Tuesday, March 07, 2017

A Defense of Middlebury's Students

[Update: An important question for the Middlebury protesters is whether they would have prevented, say, this conversation from happening. If not, how was his conversation with Allison Stanger* different? If yes, can't they see how destructive that is to the possibility of real progress? Seriously, watch Charles Murray and Andy Stern discuss basic income and then try to tell me that Murray doesn't deserve to share his views with college students, or college students don't deserve to hear them. Who benefits from not letting him talk? Not the student, that's for sure!]

John Patrick Leary provides a useful service by attempting to defend the indefensible protest at Middlebury College last week. His defense lays bare the misunderstandings that underpin arguments to shut down speaking events after self-styled "respectful requests" to have them cancelled fail. Let's go through them.

But first let me push two issues completely to the margins. First, I propose to say nothing positive or negative about Charles Murray or his ideas. I find the obligatory judgment passed on a person's ideas, whether before defending or questioning his right to express them, tiresome. [Update: Is Coming Apart worth taking seriously? Let's just say that when Andrew Gelman takes something seriously it's generally worth it.] Second, I will make nothing of the intensity of the protests. For my purposes, all that matters is that they intended to shut the lecture down and that they succeeded.

Leary begins by defining "free speech" and "academic freedom". In both cases, he makes two important moves that shift the conversation to a ground that he at least has a hope of holding. First, he defines the relevant freedom as narrowly and technically as possible; second, he considers only whether it can reasonably be granted to Charles Murray. Both moves are misunderstandings of what is at stake.

Free speech is not merely speech that is covered by the First Amendment. As a Dane, for example, I also have a right to free speech, but the First Amendment offers me no particular protections here at home. Free speech is not a clause in a constitution but an idea, a value. The patriarch of a family can extend free speech rights to his family, or he can refuse to extend such rights. The CEO of a corporation can likewise announce that employees have the right to speak freely or not. And a college campus can, completely separate from the question of whether or how it is bound by the First Amendment, cultivate the value of free of speech.

Likewise, academic freedom is not merely an aspect of the employer-employee relationship within a university. Leary, like the protestors, has a very parochial sense of "community" in this case. The protesters did not just violate the community standards of Middlebury but also the standards of a much larger place called Academia. That is why people from as far away as Denmark are offended by the protester's disrespect. They did not turn their back just on Murray but the entire institution of higher education. Moreover, Murray was a guest of Middlebury. He had been presumably been invited with the promise that he would be able to speak his mind, i.e., that he would be covered by the spirit of academic freedom, if not the pedantic letter of it that Leary proposes.

But the most important problem with Leary's argument is that he thinks the issue turns on Charles Murray's freedom of speech, Charles Murray's academic freedom. In fact, it was the students who invited Murray that were "shut down" last week. To them, "freedom of speech" actually meant the freedom to listen to ideas that interest them. To them, "academic freedom" meant the freedom to invite a scholar (or writer or entertainer or policy maker, or, yes, damn blast yer intellex, even a demagogue) to satisfy their curiosity. These are the students whose rights need defending today.

*The video of the event is an excellent document, since we for once have an adequate representation of exactly what the protesters were preventing. (Normally, either the protesters fail or the presentation doesn't exist.) I think Middlebury's actions here are very much to their credit. Patton's email to the community is also exemplary. It will be interesting to follow the process.

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