The Free Speech Absolutists are in a tizzy again, because Ann Coulter isn’t going to speak at Berkeley. The usual cliches are being deployed.
“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Very noble.
“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” How can anyone oppose liberty?
“One of the problems with defending free speech is you often have to defend people that you find to be outrageous and unpleasant and disgusting.” Definitely the case here.
OK, let’s do it! Absolute, total, complete Free Speech on college campuses! Anyone and everyone can say whatever they want, any time they want, you can have an auditorium of your choice, you can book it for as long as you want!
One catch. You want infinite free speech on campus, you have to give us infinite money, infinite time, infinite resources. Fair enough?
Somehow, I don’t think it’s coming. Especially since the same people who want to see Ann Coulter given a privileged spot on the non-infinite roster of available speaking engagements are the people who under other circumstances complain bitterly about diversity. The rage always seems to rise on behalf of far-right asshats and Nazis, like Coulter or Yiannopoulos, have you noticed?
But even if we could accommodate everyone and every single point of view, the result has a name: it’s called cacophony. I don’t see how that is useful or constructive. Universities have a mission of promoting education; should we, in the name of Free Speech, insist that we also promote ignorance? That would be incoherent.
Universities are not neutral on all issues, nor should they be. We try to encourage open-mindedness; you can’t do that by also opening the door to those who encourage the closing of minds. We try to serve a diverse community; that doesn’t work if you take a disinterested position on purveyors of hate and bigotry. We aim to be selective and teach the best ideas that have the support of an educated, informed group…the antithesis of indiscriminate acceptance of bad, unsupported, rejected falsehoods. Coulter has nothing to contribute.
I know what’s next: Marketplace of ideas! Exposing students to novel points of view! The university should take students out of their comfort zone!
This is true. We do that all the time. I introduced my students to epistasis last week — discomfort and confusion were sown everywhere. It was good. But none of these arguments apply to Ann Coulter.
We, and the students, all know exactly what kind of provocative bullshit she’s going to say. She’s got a syndicated opinion column, she’s written 12 books, she regularly appears on television. I’ve got one of her books, a signed copy, on a shelf in my office because a student brought it back for me. She is a known quantity. That’s why people protest her appearances! They aren’t saying, “please keep me ignorant and unaware of this person and what she has to say”, they are saying “I am already fully aware of Ann Coulter’s perspective, and why are you giving her more money to stand in front of us and babble her hateful drivel?” It’s not as if Ann Coulter has lacked the ability to make her views known.
I mean, if you’re saying we can learn something new and interesting from an Ann Coulter talk, I have to point out that a) she is not a scholar with an insightful, well-researched position, b) we’re already well-steeped in her kind of godawful discourse, and c) I have to question your competence in critically evaluating the world of ideas if you think she has anything worthwhile to contribute.
Further, if you think being a place for education and intelligence and learning means you’re supposed to be wide open and completely neutral on everything, letting every voice through unfiltered, you don’t understand the university. I’ll give you two words: critical analysis. The university will examine your ideas, all right, and it will judge them. Nazis don’t get to come back and demand a do-over and a new grade.
Those protests? Those are students exercising their intelligence, and then going into the public square to exercise their free speech. Why? Did you think free speech meant freedom from criticism?