Free speech hypocrisy roundup

Kevin Gannon in Vox makes a similar argument to mine about UChicago’s recent political correctness diatribe: it’s not actually about freedom of speech. A few more pieces of evidence that conservative PC fear-mongering is really just about discomfort with leftist activism and not a broadly coherent pro-free speech ideology.

  1. Via Sean McElwee, the University of Texas’ new concealed-carry policy is already creating an intellectually suffocating environment on campus.

    Surprise, surprise: the awareness than anyone around you could be carrying a firearm makes you watch what you say a little more than the occasional professor letting their students know that a film they’re about to watch has a rape scene.

  2. In an almost-too-good-to-be-true bit of irony, former UChicago student body president Tyler Kissinger points out that the administration’s enthusiasm for “discomfort” and free expression actually has some limits in practice:
  3. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick announced today that he will no longer stand for the national anthem before football games in recognition of the way America “oppresses black people and people of color.” Twitter predictably exploded with calls for him to lose his job, get deported, and much worse. I would hazard a guess that many of these same people were praising the UChicago administration for standing up to censorious social justice warriors only a few days ago. There’s an important congruence between criticism of Kaepernick for “politicizing” sports and criticism of students who dare to point out the political implications of classic literature: what is at stake is not anyone’s right to free expression but the security of the status quo, imagined as politically neutral.

And this is just stuff from the past 48 hours or so. Bottom line: if there is a real threat to “free speech” in American society today, it stems from institutionally embodied conservative discomfort with anti-oppressive critique, not from nineteen-year-old “McCarthyists” on college campuses.

Update: “A Startup Is Automating the Lawsuit Strategy Peter Thiel Used to Kill Gawker”. I’m not holding my breath waiting for the mea culpas from the folks who said Thiel’s campaign was a one-time thing that was just about Gawker’s idiosyncratic sins.


But what about cancelling speakers??

The UChicago letter I wrote about yesterday mentioned three practices that the administration would unequivocally refuse to condone: trigger warnings, safe spaces, and “cancelling invited speakers.” Reading defenses of the letter yesterday, it has become clear to me that the latter is the real bogeyman here, the trump card whose seemingly self-evident badness is deployed as evidence of the necessity of throwing the entire “political correctness” baby out with the bathwater.

Three thoughts about this.

1. Where is the empirical evidence that this is actually a thing? How frequently does this actually happen? When I was at Northwestern, we drew national headlines for our student activism — and I don’t think an invited speaker (and that includes some really reprehensible people, like Dinesh D’Souza and Newt Gingrich) was ever canceled once. Once more, I suspect that the moral panic about speaker cancellations is more likely a cipher for broader anxieties about leftist politics among college students than a proportionate response to a demonstrable trend on campuses.

2. One more reason I suspect that this is true is because the fault for the purported “free speech” violation involved in speaker cancellations lies completely with college administrations, and yet it is student activists who bear the brunt of media criticism. Activists who protest speakers are just exercising their own right to free speech. No one is “censored” until administrations make the decision to disinvite the speaker. The reason that criticism of speaker cancellations focus on student activism, then, has nothing to do with free speech and everything to do with the fact that critics simply don’t like students protesting the speakers in question. No cogent pro-free speech ideology would call for less activism.

3. The typical explanation of why speaker cancellations are such a heinous crime on college campuses typically invokes the importance of students exposing themselves to “new ideas.” This argument relies on an ahistorical conception of “ideas” that is truly bizarre and would never be defended in any realm besides politics. In this conception, political ideas are eternally new, never discredited by real historical events, and always worth validating.

