Amor Mundi: Hate Speech on Campus
Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.
Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.
Hate Speech on Campus
Jeremy Waldron is the most persuasive writer in favor of hate speech regulation. Most important in Waldron’s argument is his articulation of the harm in hate speech. When a Jewish father must explain flags with Swastikas to his child, when an African American mother must explain why the state house flies a confederate flag, and when a Muslim parent must explain anti-Muslim posters, there is a real danger that these hateful acts that persist unpunished in public undermine the assurance that minority groups have of their equal belonging in society. For Waldron, it is part of the dignity each of us possess as a citizen that we have an equal right to be full members of our political community. Having to confront public hate speech that is unpunished is, he argues, an affront to that dignity.
An important part of Waldron’s argument is that speech itself is different from signs, public pamphlets, and enduring symbols in society. While speech is fleeting, hateful symbols and signs in public attack the dignity of those belittled and attacked by hateful public speech. When hate speech is public, tangible, and lasting, it undermines the equal dignity due all of us in constitutional democracy.
In an essay this week in the New York Review of Books, Waldron considers the question of hate speech on college campuses. He makes an analogy with legislation that disallows activities that cause a “hostile workplace environment.”
“Certainly, in our assessment of student activism, we need to bear in mind the history of exclusion. Some of our students may feel a little shaky about their right to be on campus, or about others’ perceptions of their right to be there. In living memory, some of our colleges were explicitly race-restricted institutions. And that sort of history doesn’t just evaporate with the good intentions of highly paid administrators. Think about racist songs, “blackface” parties, and white supremacist processions and put that alongside images of crowds jostling and jeering young men and women like the Little Rock Nine coming into colleges and high schools to desegregate them in the 1950s. Those who dismiss the concerns of twenty-first-century minorities by calling them “snowflakes” and telling them to cultivate “thicker skins” should imagine being nineteen and living in a world that did not always seem fair or unthreatening.
When the Middlebury American Enterprise Institute Club invited Charles Murray to speak on campus in 2017, it could defend the invitation as part of an open and reasoned debate. (Chemerinsky and Gillman note that it was free criticism, back and forth, that led to the discrediting of The Bell Curve in the years after its publication.) The club no doubt relished the element of provocation as their liberal opponents rose to the bait of the invitation. But revulsion against speakers of this ilk is not just intolerance on the left. If we remember the history of inclusion and exclusion then, as Professor Ben-Porath observes, Charles Murray’s very presence on campus, even if to speak about matters unrelated to The Bell Curve, was seen as undermining the dignity of African-American students, robbing them of their standing as full and equal members of the campus community.
Civil rights law requires us to be alert to the danger of what is called “a hostile workplace environment.” Why not on campus as well? In 2016 Jay Ellison, dean of students at the University of Chicago, wrote a letter to freshmen announcing that the university does not “condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” But safe spaces on campus for minority groups are not incompatible with there also being places on campus—classrooms, for example—where the same people have no choice but to face up to views with which they disagree.”
Waldron is correct that one can both argue for safe spaces where like-minded individuals can congregate in private and also insist that classrooms are a different kind of space, a space safe for the kind of rigorous thinking that requires we hear and respond to views that challenge our basic convictions. If one takes such a non-controversial stance, then the only question is that of where the boundary is between the academic spaces safe for discussion and the private spaces subject to demands of comfort.
The answer to that question on a college campus concerns whether the activities in question are part of the academic mission of the college. Waldron seems to suggest that most of the free speech controversies over campus lectures are irrelevant to academics. He writes:
“Is the free research of mathematicians or philosophers or physicists really in peril because of how one group of students responds to an invitation to Ann Coulter or Milo Yiannopoulos? Most of the free speech issues on campus have nothing to do with the lectures, laboratories, or seminars in which academic freedom is implicated.”
But this is an unhelpful argument. If a mathematician or scientist brings a renegade speaker, someone who believes in cold fusion, someone who questions the consensus on climate science, or claims to have solved an insolvable proof, preventing such speakers on the grounds that they are dangerous to the consensus views would be opposed to the academic principle of reasoned engagement. If the offensive ideas are wrong, they should be heard and criticized. If they contain a grain of truth, those who oppose them may amend and improve their own understandings.
