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Predatory Desires, 3

Great Record article by Rebecca Tauber and Samuel Wolf about the on-going debate over the Chicago Principles. Read the whole thing, along with our previous commentary. I will pull out some highlights over the next three days. Day 3.

Gail Newman, professor of German, who spoke with faculty against the petition and reached out to supporting students organizing against the petition, took issue with the language and divisive nature of the Chicago Statement. “The Statement … ignores the fact that both of these concepts [‘freedom’ and ‘civility’] have been used over and over again to shut down legitimate calls for conditions of safety that would allow the voices of those who haven’t been heard to come forward,” she said.

Examples, please. Newman is an historian (sort of). If something has really “been used over and over again,” it should be easy to come up with scores of examples. But I can’t think of a single one!

First, it is not even clear what Newman means by “shut down.” Williams, and places like Williams, have occasionally banned speakers or restricted their speech. (This is my understanding of the phrase “shut down.” Contrary opinions welcome.) But, prior to banning Derbyshire two years ago, the last similar incident at Williams was . . . Mark Hopkins banning Ralph Waldo Emerson! Does Newman have other examples in mind?

Second, FIRE provides this handy database of speaker controversies. Not all of these are directly analogous to Derbyshire and some involve other issues, like the awarding of honorary degrees. I don’t see a single one in which “freedom” of speech was cited by those doing the banning/disinviting.

Third, the heart of the debate involves “safety.” Newman believes, I suspect, that a Derbyshire speech, even it does not incite physical violence directly, is an act of verbal aggression against (certain) Williams students. That speech hurts them. Since Williams has an obligation to protect them — both because safety is itself important and because a safe environment is a requirement for a good education — we have no choice but to ban speakers like Derbyshire. The problem with this reasoning, obviously, is that there is no good way to draw the line. Many students feel — and who is Gail Newman to dispute their feelings? — that a speech from Charles Murray or James Watson or Larry Summers or Ann Venker or Kris Kobach or insert-any-Trump-supporter is a similar act of verbal aggression, meriting a ban from Williams.

Maud Mandel is way too smart to head down that path . . .

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#1 Comment By Eric Knibbs On January 24, 2019 @ 8:38 am

The Newmans of the faculty believe that offensive speech is literally violence. This is why Reinhardt, in his letter, writes of “speech acts.” The effort is to stop talking about words and start talking about actions because the latter are much more easily forbidden.

#2 Comment By Whitney Wilson ’90 On January 24, 2019 @ 11:00 am

I think EK has framed the issue correctly. For some, certain speech is equivalent to violence and/or intimidation.

While I fall much closer to the free speech absolutist position, I can understand the other side. Many (most) people would agree that a person standing in front of a group of Latin American immigrants repeatedly and agnrily yelling “Go home you bastards, you don’t belong here! Get our of our country!” would be a form of intimidation that may not be protected by our free speech tradition. On the other hand, a scholarly lecture in which an anti-immigration academic discussed why curent levels of immigration are bad for the country should, in my view, always be allowed at the College. But somewhere between those two extremes is a line which separates speech from action/intimidation. I don’t think its always easy to draw that line, and where that line should be drawn can be informed by each person’s life experiences.

In other words, while I essentially agree with the Chicago principles, and would like to see them adopted by the College, I can understand why reasonable people would have a different view.

#3 Comment By anon On January 24, 2019 @ 12:35 pm

Whitney- How do you respond to the general premise that people who hold your view, or even want to debate your view, are in fact guilty of hate speech?

This is as much about listening as it is about speech. The premise of the opposition is that the debate, or any acknowledgment that this debate as valid, is itself predatory and abusive.

The “reasonable people” are arguing that your position (or even any valid debate or exploration of “a” position) is racist/ sexist/ etc.

You are being intimidating by speaking about it at all. The concept of “free speech” is hate speech, according to the hypothesis.

#4 Comment By Eric Knibbs On January 24, 2019 @ 1:24 pm

Whitney: Threats, intimidation, harassment, are forbidden already, from multiple angles and by multiple sources. It is precisely the “scholarly lecture” (or its equivalent) that this debate is about.

#5 Comment By abl On January 24, 2019 @ 3:03 pm

Eric — your use of scare quotes around the phrase “scholarly lecture” is appropriate. My sense is that the anti-Chicago statement view is that what we are talking about are not, in fact, scholarly lectures, but instead threats, intimidation, harassment, etc., couched in vaguely scholarly-seeming terms.

#6 Comment By Eric Knibbs On January 24, 2019 @ 3:17 pm

Activists and also administrators are fond of seeing threats and intimidation wherever possible, even in scholarly lectures without quotes, because claiming offense gives them control over the speech of others.

#7 Comment By abl On January 24, 2019 @ 3:52 pm

Eric —

The fact that there are some who may overuse claims of threats and intimidation for a variety of reasons, including for control purposes, doesn’t mean that any claim of threat or intimidation must therefore be invalid.

Similarly, there are likely claims of “threats and intimidation” that “activists” and others make that you may not understand. There are many words and phrases that feel threatening to women or people of color that many seem entirely unobjectionable to a white man. The fact that you don’t feel threatened or intimidated doesn’t mean that nobody does (nor does it mean that anyone who does must be unreasonable).

And again, calling something a “scholarly lecture” does not necessarily make it a scholarly lecture.

#8 Comment By Anon88 On January 24, 2019 @ 6:01 pm

From afar, it seems that much of the controversy on campuses is about outside, invited speakers which is why I suspect President Mandel is focusing there.

