Free Speech III – Are Today’s Liberals Killing It?

Because there are laws against certain expressions of neo-Nazism in Germany, and because my history-buff son and I are slightly amused by the satire inherent in that otherwise understandable fact, we will jokingly conjure the image of some official kicking a would-be fascist and screaming, “You vill be tolerant!”  But if you really like your irony served thick and over-salted, consider the likelihood that if I made that same joke on an American college campus today, not only might it be utterly misunderstood, but it might get me into actual trouble — especially with anyone unfamiliar with the satire of Mel Brooks.  In fact, in a recent reply to my last post about free speech, the respondent suggested that I have made comments on this blog that would get me fired from American colleges today; and he or she is probably right. Because if this article by Kristen Powers for The Daily Beast is an accurate portrayal of today’s “liberal” college students, they really don’t get free speech at all.

In the context of this blog, I keep insisting that the Internet is not the greatest tool for free speech ever invented. But I should clarify.  The more accurate thing to say is that it doesn’t actually matter if the Internet is the greatest tool for free speech ever invented, if in fact a whole generation of American university students don’t understand free speech in the first place — why we have it, and the often painful experiences through which it has been preserved. “… the politically correct university is a world of land mines, where faculty and students have no idea what innocuous comment might be seen as an offense,” writes Powers.  She also cites an article from Atlantic in which attorney and free speech advocate Wendy Kaminer states, “The belief that free speech rights don’t include the right to speak offensively is now firmly entrenched on campuses and enforced by repressive speech or harassment codes. “

I don’t know if Powers is cherry-picking exceptions and making them sound like rules. She may be pointing to a phenomenon rather than a trend. The article references her book The Silencing:  How the Left is Killing Free Speech, and she identifies as a liberal, so I assume this is not just some Bill O’Reilly-style attack on liberals in general. Additionally, what she says does jibe with anecdotal evidence I hear through acquaintances and that I have read in some online commentary by contemporary college students. And if this is truly what is happening to the liberal tradition of socratic disciplines in higher education, then it is impossible not to sneer every time the heralds of Silicon Valley declare that freedom of speech is the motive behind whatever policy they seek to enact or destroy. I don’t want to suggest that these voices don’t ever mean what they say, or at least think they mean it, but rather how empty their gestures are in contrast to the censoring trends that their wonderful tools of speech have helped create.  After all, Powers’s description of the self-righteous mob shutting down ideas based solely on some hair-trigger offense at the speaker’s choice of words sounds a hell of a lot like life imitating social media to me.

So, let Google & Co. abuse the concept of “chilling” free speech by chucking every artist’s takedown request into the “Chilling Effects” database and tell the kids they’re standing up for the First Amendment.  Whatever.  If Powers’s article is a fair reflection, the kids don’t understand free speech anyway. It’s a lost cause. The irony, of course, is that what preserves both the right of speech and the intellectual rigor to use speech is the conscious choice to be Jacob and wrestle with the damned Angel, to welcome the confrontation and turn it into something new rather than to silence it or pretend it isn’t there. And isn’t it funny that this is exactly what artists do?  We’re just barely victorious over conservatives banning creative works or investigating artists for “obscenity” or some other offense to our half-Puritan nature. Are self-proclaimed liberals now going to write their own black lists and host their own Bradburyian bonfires?

Maybe not.  But Powers does quote comedian Chris Rock who says that playing colleges isn’t fun anymore because people are so easily offended.  And this is truly a sign of the intellectual apocalypse:  when we no longer have the mental fortitude or cultural literacy to be able to laugh at our own folly, to satirize our worst selves, we breed fanatics who would smother genius in a ball of coexist bumper stickers.  I have no idea what the ultimate solutions are to the new rise in racial tensions in this country, but understanding why Chris Rock is funny would probably be a step in the right direction.  It’s sad to think about the fact that Lenny Bruce was arrested for obscenity in the 1960s, that Richard Pryor had racially mixed audiences pissing their pants together by the 1970s, but that a legacy of those two comedians can’t get a smile out of college kids in 2015. I’m not sure that’s progress toward any kind tolerance at all.

© 2015, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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  • The internet is a tool, nothing more. No one needs to care about what anyone else has to say for their ability to say it freely and as easily to be important.

    Every generation has it’s overly sensitive, self-righteous, supremely entitled, progressive, hipster d-bags. Every generation. They are no more potent now in the grand scheme of things than they were 50 years ago. Yes, if you take what you read on the internet as gospel it seems that the world is on the path to humorlessness and apathy. And I have no doubt that college campuses are toxic environments filled to the brim with useless academia, doing their best to convince one another that their opinions somehow matter, but on a day to day basis. On the average street corner. Most folks are as they always were, quite willing and able to offend anyone they like for whatever reason they see fit.

    We are all still perfectly free to say whatever we like, some people just put too much stock into bad press on twitter or being made fun of via buzzfeed.

  • Well, Chris Rock must not have been in one of the designated ‘free speech’ zones of the college he played, and of course did he file the correct paperwork first to get approval for his humor?

  • Wendy Kaminer states, “The belief that free speech rights don’t include the right to speak offensively is now firmly entrenched on campuses and enforced by repressive speech or harassment codes. “

    I will be interested to see if this proves to be true this time. My skepticism is historical. I recall many of the same comments being made when I was in college 30 years ago (The PC police will get you!) and they were hilariously alarmist and false. I also recall sitting in my college library reading old newsmagazines from the early 1970s saying much the same. Indeed I have a vague memory of reading some social critic making such a statement pre-World War Two, although I believe his complaint was anchored in the intolerant reception being given in some circles to what he believed to be the thoughtful intellectual ideas of fascism and Aryan race theory.

    (That doesn’t mean it isn’t true today, but we should greet such pronouncements with caution, especially when they come from professional provocateurs like the Ms. Kaminer.)

    What is fascinating to me is that this fear seems so perennial whereas many people seemed hardly to have noticed at all the revolution in U.S. free speech over the last few decades in which all categories of speech – commercial, public, artistic, private – have been raised to the high level of deference once accorded only political discourse and religious sermonizing. The definition and understanding of free speech has expanded like the muscles of a comic book hero shedding their alter ego – with layers of nuance and distinction lost in the starburst of sacredness. It has been one of the most important, and under-reported, U.S. cultural changes of the last half-century.

    • I’m tempted to agree. I showed up at college 20 years ago a Young Republican rip-roarin’ to take on them durn PC freak libruhls that Rush and WFB had been warning me about. I was outspoken as heck…. and not much came of it. No intellectual battles, no drama. That said I went to a university in the middle of a large city without a real “campus”, just the school buildings randomly clustered among the apartments and shops of the rest of humanity. If I was cloistered away in a campus environment it may have gone differently.

      All that said, it was still before the internet was much of anything (in college, email was this exotic thing I did 4 or 5 times) , which as a practical matter is a big game changer. It seems like society in general is getting worse when it comes to this type of stuff so I wouldn’t be shocked if campuses nowadays really are a lot worse than I experienced.

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