E-Pluribus | December 15, 2023
The case against speech codes; a disturbing forerunner to "diversity statements"; and there's more to the antisemitism problem than speech.
A round-up of the latest and best musings on the rise of illiberalism in the public discourse:
James Kirchick: Campus Speech Codes Should Be Abolished
“I disagree with what you say, but I‘ll defend to the death your right to say it” is popular in theory but more difficult in practice. Writing at the New York Times, James Kirchick asserts that the recent Ivy League-president dust up before Congress illustrates why trying to play favorites with free speech doesn’t work. Higher education’s experiment with campus speech codes needs to end.
[T]wo wrongs don’t make a right. If the problem with campus speech codes is the selectivity with which universities penalize various forms of bigotry, the solution is not to expand the university’s power to punish expression. It’s to abolish speech codes entirely.
Universities have a vital role to play in fostering a culture of free and open debate, and the presidents were right to draw a distinction between speech and conduct. Threats directed at individual students are inconsistent with a university’s goal of fostering a productive educational environment, not to mention against the law. Students can and should face disciplinary action and even expulsion for certain behavior: acts of violence, true threats (defined by the Supreme Court as “serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals”) and discriminatory harassment (which the court delineates as behavior “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively bars the victim’s access to an educational opportunity or benefit”). Students can and should also be punished for disrupting classes, occupying buildings or employing the so-called heckler’s veto, whereby they prevent a speaker from being heard.
But students should not be punished for speech protected by the First Amendment — even something as odious as a call for genocide.
The central problem with restrictions on odious speech is that it’s often debatable, for example, what amounts to a call for genocide, and university administrators are poorly positioned to adjudicate such debates. When Ms. Stefanik asked the university presidents whether “calling for the genocide of Jews” constituted a violation of their codes of conduct, she was referring to three specific phrases that pro-Palestinian protesters chant at their rallies: “Globalize the intifada,” “There is only one solution: intifada revolution” and “From the river to the sea” (short for “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”). While I happen to believe that all three advocate violence against Jews — and that the last one, in its call for a territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea expunged of Israel, tacitly endorses genocide — there are people who sincerely believe that these are pleas for peaceful coexistence.
[. . .]
Regardless of our politics, we should all be wary of giving educational institutions even greater power to enforce regulations barring hate speech (a concept with no standing in American jurisprudence), because we are all at risk of falling afoul of them. Many pro-Israel students and activists reveled in Ms. Stefanik’s grilling of the university presidents, but what is to stop a prohibition against threats of genocide being used to silence them? Accusations that Israel is committing a genocide against the Palestinians of Gaza have been issued repeatedly over the past two months. It doesn’t matter that such claims are utterly baseless. Were abstract expressions of support for genocide to be prohibited on college campuses, any student or invited speaker who supports Israel’s campaign to destroy Hamas could be accused of enabling genocide against Palestinians and subjected to punishment at the whim of some university bureaucrat.
Read it all here.
Conor Friedersdorf: Why This Math Professor Objects to Diversity Statements
Drawing comparisons to the Soviet Union can provoke strong reactions, but Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic introduces readers to someone who knows whereof he speaks. Alexander Barvinok has observed ideological coercion in the USSR and the US, and rejects it in both cases.
“I grew up in the Soviet Union, where people had to affirm their fealty to ideals, and the leaders embodying those ideals, on a daily basis,” [Alexander Barvinok] told me [Conor Friedersdorf]. “As years went by, I observed the remarkable ease with which passionate communists turned first into passionate pro-Western liberals and then into passionate nationalists. This lived experience and also common sense convince me that only true conformists excel in this game. Do we really want our math departments to be populated by conformists?”
Barvinok insists that it isn’t diversity to which he objects. Any coerced statement, he says, would trouble him as much. “Even if one is required to say ‘I passionately believe that water would certainly wet us, as fire would certainly burn,’” he wrote in his resignation letter, “the routine affirmation of one’s beliefs as a precondition of making a living constitutes compelled speech and corrupts everyone who participates in the performance.”
Anytime an immigrant who experienced the Soviet Union frets about growing ideological coercion in the United States, I pay attention. No one knows more about what it feels like when the noble goal of social justice is invoked in ways that coerce and corrupt rather than improve, and I was curious how Barvinok would compare and contrast the different academic cultures he has experienced. Barvinok agreed to correspond with me. What follows is his account of the life experiences that informed his opposition to DEI statements and helped motivate him to take a stand against their spread. His story made me realize how important it is for professors to speak up when they disagree with campus orthodoxies.
