“It was a pleasure to burn.”
-Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
For many years, back when I taught freshman, I was lucky enough to teach the classic dystopian censorship novel, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. When I first came to the book, I didn’t have a clear idea of what censorship even was, let alone where it came from. We live in a pretty tolerant, enlightened society — or at least, I thought we did.
My idea of censorship could basically be summed up by that famous scene in “Field of Dreams” where Kevin Costner’s fiery wife lays into the matronly townswoman at the PTA meeting (“You Nazi cow!”) for trying to ban James Earl Jones’s fictional 60s-era provocation novel, unsubtly titled The Boat Rocker. That’s what censorship seemed like. It was Sarah Palin at the Wasilla library. It was ignorance, it was stupidity. It was backward, Bible-thumping moralizers getting ginned up to toss Curious George from the local schools because of sexual undertones (“What’s he so curious about? Could it be he’s Bi-Curious George?”). Absurd.
If I pressed myself, I could think of other examples. I thought of religious enthusiasts burning Beatles albums after John Lennon called the Beatles “more popular than Jesus Christ.” I thought of vague notions of Big Brother dictating what we could or could not say. Of course I thought of the Nazis burning Jewish books. Censorship was something that came from religious fervor, from an autocratic government, or from patently evil civilizations. It wasn’t something I understood to be a real danger in our own time — or if it was, it was done by boobus Americanus, not by the educated.
How wrong I was!
Fahrenheit 451 set me straight. In it, Bradbury teaches that censorship doesn’t always come from mustache-twirling villains — or from religious zealots. It comes from right-thinking, intelligent people who are convinced that their argument is superior — and that the other side does not deserve a voice. The book’s antagonist and chief book burner, Captain Beatty, defends censorship on the grounds that it keeps the peace among a diverse population. Because any book is bound to offend someone, then it’s better to ban all books. Beatty believes that he and his fellow book burners ensure the peace and good humor of the people. “We’re the Happiness Boys,” he explains.
Beatty is by far the smartest and even best read character in the novel, but he firmly supports censorship because he believes he is right. Ray Bradbury knew that intelligence and open-mindedness — much as we’d like to think they go hand-in-hand — are all-too-often mutually exclusive.
That is certainly the case today in America, where some of the most intelligent Americans are fighting in support of Captain Beatty’s ideas. In fact, right now the battle over censorship is being fought in the exact places where ideas should be debated most freely: on American college campuses.
I started to notice something was wrong in 2015 when the University of Oklahoma, a public institution subject to the First Amendment, expelled two students for singing an offensive chant at a private event. This was a clear violation of their First Amendment rights. They have every right to think racist thoughts and to say racist things without being expelled. The university’s expelling them represented a dangerous step toward censorship on college campuses.
Censorship happens when the majority persecutes a minority voice. That the majority in this case was the progressive left and the minority was a group of racist frat-boys makes little difference. In fact, that’s precisely the point that many on the political left — those who dominate elite American campuses right now — are unable to see. Blinded by their sense of moral rightness, they are eager and willing to censor the free speech of those they disagree with. This is all especially bad because not only is it Constitutionally wrong, but it goes against the mission and values of higher education: the free exchange of ideas and the commitment to freedom of expression.
Since that time, the righteousness of campus censors has continued, and I’ve wondered how long my Alma mater, Middlebury College, would be spared the national embarrassment of some similar act of intolerance.
Last week, it finally happened. An invited campus speaker, Charles Murray, a fellow at the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute (AEI), was shouted from the stage by a group of protesters. Later, his small group was set upon by an angry mob after the talk. During the confrontation, Middlebury professor Allison Stanger was assaulted.
Much has been written about this event during the past week. But what surprises me most is not that the event received much media attention, but the reluctance of commentators to call this event what it was.
This was not an act of protest. Protest is a perfectly legal and good thing for students to do. But when students shouted down the speaker and did not let anyone else hear his speech, they censored him. Violence aside, this was an act of censorship.
The Censors’ Arguments
Because this event attracted national media attention, students and professors have felt the need to justify what happened. It has been quite helpful to read written defenses during the past week, because it allows one to slow things down and see past the anger to the reasoning, to test whether such reasoning makes sense. In reading these justifications, I am largely struck by three things:
Blaming the Victim: I am struck by how willing some people are to claim that it was essentially the professor’s own fault that she was assaulted because she made the mistake of legitimizing this speaker’s appearance. One online commenter I know wrote:
“It`s unfortunate that a professor at Middlebury has suffered physically for associating with a purveyor of eugenic hypotheses. Then, again, when you lie down with dogs, you wake up with fleas.”
