The Chronicle Review

The Free-Speech Fallacy

Geoffrey Moss for The Chronicle Review

February 26, 2016

On February 3, Jasbir Puar presented a paper at Vassar College critiquing Israeli policy toward Palestinians. Puar, an associate professor of women and gender studies at Rutgers University, is an influential intellectual. Her 2007 book, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times, has been cited over 1,700 times, a level of impact few academics achieve in a lifetime. Puar is controversial. She is also an agenda-setting scholar: Her lecture was sponsored by eight different departments.

On February 17, The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed about Puar’s lecture, titled "Majoring in Anti-Semitism at Vassar." It was written by Mark G. Yudof, former president of the University of California, and Ken Waltzer, professor emeritus of history at Michigan State University. The article attributes to Puar the claim that Israel allows Palestinians only the bare minimum needed to survive, and that Israel mines the organs of dead Palestinians for scientific research, evidence used to accuse her of reviving the "blood libel" against Jews. The authors conclude by urging "faculty and administrators … to confront this wave of anti-Semitism with the primary tools at their disposal: free speech and rigorous academic inquiry. This is what a university is for, after all."

A central purpose of the university is to allow disputes about significant moral and political issues to take place in the classroom instead of on the battlefield. Free speech is essential to that mission. According to Yudof and Waltzer, it is not the policies of Israel that explain its lack of support on campus, but leftist ideology, which it urges those in positions of authority to condemn. Israel’s standing on campus may be a result of leftist ideology, or it may be a response to Israeli policies (or some combination of both, or neither). It’s a contentious political issue, just the sort that a commitment to free speech requires we leave to open debate.

But an institution controlled by people who condemn one of the positions in advance lacks an atmosphere conducive to open debate. Indeed, it’s hard to avoid reading Yudof and Waltzer as advocating this anti-free-speech message when they write "hatred of Israel and Jews should not implicitly be characterized as merely another perspective to be debated."

A university controlled by people who condemn one of the positions in advance lacks an atmosphere conducive to open debate.
Yudof’s and Waltzer’s rhetorical excesses ("hatred of Jews," "medieval blood libel") have predictably led to a wave of violent threats against Puar, which of course strongly discourages other academics from taking similar positions in public. Their argument is presented as a defense of the ideal of free speech against a campus culture hostile to it. But its explicit recommendations and easily foreseeable effects would in fact erode that very ideal.

The article’s portrayal of left-wing social justice as a threat to free speech continues a theme dating back to the fall, when nationwide campus protests calling for racial justice were represented as threats to free speech. Yet it has traditionally been left-leaning students and faculty who lead campus protests in support of social justice and free speech.

To understand this paradox, we must look to those scholars who have been central in framing recent campus debates. Well before the events of the fall, this group produced a body of work that underlies the narrative that academe suffers from a leftist ideological uniformity that conflicts with free speech. The New York University psychologist Jonathan Haidt is a key figure here. Haidt’s article in The Atlantic, "The Coddling of the American Mind," written with Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, was the most prominent summation of this view. But it follows the work of many others.

In September, the Heterodox Academy was formed. Its stated mission is to promote "viewpoint diversity" in academe as a way to encourage objectivity, free speech, and better research. In a much-discussed article published in Brain and Behavioral Sciences, six members of Heterodox Academy argued that a "liberal progress narrative" dominates academe. They describe it as the belief that traditional societies suffered from unjust inequality, such as exclusion of women from higher education, but were then overcome by modern, liberal democratic-welfare societies. According to this narrative, the dominance of leftist ideology results in a left-wing "moral matrix," which creates an "environment of intolerance for diversity of ideas and dissent."

Haidt, a founder of the Heterodox Academy, describes "left-leaning" institutions as "cut off" from the moral vocabulary required to defend freedom of speech, and led by social-justice concerns that chill free speech. John McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia University and Heterodox Academy member, gives anti-racism as an example, arguing that "antiracism is now a religion…. Certain questions are not to be asked, or if asked, only politely." The goal of the Heterodox Academy is to persuade universities to hire scholars who question this narrative, thereby restoring free speech.