[. . .]
I pressed Barvinok for an example from his field of someone being treated like “an enemy within.” He cited an opinion piece by Abigail Thompson, published in Notices of the American Mathematical Society. Thompson, a mathematics professor at UC Davis, spoke approvingly of DEI efforts at large, but criticized mandatory DEI statements and compared them to the loyalty oaths of the 1950s.
“There’s no room in today’s world for a both-sides-ism approach whether it’s in math or politics or any other venue,” one critic wrote to the editors of the publication. “I believe you have made a grave and very damaging mistake by publishing this piece.” Scores of mathematicians signed a group letter that declared the mere publication of her perspective harmful. Thompson had supporters too, some of whom signed a group letter calling the controversy “a direct attempt to destroy Thompson’s career” and “an attempt to intimidate the AMS into publishing only articles that hew to a very specific point of view.”
Barvinok was stunned by vitriol in some of the unsympathetic responses. “Not only the opinion of the author, but also the decision of the AMS to publish that opinion was deemed harmful,” he recalled. “It rang some bells from the history of the Soviet Union. When Lenin and later Stalin fought various opposition factions within the party, the heretics were accused of not only being wrong, but also of ‘attempting to impose a discussion on the party.’”
Read it all.
Seth Mandel: Why Are We Talking Only About Speech?
The James Kirchick piece above deals with the free speech questions surrounding the current Israel-Hamas conflict. Seth Mandel of Commentary writes that many of the discussions in the last two months have been too narrow. Mandel warns that while speech should be free, it can lead to violence, and indeed already has. Just because people ought to be allowed to spew hatred doesn’t mean there won’t be consequences. And we don’t have to cheer that on.
There appears to be a misconception that the debate over anti-Semitism boils down to who is willing to censor protected speech and who isn’t.
[. . .]
Speech is important. So are all the other aspects of this crisis that we’re not talking about.
[. . .]
[From October 7th - December 7th], the [Anti-Defamation League ] tallied 40 acts of physical assault. All of 2022 saw 111 anti-Semitic assaults. A full year at the current rate would amount to more than double that total.
Here’s another mind-bending stat: In those 61 days, American Jews saw “905 rallies including antisemitic rhetoric, expressions of support for terrorism against the state of Israel and/or anti-Zionism.”
Nine-hundred hate rallies in 61 days is 15 a day.
Fifteen rallies a day, made up of large crowds that call for the extermination of Jews, that cheer the campaign of sadistic violence and systematic rape by Hamas and demand more of it. Picture what that looks like to the outside observer: a society completely losing its mind.
College campuses are far from the only problem here, but they are part of the problem. And school presidents have come under fire not for one idiotic response to an easy question but because this week’s congressional hearings revealed something that does, in fact, deserve the days of coverage it has received. What viewers saw in those university presidents was a level of comfort with the current atmosphere that borders on the psychopathic. I don’t know if it violates Harvard’s code of conduct for there to be roving mobs of students going through campus disrupting classes and screaming for an intifada. But I do know that Claudine Gay is not particularly concerned about it. It shouldn’t be too much to ask for the supposed adults in these environments to recognize a problem when they see one.
[. . .]
Political leaders aren’t exempt from the crisis either. Pennsylvania officials recently pointed out that a mob action taken against a Jewish-owned falafel joint in Philly was a baldly anti-Semitic act and one with expected material effects on the business that was targeted. What is being done to address the fact that the City of Brotherly Love has a mob-action problem in the first place? What is being done to make sure Jewish-owned restaurants that have been protested against and vandalized survive in this environment?
The blasé attitude of politicians and university leaders is disturbing at this point. We all agree that 40 physical assaults isn’t a speech issue. But… we all agree it’s an issue, right? Nine-hundred anti-Semitic rallies is a sign of social fabric coming undone. Do our leaders have any desire to see that fabric stitched back together?
Read the whole thing.
Around Twitter (X)
The New York Times has published an insider account of the Supreme Court during the run-up to overturning Roe v. Wade. The article includes the assertion “The Supreme Court deliberates in secret[.]” The Goldwater Institute’s Timothy Sandefur is having none of it:
And finally, in case you weren’t aware: