July 13, 2018
Far from being a controversial figure like conservative judge Robert Bork, whose confirmation was denied by the Senate in 1987, Brett Kavanaugh will probably be confirmed to the Supreme Court. There is a decent chance, moreover, that Ruth Bader Ginsburg, now 85, will be replaced by a conservative judge in the near future. So, our highest court could have a 6–3 conservative majority, which might hold for a decade or longer.
That is good news for many reasons. And yet, thanks to progressive academia, our great tradition of free speech is under threat, so we must fight to preserve this distinctly American value.
Before embarking on my weekly polemic, though, I need to clear up a common misconception concerning the First Amendment: namely, that free speech is not absolute, but rather limited because, among other reasons, in the private sector it is determined by an employer’s discretion. “The First Amendment,” writes law professor Jeannette Cox,
limits only the government’s ability to suppress speech. It provides that “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech.” Courts have extended this prohibition to all federal, state, and local government officials but have consistently emphasized that the First Amendment’s strictures do not apply to private-sector employers. Accordingly, the only people who enjoy First Amendment protection vis-à-vis their employers are people employed by the government.
In short, like all the most important values, free speech is fundamentally a cultural and interpersonal practice. In a legal sense, free speech can go only so far. Thus, if we are not to be trammeled by exceedingly touchy employers—many of them cowards who submit to political correctness for lucre’s sake—we must collectively cherish this value. Certainly it is indispensable to our flourishing, and to the life of the mind in particular.
It is just here that progressive academia is so pernicious. “Consider the classic liberal justification for free speech,” says john powell.
“Your right to throw punches ends at the tip of my nose.” This is taken to mean that speech can never cause any kind of injury. But we have learned a lot about the brain that John Stuart Mill didn’t know. So these students are asking, “Given what we now know about stereotype threat and trauma and P.T.S.D., where is the tip of our nose, exactly?”
powell holds the Robert D. Haas Chancellor’s Chair in Equity and Inclusion and professorships in African-American studies, ethnic studies, and law at Berkeley. The professor does not capitalize his name because he believes he is “part of the universe, not over it, as capitals signify.” This unintentionally hilarious decision, I submit, tells us all we need to know about powell’s perspective on subjects like free speech. For so delicate is this blockhead that he thinks capitalizing his name is a moral evil, it placing him “over” the universe.
Stunningly stupid as this is, it is of immense psychological interest in regard to understanding the contemporary progressive mind, because what it reveals is a fundamentally weak man, who will not accept life’s inherently competitive character. powell extends this aversion even to the universe itself, not wanting to appear “over” it. Yet how does this professor, with all his fancy titles, square his considerable worldly rank with his sublimely idiotic all-lowercase name, which takes care not to offend Mars, Neptune, and, quite literally, everything?
Let’s consider powell’s claims. First, it is not clear what he means by “stereotype threat.” In any case, it is important to know that, as the excellent social psychologist Lee Jussim has shown, stereotypes are not necessarily inaccurate or wrong in a moral sense. On the contrary, in Jussim’s summary, “based on rigorous criteria, laypeople’s beliefs about groups correspond well with what those groups are really like. This correspondence is one of the largest and most replicable effects in all of social psychology.”
What powell really means, perhaps, is “implicit bias.” If so, he faces insuperable problems, because as I noted in a recent column, “implicit bias” does not predict discriminatory behavior, and changes to “implicit bias” do not change behavior, either. The reason is that bias is essential to reason itself, a truth I show in my essay in the current issue of New English Review.
Moving on to “trauma and P.T.S.D.,” we encounter another epistemic obstacle—the fact, that is to say, that there are no objective criteria for establishing these concepts, people responding to events in endlessly different ways. Although psychiatrists do have medical training, psychiatry is not an empirical science so much as a humanist endeavor. And however well-meaning, it does quite a lot of harm, psychiatrists relying on their subjective judgments to “treat” people’s subjectively described conditions. At its worst, this leads to what Peter Hitchens rightly calls “the ADHD fantasy,” and—as Theodore Dalrymple, himself a retired psychiatrist, has demonstrated—to the evasion of personal moral responsibility.
Martha Nussbaum was once sexually assaulted. Horrible though that was, the very thoughtful woman got over it and refused to see herself as a victim. Compare her attitude with that of Viana Roland, a political-science student at Berkeley who, during Ben Shapiro’s speech at that university last year, chanted, “Speech is violent, we will not be silent!” with other students. Asked to explain why she did so, Roland said,
Folks in my family pick strawberries, and some of them are undocumented. Shapiro says that systemic racism is a myth. That is an apologetics [sic] for white supremacy, an ideology with a long legacy of violence. That violence might be an abstraction to some people, but it’s not abstract to me.
Needless to say, the belief “that systemic racism is a myth” is not obviously a justification for “white supremacy.” It is incumbent upon Roland to make an argument, as Shapiro himself generally does. It won’t do to just assert her moral disapproval, to claim that his “speech is violent.”
Roland’s interpretive perspective is suggested by her first sentence. Some of her family members are illegal immigrants; anxious about their status, she conflates Shapiro’s belief with it, probably because on a psychological level she conflates immigration law—by virtue of which her family could be removed from the U.S.—with “white supremacy.”
Roland is a prime example of the influence of professors like powell. As one might expect from someone who so values Stoic thought, Nussbaum admirably chose not to live her life as though she needs “a safe space.” Roland is precisely the opposite, and in language such as “an ideology with a long legacy of violence,” we can hear her stupid progressive professors speaking through her.
I do not mean to suggest that traumatic experiences don’t happen, nor that PTSD is altogether invalid. The point, again, is that we have no objective criteria here, so it would be foolish, as a matter of public policy, to limit speech on grounds of “psychological harm.” That would make for an utterly subjective slippery slope, to which there’d be no logical end.
if free speech does take precedence over every other constitutional principle and every other community principle, then perhaps we should no longer claim to be weighing or balancing competing principles or values. We should perhaps frankly admit that we have agreed in advance to have our community sundered, racial and sexual minorities demeaned, the dignity of trans people denied, that we are, in effect, willing to be wrecked by this principle of free speech.