bard students were interested in taking on Ms. Venker and hearing her respond. I think Ms. Venker heard clearly the argument made repeatedly and compellingly by Bard students that her arguments were racially and economically limited. I also think many Bard students heard Ms. Venker’s argument that feminism should support women in their quest for fulfillment and not tell women how they should be fulfilled. I’m not sure anyone convinced anybody. But I do think that many people went home that evening more thoughtful and open to opposing views than when they arrived. Or at least I did until I read Venker’s essay. Clearly, she took away from the encounter only a further contempt for those who for some reason do not agree with her.

—Roger Berkowitz

Posted on 30 April 2017 | 9:30 am

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