What Snowflakes Get Wrong About Free Speech

8 May

There is a peculiarly insidious form of argument that insists that doing something – anything – is necessary for the Greater Good. The arguer puts forward a seemingly solid reason – often based on emotion – and then challenges you to counter it, a difficult task as you are setting yourself against the emotional – the subjective – Greater Good. These arguments call for committing a single act of small evil, seemingly unaware that it never stops at just one.

I mention this because of a recent article – What ‘Snowflakes’ Get Right About Free Speech.

Ulrich Baer defends – in an insidious manner – the right of student protesters to disinvite, drive from campus or simply assault speakers who do not meet their standards. He starts – not completely unreasonably – with an assessment that certain topics are beyond debate and that there is no inherent benefit to debating them in public. The internet, in his view, is the place for such debates. Accordingly, a university speaker would not be offering his audience something new, but something they could easily find elsewhere if they cared to look.

More dangerously, he insists that the inherent value of a given view must be balanced with the obligation to ensure that other members of a given community can participate in discourse as recognised members of that community. This is both misleading and blatantly hypocritical, misleading because there is no attempt to shut down every single speaker (regardless of their political leanings) and hypocritical because student protestors have largely targeted conservatives. The unspoken implication is that one has the freedom to speak, but only as long as one mouths the right politically correct platitudes.

Ideas – whatever they are – need to be spoken, then examined in the cold light of day. A racist argument that denies the humanity of non-white people can easily be dismantled, if it is spoken. But shutting down the racist only gives his ideas credence, a trend that only grows worse as the definition of ‘racist’ is broadened far beyond logic and reason. It was only a week or so ago that Oxford University had to apologise for saying that avoiding eye contact could be “everyday racism,” an idea that was roundly mocked and deservedly so. If everything is racist, then nothing is.

Beyond this, there is the simple problem that students – and Baer – are simply not taught to understand that others have different views of the world. Baer cites the fight of transgender people for legal equality as an issue, without acknowledging that the issue is far more nuanced than he chooses to admit. Transgenders do not require the approval of society at large to exist, nor should they. At the same time, it must be acknowledged that people who object to sharing bathrooms with transgenders have valid concerns, particularly when mere ‘self-identification’ is enough to get someone marked as transgender. The concept that the ‘other’ is irredeemably evil and therefore is not worth taking seriously does not help public discourse.

The core problem is that student protest has become increasingly ridiculous. There are certain statements which are obviously offensive, but other statements are so small that it seems impossible to say or do anything without being accused of a ‘microaggression.’ The idea that someone can take offense and then insist on satisfaction – without being forced to prove that he has a valid reason for feeling offended – is absurd. And we have been bombarded with strings of hoaxes that only undermine the credibility of any real claims.

And yet students expect to be taken seriously. They’re in for an unpleasant surprise when they enter the job market.

Establishing any sort of parameters for ‘free speech’ is a dangerous step to take. If certain subjects can be declared settled and off-limits, how then can it be proved that such matters actually are settled? History is full of certainties that collapsed when subjected to close examination and the march of technology. And who decides what subjects are off-limits and why? I would not care to put the power to decide which ideas are debatable and which are verboten into any hands. For all the insistence that Donald Trump is a fascist, it is his protesters who act more like fascists. Trump’s victory came, at least in part, because his opponents acted like fascist thugs. Baer is seemingly blind to the irony.

Students are quite within their rights to disagree with any speakers on campus. They are welcome to challenge them, to put forward a coherent argument as to why the speakers are wrong. The right of free speech includes the right to political protest. But they are not welcome to riot, to attack speakers and drive them from campus, to make absurd demands that would be rejected by any reasonable employer …

This is not good for their future job prospects, let alone their mental health. Coming to terms with the fact the world owes you nothing, that people can and do disagree with you, is part of growing up. Instead, these snowflake students want to be coddled, to be protected from ‘Bad Ideas.’ The real world is rarely so obliging. And bad behaviour in the workplace normally leads to the sack.

A poor argument can be defeated reasonably easily. Refusing to debate the idea at all – attacking and crushing the speaker – only implies that you are unable to debate and defeat the idea. Shutting down argument does not suggest that you are secure in your beliefs. It suggests the exact opposite. Yes, we may have to defeat bad ideas again and again … but it’s better than opening the doors to the eventual end of free speech.

I am a writer. I’ve been called everything from the next Heinlein to a talentless hack. I don’t mind admitting that the last one stung – like most writers, I have a form of Imposter Syndrome. But bad reviews are the price I pay for good reviews. My good reviews are meaningless if reviewers are forced to praise me. I do not have the right to protest when I read a bad review, even if I find it staggeringly offensive. It is more important to uphold the integrity of the review system than bitch about reviews I don’t like. And it is more important to uphold the right to free speech than to scream ‘I’M OFFENDED’ at the slightest excuse.

Heinlein once remarked that one should never attribute to malice what is explained by stupidity. Or, in the case of a microaggression, ignorance. A person who does not mean to give offense will probably be horrified if you point it out, but if you publicly humiliate them they will be angry – they’ll think you have overacted and they’ll be right. They certainly won’t respect you. One catches more flies with honey than vinegar. Modern-day protestors seem to have forgotten that. Instead, they allow their emotions to override their common sense.