This is little different than blaming a rape victim for her own rape because of what she was wearing. There is no excuse for this sort of violence.
Paying Lip Service: Second, I’m struck by how greatly censorship apologists contort themselves to pay lip service to free speech, while in fact arguing for censorship. Their argument seems to be: free speech for everyone, just not those I disagree with.
The Platform Argument: Third, I’m struck by how many people simply believe that this speaker should never have been invited to Middlebury College because his views were controversial, backward, or disproven — and because inviting him to campus gives him a platform to spread his ideas and a tacit endorsement by the college.
The “Platform Argument” has been the most used tactic that student censors have employed to justify their actions. At first glance, it seems wholly reasonable. After all, it’s within a college’s right not to invite anyone that they don’t wish to invite. But what about when some people want to invite a speaker, and others don’t? How do we decide who to reject? Is the Platform Argument a good method?
Let’s find out.
The Platform Argument: A Slippery Slope to Censorship
If you believe that inviting Mr. Murray to speak is wrong because it gives him a platform to spread his ideas, then fine. But aren’t his books also a platform for him to spread his ideas? After all, what students objected to most was the content of Mr. Murray’s 1994 book, The Bell Curve. If we don’t want to give his ideas a platform, shouldn’t we also send out an all-school email, banning Mr. Murray’s books from being taught in classes?
And what about the library? Aren’t his books there too? Better check. After all, we can’t be providing him with a platform. Better pull those books from the shelves!
But let’s not stop with Mr. Murray. Students claimed Mr. Murray’s racist attitudes did not belong on campus — but what about Aristotle, who wrote famously racist chapters about natural slavery? Surely we can’t give his books a platform either? Ban them. We can’t have ideas like that on a college campus. And what about Thomas Jefferson? Or Shakespeare? Let’s not forget Joseph Conrad. And surely there’s no more watching “Braveheart” after what Mel Gibson has said? Let’s get these works out of classrooms and out of the library immediately.
In fact, I have an idea. We could have a ceremony outside. We’ll throw all the offensive books into a pile and set fire to them! Nothing would better symbolize our refusal to give racist thinkers a platform. “These ideas don’t belong on college campuses!” we’d cheer — echoing the claims of students last week at Middlebury College. The flames would rise higher and higher into the night and we would be righteous.
Surely you can see where I’m going with this. The “platform” argument is one we must be careful with, because it is a slippery slope downhill to censorship.
But We’re Not Censors!
Here are some objections to the reasoning above that I can think of:
“But we should have the right not to invite any speaker we don’t want to!”
Yes, just as you have every right not to teach any book you don’t want to teach, and not buy any book you don’t want in the library. But just because *you* don’t want a book taught in classes or held in the library doesn’t mean the college should remove it. And just because a majority of students don’t want it doesn’t mean they should remove it.
“But inviting a speaker is a bigger platform and a more effective way for him to spread his ideas than teaching his book or shelving it in the library!”
I agree with this. But then what you’re really arguing is: we don’t mind him being given a platform, just not such an effective one.
Fine, so let’s fix the problem. I see three ways.
1. Don’t invite speakers whose ideas don’t deserve an effective platform.
2. Make speakers’ platforms less effective for spreading their ideas — at least speakers we deem as dangerous or offensive.
3. The Library Policy: You accept any speaker on campus that anyone wishes to invite, with reasonable oversight from college employees: just the way you accept any books in the library or to be taught in classes.
The First Option — A Mess
1. Don’t invite speakers whose ideas don’t deserve an effective platform.
Again, this is the Platform Argument, which we have already shown is a slippery slope to censorship. Over the past week, many students have proposed standards for inviting speakers, such as:
No speakers who have not been peer reviewed.
(Surely this wouldn’t work. No Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders during last year’s election! And no Dalai Lama or Pope.)
No speakers whose ideas have been discredited.
No speakers who preach hatred.
No speakers on campus who possess discriminatory views toward historically oppressed peoples.
(Congratulations! You’ve officially shut down free speech on campus! Now you’re sounding like a real censor!)
But what if the majority of students think it’s right?
What about if the campus were suddenly filled with Trump supporters? Wouldn’t they disallow Barack Obama or Bernie Sanders? Does that sound right? Although it would not be illegal to reject speakers based on majority votes, it would clearly have a chilling effect on minority (read: conservative) students, who’d never be able to slip their speakers past the voters. That’s the wisdom of the First Amendment: it protects minority voices from official censorship so that the free exchange of ideas will openly flourish. Obeying the will of the majority is always democratic, but censorship is always democratic too.
The Second Option — Absurd, or is it?
2. Make speakers’ platforms less effective for spreading their ideas.
This seems patently absurd, yet many of the censorship apologists were calling for this. They sometimes grant that a controversial speaker should be invited, but they argue that he must be checked. Here is a sample of the ideas I saw proposed:
A contrasting speaker should have been allowed to debate Mr. Murray.
Fine, so perhaps we should make a policy: all speakers should be required to have a contrasting speaker. When Barack Obama speaks at Middlebury, Donald Trump must get equal airtime. Clearly students would consider this a bad policy when they apply it to their own speakers.
Students should have had a chance to debate Mr. Murray.
They did — there was a scheduled Q & A session, and an official questioner prepared to push Mr. Murray. But students seemed unhappy with even this format. It’s unclear what they wished, but perhaps they wanted a purely equal footing. It’s hard to picture what this would look like, but clearly students would not want white supremacist students on an equal footing with a progressive speaker.
In order not to appear to endorse Mr. Murray, the school had an obligation to offer students special preparation to refute his ideas.
Many professors did just this. That’s a good thing. But the school shouldn’t be required to do this before each speaker, clearly. After all, do we require they meet with a faculty member before checking out Mr. Murray’s books in the library? Clearly students only wanted this because they disliked this particular speaker.
The Third Option: The Library Policy
3. The Library Policy: You accept any speaker on campus that anyone wishes to invite, with reasonable oversight from college employees: just the way you accept any books in the library or in classes that students or professional educators deem appropriate.
This strikes me as exactly what happened at Middlebury. A student group, the college AEI club, invited Mr. Murray, with the sponsorship of the Political Science department.
Strangely, in all the discussion I read, I didn’t see many criticisms of the school policy itself. Students and professors were unhappy that the Political Science department didn’t reject this speaker as being unworthy. This reasoning leads right back to the Platform Argument, which we have already examined the dangers of.
The question of who gets to invite speakers to campus and how they get to do this is a worthy one. I hope it will be debated vigorously. I hope, of course, that it will not be settled in such a way as to include so many protections toward offending anyone that the college will never invite substantive speakers, or speakers who represent minority viewpoints, because that has a chilling effect on free speech and free debate on campus.
Controversial Speakers = Violence: The Trump Card
American colleges have been largely liberal bastions for many, many years. Why has censorship become such a problem in the past few years? The answer is this: students increasingly feel a strong role in a social mission to right the wrongs of historical injustice, and their fervor is at a high not seen since the 1960s. In their zeal to promote a social agenda of progressive reform, students — aided by the language of trauma and psychology which themselves are increasingly present in our culture — have come to equate unwelcome ideas with violence and trauma.
These progressive students have been derided by the conservative press for being “special snowflakes” and delicate Millennials: a generation of trigger-warnings, safe spaces, and microaggressions who are too delicate to hear ideas they disagree with.
While I am not bothered by their social mission or by their disdain for hateful speech, I am bothered when anyone defends censorship, and I believe it’s important to see these arguments for what they are.
In an online essay that is remarkable for its defensiveness, for its lack of logic, and for its acrobatic attempts to wiggle free from the shackles of the First Amendment, Middlebury professor Linus Owens defended the censorship of Mr. Murray by equating the physical assault on Professor Stanger with the very act of inviting Mr. Murray: “[L]et’s not forget the real violence of bringing a known and active racist and anti-poor people ‘intellectual’ into our community.”
It’s important to keep in mind that this claim is a metaphor, not literal fact. While real violence or direct threats toward people are not protected under the Constitution, rhetorical violence (offensive or bigoted speech) of the kind cited by Professor Owens is. If it was not, Donald Trump and many of his supporters would surely be in prison for their opinions. Perhaps this is what Professor Owens and his kind would want, in the end. So while students and professors may use the term “violence” metaphorically, we should see such claims for what they are.
Professor Owens also writes:
“While legal scholars can debate the nuances of what constitutes hate speech, telling us that this falls far short of official standards, many of us recognize hate when we see it.”
