The Place For Outrage When Free Speech Is Hate Speech: Our Mission, Our Values, Our Obligations

Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt, Professor of English and Co-coordinator of the Gender Studies Program

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This debate on our campus about free speech is misguided.  The dialogue should not be about the value of free speech, but what kinds of free speech we value?

Let me begin then by asking a series of questions here:

Do we value free speech that degrades the members of the Linfield community, or do we value free speech that values them? Do we value free speech that is an attempt to promote racism, homophobia, transphobia, bigotry, misogyny, rape culture, violence against women and a disregard for disabled individuals on our campus?  Or do we value free speech that will express outrage and speak up against any form of “reason” that advocates for such vile and discriminatory ideas to be given a platform on our campus? Do we value free speech that allows us to understand the historical depths of injustice and the current climate of racism in this country? Or do we value free speech that says that racism does not exist, or we have a right to be racist, or the culture of women being raped is a myth? Do we value free speech that honors diversity that promotes a climate that is anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-bigoted, anti-homophobic, anti-transphobic, anti-disabled, and anti-abuse of power and privilege? Or do we value free speech that will promote White ethno nationalism and degrade the value of multiculturalism and the civil rights protections provided by the Civil Rights Act of 1964?

As we think and debate these above questions we also need to consider the place for “offensive” speech or “hate speech” within the discourse on free speech on our campus. How far do we have to go to draw the line? Or have we become too thin-skinned, or so intolerant that we cannot even debate offensive ideas anymore? Liberal arts colleges have been charged with producing a generation of “snowflakes” who will all (apparently) melt when the harsh world descends on them.  Snowflakes have been charged with centering their reactions to the world around them based on their experience rather than reason and arguments that traditional academic discourses demand. In a recent and widely read opinion piece published in the New York Times “What ‘Snowflakes’ Get Right About Free Speech” by Ulrich Baer, Baer says, “Widespread caricatures of students as overly sensitive, vulnerable and entitled “snowflakes” fail to acknowledge the philosophical work that was carried out, especially in the 1980s and ’90s, to legitimate experience — especially traumatic experience — which had been dismissed for decades as unreliable, untrustworthy and inaccessible to understanding.”

Yet according to Baer, liberal free-speech advocates are adamant in pointing out that the views of individuals like Richard Spencer, Charles Murray, Milo Yiannopoulos and others “must be heard first to be rejected. But this is not the case. Universities invite speakers not chiefly to present otherwise unavailable discoveries, but to present to the public views they have presented elsewhere. When those views invalidate the humanity of some people, they restrict speech as a public good.”

While the above view is held by some of our own community members at Linfield, there are those that do not believe that free speech in a private liberal arts college like our is obligated to provide a platform for ideas that can harm our community members, particularly those that belong to minority groups on our campus. In fact, Baer precisely points out what free-speech is not:

The idea of freedom of speech does not mean a blanket permission to say anything anybody thinks. It means balancing the inherent value of a given view with the obligation to ensure that other members of a given community can participate in discourse as fully recognized members of that community. Free-speech protections — not only but especially in universities, which aim to educate students in how to belong to various communities — should not mean that someone’s humanity, or their right to participate in political speech as political agents, can be freely attacked, demeaned or questioned.”

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/24/opinion/what-liberal-snowflakes-get-right-about-free-speech.html

In recent months there has been a sustained critique of what is offensive or not, and how free speech, even if it is offensive must be allowed on college campuses.  Interestingly enough, such critiques of “offensive” free speech have coincided with the historical rise the extreme right wing ideologies and their fascist take over of not “identity politics” but identiterian politics globally – from Narendra Modi in India and the rise of Hindu Nationalism and extreme anti-Muslim sentiments, to the Brexit vote in the UK and the rise of xenophobia and anti-immogrant sentiments,  to the election of Donald Trump in the United States and the rise of White Nationalism, racism, xenophobia and the increase in hate crimes across the country.  

Proponents of identiterian politics continue to use outright “hate” speech as “free speech” where figures like Yiannopoulos can say, “Now, some of the most dangerous places for women to be in the world are modern, Western, rich European countries. Why? One Reason. Islamic Immigration – it’s got to stop.” And then there is Richard Spencer, the leader of the Alt right movement whose vision of an ideal society is to build a White society. In December 2016, in a speech given to Texas A&M, Spencer said, “This country does belong to white people, culturally, politically, socially, everything. We defined what America is.”