I think “scholarly lectures” – a talk given by a scholar on her area of expertise – should be given absolute support, and I think we’ve seen backlash against protest against such speeches (e.g. Charles Murray at Middlebury and Heather McDonald at Claremont McKenna).

Many other lectures/presentations don’t fit that bill, and some would see it as reasonable to have viewpoint-neutral restrictions on such presentations (e.g. they should not be funded by alumni) while others think it appropriate at this time to think through who a residential community should best deal with gadflies who want to invite speakers of limited educational value (Suzanne Venker, John Derbyshire, Milo Yiannopoulos) for the seeming purpose of provocation, irritation, or worse.

#9 Comment By Eric Knibbs On January 25, 2019 @ 8:10 am

We receive these shopworn platitudes about subjective feelings of threat among special people precisely in the context of a dispute where the only overt threats and intimidation (objectively defined) have come from the side of the purportedly sensitive. Of course, once speech becomes violence then violence in response is totally justified–to say nothing of mere threats and intimidation.

#10 Comment By abl On January 25, 2019 @ 10:03 am

Eric —

How does one “objectively define[]” a threat or intimidation?

#11 Comment By Eric Knibbs On January 25, 2019 @ 3:59 pm

Well, abl should hope that threats have an objective definition. Otherwise who knows, I might feel threatened by abl‘s disingenuous question. How can abl, or indeed anyone, say anything at all, given the absolute minefield of subjectively defined speech offenses out there?

#12 Comment By abl On January 25, 2019 @ 4:58 pm

Eric —

My question isn’t disingenuous at all. Threats and intimidation strike me as being inherently subjective. Whether a statement is meant as a threat will depend entirely on the subjective state of the speaker. And whether a statement threatens or intimidates will depend entirely on the subjective experience of the listener.

To the extent it’s not clear, I’m not proposing a system in which the mere fact that a single person labels a statement as threatening or intimidating conclusively establishes it as such. (I’m not even proposing that threats/intimidation must be exclusively defined subjectively; my question is simply aimed at getting a better sense of the alternative.) There are numerous legal questions (and other questions we ask in our society more broadly) that are defined around subjective tests–few (none?) of which work in this sort of automatic manner. So you may claim to find my statements to be threatening or intimidating, but I don’t think anyone would believe you. Nor, do I think, would anyone believe that my statements were intended to be threatening or intimidating. In short, I’m really not worried. And neither should you be.

Again, though, what do you mean by “threats and intimidation (objectively defined)?” I’ll be honest: it seems to me that you mean something akin to “whatever Eric Knibbs thinks is threatening or intimidating.” But that’s largely because I remain puzzled by the question of how one objectively defines threats and intimidation, so I apologize if I have been unfairly ungenerous in characterizing your viewpoint on this.

#13 Comment By Eric Knibbs On January 26, 2019 @ 2:21 am

As everyone including abl surely knows, threats are communicated intents to harm, generally for purposes of coercion. When a professor stated that she was involved in creating violence in UC Berkeley for Milo Yiannopoulos’s disinvitation and would be ready to do the same at Williams, that was a threat. It would have been a threat even if none of its intended targets felt threatened. That is what I mean by objectively defined.

#14 Comment By PTC On January 26, 2019 @ 8:59 am

Eric- I doubt the speech you link meets the legal definition of a true threat or clear and present danger.

The threat of action in the instance you link is not imminent. It is missing that key element to meet an unprotected speech definition. It is still legal speech.

Of course, how Williams wants to define “free speech” on its campus is up to the school (or as abl likes to say, “Home Depot”).

#15 Comment By Eric Knibbs On January 26, 2019 @ 10:26 am

I didn’t say it was legally actionable, only that it was a threat, which it was.

#16 Comment By PTC On January 26, 2019 @ 11:17 am

Eric- Thanks for the clarification.

I like to add that if the quoted piece is accurate then this was still a public admission of a possible crime, which is incredibly stupid.

#17 Comment By abl On January 26, 2019 @ 11:18 am

Eric —

There’s no need to condescend. Also, your definition is subjective; it’s based on the subjective intent of the speaker.

In any event, I’d be comfortable defining “threats and intimidation” based on the subjective intention of the speaker–and then defining “statements that are threatening or intimidating” based on the subjective experience of the listener. This feels commonsensical to me, but maybe you’ll disagree?

Finally, I’m less confident that the speech you describe was intended in a threatening manner. Honestly, it sounds like braggadocio to me: the person in question was bragging–engaging in puffery–rather than trying to instill fear in others. Then again, I wasn’t there, and tone and context obviously matter a lot. Regardless, it sounds to me that you felt threatened or intimidated by these statements. And so I would be comfortable saying that even if the speaker did not intend to threaten or intimidate, that was nevertheless the effect of the statements (based, of course, on your subjective experience).

#18 Comment By Eric Knibbs On January 26, 2019 @ 11:41 am

No, communicating an intent, not an actual hypothetical intent, is at issue. Words mean things. I’d be fine with your unfounded speculation and definitional confusion if it cut both ways, but here it’s only an excuse, and an empty one.

#19 Comment By abl On January 26, 2019 @ 11:45 am

Eric — I don’t follow.

#20 Comment By PTC On January 26, 2019 @ 3:48 pm

abl- Really? Come on! If words mean nothing or something else in the academy unless the hyperbole is clear or misunderstood then what the heck is the point?