12 March 2017

Bernard on Free Speech, Protests at Middlebury and When It Becomes Unreasonable to Rely on Reason

It had been awhile since I'd met with my invisible friend Bernard. He sounded a little hoarse.

"What's with your voice," I asked.
"I've been shouting at my twitter feed," he said. 
"TV, Bernard. "The phrase is 'shouting at your TV.'"
"You have to change with the times Ron." He paused. "You should have never told me about Twitter. I now get a steady stream of evidence that the world has gone mad."

We ordered our usual. I ordered the Reuben and he - as he usually did - ordered something new to him from DZ Aiken's vast menu, always first marveling at the fact that the portions were so huge and then methodically finishing everything on his plate.

"Hey, you read Charles Murray," he said. "Did you see that people at Middlebury College rioted against him the other day?" He chuckled as he surveyed the vast expanse of food on his plate. "That's one advantage to books over lectures. Nobody reading a book in the corner suddenly leaps out of his chair and riots. You bring a group together, though, and no telling what will happen." And with that he popped an entire matzo ball into his mouth. I took that as an invitation to respond.

"It does seem terribly uncivilized of a university to invite some guy to speak on your campus and then threaten him with violence when he shows up," I said.

Spewing a fine spray of matzo ball as he did so, Bernard spoke. "So you're making the freedom of speech argument?"
"Well not free to chew when you're talking, but yeah. Plus Charles Murray made some really important points in his book Coming Apart about how poverty and job loss is undermining institutions like the family. That's an important conversation. If you have a process for bringing someone onto campus, you should respect it."
"Sure," Bernard said, his Adam's apple bobbing furiously either because of excitement or because he was trying to hastily swallow. "Assuming that the people on a campus are any more monolithic than a population in a country or city. But you're saying that Charles Murray had the right to speak?"
"But that is very different from the right to an audience."
"You are free to speak but that doesn't give you a right to speak on Face the Press."
"Do you mean Face the Nation or Meet the Press?"
"Meet the Nation. Whatever. Charles Murray doesn't have a right to the audience at Middlebury University."
"Well they invited him. Plus, students need to learn how to think critically about ideas they don't like. University is not a place where you go to be protected from controversial ideas. Ideas shouldn't be censored."
"Well not censored but they certainly can be mocked or belittled or demolished with data."

"Which is why they need to be brought into the open. So they can be fought. Bad ideas flourish in dark spaces like closed minds and alt-right websites," I said. My point made, I stopped to enjoy my sandwich. That proved to be a poor debate tactic because it gave Bernard time to make a little speech.

"You are so naive Ron. You think that everyone with a bad idea will suddenly abandon it when they hear a good argument? Do you really think that if you point out that every time blacks have the chance to perform in an arena where prejudice gets demolished by performance - every time they compete in a game or on a track or in music sales or making people laugh - they flourish that a racist will just stop and say, 'Oh. Good point'? Do you think that sane people didn't try to make an argument against eugenics in Germany in the 1930s? Some minds are so simple that they desperately need simple arguments. Nothing is simpler than saying that Jews are plotting to take over the world or that blacks are inferior. You're not going to argue people out of those ideas. Your only real hope is to keep them away from those ideas."

"But those college kids need to hear the arguments and hear them demolished."
"Really," Bernard look at me with a measure of pity. "Why? Why even waste the time? Should we open up our university lecture halls every time some idiot with a feeling that he's mistaken for an idea wants to tell us why women are inferior or why climate change isn't real or why dictatorships are more effective than democracies? Those ideas are toxic. They literally kill people."
"Who decides, Bernard? I think that the burden of proof lies with the people who want to shut down the debate."
"No," he said firmly. "The burden of proof lies with those who think that the idea deserves an audience. There are an infinite number of ideas. When it comes to a university, someone needs to curate those ideas, make a choice about who gets access to the audience and can later say 'I have spoken at Middlebury, Harvard, UC San Diego, and Claremont Colleges. You, too, should listen to my very important ideas.'" 