Take perhaps the most notorious speaker cancellation of the last several years: Condoleezza Rice at Rutgers in 2014. First, it’s worth noting that there was absolutely no “free speech” violation wrought by students here. Rice declined to speak of her own accord, and faculty condemned her as vociferously as students. Second, what exactly were the “new ideas” to which Rice was supposed to expose students? Rice’s ideas were a key influence on many of the most reprehensible policies of the Bush administration, including the invasion of Iraq and torture. Rice’s neoconservatism is not a “new idea.” It is an idea to which every student at Rutgers in 2014 had been exposed in one way or another, because it was arguably the most important idea shaping global affairs during their childhood. And there is an enormous amount of evidence that it shaped global affairs much for the worse.

The incalculable damage that Rice and her ideas have inflicted on the world is a reason why today’s college students do not need to hear her continue to pontificate about the way the world works, just like we would not expect college students to listen with open minds to an advocate of a scientific theory that empirical evidence has thoroughly discredited. But the tireless defenders of the status quo have an interest in pretending like political debates are always open. As long as politics is a matter of interminable intellectual exchange, not responsive to historical evidence, little different now than in the dialogues of Plato, it’s impossible to change the terms of debate, to achieve consensus for radical action, and to bury destructive ideas in the graveyard of history in which they belong.

Safe Spaces and Marketplaces

Many readers will by now have read the letter that University of Chicago Dean of Students (and, evidently, veritable Edgelord™) Jay Ellison sent recently to incoming students, promising them that they will be sorely disappointed if they arrive on campus expecting “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces.” The university sees these practices, Ellison wrote, as an affront to “our commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression,” one of UChicago’s “defining characteristics.”

This is the most important thing to emphasize about this letter: like all anti-trigger warning/safe space discourse, it is not actually about the practices in question.

The ferocity and volume of criticism is almost surreally disproportionate to the actual prevalence of trigger warnings and safe spaces on campus. As I emphasized in a dialogue on WBEZ Chicago last year with Geoff Stone (another UChicago denizen), trigger warnings in particular are not only scarce, but when they do appear they are almost never formally labeled as such but instead are of a piece with the many mundane, informal ways in which we practice the idea behind trigger warnings in our daily lives: characterizing the level of violence in a movie to a friend who’s about to see it for the first time, giving a heads-up about content that is “not safe for work,” and so forth.

As for “safe spaces,” even after four years as a college activist I’m a little unclear about what exactly critics are referring to with this phrase. The only time I can remember my alma mater (Northwestern) establishing something like a “safe space” was after the campus-wide distribution of a “campus climate survey” about sexual violence. They set aside a few hours at the Women’s Center on campus for people who were upset by reliving past traumatic experiences on the survey to stop by and decompress alone or with a counselor. I’d like to hear Jay Ellison explain how those students were “retreating from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

So especially when criticism of trigger warnings and safe spaces comes from academics who live and work at universities, I am skeptical that they are responding in good faith to a problem that they legitimately perceive to be plaguing their campuses. Rather, I suspect that they are engaging in a subtle but effective rhetorical maneuver. By portraying the controversy over procedural issues like trigger warnings and safe spaces as the salient debate on college campuses, they avoid having to engage with the substantive issues on which student activists actually spend the bulk of their energy.

Bedfellows as unlikely as Sara Ahmed and Northwestern president and economist Morton Schapiro have pointed out that the purpose of trigger warnings and safe spaces is really to facilitate access to difficult conversations. As much as people like Ellison like to praise the “discomfort” of discussion about important issues, that sort of discomfort is only tolerable if students are equipped with the resources to help themselves deal with the strong emotions sometimes provoked by academic inquiry into social sources of pain and trauma like racism and misogyny. The students who do “retreat” from conversations about those subjects are the ones who are neglected by inadequate university support systems, and they are legion.

But by targeting fictitious student activists who demand trigger warnings and safe spaces as ends in themselves, instead of as instrumentally valuable strategies to open up discussion about systems of oppression, critics like Ellison succeed in shoving that ultimate goal back out of view. Thus they are the heirs of a long tradition, stretching back to that original UChicago curmudgeon, Allan Bloom, of critics who seek to scrub the academy of leftist politics under the guise of championing “openness.” It’s extremely telling that many of the most “viral” examples of “trigger warnings gone wrong” are about classic material like Greek mythology. It’s not actually true that trigger warnings are being attached to Ovid on syllabi left and right: these stories really owe their power to anxiety about the disruptive politicization of traditional “ivory tower” scholarship.

