Speech Is an Acquired Taste

BY JONATHAN MARKS

Guest blogger Jonathan Marks teaches political philosophy at Ursinus College.

John Villasenor, Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute is only the latest commentator to worry aloud about our college young, who don’t understand or value freedom of expression. A survey he conducted contains familiar bad news. A majority of respondents holds the false belief that hate speech is unprotected by the First Amendment. A majority also prefers a “positive learning environment,” in which certain offensive or biased speech is prohibited, to an “open learning environment,” in which offensive or biased speech is allowed.

These students don’t seem to value speech enough to worry about prohibiting some of it. But then, why would they hold speech in especially high regard?

The view that speech is less a way to pursue and enunciate truths than a way for skilled speakers to get the better of others, sounds like newfangled philosophy, but it is a perfectly sensible conclusion for undergraduates to draw from their own experiences. In public, my students are used, like the rest of us, to seeing hired speaking guns on television, vying to make weak arguments appear strong, and often succeeding. In the classroom, they are used to seeing successful students holding no particular brief for the truth, smoothly saying what’s needed to impress their teachers and thereby outperform their rivals. In comparison to this direct experience, historical or philosophical lessons regarding the danger of granting states—much less seemingly benign college administrators—authority over speech are not easy to drive home.

That is still more true when it comes to educating students to tolerate hate speech. If it is difficult to hold ordinary speech in especially high regard, it is positively strange to think, as I and other free speech advocates do, that Nazis have a right to march through a Jewish neighborhood, or that a student expelled by a public university for leading a racist song should be able to sue and win. Although public alarm at surveys like the one Villaseno commisioned takes it for granted that our students should hold that view, it is not exactly common sense to think that manifestly odious or worthless speech, particularly when it causes suffering, should be faithfully protected.

For that reason it won’t do much for student understanding of or support for free speech to maintain, as Villasenor and others urge, “a campus environment in which students are exposed to a broad range of views, including some that students may find disagreeable.” Mere exposure to a marketplace of ideas, in which the hucksters outnumber and frequently outmaneuver the sages, is not an education. Yet our arguments about free speech on campus frequently turn on the importance of letting propagandists of the right and left slug it out in front of our students, as if the truth will magically emerge from a duel between shameless liars. There are good reasons to tolerate such slugfests on campus, but it is foolish to imagine that students exposed to them will emerge as free speech partisans.

What colleges and universities can and must do is constitute themselves as intellectual communities that bear little resemblance to the communities with which incoming students are familiar. Even the best of those students, who come in with the virtues to outshine their classmates in oral and written work, have little conception of what virtues would be required to live in a community aware of how little it knows about the most important things, full of longing to know, and determined to follow arguments wherever they might lead. To initiate students into that kind of community, a community represented at best intermittently and imperfectly by their teachers, is the highest and most difficult task of liberal education.

Whether students who have had a taste of this kind of community will be First Amendment absolutists is an open question. But they will be the last to underestimate the importance of speech.

6 thoughts on “Speech Is an Acquired Taste

  1. No one would say that television is a great medium for intellectual analysis, whether it is a slugfest or not. So why is television the model for a slugfest? Do you judge the state of medicine by citing Dr. Phil? Do you judge the state of education by blaming Jeopardy for being too simplistic?

    We have remarkably few slugfests at all, on campus or off. The problem is not the slugfest of left and right turning politics into a show fight. The far greater problem is when the left and the right retreat to their own corners and never meet. The result is an insular distrust for opposing ideas, and a fear of facts.

    Jonathan Marks doesn’t give us a catchy derogatory name like slugfest to call his own viewpoint, so I’ll do it for him. How about a snorefest? It’s the idealization of the slightly boring devotion to truth, where everybody generally agrees and nobody causes a lot of controversy and disagreement. The danger of the snorefest (let’s use the 1950s as the campus model of it) is not just that it’s dull, but that it hides an ideological conformity by suppressing the extremes. The snorefest leads some to censorship just as easily as the slugfest.

    The marketplace of ideas is not an education; but it is an essential precondition for an education. And trying to develop intellectually serious conflicts of ideas is an essential task for a university. Yes, sometimes those conflicts will be stupid, but we need to figure out how to make them smarter, not try to stop them. And we need to realize, as Marks points out, that whether we have a slugfest or snorefest, free speech is always going to be endangered unless we actively educate students about its importance.

    • I’m perplexed by my old graduate school friend, John’s, comment. He asks do you “judge the state of medicine by citing Dr. Phil?” Here is what I said: “my students are used, like the rest of us, to seeing hired speaking guns on television, vying to make weak arguments appear strong, and often succeeding. In the classroom, they are used to seeing successful students holding no particular brief for the truth, smoothly saying what’s needed to impress their teachers and thereby outperform their rivals. In comparison to this direct experience, historical or philosophical lessons regarding the danger of granting states—much less seemingly benign college administrators—authority over speech are not easy to drive home.” I do not think what I say in the passage is analogous to judging the state of medicine by citing Dr. Phil.