"But nowadays we don't have curators of ideas" I said. "It's a free for all. It's not like an editor will keep a community from a terrible idea. People in every community will find really bad ideas on the internet as easily as they can find porn. You can't rely on curation of bad ideas once you have the internet. Instead, you have to teach people how to defend themselves against bad ideas, have to vaccinate them with good thinking."

Bernard was quiet. "Well that's a precarious place to rest the future." He ate a little more then said, "It's the most curious thing, Ron. The older I get, the less time I have left, the more I worry about the future I won't even be part of. You'd think it would be the other way around. You're young and you have decades left, longer than you've ever experienced, and you worry about what's going to happen in the next hour or day. You get old and have days left and you start worrying about how things will play out over the next century." He ate some more. "Well, and you worry about what's for dinner."

"To me it's fascinating because really, this is a debate about what we can debate," I said.
"Yes. Or the criteria you use for judging debates." 
"So we agree," I happily exclaimed.
"This fried kreplach," he murmured "It makes me happy."
"You're not really even listening to me, are you?"
His eyes closed as he chewed, he didn't respond.

"But you know, it's a lie we tell ourselves that we got here by reason and we stay here through reason."
"What," I asked.
"In the end, all reason rests on force."
"That's quite a statement."
"Violence is at the base of every argument. At some point you conquer the other guy and say, 'Our values, our norms, our goals are going to rule from this point forward. Not yours.' In the end, we didn't argue with Nazis. We shot them."
"Well that's bleak."
"You don't win all the arguments Ron. Our founding fathers were geniuses who understood Enlightenment principles and the fact that progress was incompatible with reliance on rule by aristocracy and religion. But they didn't argue their way into independence. Middlebury University there in Vermont where your Charles Murray was run off. It was founded by Congregationalists. Do you know what they were? The descendants of Calvinists, the folks who rode over on the Mayflower. What was Calvinists' big idea? Predestination. How at odds is that with the notion of a nation of self-made men or even the ideals of a university? Predestination is at odds with the very notion of progress. Sometimes you can win an argument over generations without resorting to force, the way that the Congregationalists won the argument about predestination with their Calvinist grandparents. That's ideal. Other times, you use force against a few guys with bad ideas before they use their arguments to ruin the lives of millions."
"I don't think that we're going to see something like Nazis again Bernard." 
"I wish I shared your confidence, Ron. But regardless, there are a variety of ways to cut short a life," Bernard said. "Sometimes it is in war or concentration camps. Other times it is by acting like blacks really are inferior and there is nothing that can be done about a black man having a life expectancy ten years shorter than a white man. Any argument that suggests we simply accept that reality is already violent. You can hardly blame some people for responding to such a dangerous idea with the threat of violence. It's unreasonable to think that reason is always enough."

1 comment:

Mark Gawron said...

This is a good discussion which voices some hard thoughts. There is no unquestionable first principle, and even free speech, the best candidate, is not that. Even though free speech is a necessity in a democracy, the founders did not intend for democracy to be unfettered. The system is not closed and comfortably complete. Everything is put in question by something else. And that is even clearer in other parts of the world with slightly different designs for their democracy. We see modern democracies where free speech is checked, like Germany today, where advocating certain ideas about group hatred is a crime. But this is not the happiest situation. It is a last resort. I think denying certain venues, like Berkeley, Middlebury, Harvard, happens all the time, and it is fine, and will continue to happen. But I also think what happened in Berkeley was a big mistake, which benefited Milo Yannapoulos. Once there is an event you have to choose strategies carefully. Strategy One is to read, prepare, attend, argue, and refute. Strategy Two is to counterdemonstrate and beat someone up. For Berkeley, Strategy One was appropriate. When the Nazis marched in Skokie, Strategy Two was appropriate. It depends, and it's not easy to decide. But it;s important to decide.