The Misguided Student Crusade Against ‘Fascism’ – The New York Times

In many ways, the free-speech issue on campus is a twin to the free-speech issue in liberal religions. Here, the president of the University of Oregon speaks from his own experience about keeping dialogue open if we’re ever to move forward. It’s a compelling argument. — MHP

14 comments

  1. ” Fascist regimes rose to power by attacking free speech, threatening violence against those who opposed them, and using fear and the threat of retaliation to intimidate dissenters.”

    This describes the stick, but fascists also offered carrots: “Go along with us and we will massage your ego, excuse you from irksome tasks and responsibilities, explain away your failures and give you money and power.” Gentile Germans did not go along with Hitler just because he scared them. They went along because he made them feel good in some pretty specific ways, e.g. for a nation that was humiliated by the loss of the First World War, for example, he had this message: “Germany wasn’t defeated! Our splendid, superior soldiers were stabbed in the back by the Jews!”

    At the moment, there are university students intent upon suppressing any speech they deem to be “hate speech,” which increasingly means the expression of any opinion they don’t like. And they do, in fact, use threats of retaliation and even violence to intimidate dissenters. (In the age of the cell-phone video, you can watch this in action on YouTube: just type “Evergreen College” or “Ben Shapiro at Berkeley” into the search box).

    One could argue that there have been a few unattractive episodes under the aegis of Unitarian Universalism recently that fit this pattern. The question to ponder, I think is “what are the carrots on offer?”

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  2. Here is a YouTube video that seems, at first glance, like a parody: Student protesters shouting down and shutting down a presentation by the ACLU about free speech.

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    1. I’ve never been able to find a video of an incident a few years back at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly, but a friend of mine was part of the General Assembly choir, scheduled to sing, at a time when the BLM folks thought they should be on the schedule. “Black Lives Matter” shouts made it impossible for the choir to sing. I did once see a newscast of it but can’t find it anywhere since.

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  3. Have you seen this article about members of student group bullying professors and disrupting classes at Reed? https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/11/the-surprising-revolt-at-reed/544682/

    I thought this quote was very poignant:
    “It felt like both sides [RAR and faculty] weren’t paying attention to the freshmen class, as it being our class,” he replied. “They started yelling over the freshmen. It was very much like we weren’t people to them—that we were just a body to use.”

    and

    “A lot of them told me how disappointed they were—that they traveled such a long distance to come to this school, and worked so hard to get to this school, and their first lecture was canceled,” he said.

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    1. No, I had not seen that one. It’s one more reason why I’m more discouraged than ever about the world at large. To return to a conversation we’ve had elsewhere, all I can do is hope that we humans do have enough free will to nudge things in a better direction. Kate and I are both giving it a try here.

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  4. As a counterpoint to some of this, I would like to offer this article from Forbes, bastion of the liberal media.

    “There is no free speech crisis on campus” by Chris Ladd
    https://www.forbes.com/sites/chrisladd/2017/09/23/there-is-no-free-speech-crisis-on-campus/

    Like many, I think diversity is a good thing. But I don’t think that bad ideas deserve equal time or equal consideration just to be diverse. And especially I don’t support giving them a hearing in the name of being fair to “both sides,” as if we have always been and are always going to be trapped in, and must honor, some dialectical liberal/conservative yin/yang.

    I think that the general trend described by Ladd, that many so-called “conservative” ideas are simply failing in the free marketplace, could still co-exist along with the counter-examples at Reed and elsewhere that are on this blog. In particular, supply-side economics (i.e. “Voodoo economics,” as it was called by that snarky intolerant liberal, George HW Bush) comes to mind here as a failed idea/policy that has often been associated with political conservatives and is currently being pushed yet again by POTUS and friends.

    I do wish Ladd had provided some support for his claims that campus Republican organizations have a hard time attracting students; I can imagine that would be disputable. I nonetheless still think that the basic claim, that at least some “conservative” ideas deserve to be consigned to the dustbin of history, has merit. i.e. “When you find that your ideas are unpersuasive in an atmosphere of open, fact-driven debate, the problem might be you.”

    And I think it’s a point for UU churches to consider too. What can and should happen to failed ideas? When and how can we let go of bad ideas without hurting the people who believe(d) in them?

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    1. I find Ladd’s article unpersuasive because it seems rich in hyperbole and poor in factual documentation. My observations about it are, of course, subject to my own confirmation bias, but that’s how it seems to me. My overall feeling is that, if ideas are old and tired and “failed,” why get so excited about letting a dozen people gather to hear them. This, to me, is not a constitutional issue of free speech; it’s common sense and fairness, because no one can decide for another when an idea has failed.