An invitation to Charles Murray, Milo Yiannopoulos, Linda Sarsour, or Louis Farrakhan has nothing to do with math or physics. Just as dissident scientists and mathematicians helpfully force faculty and students in those fields to re-visit widely shared assumptions, so too dissident speakers in the humanities and social sciences require that the campus community interrogate their own verities. Such talks also allow faculty and students to argue with these speakers—in any academic talk, there must be ample time to question the invited speaker.
It is more than possible to admit that there is a harm in hate speech as Waldron argues and also to argue that the very premise of an academic community forbids excluding such harms. The liberal arts college is not simply a technical school in the pursuit of disciplinary truths. The college is also place where students and faculty learn how to think and question given truths; part of critical thinking means learning about the fullness and plurality of the world in which we live. Such an encounter with the world means encountering difficult and even offensive ideas that are part of the world in which we live.
Hannah Arendt argued for the essential importance of free speech as the only way to encounter the fullness of our common world: “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.” Arendt adds:
“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…politics and freedom are identical, and wherever this kind of freedom does not exist, there is no political space in the true sense.”
Politics is founded upon the fact of human plurality, that in politics we deal with the “coexistence and association of different men.” If a college is to study politics, let alone if it is to prepare students for political life, it must create an intellectually rigorous safe space for the encounter with plurality.
When Nothing is True
“Orwell was writing in 1946, five or seven years before scholarly works by Hannah Arendt, on the one hand, and Karl Friedrich, on the other, provided the definitions of totalitarianism that are still in use today. Orwell’s own “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” which provides the visceral understanding of totalitarianism that we still conjure up today, was a couple of years away. Orwell was in the process of imagining totalitarianism—he had, of course, never lived in a totalitarian society.
He imagined two major traits of totalitarian societies: one is lying, and the other is what he called schizophrenia. He wrote, “The organized lying practiced by totalitarian states is not, as it is sometimes claimed, a temporary expedient of the same nature as military deception. It is something integral to totalitarianism, something that would still continue even if concentration camps and secret police forces had ceased to be necessary.” The lying entailed constantly rewriting the past to accommodate the present. “This kind of thing happens everywhere,” he wrote, “but is clearly likelier to lead to outright falsification in societies where only one opinion is permissible at any given moment. Totalitarianism demands, in fact, the continuous alteration of the past, and in the long run probably demands a disbelief in the very existence of objective truth.”
He goes on to imagine that “a totalitarian society which succeeded in perpetuating itself would probably set up a schizophrenic system of thought, in which the laws of common sense held good in everyday life and in certain exact sciences, but could be disregarded by the politician, the historian, and the sociologist.”
Orwell was right. The totalitarian regime rests on lies because they are lies. The subject of the totalitarian regime must accept them not as truth—must not, in fact, believe them—but accept them both as lies and as the only available reality. She must believe nothing. Just as Orwell predicted, over time the totalitarian regime destroys the very concept, the very possibility of truth. Hannah Arendt identified this as one of the effects of totalitarian propaganda: it makes everything conceivable because “nothing is true.””
Seduction and Consent
Laura Kipnis asks if there is a future for seduction. In the aftermath of #metoo, are our desires changing? Kipnis explores how the old tropes of romantic pursuit are being re-written to fit the script of contemporary politics, while calling attention to the varying expectations men and women have during courtship.
“the conversation got me thinking about the future of seduction. Does it have one? It seems dubious. Coaxing people into things they’re initially reluctant (though might secretly yearn) to do in the realm of sex and romance, though a time-honored ritual of literature, movies, and perhaps a few well-burnished memories, has become rather suspect. HR officers are standing by. Also the internet. Charm itself smells a little rapey: an illegitimate exercise of power.
Should we be saying good riddance, because seduction was always a con and the imprudent sometimes got hurt? Perhaps, in other words, discrediting seduction should be counted among the many unassailable gains of the #MeToo movement. Or should we lament its passing, because imprudence is what make us human, and what’s life without illusions?
