In recent years, one of the ways that lefties signal their adherence to shared social norms is through an eye-rolling dismissal of any concern about free speech whatsoever. This is accomplished by putting “free speech” in scare quotes, calling it “freeze peach,” and otherwise theatrically demonstrating that there is no reason a leftist should ever worry themselves about controversies related to free expression. Everybody knows that free speech is only ever obstructed in the singular instance of the state sending people to arrest you for what you say. Nothing else qualifies.
Now this, it turns out, is untrue – there is a vast and complex set of questions, legal and moral, that are bound up in our concept of free speech, and those controversies stretch back to the philosophical foundations of that concept. The term “free speech” does not and has never referred only to the specific legal protections of the First Amendment. Leftists who wave away any free speech concerns that are not literally a matter of state violence are embracing libertarian ideology; the left has always stood for the notion that private power can be coercive and destructive. A democracy can’t function if employers feel impunity for firing people based on their political expression away from work, even if there is no First Amendment protection against them doing so. You’ve heard this all from me before.
Here are two completely compatible ideas.
- George Ciccariello-Maher‘s tweet saying “All I want for Christmas is white genocide” was clearly a joke and clearly falls within the boundaries of academic freedom, a central pillar of the academy’s values, and Drexel University’s “investigation” of him is ridiculous
- The joke wasn’t particularly funny and it’s a perfect example of a certain strain of performatively “edgy” white antiracism that is long on attitude and low on the possibility for constructive change.
That’s the sad irony about this kind of controversy: it’s ridiculous that conservatives would be so up in arms about his joke because the joke is so ineffectual. And we should, in the community of people opposed to racism, also hope for less posturing and more substance. You tell jokes about white genocide precisely because meaningful antiracist policy seems so unachievable.
Still, the most important point is the most obvious: Drexel should be embarrassed by this clownish investigation. We need to re-embrace a robust definition of academic and political freedom on campus – not limitless, not tolerant of actual incitements to violence or slurs that genuinely and directly exclude marginalized people from the educational process, but robust and erring on the side of more freedom and not less. That means no crackdowns on leftist professors joking about the absurd white genocide narrative. It means no attempts by university administrators to shut down grad students who are trying to unionize. It means no David Horowitz-style witch hunts looking for leftist “indoctrination” on campus. It also means you don’t defund a student newspaper for running an editorial that criticizes BlackLivesMatter, you don’t make demands that a college formally punish students that critique your protests, and you don’t file a Title IX complaint against a professor that publishes an essay that you don’t like. I’m sorry to be such a boring normie about this, but the fact is that when you selectively endorse free expression, your complaint loses power. More speech, on campus and elsewhere. Less coercion against the exercise of free expression. And for god’s sake stop trying to get people fired because you don’t like their tweets!
The left is facing a very dark period. A very dark period indeed. We are going to get an education in what actual power is. We’ve retreated to enclaves like academia for so long that for many of us, those enclaves look like the whole world. But there are powers outside of our enclaves and they are marshaled against us. And we must be very careful about the kinds of arguments we empower, the precedents we sign off on. All can and will be used against us too.
Sign a petition in defense of Ciccariello-Maher here.