      Ladd writes: “When characters like Ann Coulter, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Charles Murray appear on campus, their appearances are funded by extremist donors and their events are orchestrated by outside groups. Finding students among the organizers, attendees, protestors, or counter-protestors is a challenge. This is theater and the university is a prop.”

      Although he fails to substantiate his assertions, let’s assume everything he says is true. So what? Liberal groups, too, try to influence who gets invited to speak on campuses, and I’ll assume that colleges (as was the case in my day) insist that some legitimate college group sponsors each event that uses campus facilities. So why not just let them be?

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      1. “My overall feeling is that, if ideas are old and tired and “failed,” why get so excited about letting a dozen people gather to hear them.”

        I might agree with you there, but I also don’t think it’s that simple. At Berkeley last year, the violence around the Milo speech came from antifa activists. (e.g. http://www.berkeleyside.com/2017/02/02/berkeley-police-injuries-extensive-property-damage-no-arrests-no-force-used/) As Ladd says, these events are theater. More people than a dozen will come, and things may get out of control, because of the associated circus and controversy, not because of intolerance of free speech on the part of students.

        It’s also not clear how the university could just “let them be,” assuming that’s what it would prefer. According to the San Jose Mercury News, letting Milo speak on the UC Berkeley campus ended up costing the university $800,000. That’s an expensive letting be. http://www.mercurynews.com/2017/09/24/update-barricades-ring-sproul-plaza-as-berkeley-braces-for-milo-yiannopoulos/

        So sure, let’s criticize antifa and left-wing political violence, but their actions aren’t evidence of a free speech crisis on university campuses.

        Anyway, what I found interesting about this article was not so much that part about the controversial speakers, but the part about what happens, or should happen, to ideas that fail in the marketplace.

        Everyone goes in thinking their ideas are going to win, of course. But all ideas can’t win; some are going to lose. What would it look like to lose graciously and to win graciously?

        Maybe we don’t have to be doomed to fight the same old battles again and again and again, if bad ideas could actually be laid to rest.

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      2. The op-ed I’ll post below deserves to be read on its own merits, but it also reminded me that, when I first organized a campus group against the Vietnam war (in 1964 and 1965, before we had much support), working for peace was widely considered an idea that had failed and led to the Second World War.

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  5. Does someone have to decide that an idea has failed? Is that how you think a marketplace works? To me, a marketplace is more of an impersonal thing, an “invisible hand” as it were. I’m not necessarily a huge fan of the “marketplace of ideas” metaphor–it has a number of limitations–but I keep seeing it in the context of free speech, as a justification for propping up bad ideas, and it seems to me that it could be used for the reverse as well, for letting bad ideas die.

    Reading that op-ed you posted provides a better framework for talking about free speech, IMO, than the free marketplace metaphor.

    Short Star Trek digression: There is a famous Star Trek episode, “The City on the Edge of Forever,” in which the Enterprise crew goes back in time to the 1930s New York and Kirk falls in love with a peace activist named Edith Keeler. In the history imagined in the show, Edith died in a traffic accident and her peace organization collapsed. The US entered World War II, Hitler was defeated. However, when Dr McCoy went back, he pulled Edith back from crossing the street when she would have had the accident, and saved her life. In that timeline her organization, “World Peaceways” became so powerful that it kept the US out of World War II, Nazi-ism triumphed and spread, the world was engulfed in an even worse war than World War II, civilization was destroyed, and Starfleet never developed. So the episode centers around Spock and Kirk also going back to undo what McCoy did and fix history. Kirk falls in love with Edith and then has to let the woman he loves die so that history can take its normal course. That episode aired in 1967. It’s interesting to read your perspective on how peace activism was viewed around that same time. Clearly it was on people’s minds in a way that it isn’t today.

    Back to your question: I know it’s not exactly the question you asked, but as to how one might judge an idea to be failed, I think the best way is to do an experiment. We don’t have a time machine like the Enterprise crew so often the best we can do are thought experiments. Or one can look at history or philosophy. Sometimes, though, there are actual experiments that have been done. With supply-side economics there have been a number of different kinds of experiments, most recently in Kansas. With something like eugenics there have been, IMO, far too many experiments already.

