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Is war peace? Is freedom slavery? Is censorship free speech?
Ulrich Baer, professor of comparative literature at NYU, won’t bother you with the first two, which are slogans from George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. Instead, in an article for the New York Times, he argues for a new view of free speech, one with which censorship is not only compatible, but necessary.
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 [. . .] 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.
At another point, he states:
The recent student demonstrations at Auburn against Spencer’s visit — as well as protests on other campuses against Charles Murray, Milo Yiannopoulos and others — should be understood as an attempt to ensure the conditions of free speech for a greater group of people, rather than censorship.
In politics, analogies to Orwell’s 1984 are often overused, but here, the comparison couldn’t be any clearer. In Baer’s world, censorship is free speech. It’s a startling example of Newspeak that would make Orwell blush. The only way it makes sense at all in its proponent’s mind is because he redefines both terms into a pale reflection of their original meanings.
In addition, Baer’s view “requires the realization that in politics, the parameters of public speech must be continually redrawn to accommodate those who previously had no standing.” In other words, censorship must continually expand as history goes forward.
The Freedom of Speech is An Individual Right
How does Baer reach such an absurd conclusion? For one, he approaches free speech solely from the perspective that it is a public good. He states “Some topics, such as claims that some human beings are inferior to others, or illegal or unworthy of legal standing, are not open to debate because such people cannot debate them on the same terms.” This is the mainstay of Baer’s argument, and he gives examples of Holocaust deniers arguing with victims as well as the current debate over transgenderism.
There’s so much wrong with this that it’s hard to know where to get started. For one, free speech is not a public good; it’s an individual right. We all have a right to our bodies, our minds, and a right to speak our minds. We also have a right to ignore speech we don’t like and a right to not engage with hateful people. That’s why those calling campus leftists “snowflakes” are correct to do so. These students have every right to ignore or protest those they disagree with, but instead they try to ban speakers and pass laws to censor them.
The reason Baer misses out on all of this is because he approaches free speech solely from a public goods perspective. But even from this point of view, there are clear problems with turning speech into a popularity contest. For example, the Senate, the House, the presidency, and perhaps even soon the Supreme Court are controlled by Republicans. Would leftists really be fans of censorship laws created by the Republican Party? The founders were correct to enshrine speech in the very first amendment of our Bill of Rights: it is too important for the government to get involved with. Baer doesn’t address this point at all.
As part of his overall “people cannot debate [certain topics] on the same terms” argument, Baer believes it’s problematic that someone’s experience (e.g. transgender person’s or holocaust victim’s) can be denied in a discussion. His solution is censoring the denier. But the much more simple solution (and one compatible with actual free speech) is for the denied to move one level lower, and argue against the denier’s premise, i.e. that their experience does really matter. Baer himself says that in the 80s and 90s that “philosophical work was carried out [. . .] to legitimate experience — especially traumatic experience — which had been dismissed for decades as unreliable, untrustworthy and inaccessible to understanding.” Good. Then make those philosophical arguments and persuade people.
In other words, this is just sheer intellectual laziness on the part of Baer. Rather than continuing to debate, he wants to shut down debate and censor people.
Here’s the problem with that: if he’s is so confident on issue X that he’s willing to censor his opposition, why not continue to debate? If he holds his views for rational reasons, he should be able to explain those reasons to others, explain why he doesn’t find their objections persuasive, and be able to convince at least some in the long run. If he is unable to overcome those objections even for himself, perhaps it’s because he’s not knowledgeable or perhaps it’s because he’s wrong, both reasons not to censor his opposition in the first place.
Finally, to put the nail in the coffin, Baer’s position is either contradictory or nonsensical. If Baer is against any view that rejects someone’s personal experience because it denies their “humanity,” then he should be consistent with that and argue that individuals with schizophrenia are having their free speech violated. This is obviously nonsensical. My guess is that he would not say this, meaning he’d admit there are some personal experiences that should be rejected.
But if he wants to hold this view, the question naturally becomes “how do we figure out which experiences should be rejected and which shouldn’t?” The best answer to this question is free and open debate. People should hash out the issue until one side wins. Instead, Baer’s position assumes he’s right on the specific issues. This suggests to me that his true position is that the ever-changing “parameters of free speech” should be continually redrawn, but only on a leftist basis. In other words, this is just a philosophy of censoring those he disagrees with.
In 1984, the totalitarian state of Oceania was governed by four ministries. The Ministry of Love inflicted misery and fear on the population. The Ministry of Peace created endless war. The Ministry of Plenty kept the people in poverty. The Ministry of Truth changed the facts and rewrote history.
If Baer gets his way, we’d have to add a fifth to Orwell’s collection: the Ministry of Free Speech, which decides what we’re allowed to say.
As much as I find that a horrendous idea, I’m in favor of Baer’s right to say it. Unfortunately, he and campus leftists might not offer others the same opportunity.
EDITOR’s NOTE: The views expressed are those of the author, they are not representative of The Libertarian Republic or its sponsors.
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