Even when things went well, seduction had its perils. To be seduced meant opening yourself up to something you hadn’t anticipated — allowing your will to be penetrated by the will of another, your boundaries to be ignored, if not trampled. Certain realities must be suspended for the duration. You become a little foreign to yourself, which is no doubt why so many classic seduction tales take place in foreign locales. You’re an explorer of unfamiliar landscapes (your own included), but travel is precarious: The language is confusing, you’re scammed by wily locals. Valuables get pilfered.”
A Visit to the Israeli Settlements and the Palestinian Camps
Wajahat Ali writes in The Atlantic about his many trips to Israel and, on his latest excursion, his journey to the heart of the Israeli occupation, the settlements.
“As an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, I was a member of the Muslim Student Association. I recall listening to more passionate khutbahs—Friday sermons—about the injustices in Palestine than stories about the Prophet Muhammad and his companions. The conflict in the Holy Land superseded all other Muslim suffering, including the ongoing occupation of Kashmir, the repression of Chechen Muslims, and the daily racism experienced by many African-American Muslims. I became a bit actor in a never-ending cosmic drama. I would parrot a script written by others, and serve as a proxy soldier for a tragedy happening across the Atlantic. The Jewish kids from the campus Hillel were my foil. We showed up to “debates,” predictable affairs where each side cheered and booed when appropriate but rarely engaged in a constructive dialogue.
We marched, chanted, rallied. We wore zionism is racism T-shirts. We thought we were differentiating Judaism from Zionism, the political ideology espoused by Theodor Herzl at the turn of the 20th century, which argued for the creation of a Jewish state in the Jews’ ancestral homeland of Israel. But too few of us Muslims bothered to ask how the many American Jews who consider themselves in some way Zionist felt upon hearing that Zionism was racism.
I’ve moved quite a distance from my student-activist days. I first met Abdullah Antepli, the imam, in 2011. Abdullah is always in search of Jewish conversation partners who are willing to discuss something more than a shared affection for hummus. He found an unlikely one in Yossi Klein Halevi, an Israeli journalist, a Shalom Hartman Institute fellow, and a self-described former Jewish extremist. Born in Brooklyn to Holocaust survivors, Halevi grew up hearing warnings from his traumatized father about how the Jews will always be hated and persecuted. Unsurprisingly, Halevi became radicalized as a young man. He once told me, solemnly, that he could describe 24 ways that Israel could be destroyed by its neighbors. (I stopped him after the second scenario.)
Abdullah cooked up the Muslim Leadership Initiative with Halevi in 2013. The Shalom Hartman Institute itself was created by David Hartman, a rabbi who left Montreal for Israel in 1971. He wanted to produce thinkers who would elevate the quality of Jewish life by debating and teaching how Judaism and Israel are functioning in the modern world. The institute is now run by his son Rabbi Donniel Hartman.
On my first Hartman Institute trip with Abdullah, in 2013, I had been asked to lead a panel about Islamophobia in America. At the end of the panel, one of the Jewish Israeli attendees had told me, “I didn’t know Muslims could be funny.” Another had confessed, “When I heard they were bringing Muslim leaders here, I assumed you’d all be like [then–Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad.”
The bar had been low.
For my second trip, the bar was a lot higher.…
I’ve always been interested in fanatics. I admire (and fear) their zealous conviction, unclouded by doubt, anchored by an arrogant righteousness, unwilling to tolerate dissent. Every community, including mine, has them—people who believe in only one truth, and that those who don’t completely embrace or support that truth are to be excommunicated or fought as villains. The Palestinians and the Jews are heavily burdened with these kinds of people. Historically, Hamas has not sought peaceful coexistence with Jews. I always assumed that Hamas and the settlers needed each other to justify their respective existences: lovers dancing a waltz, pouring gasoline as the world burned around them.
I wanted to talk with settlers myself; I wanted to understand how they thought and to ask them a couple of questions: Would they ever leave the West Bank in exchange for peace with the Palestinians? And, maybe even more important: What’s given them their strident conviction? (I figured I’d ask hard-line Palestinians the same question.)”
