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.