Free and challenging academic work is enabled when universities proactively provide students with the support they need to take risks. In a sense, then, there is a real if unintentional germ of truth to the oft-cited image of academia as a “marketplace” of ideas. In both intellectual and financial marketplaces, in the absence of healthy external intervention, structurally disadvantaged players have difficulty accessing the system and the status quo rapidly acquires an overpowering inertia. Make no mistake: whether coming from the UChicago Economics Department or the UChicago Dean’s Office, calls for laissez-faire are really calls for the domination of the powerful to go unchecked.

Flooding pt. 2: How do we know if climate change is to blame?

Today the New York Times finally broke its silence on the catastrophic flooding in Louisiana. And the piece is really good! It explicitly frames the flooding in terms of climate change and the first sentence is a fantastic articulation of one of the most under-appreciated aspects of the climate crisis: “Climate change is never going to announce itself by name.”

The natural disasters we’ve been seeing this summer — from fires in California to flooding in the South to historic heat waves in India and more — are vindicating Al Gore’s now-infamous frog-in-a-beaker analogy from An Inconvenient Truth. The effects of climate change are being felt right now, as we speak, but because there are no Joker-esque calling cards left behind in the wreckage making the climate change’s authorship of these tragedies unambiguous, we, like Gore’s frog, don’t recognize that we are rapidly approaching the boiling point.

This phenomenon is related to a climate-action obstacle that’s sort of unheralded outside of academic circles: the extremely stringent standard of scientific proof demanded by policymakers before taking responsible steps to mitigate carbon output or even acknowledging the magnitude of the problem. Every time activists hold up a natural disaster like the Louisiana floods as evidence of the importance of taking swift action on climate change, the response from some scientists and many politicians is all too predictable: there is not enough evidence to attribute it to climate change. There is even a quote to that effect from the Louisiana state climatologist in the NYT article linked above.

This discourse has two related problems. First, it’s a little unclear to me what it would even mean to “prove” that a particular weather event was “caused by climate change.” Could the Louisiana flooding have happened two hundred years ago? Obviously! No matter what your climate looks like, there will always be once-in-a-generation events.The point is that because of climate change, the once-in-a-generation storms of years past will become more common, and the once-in-a-generation storms of years to come will be more devastating. The Louisiana flooding is thus not ipso facto a portent of doom, but it becomes troubling (beyond the immediate human tragedy) in the context of other extreme weather events this summer.

The second problem, therefore, is that the climate crisis, understood properly, ought to seriously challenge many of our assumptions about the way science works and ought to work, and especially about how it should inform government policy.

Modern science is really great at answering very specific questions posed narrowly within the context of a specific discipline. Science is also great at answering questions about the way the world is now or was in the past. Examples of these kinds of questions include, “How does atmospheric carbon dioxide affect global temperatures?” and “How have global carbon dioxide levels and global temperatures varied over the past 100/1000/million years?”


Answering those kinds of questions has been crucial for achieving our current understanding of climate change. But now we need scientists to behave differently. Scientists need to ask questions that span disciplines, synthesizing atmospheric chemistry with meteorology and the knowledge of people “on the ground” in areas increasingly affected by extreme weather. They need to ask questions not about the way the world works now or has worked in the past but how it might work under different conditions in the future, questions that may not have precisely identifiable answers. Climate science as an institution has been most effective when, like in the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, it has done this sort of work.