    I used to think that was what the “marketplace of ideas” metaphor was about: that ideas would be tried in the “marketplace” of a society (i.e. a country, state, city, or other institution like a university or company), and that would mean that there would be some sort of experiment, a messy and flawed one for sure, but still an experiment in which the outcome would mean something and some action would be taken based on the outcome. Sometimes the outcome would be, “yay, good idea, let’s tweak it and make it work better,” or “yay, good idea, more of the same please.” Sometimes the outcome would be “that didn’t work. Let’s stop doing that. Let’s move on to something better.” But not, “we have to keep reiterating the same hypothesis in the name of free speech.”

    I was pretty close to the James Damore Google memo controversy because I live in Silicon Valley and my husband works for Google (in a different group and building; he never met Damore). It had some similar elements as you seem to be talking about here: in a memo, Damore complained about a culture at Google in which conservative ideas were suppressed, and he further claimed that airing and discussing some ideas that he described as conservative would be beneficial for Google’s culture and business. A number of the rebuttals to his memo focused on that proposed outcome: in particular, it was pointed out that many of these ideas had already been discussed and tried, (i.e. the experiment had been done) and the ideas were *bad* for Google’s culture and business. In fact these ideas had come to be viewed as problematic, warmed over, sexist claims that created a hostile work environment for a marginalized minority group (women), prevented teams from working well together, and drove away the best talent.

    I don’t think Google is perfect by any means, and they have plenty of room for soul searching self-reflection, and self-improvement. But I also think it’s legitimate that they don’t want to redo the particular experiment that James Damore wanted. They’ve already done it and now they have other priorities for moving forward. Isn’t there also a saying from the 1960s that you don’t want to be so open-minded that your brains fall out?

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  6. I never heard that saying that you end with, but indeed I did watch a lot of the original Star Trek, in part because it directly addressed the issues then bubbling to the surface. And I’m especially fond of the time-travel paradox.

    I think we’re going around in circles. If no one is in charge of declaring an idea failed, then the best answer is to stay out of regulating what ides can be expressed on campus and let the bad ideas fail on their own. If ideas can be tested by experiment (which I doubt because of the complexities of human interactions and changes over time), then who gets to decide which experiments were properly done and get to be definitive?

    Was Roe v Wade an experiment, and if so what was proved or disproved? How about the Vietnam war, or the second Gulf War? Social Security?

    If we take Vietnam as an example, I think it was a monumental error to conduct a war of that magnitude without a Congressional Declaration of War or a UN mandate. I think I was proved right. Let’s go convince the American public, Congress, and the Supreme Court that I’m right.

    Good luck! Life is too complex for that.

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  7. I think it seems like we’re going around in circles because we mostly agree. I am not advocating for universities regulating who gets to speak on campus. But I am saying that in some cases, bad ideas are not being allowed to die on their own because they are being propped up by provocateurs in the name of free speech.

    I’m not willing to blame antifa violence on UC Berkeley, its students, or liberals. Antifa is an outside group using the university as a prop. UC Berkeley spent $800,000 defending itself and Milo against antifa so that Milo could speak on campus. Rather than censoring or regulating conservative ideas, the university was trying to do the right thing and let him speak, at great cost to itself. I think antifa is horrifying and that it should have received more coverage all along. I also think we (as in US society and law enforcement) need to investigate and oppose antifa as we would any other terrorist organization, domestic or foreign. But antifa isn’t representative of liberals any more than the KKK is representative of conservatives.

    Roe vs. Wade was many experiments. Some worked better than others. It saved women’s lives from illegal/dangerous back alley procedures. I am convinced by the arguments put forth showing that legal abortion reduces crime, so I will put that in the success column as well.

    As an example of how to draft laws, it’s less successful. It is based on the science of the time, which has advanced since it was written. It’s also an interesting, if painful, experiment in what you get if you rely on the Supreme Court rather than Congress to make Federal law, or rather than leaving an important matter like that to the state legislatures (at least in the US. Legal abortion exists and is less controversial in Japan than here; a comparison of the effects of legal abortion in both countries would be another interesting experiment that I am sure someone has done).

    I personally think that legal abortion via Roe vs Wade was still worth it, even if it didn’t come about in the most ideal way. Other people disagree; I may be wrong; that’s why we have politicians and why we vote. And why we can and should be able to change our minds and policies when confronted with new evidence.

    For all the things you listed–wars, Social Security–there are multiple experiments associated with each of them. Of course no one person will have the best interpretation of, or even understand, all the data. But I think democracy, when functioning properly, taps into the wisdom of crowds. I mean, what’s the alternative to doing experiments, however imperfectly, and trying to analyze outcomes? Pushing and acting on ideology for its own sake?

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