Prioritizing Safety over Freedom
“Responses to a related question about freedom of self-expression paints a somewhat different picture, however. When asked about whether “the climate on Dartmouth’s campus prevents some people from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive,” a large majority of respondents (81 percent) said they strongly or somewhat agree. Republicans (94 percent), white students (86 percent), men (87 percent) and students affiliated with Greek life (86 percent) are most likely to agree that such a limit exists campus speech. Despite these differences, large majorities across all subgroups — political or demographic — agree with the statement. The same question was also asked in 2016 of a nationally representative survey of U.S. college students regarding their respective college campuses: among students across the country, 54 percent agreed, far fewer than those at Dartmouth.
Students were also asked what type of environment is more important for Dartmouth to create: “a positive learning environment for all students by prohibiting certain speech or expression of viewpoints that are offensive or biased against certain groups of people” or “an open learning environment where students are exposed to all types of speech and viewpoints, even if it means allowing speech that is offensive or biased against certain groups of people.” Seventy-one percent of respondents said they prefer the open environment option. Students who are Republicans (94 percent), white (71 percent) and male (84 percent) were most likely to opt for the “open” option. A similar amount of students from across the country at 78 percent (from the 2016 survey) chose the open environment as well.”
When Government Protects Freedom
“When one person’s beliefs sound like hate speech to another, how do you ensure a more civil political debate?” This is the question at the heart of much social and political controversy right now unfolding on college campuses around the country. In conservative states like Wisconsin and Arizona schools are taking steps to ensure students are guaranteed a right to free speech, but at what political costs? Writing for the New York Times, Jeremy W. Peters explores legislative approaches to the free speech crisis on college campuses:
When the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin wanted to address the issue of free speech on campus last fall, it adopted a three-strikes policy that is the strictest of its kind: Any student found to have disrupted the free expression of others is expelled after a third infraction.
The goal was to foster an atmosphere of “civility, respect and safety,” and avoid the kind of violent, unruly disruptions that prevented conservatives from speaking at schools like the University of California, Berkeley, and Middlebury College. Those protests had focused national attention on the question of whether college campuses were shutting out politically unpopular points of view.
Wisconsin is not alone. Republican-led state legislatures in Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina have imposed similar policies on public colleges and universities, and bills to establish campus speech guidelines are under consideration in at least seven other legislatures. These efforts, funded in part by big-money Republican donors, are part of a growing and well-organized campaign that has put academia squarely in the cross hairs of the American right.
The spate of new policies shows how conservatives are successfully advancing one of their longstanding goals: to turn the tables in the debate over the First Amendment by casting the left as an enemy of open and free political expression on campuses. It was at schools like Berkeley, after all, that the free speech movement blossomed in the 1960s.
Posted on 17 June 2018 | 8:00 am
The Power of Reading
Kevin Powers describes how books saved his life.
“As I drifted further and further into my quarantined stupor, my attempts to read anything became ridiculous, often resulting in a book held diagonally in a trembling hand, examined with one eye squinted and the other shut, until I eventually added the reading of books to the many other higher order activities that had once separated me from the rest of the nonhuman animal kingdom and that I could no longer reliably perform. But one day, for some reason, I picked up “The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas” and found that the following oft-quoted lines of Thomas’s provided me with a moment of, for lack of a better word, grace: “These poems, with all their crudities, doubts, and confusions, are written for the love of Man and in praise of God, and I’d be a damn’ fool if they weren’t.”
You may think that by using the word “grace” and including a quotation about praising God, I’m claiming that something miraculous happened or trying to smuggle in a religious answer to the universal difficulty of being a person. No. What spoke to me were the references to “crudities, doubts, and confusions,” for nothing came as close to characterizing what my life had become as those three words. I was, I thought, crudity, doubt and confusion personified.
For the first time in a long while I recognized myself in another, and somehow that simple tether allowed me to slowly pull myself away from one of the most terrifying beliefs common to the kind of ailment I’m describing: that one is utterly alone, uniquely so, and that this condition is permanent.”
Back to News