fighting the tide

This Michelle Goldberg essay on the Laura Kipnis kerfuffle at Northwestern is the sort of piece that seems to push my buttons so precisely that I don’t want to write about it, if that makes sense. It also reflects the tangled issues at the heart of questions of free thought and free expression. I applaud the fact that the students involved are concerned enough members of their communities to speak out on issues that matter to them, and I celebrate their right to protest. But I think calling for formal censure of a professor for writing a piece in which she expressed concerns about a set of campus policies, while also acknowledging the problems that those policies are intended to address, is counterproductive and potentially chilling. To honor that request would cut directly and unambiguously against the principles of free inquiry and free expression that are treasured academic values– and left-wing values, still, despite everything. And this is exactly the kind of mounting pressure against free expression that so many lefties seem to refuse to think about or confront with more than a hand wave or eye rolling. I wish people would just say yes or no: do you think it’s a good idea for professors to be punished for publishing edited essays in major publications, essays which are controversial simply for expressing an unpopular point of view? And how could that not constitute the kind of erosion of free speech that I’m constantly told isn’t happening?

Some I know say things like, well, look, these students aren’t getting what they want! They don’t have the power to force the university’s hand, unlike the people who agitated for the unconscionable firing of Steven Salaita. Which, first, doesn’t mean you can avoid the responsibility to stake a claim on whether what the students want is right or wrong. But more importantly: yes, exactly. The students don’t have the power to punish Kipnis, while those who pushed for Salaita’s ouster had power to end his career. That should be a lesson to the left in general: we should oppose incursions on free speech not merely out of principle but also because the left is vulnerable and lacks power, by its very nature. Precisely because we speak for powerless constituencies, the left will very rarely control the ability to dictate which kinds of speech are permissible. We are much more likely to be censored than to effectively censor others. Only in the funhouse mirror views of campus life or online bubbles could we become so sure of our own ability to dictate who gets to say what, when. It’s for that reason that I say, for example, that the day we pass anti-hate speech legislation in this country is the day that Palestinian activism is declared hate speech, because of inequities in political power in this country. The left’s flirtations with censorship are not merely wrong on principle; they’re self-destructive. But it’s next to impossible to even discuss that because so many on the left are so immensely distrustful of the conversation that they will dismiss these concerns out of hand.

In the broader view, speaking as someone on the academic job market, I have come to fear soft censorship as much as the ordinary version. Both threaten to erase intellectual freedom as we know it from campus.

I’ve told the story, in the past, of how my paternal grandfather, a professor at the University of Illinois, was targeted for his antiwar and socialist beliefs by the infamous Broyles Bills. A proto-McCarthyite, Paul Broyles worked tirelessly to restrict the political beliefs of university professors. My grandfather was targeted by the impossibly-Orwellian Seditious Activities Investigation Commission. So was his friend and comrade, Norman Cazden, a brilliant young music professor. My grandfather was subject to brutal public condemnation and slander, causing him great social and professional harm, as well as pain which he carried with him the rest of his life. But he had tenure, so he kept his job. Cazden was not so lucky; a gifted composer and educator, he spent the next 11 years surviving by teaching piano lessons to children. That’s the difference that formal structures of intellectual freedom can make.

That’s the hard censorship, like the censorship of Salaita. But these days I think we need to also be concerned about soft censorship. Several people made the point, when the Salaita affair was first brewing, that the ultimate message to administrators was to keep voices like Salaita’s off campus in the first place. After all, Salaita and his supporters (like me) have at least been able to generate controversy and negative publicity about his firing. Much easier, and quieter, to exclude politically controversial voices from campus from the get-go. With the academic job market as brutal as it is, it’s far easier to simply throw out the applications of anyone who has publicly expressed controversial views; that way, the layer of plausible deniability prevents institutions from confronting the ways in which they are eroding academic and intellectual freedom at the behest of donors and politicians. This would amount to an even more effective means of silencing dissent on campuses than heavy-handed actions like denying tenure or firing.

You can see the effectiveness of this approach in the large genre of advice columns and essays for academic job seekers. To my sadness, reading hundreds of these pieces in the last several years has been an exercise in people saying one basic thing in a variety of different ways, often hiding the explicit point but nevertheless making it plain: don’t do anything that might ruffle any feathers, ever. That’s the thrust of a remarkable amount of the published material on the academic job market. When you boil it down and look for the basic advice that’s expressed a thousand different ways, that’s what you get– if you ever want to work in the academy, you better not have any record of saying anything remotely controversial. The long-term result of that will be a cowed and quiet professoriate, unless we work to avoid that result.

I have to believe that there is still a strong enough dedication to the principles of academic freedom within the academy to maintain a defense of the necessary controversies of intellectual life. Academic job search committees and deans can defend these principles by refusing to follow the crowd in throwing out applications that come with political baggage. Passionate undergraduates, like those who are protesting Kipnis, can help by continuing to protest without calling for the kind of heavy-handed, top-down administrative sanctions that, in the long run, are unlikely to be good for them or their values. These passionate young people are going to emerge into a world where many of the treasured political principles they learned in their universities are deeply unpopular. Perhaps then they will learn the abundant virtues of not seeking to punish views that you dislike. As it stands, I know so many young academics who, faced with the already incredible competition of the job market, live in fear of ever saying or doing anything that could be considered offensive, even unintentionally, to professors, administrators, or (especially) their students. That’s no way to build a generation of young scholars. The world is harsh enough on unpopular opinions. We should work to make protest and controversial opinion– left-wing, right-wing, tenured or contingent– a respected and defended aspect of academic life.

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