If scientists embraced this role more proactively, it would be far more difficult for politicians to invoke their work to defend the status quo. If we stop expecting scientists to have all the answers, it will become harder to cite their limitations as reason to discredit the answers they do have — and easier to frame a positive vision of a political process that does not shy away from attempting to fill in the gaps. And if we start viewing uncertainty as a feature of science rather than a bug, we can begin to stop viewing the presence of uncertainty as a justification for inaction. Because what really matters is not that scientists are unable to tell us if the storm in Louisiana was the “fault” of climate change, but that if we continue on our present course, there will be a lot more where this one came from.

Postscript: Elisabeth Lloyd and Naomi Oreskes (full disclosure: I’m currently working for Prof. Oreskes) have an article coming out soon in Climatic Change about this topic entitled “Climate Change Attribution: When is it Time to Flip the Null Hypothesis?” As the title suggests, it discusses one specific area of scientific practice where the broader mindset shift I’m calling for here could be put into action. Watch out for it!

Mass Incarceration and Private Prisons

The Department of Justice is phasing out its use of private prisons. This is obviously very good news. It will most likely improve the material existence of real humans and we shouldn’t lose sight of that. But like that other liberal criminal justice panacea, ending the War on Drugs, it is barely even a first step towards ending mass incarceration.

The dirty truth is that ending mass incarceration means prosecuting fewer violent criminals and sentencing violent criminals to shorter sentences. That’s just math. If you support ending the War on Drugs and eliminating private prisons, but you’re still okay with locking up all violent offenders for decades (or life) in state-run facilities, then fair enough, but don’t say that you really want to end mass incarceration.

Academic note: I think the contours of this whole discussion reflect the power of what STS scholar Ruha Benjamin calls the “carceral imagination.” When we imagine criminal justice reform we imagine incarcerating only the right kinds of people or incarcerating them without the unique abuses of private prisons but we still have tremendous difficulty imagining wholesale alternatives to incarceration in the first place.

Media Silence on Flooding in Louisiana

You wouldn’t know it from a perusal of the web presence of pretty much any major American news source, but there has been absolutely catastrophic flooding in Louisiana this week. Thirty parishes have been declared disaster areas, 20,000 people have been rescued by emergency workers, and thirteen people have died. I personally didn’t find out any of this was happening until a friend checked in safe on Facebook yesterday, even though it’s been going on for almost a week and I read a lot of news.

Two related thoughts. First, this reaction is the inevitable consequence of casual cosmopolitan liberal classism. Faced with ludicrous (and sometimes racist) rhetoric from the right about “Real America,” many liberals have instead cast impoverished, rural white Americans utterly outside their sphere of concern. When the kinds of people who write for and read the New York Times talk at all about the kinds of people who live outside of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, it is with withering condescension.

Which makes the area outside of Baton Rouge perfectly suited to become what Naomi Klein has recently labeled “fossil fuel sacrifice zones,” areas that are able to be destroyed by climate change-fueled extreme weather events without provoking anything more than collective indifference. Classist rhetoric of the sort that is all too common in enlightened liberal circles is essential to dooming a place to this fate. As Klein writes, “There must be theories of othering to justify sacrificing an entire geography – theories about the people who lived there being so poor and backward that their lives and culture don’t deserve protection. After all, if you are a ‘hillbilly’, who cares about your hills?”

Second thought: this is very bad news for liberal incrementalists who are uncomfortable with radical climate change activism and calls for systemic economic change. Their story has always been that we are fast approaching a tipping point where the consequences of climate change will suddenly become so undeniable that fossil fuel company executives and conservative politicians will be forced into a change of heart. The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, and some earth-saving Grand Compromise will be hammered out in Washington.

For a while, this was all going to happen when the impacts of climate change “finally” spread from low-lying formerly colonized nations to the United States. But now American citizens are dying due to once-in-a-generation flooding and the corporate responsibility eschaton is still nowhere to be seen. One is reminded of Thomas Friedman’s repeated proclamation over a period of several years that “the next six months” would be critical in Iraq.

So: whither the tipping point? Rest assured, there’s one coming. But I’m not sure even the most strident corporate accomodationists want us to get there.