Baer concludes by thanking student protesters for keeping watch over the soul of the American Republic. I rather suspect they’re doing the exact opposite. Those who weaken the right to free speech will discover, one day, that they don’t have the right to speak freely either. The gatekeepers will turn on them. It has happened before and it will happen again.

Free speech is an essencial part of democracy. We meddle with it at our peril.

8 Responses to “What Snowflakes Get Wrong About Free Speech”

  1. bretwallach May 8, 2017 at 3:46 pm #

    Chrishanger wrote: “But they are not welcome to riot, to attack speakers and drive them from campus…”

    Well, in the case of Berkeley, judging by police action (or lack thereof), they clear ARE MORE THAN WELCOME to riot, attack speakers, etc.

    And how cool is that! Folks who are otherwise pathetic and powerless can exert real violent power and get away with it! It’s not about free speech, it’s about exerting power over others, about intimidating, about controlling. Human’s lust for power trumps just about everything, and students are enabled to get a taste of that power. Once they have a taste, watch out!

  2. gfyork May 8, 2017 at 4:13 pm #

    For a time, in my youth, I considered myself a, “new leftist.” I devoured the, “Berkeley Barb,” subscribed to, “Ramparts,” magazine and found that many of the ideas expressed by various voices in, “the movement,” resonated in my soul.

    Until (wait for it to come around again on the guitar) protesters, ostensibly of the new left, _at the renowned Berkeley campus_ began to forcibly exclude legitimate campus speakers who had the temerity to express opinions with which they did not agree.

    Sad. Perhaps, without even having read, George Orwell, the protesters/activists/’new’ leftists felt they were protecting innocent youths from being exposed to, “Thought Crime!”

    Doesn’t really matter: it was wrong in the 1970’s and it’s just as wrong now.

    And, just as then, I suspect that, at root, it’s the desire of children, uncertain of themselves, who desire to gain status amongst their peers.


  3. Stafford1069 May 9, 2017 at 8:39 am #

    Why would anyone want to go to Uni? I know, I know the “whole life earnings break-even by the 35 years” thing, helps in terms of future life options. Yet on the other hand . . . The above . . .

    I have always wanted to go Uni, seeing it as way to improve my mind, yet if they are becoming places of reduced critical thinking, where the very lifeblood of an educational establishment – freedom of speech, which in turn is a function of debate – is being drained away, then they will bleed to death and leave a corpse. Which will NOT be for the Greater Good.

    If I ever do go – to keep it simple – I’ll get myself an orange T-shirt with label “Thought Criminal”. Then again irony maybe beyond some people . . .

    • pkohonen May 13, 2017 at 3:18 pm #

      You can just study and not care for politics … of either or any variety.

  4. Anarchymedes May 10, 2017 at 12:35 pm #

    Well, just to play the Devil’s advocate here, I myself often refrain from debating the topics about which I feel too strongly. First, because feeling strongly about something means (at least in my case) identifying with the idea to such an extent that any challenge to it feels like a personal attack, and an immediate mortal peril. Under such conditions, an impartial, purely intellectual debate is impossible: if the passive-aggressive ‘agree to disagree’ (a very polite form of ‘f### off’) is not enough, then it’s the verbal frontal assault on all fronts (not limited to the subject itself). This is not the way I’d like to be treated, so I don’t treat others like that, and just bow out of it. Second, strong convictions can never, ever be truly defeated by words and logic: it’s easier to dismiss all arguments as lies, or word-weaving, or ‘fake news’ (sorry, couldn’t resist it, dear Trump fans :-)), than to let someone crush you so utterly. The humilliation is unbearable, and the debate becomes a duel of honour, which is about pride and prestige, and not (repeat, not) about the truth. Instead of the conviction in question, this defeats the very purpose of debating (assuming it’s finding the truth, and not the victory for victory’s sake). The only way a person can (and time after time does) modify his or her strong views is through experience – action, not words. So I, for one, will state my position – once. If it’s challenged, then I’m probably with the wrong crowd: cheers, bye. I enjoy debating – sparring words – on something I don’t really care about too much. But I don’t need any more enemies – yes, enemies, even if I have to pretend to be fair and sportsmanlike with them! – than I already have.
    And as for the so-called Greater Good, how much ‘little’ evil it can take before it ceases to be either great or good? Where is the point of no-return?

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard May 10, 2017 at 1:24 pm #

      There are subjects where I’m emotionally involved so I understand.

      However, it’s one thing to be “upset at that asshole who doesn’t believe the same as me” and another to take actions to “prevent that asshole from speaking”.

      As I’ve said elsewhere when the subject of “banning hate speech” comes up, there are people that I hate “what they are saying” but I would not want their words banned as “hate speech”.

      • Anarchymedes May 11, 2017 at 2:25 pm #

        Banned – no, ignored – yes. But that gets harder if you are, say, and artist, and everyone around you goes on about the importance of trollback – oops, sorry, feedback. 🙂

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