The First Amendment recognizes no such thing as “hate speech.” While Mr. Murray’s statements are perhaps offensive or hateful, this is exactly the sort of speech that we as Americans are forced to hear: the price of having a robust code of free speech that doesn’t recognize hate speech is having to hear offensive speech. The idea is that the way to counter hateful speech is not with censorship, but with more speech. When you give people space to spout their crazy theories, it only makes them look crazy. When you debate their arguments soundly with facts, reason, and logic, it only makes them look misguided and wrong. On the other hand, when you shout people down and use violence, you subvert the values of reason, logic, and civility that academic forums should be espousing. In short: you sell yourself out.
It’s important for college students (or their professors) to learn this, I think, both to prepare for the real world (in which offensive speech is the norm in our political arena), and simply because we need the First Amendment now more than ever. This is exactly the time to have a robust free speech code in America, just as we must have a robust freedom of the press. Because right now there’s a VERY easily offended man in the Oval Office who’d love more than to cite rhetorical “violence” against him as well — and to use any pretext to silence opponents. Right now the First Amendment won’t allow him. We should not allow this buttress to be weakened, and we shouldn’t be teaching our students that it’s okay to do so.
Lastly, Professor Owens seems to believe that free speech is incompatible with a progressive social agenda. It’s not. It’s well documented that the First Amendment protections offered under the Constitution largely enabled Civil Rights Movement organizers and advocates for further their causes. The First Amendment is not an infringement on social progress — but often its best ally.
The Upshot: This is What Censorship Looks Like
In the end, these claims amount to no more than a simple excuse for censorship. The Middlebury alumni letter written in protest of Mr. Murray inadvertently reveals exactly this:
“This is not an issue of freedom of speech. We think it is necessary to allow a diverse range of perspectives to be voiced at Middlebury . . . However, in this case we find the principle does not apply.”
While there is nothing wrong with protesting views that you do not endorse, when you cross over into shouting down a speaker and not letting him speak, you have crossed into censorship.
And while there is nothing wrong with objecting to a speaker’s viewpoints, we must be careful about equating an invitation with an endorsement. We don’t do this with library books or with books taught in class. Why do this with speakers?
We must also be careful of judging a speaker without reading his works or listening to him speak — something many campus censors were surely guilty of.
We must be careful of dismissing a speaker’s entire body of work simply because a portion of his work is apparently controversial. This is not to say we shouldn’t study his work for offensive views, but that we should not be too quick to dismiss his work — or to censor his work — because of it.
We must always be careful about believing that our moral high ground or our majority opinion allows us to silence any voices we do not wish to hear. We have every right to debate these voices or not to listen to them, but we cannot banish them from existence or shout them down so that others may not hear them simply because they are counterproductive to our stated social project.
Lastly, we must do better to listen to each other. Not only on American campuses, which should treat controversial speakers the way they treat controversial books — with piercing study, with tough questioning, and with reason and logic — but also in our daily lives. If our most recent election showed anything, it’s that we need to do better to listen to each other if we have any hope of coming together as a country. I continue to believe that only by openly debating can we move forward, and informed debate requires understanding of the other side’s positions. In short — listening. We cannot do this if we equate conflicting ideas with violence.
The Confidence We Need
In the end, censors always reek of fear. Censorship says: “We can’t let these ideas be spoken aloud, otherwise they will prove irresistible.” Never was the fear more pronounced than during the televised speech Mr. Murray finally gave after he was moved from the stage to a private room. During the course of his speech, students could be heard yelling outside the room, banging on the doors, and pulling the fire alarms. At first glance, they are juvenile. Knowing the violence that was to come later, these sounds are also ominous — the sound of the angry mob. But more than anything, as I listen to them now, they are fearful.
“Get him out! Get him out!” they seem to scream. “We must remove him from campus immediately! His ideas are too attractive and they will spread!”
But there is a much more confident and more effective way to counter bigoted views. Back in 1994, around the time that Mr. Murray’s The Bell Curve was published, a young man who’d just been named the first African American president of the Harvard Law Review used an interview on National Public Radio to speak about his vision for America. During the interview, he took the opportunity to debate Mr. Murray’s views.
Yet instead of using censorship, this young man used the old tools of reason, logic, and evidence to coolly dispatch Mr. Murray’s bigoted ideas. What’s striking is the tremendous confidence he radiates: confidence in himself and in the power of open debate to expose racist ideas for what they are. The very opposite of the censors’ cowardice and vilification, this young man confidently combats ideas he does not agree with — even ones that seem to question his very life story — without being thrown off his game one bit. It’s wonderful to hear, a virtuoso performance — all done with a self-possession and a mental sharpness that I would want for all graduates, and something very much missing in today’s debates.
That young man’s name? Barack Obama.
And his way seems much better to me than censorship.