What, exactly, is the tension between antiracism and free speech? If I tell you that you shouldn’t say racist things, am I really denying you the right to say those things? I told my mother the other day that she shouldn’t tell me that I am overweight. Was I challenging her freedom of speech? I tell students in my mathematical logic class they shouldn’t make certain errors. Is my class a hotbed of illiberalism? Is free speech really imperiled when activists argue that a football team shouldn’t be called "the Redskins"?

The political diversity at issue in the writings of Heterodox Academy members is the narrow spectrum between liberals and conservatives. These categories are occasionally used as if they naturally corresponded to "Democrat" and "Republican." This bizarrely narrow view of political diversity conveniently fits into an argument to hire conservatives, but not Marxists or critical race theorists. "Liberal" and "leftist" are used interchangeably throughout their writings, as if there isn’t a feminist critique of liberalism. Where are the Marxists or feminists in economics, a discipline that is, according to Haidt, "the only social science that has some real diversity"?

In a 2014 paper published in the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz, a Heterodox Academy member and professor of law at Georgetown University, decries liberal overrepresentation in law schools. But again, most feminists, Marxists, and critical race theorists do not identify as liberals, and law schools notoriously lack advocates of these standard leftist positions. This failing of political diversity is rendered invisible by the partisan setup of this research program.

Heterodox Academy members trumpet their narrow notion of political diversity as a boon to objectivity and better research. In 2006 Steven Pinker, a Heterodox Academy member and Harvard psychologist, lamented the lack of investigation into certain "dangerous ideas." An example he gives: "Would damage from terrorism be reduced if the police could torture suspects in special circumstances?" But what about the absent questions he doesn’t mourn? Haidt has written off the field of anthropology on the grounds that it takes seriously the question of whether the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel is justifiable. So we need "political diversity" to seriously consider whether we should employ torture, but there is no legitimate political perspective, even one which many of us reject, that could make sense of an analogy between apartheid South Africa and Israel?

In Haidt’s tweet linking Yudof’s and Waltzer’s Wall Street Journal op-ed, he declared Puar’s talk a threat to the safety of Jewish students, laying responsibility on the campus culture. He mentions nothing about Puar’s free-speech rights. I must confess failure to see in any of this the vaunted payoff of objectivity.

Recent campus protests were an opportunity to test out the Heterodox Academy’s specious narrative. Students have voiced opposition to racial bias. The most common complaints concern the persistent lack of faculty of color, and damaging racial stereotypes. But what does this have to do with free speech?

Students are right to be upset when they raise genuine concerns and are met with evasion. Of course, being told that merely taking seriously their concerns is a threat to free speech would be even more upsetting, though that is in fact the official position of the Heterodox Academy, whose members argue that social-justice concerns, which explicitly include, as we have seen, antiracism, are threats to free speech.

All year, the charge of imperiling free speech has been used to silence oppressed and marginalized groups and to push back against their interests. Shockingly, this misuse of free speech is defended, explicitly and repeatedly, by absurd arguments that place freedom of speech in opposition to social justice, activism, and even liberalism. Students subjected to this misshapen conception of freedom of speech would be well within their rights to resist, on grounds of basic plausibility. Or knowledge of history. The journalist A.H. Raskin, describing the Berkeley campus unrest in the 1960s, writes:

The proudly immoderate zealots … pursue an activist creed — that only commitment can strip life of its emptiness, its absence of meaning in a great "knowledge factory" like Berkeley.

And who were these activist "zealots," burning with a commitment to social justice? They were students advocating for open political discussion. From the vantage point of the current debate, it is ironic that they became known as the Free Speech Movement.

Jason Stanley is a professor of philosophy at Yale University. He is the author, most recently, of  How Propaganda Works (Princeton University Press).