Keywords for the Age of Austerity 23.5 “Free speech”

In the swift backlash against the inspiring victories that students at Mizzou have won against a hostile administration and a culture of institutionalized racism there, the rebellious students are now being charged in some circles as the real authoritarians–fragile, intolerant, determined to score victories against phantoms of their own creation. The right-wing version of this backlash reached an asinine nadir in USA Today when University of Tennessee law scholar Glenn Reynolds called for college students to be barred from voting, since “the 18-year-olds of today aren’t up to [the] task” of having “adult political discussions.” (the article in a nutshell: Students who don’t tolerate disagreement should be disenfranchised if they disagree with Glenn Reynolds). Less absurdly, though with enough finger-wagging of his own, Conor Friedersdorf in the Atlantic weighs in on student activists at Yale who, he’s quite sure, “will look back on their behavior with chagrin.” Friedersdorf’s rather TL;DR article opens itself to various critiques–one of them is its treatment of Yale as on the one hand a litmus test of American higher ed, and on the other a place of special concern because it is where our “elites” are acculturated.

Glenn Reynolds
Glenn Reynolds

Another problem is its misunderstanding of what it takes to be its central principle, that of “free speech.” As I wrote in Keywords for the Age of Austerity #6: The Conversation, many uses of free speech–like its ideological cousins “dialogue” and “civility“–treat is as the tone and tenor of communication, rather than the structural means of communication. Friedersdorf complains of young activists’ “illiberal streak” and their tendency to “lash out” in anger and rage, instead of disagreeing with “civility” and a “measured” tone. One irony is that Friedersdorf criticizes students who demand “safe spaces” as intolerant of discomfort while holding them responsible for making others uncomfortable. How can we hold simultaneously to a view of free speech as the circulation of disagreement while denouncing communication whose tone is disagreeable?

Part of the problem is the phrase itself–“freedom of speech” is a metaphorical phrase, which encodes the political relation between subjects and authorities as a face-to-face, peer-to-peer conversation. (Friedersdorf goes into great detail, in fact, about a student shouting in the face of a Yale administrator.) Hence liberal free-speech scolds’ obsession with tone and their indifference to power. The other problem relates to this last–students, it seems, should tolerate and embrace “discomfort,” while their authority figures–deans, professors, parents–should not. In the New Yorker, Jelani Cobb has eloquently summed  this up as the “free speech diversion,” a kind of sanctimonious performance of concern that dodges what should be the central concern at Yale and Missouri, student disempowerment and cultures of racism, by invoking

a separate principle, one with which few would disagree in the abstract—free speech, respectful participation in class—as the counterpoint to the violation of principles relating to civil rights. This is victim-blaming with a software update, with less interest in the kind of character assassination we saw deployed against Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown than in creating a seemingly right-minded position that serves the same effect.

In other cases, it is simply unclear what, if anything, “free speech” means. In today’s New York Times, Suzanne Nossel of the PEN Center warns that free speech is under attack, but “not from our government or corporations, but from our citizenry. Pitched battles being waged at Yale and the University of Missouri pit speech versus speech in a contest of who and what is entitled to be heard.” “Speech versus speech,” duking it out in some kind of bullring, is an awkward, weird phrase that treats “speech” as if it is not just a voice in an egalitarian conversation, but a being all its own. The awkwardness speaks to the deeper confusion in the essay. It’s not at all clear what “free speech” means in Nossel’s usage until we get to the end: it is “the marketplace of ideas,” where “speech” engages “speech” on terms of equality and civility, and may the best argument win. (As many have pointed out, using the “marketplace” as a metaphor for equality is itself nonsensical).

But student activists well know that this is not how campus politics, or politics anywhere, works. If campuses are a marketplace, they are in the more literal sense: unequal and uneven, where access and amplification depend on your wealth and status. Where something is sold and something, or someone, is bought.

Which brings us to the modern origins of “free speech” as a campus virtue in the first place. Mario Savio’s speech on the Sproul Hall steps in Berkeley in 1964 discussed “free speech” in terms that have barely any relation to the fantasy idea of civility with which it has since been corrupted. Savio’s speech is famous for his description of civil disobedience–the practice of free speech– as “putting your body on the gears” of the machine of an unjust system. It is important to note that in the moments just before that oft-quoted passage, Savio begins by denouncing a version of the university that many of us assume is new or unique to our times–that it is structured like a business and run like one, in which the only ideas of value are those that have “value” to private industry or the military. For Savio, free speech is not about having conversations with campus leaders, but winning the freedom to challenge them. And, if necessary, to prevent “the machine from working at all.”

“We have an autocracy here,” says Savio. He goes on, describing the Berkeley president derisively as a “well-meaning liberal.”

We were told the following: If President Kerr actually tried to get something more liberal out of the Regents in his telephone conversation, why didn’t he make some public statement to that effect? And the answer we received–from a well-meaning liberal–was the following. He said, “Would you ever imagine the manager of a firm making a statement publicly in opposition to his Board of Directors?” That’s the answer.

Well I ask you to consider — if this is a firm, and if the Board of Regents are the Board of Directors, and if President Kerr in fact is the manager, then I tell you something — the faculty are a bunch of employees and we’re the raw material! But we’re a bunch of raw materials that don’t mean to be —  have any process upon us. Don’t mean to be made into any product! Don’t mean — Don’t mean to end up being bought by some clients of the University, be they the government, be they industry, be they organized labor, be they anyone! We’re human beings!

Savio is shouting, most disagreeably, at this point. He should’ve never been allowed to vote.