The agenda of groups like Alt-Right and campus clubs that are either supported by the Alt-right or providing a platform for the Alt-Right is clear.  They want to challenge college campuses for their numerous diversity and inclusion initiatives that provide a legitimate space for ideas and knowledge base that have been historically marginalized and excluded.  There is a deliberate effort to undermine the Civil Rights protections that have been given to the protected class, immigrants, women, religion, sexuality, diability etc.  At the heart of these diversity initiatives is decentering Whiteness and its relationship to power as a dominant ideology, and such a decentering is obviously offensive to those who want to “Make American White Again.” According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “The Alternative Right, commonly known as the Alt-Right, is a set of far-right ideologies, groups and individuals whose core belief is that “white identity” is under attack by multicultural forces using “political correctness” and “social justice” to undermine white people and “their” civilization” https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/ideology/alternative-right

So it is no surprise that figures like Yiannopoulos, Spencer, Coulter and numerous clubs like Club Europa, Young Americans for Freedom, Turning Point are cropping up these days on college campuses to precisely challenge colleges for their numerous diversity and inclusion initiatives by using free speech to attack the historically marginalized positions, ideas, epistemologies.

While the debate on free speech is dominating most campuses like ours, we are also been told that offensive speech (if it has to be tolerated), then we must do so using “reason” and our fine skills called “civility.”  Here at Linfield, civility particularly rears its ugly head when uncomfortable ideas like systemic inequities, racisms and micro-aggressions, and polite forms of hostility and exclusions are to be confronted.

In 2015, The Nation published an article, “The New Thought Police: Why are campus administrators invoking civility to silence critical speech? by Joan W Scott. Rather than unpacking this article for you here, I would urge you to read this piece yourself (particularly if you are faculty here at Linfield) https://www.thenation.com/article/new-thought-police/

Scott reminds us in the article by quoting social theorist Nancy Fraser that “the dissident claims of minority groups go unheard in the public sphere when they are tagged as departures from the protocols of style and decorum—dismissed as evidence of irrationality and so placed outside the realm of what is taken to be reasoned deliberation. They are, by definition, uncivil, and thus beneath contempt. Once a certain space or style of argument is identified as civil, the implication is that dissenters from it are uncivilized. “Civility” becomes a synonym for orthodoxy; “incivility” designates unorthodox ideas or behavior.”

Scott ends her article in The Nation by suggesting that “criticism—even angry criticism—is not necessarily a sign of disrespect. To point out that the meanings of words are not self-evident and that they can mask as much as they reveal is to respect language and thought. The real questions are: Who is calling for civility, and to what ends? What are the effects of policing classrooms and political forums in the name of civility? What has been the history of the invocation of that word? Equally important is the need to insist on both the meaning of free speech as defined by the First Amendment and the conventional understandings of academic freedom. “

I say all of the above to perhaps point out something that may be obvious to you.  Linfield’s biggest obstacle is not so much whether we have a right to free speech or not, but there is an urgent need to have a much broader discussion where we can explore the relationship between civility and free speech, civility and difficult dialogues, civility and offensive ideas, civility and contentious ideas, civility and one’s right to academic freedom.  There is a looming fear that if and when one speaks against our status quo (of a still very White institution) that there will be repercussions. What are these repercussions? What are we so afraid of? How can we freely speak when we are afraid of repercussions?

Perhaps we need to start thinking seriously about the role of free speech in responding to a campus climate that have historically suppressed ideas and positions of exclusions because the very people who have power continue to use “civility” as a tool to silence difficult dialogues.

Colleges like Linfield with a rise in our student, faculty and staff demographics are no longer just “White” or predominantly heterosexual, yet our hegemonic structures (that are still predominantly White) have remained unchallenged.  An attainment of diversity without making any serious attempts to shift our power structures is also a form of white supremacy. How can we use free speech to open up a space for such conversations and dialogues?

Yet as a result of our shifting demographics we have a dual imperative to serve and protect, and an ethical obligation to support, or not support, certain forms of ideas and free speech that can enter our community and produce harm to the bodies and ideas that we have willingly invited to join our community.  In the marketplace of ideas, diversity sells.  Diversity is our cultural capital.  But we also have an ethical obligation to protect the value of diversity by supporting the kinds of free speech in our classrooms, campus and the public spaces within Linfield that will not cause harm to what we value. As philosopher and philologist Judith Butler has said:

There are principles of radical democracy at stake in the kind of assemblies that I support. If a group of right-wing racists get together and say that they have been excluded from a public space that does not accommodate racists, then they are actually asking for a right to exclude others. They are trying to assemble and achieve public space for the expressed purpose of a racist and exclusionary project. That is hardly democratic in intent or in effect. (https://conversations.e-flux.com/t/judith-butler-on-public-assembly-precarity-and-trump/5145)

So by all means, let’s debate free speech and even offensive free speech, but let’s also make some room for some anger and outrage as legitimate discourses and even non violent civil disobedience to exist as we debate what we value here at Linfield, what we do not value and what we cannot value and what we should not value. To do anything otherwise will put us in the wrong side of history, opening up the space for the wrong kind of justice, and if I may say, a wrong kind of inclusion.