Reflecting on my previous post, I wonder if the problem with certain strains of modern progressivism is that people are so eager to live in a society marked by equal access to justice and prosperity that they are willing to take a hazardous shortcut. They want progress to be a guided a process. This, unfortunately, is not the way things work – nor should it be. Limiting speech that doesn’t perfectly mirror our most lofty ideals does not result in progress. It produces a stultified atmosphere in which the safest ideas that appeal to the lowest common denominator – the boring, if admirable, ideas that every moderately intelligent and empathetic person can agree on – are promoted at the expense of ideas that are more risky or transgressive. Yes, we want a more equal and just society, in which people are not persecuted for their sexual preferences or identity, receive equal pay for equal work, and don’t die of preventable causes. But we absolutely cannot build that society in a vacuum of political correctness. Progress, whatever form it takes, must be an emergent product of a free and fair competition among ideas. The surest way to build a better society that is sufficiently resilient is to put our best ideas into the sometimes rotten stew of public discourse and see how they perform. Only after ideas have been vetted against the cold filter of empirical reality, in a world rife with unsavory and ill-informed opinions, will we know how good they really are.
An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.
What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.
If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.
I’ve been told repeatedly never to open a piece with a quotation. Having digested that advice, I’ve gone ahead and opened this piece with three. Never mind that the list of quoted individuals includes a hedonistic and lecherous Irishman, a staunch opponent of the increasingly abused and perpetually misunderstood concept of cultural relativism, and a radical pinko intellectual. The more pressing fact is that they all have a point. Unfortunately, this is a point that a growing segment of purportedly progressive academics seem to have missed. A disconcerting wave of liberal censorship is flourishing on college campuses across the United States. That this censorship is advanced in the name of progressive values is, quite frankly, offensive. It is probably reasonable to assume that the most passionate advocates of moves to institute the use of “trigger warnings” when potentially uncomfortable subjects are under discussion, establish “safe spaces” where people who voice culturally insensitive perspectives are derided and shunned, and prohibit controversial speakers from speaking at university events, have laudable motivations rooted in a sincere concern over the comfort and psychological well-being of other. But the ground they tread is incredibly dangerous, fraught with all the trappings of incipient autocracy.
The problems with this trend are myriad and I have written about them elsewhere. To begin with, there are no universal criteria for defining what does and does not count as offensive or threatening speech. It is rooted entirely in the subjective experience of the listener, and only loosely bound by the communicative intent of the speaker. As a result, the realm of what counts as a subject worthy of “trigger warnings” or exclusion from a “safe space” is potentially infinite. As Wendy Kaminer put it:
This reliance on subjectivity, in the interest of equality, is a recipe for arbitrary, discriminatory enforcement practices, with far-reaching effects on individual liberty. The tendency to take subjective allegations of victimization at face value — instrumental in contemporary censorship campaigns — also leads to the presumption of guilt and disregard for due process in the progressive approach to alleged sexual assaults on campus.
This is a dangerously misguided approach to justice. “Feeling realities” belong in a therapist’s office. Incorporated into laws and regulations, they lead to the soft authoritarianism that now governs many American campuses. Instead of advancing equality, it’s teaching future generations of leaders the “virtues” of autocracy.
More fundamentally, the very notion that people have a right not to be offended should be anathema to anyone sympathetic to the intellectual traditions at the heart of the American Experiment. Take for example the bloviating walrus Rush Limbaugh, who makes millions of dollars by spewing abominable invective across the a.m. airwaves. The man is a fount of vile opinions, nurtured on ignorance and paranoia. But anyone who truly endorses the values expressed in the founding documents of the U.S. constitution should, at the very least, be willing to tolerate his right to express his views.
On a still more elementary level, the idea of censoring views should be appalling to anyone who cherishes the sense of intellectual freedom at the core of the Enlightenment. The freedom to express opinions, however repugnant, is crucial to the growth of knowledge and the cultivation of social progress. The proponents of the modern wave of liberal censorship seem to have conflated silencing bigots with the eradication of bigotry. This, I suspect, is not the most effective tactic to employ in combating the more regressive elements of modern society. It has also revealed itself to be an entirely non-metaphorical slippery-slope, as some students have taken to protesting more than objective expressions of bigotry. Following the expression of some accurate (if less-than eloquently phrased) opinions on modern Islam, students at UC Berkely petitioned to rescind a invitation for comedian Bill Maher to speak at the Fall 2014 commencement Ceremony. The petition read:
The students at the University of California at Berkeley represent a diverse array of students from all walks of life. Every semester a commencement speaker is given the privilege of inspiring a class of talented and capable students. This year, UC Berkeley has chosen to invite Bill Maher to speak. Bill Maher has made comments thata are blantantly bigoted and racist and has no respect for the values UC Berkeley students and administration stand for. In a time where climate is a priority for all on campus, we cannot invite an individual who himself perpetuates a dangerous learning environment. Bill Maher’s public statements on various religions and cultures are offensive and his dangerous rhetoric has found its way into our campus communities. Too many students are marginalized by his remarks and if the University were to bring this individual as a commencement speaker they would not be supporting these historically marginalized communities. It is the responsibility of the University of California to protect all students and uphold a standard of civility. Sign this petition to boycott the decision to invite Bill Maher as a commencement speaker at the U.C. Berkeley Fall 2014 Commencement Ceremony.
Pure nonsense, of course. And also, in its quivering and fervent expression of coddled entitlement, entirely reprehensible. This kind of clumsy, rule-of-thumb invocation of the principle of cultural relativism is indicative of a shallow understanding of the way the world actually works and a pitiful unwillingness to live in the world as it actually is. The views expressed in this petition are not those espoused by people with an enlightened sense of sensitivity. They are the opinions of first-world brats who – to borrow of phrase from Hunter S. Thompson – don’t have the ingredients to “live out where the real wind blows.” University campuses are designed to be places where students are confronted with ideas that make them feel uncomfortable, not biological preserves for milquetoast hipsters and liberal arts students who have somehow come up with the bizarre notion that the world is not a dangerous place and that life therein isn’t hard. If you get through college without running into views that offend you, that make you question long-held preconceptions, and get out into the world with the poisonous notion that everyone’s views are equally valid and that you have a right not to be offended, you should ask for your money back. Everyone has a right to express their views. The unfortunate fact that many of these views turn out to be unsubstantiated garbage or steeped in prejudice, ignorance, and/or hatred doesn’t change that. Trigger warnings aren’t a path to a civil environment wherein no one says anything hurtful. They are a path to a monochrome and tedious world wherein no one says anything interesting.