A Response to Scott Alexander

Scott Alexander (SA) has provided advice to the free speech movement in general and to a student group at Harvard University in particular. If you want more people, especially on the liberal left or within the social justice movement, to support free speech, he says, then you should not invite speakers just because they are controversial.

SA picks AEI scholar and social scientist Charles Murray as an example. In March, protesting students at Middlebury College shut down Murray when he was invited to speak and debate a local professor. SA defends Murray’s right to speak, but says that if a college invites him or any other controversial speaker it should be because they are interested in his ideas, not because they want ”to invite a generic offensive person and he fits the bill.”

Does SA really believe that the motives behind an invitation to a controversial speaker make any difference to people who believe that he or she shouldn’t be allowed to speak at a given college? I doubt it. To them, the speaker (in this case Charles Murray) is the problem, it’s not whether the organizers had a sincere interest in Murray’s ideas or just were looking for ”the ugliest and most hateable person” they could find.

Allison Stanger, the professor at Middlebury who was supposed to debate Murray, has deep disagreements with Murray and planned to take his arguments apart as best as she could. It didn’t matter to the students. They didn’t want to have Murray in person at the college.

And by the way, there is no such thing as ”a generic offensive person.” The sense of offense and insult is always in the eye of the beholder, it’s not something one can measure in any objective way. What is offensive to SA, may sound like sweet poetry to someone else. (Recall the U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan II’s remark that “one man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric.”) Even within the same religious or ethnic or political community, there may be different perceptions of what is offensive to the group and its members. This remark may seem banal. But we should keep in mind its truth at a time of grievance fundamentalism when people play the offense card to silence voices whose opinions they don’t like. This truth is especially important for the academic world whose business is knowledge production.

SA has criticized the Open Campus Initiative on Harvard University for wanting to raise awareness of free speech by inviting controversial speakers. It later turned out that the student group’s intention was to promote ”ideological diversity for the student body where it is believed to be lacking,” not just to pick the most controversial speakers. They also said that later on that they would invite speakers from the left.

There are several problems with SA’s reasoning. Let me deal with a few.

1. SA’s insists that if we invoke free speech to justify some unpopular idea, this idea becomes a little more tolerated and free speech becomes a little less popular. He doesn’t provide any evidence for this debatable assertion. First, if you invite a speaker that is perceived to be controversial to the audience, it doesn’t follow that you are doing so to defend this person’s ideas. Second, toleration of unpopular ideas doesn’t imply that you agree with those ideas or endorse them. Toleration means that you have to live with ideas that you hate or dislike without trying to ban them or shut them down through violence, threats, or intimidation. To be tolerant of bad ideas implies that we express our disagreement and discontent to refute them. Tolerance makes it possible to manage disagreements and diversity without resorting to violence and bans. This is what the First Amendment is all about. It is still worth remembering Michael Walzer’s concise words on the essence of tolerance: ”Toleration makes difference possible, difference makes toleration necessary.”

2. SA believes that controversy and controversial speakers in and by themselves are to be avoided if student groups want to promote free speech.

First, according to the dictionary controversy means ”a lot of disagreement or argument about something, usually because it affects or is important to many people.” A controversy is ”a discussion marked especially by the expression of opposing views.” A person is controversial when he or she ”is causing disagreement and discussion.” The opposite of controversial is undisputable, agreeable, certain, irrefutable, and uncontested. Who wants a speaker whose views are ”undisputable”, ”irrefutable,” or ”uncontested”? Maybe in a political party or religious community, but not at a university. What’s the point of inviting a speaker with opinions on issues of the day if you don’t want to have debate and controversy?

Questions of politics, religion, culture, philosophy, social science, history, and economics, areas with no consensus on the fundamental issues among professionals and lay people, are inherently controversial and therefore prone to controversy. Controversy is to be welcomed at universities if we want them to be institutions of knowledge production.

Second, SA posits that controversial speakers and controversy will reinforce polarization. Maybe. Or maybe not. A key explanation for the growing polarization in society and online is that more and more people are living in bubbles where they only are being exposed to point of views with which they agree. Ideological self-segregation has been harmful to our capacity for tolerance. Tolerance doesn’t come naturally to human beings. It has to be taught and cultivated. Our instincts are not in favor of toleration. In order to grow and mature as human beings, we have to learn to grapple with ideas that challenge our beliefs and make us uncomfortable.

Further, why am I not sure controversy will create more polarization as SA suggests? Well, many empirical studies on social psychology indicate that when people find themselves in groups of like-minded types, they are especially likely to move to extremes. According to Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein, providing room for ideological diversity may help fight extremism and destructive polarization. ”A good way to create an extremist group, or a cult of any kind,” writes Sunstein in his book Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide, “is to separate members from the rest of society. (…) With such separation, the information and views of those outside can be discredited, and hence nothing will disturb the process of polarization as group members continue to talk. Deliberating enclaves of like-minded people are often a breeding ground for extreme movements.”

This doesn’t mean that individuals and society won’t benefit from deliberations within communities. It promotes the development of positions that would otherwise be invisible or silenced. Many social movements have been made possible through this route, including the civil rights movement and the LGBTQ rights movement. However, it is important to ensure that such enclaves are not walled off from competing views and that there is an exchange of views between members of a group and those who disagree with them.

It is self-insulation rather than group deliberation as such that carries with it the most serious dangers.

Jonathan Haidt, a professor of moral psychology at New York University and founder of Heterodox Academy, in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal compared the ideological orthodoxy among some students to the kind of fundamentalism that characterizes some religious communities. Though the majority of college students want to learn, Haidt said, there are ”some true believers who have reoriented their lives around the fight against evil,” and ”they are transforming the campus from a citadel of intellectual freedom into a holy space—where white privilege has replaced original sin, the transgressions of class and race and gender are confessed not to priests but to ‘the community,’ victim groups are worshiped like gods, and the sinned-against are supplicated with ‘safe spaces’ and ‘trigger warnings.’”

Unfortunately, these fundamentalists have been given the heckler’s veto on some campuses, and often they are granted it by a weak-willed university administration.

It seems to me that the Open Campus Initiative wants to counter this troubling trend. That’s a good thing. SA’s criticism would be valid if the vast majority of students and faculty were in agreement with the ”controversial speakers” the Open Campus Initiative wanted to invite, and if the student group inviting him was the only one at Harvard. That would not promote ideological diversity. Both premises are not correct in this case.

3. SA defends Charles Murray’s right to free speech in a problematic way. He says: ”If Charles Murray believes what he says is important and thinks saying it makes the world a better place, then he is the sort of person whom free speech exists to defend.”

What if Charles Murray doesn’t believe that what he says is important and that it won’t make the world a better place? Would he then be the sort of person whom free speech shouldn’t defend? And who is in a position to decide what is important and what makes the world a better place? I am sure Milo Yiannopoulos thinks that what he says on college campuses is important and might make the world a better place, though I and SA may be of a different opinion. SA fears that people like Milo Yiannopolous undermine free speech as part of the commons when he says outrageous things that seek the protection of free speech. Again, who’s to decide? The only way to counter Milo Yiannopolous as long as he doesn’t incite violence is to ignore him or talk back: mock him, ridicule him, insult him, debunk his arguments, and take them apart. But don’t ban him and don’t use violence to silence him.

It seems to me that by calling for a moratorium on inviting speakers that ideological fundamentalists want to ban and prevent from speaking on college campuses, SA is trying to treat symptoms with the wrong medicine rather than curing the disease with the right medicine.

Flemming Rose is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of The Tyranny of Silence.