      I guess John could make the argument that the public discourse to which we are on average exposed is not as I’ve described it, or that our political discourse bears no resemblance to what one sees on television. That would be a difficult argument to make (didn’t John write a book about Trump?). In fact, although I used the example of television, and just referred to Trump, our public discourse was not especially good prior to its advent either and I don’t think the argument for free speech was easy to make earlier in our history either. “A torrent of angry and malignant passions will be let loose” is an 18th description of what happens in public discourse when the stakes are high. To be clear, I think there are arguments for free speech that are very powerful that can be made without reference to how good or bad the speech is. I agree with those arguments. I just think that can seem like abstractions to people whose primary experience of speech is as an instrument by means of which the clever and cunning get the better of the non-clever and non-cunning.

      Although I suppose one gets less of a charge out of discussions that do not mimic the anger and malignity of public discourse, I can’t agree that such discussions are snore fests or that college campuses would be better places if they were more like the public square (though I hasten to repeat–because John appears to have missed it in the post–that the hope that colleges will not seek to mimic the public square is not a hope that colleges will punish or suppress speech otherwise protected by the First Amendment).

      Let’s consider this comment of John’s: “It’s the idealization of the slightly boring devotion to truth, where everybody generally agrees and nobody causes a lot of controversy and disagreement. The danger of the snorefest (let’s use the 1950s as the campus model of it) is not just that it’s dull, but that it hides an ideological conformity by suppressing the extremes. The snorefest leads some to censorship just as easily as the slugfest.” Nowhere does John explain why he imagines that devotion to truth entails everyone agreeing, why he thinks that its slightly boring, or why he thinks it entails the suppression of extremes. All he says is that the lofty ideal of inquiry into the truth can be used to disguise intellectual conformity. I guess that’s true, as appeals to free speech can be perversely deployed to try to shut people up. It doesn’t mean that one should read a call for seriousness about intellectual community as a secret invitation to Pleasantville. But that seems to be what John is doing here. I was born in 1969 and my nostalgia is limited primarily the that period during which I could eat a lot without gaining weight.

      John says, “And trying to develop intellectually serious conflicts of ideas is an essential task for a university. Yes, sometimes those conflicts will be stupid, but we need to figure out how to make them smarter, not try to stop them.” If by try to stop he means suppress, I very plainly said that I thought stupid ideas have to be tolerated. If by try to stop, he means, for example, that if I were advising the College Republicans, I would discourage them from inviting Milo and try to get them to invite someone who I thought would do a better job of helping a college “trying to develop intellectually serious conflicts of ideas,” then yeah, I think one should try to stop–by means short of coercion–fools and scammers from wasting time and resources better spent on non-fools and non-scammers. But more importantly, and this is practically the only point I made in the post to which John is responding, people who argue that arguments are primarily a mode of exercising power seem to have a strong case to those who have for the most part witnessed only those kinds of arguments. The world is full of Thrasymachuses. While colleges are far indeed from being Socratic communities, of even scientific communities of the sort Dewey praised, I suggest that the experience of such communities, even a taste, is a powerful illustration of the value of free speech and that the experience of hearing alt right heroes and whoever their left wing counterparts may be is not.

      • My point is that you’re arguing against slugfests on college campuses by pointing out that slugfests on TV are stupid. But many things on TV are stupid, and that’s not a good reason to dismiss the way they could be done better in academia. I’m arguing that the problem here isn’t slugfests, that they’re a scapegoat for other problems. It’s not the slugfests that make people intolerant, and discouraging them won’t solve the problem. And it’s not the devotion to truth that I object to; it’s the belief that getting rid of the slugfests will get you closer to the truth, that somehow conflicts of ideas are an impediment to learning the truth. I think we need to embrace the slugfest (that is, conflicts of ideas) and find smarter ways of discussing them. So, the solution is not merely to replace Milo with a more boring, truthful conservative (the snorefest), but to create a more intellectually honest and interesting slugfest than Milo will ever do. But as long as the slugfest is seen as the problem, I think we’ll never reach that goal.

        • Now I see what you’re getting at. But I am not sure we disagree sharply. To my mind what distinguishes an intellectual community from other varieties of community is not the absence of competition–mathematicians and scientists, for example, compete fiercely to be the first to achieve this or that–but the character of the common good sought and the kinds of rules of competition that follow from the pursuit. From this it does not follow that one should invite solely people who obey those rules to speak on campus–as you suggest, there are ways to make use even of politicians who are there solely to stump, or that heated debates are out of bounds–they can generate excitement and insight. My claim is that while I view it as a real test of a liberal society whether the antics of the Westboro Church will be tolerated or whether Alex Jones can do his radio show, I would not confuse that with what might lead students to value speech or the specific tests–one of which is a disdain for propagandists and prattlers, the imitators of lovers of truth who give lovers of truth a bad name–that indicate the presence of a robust intellectual community. To be sure, if support for free speech depended entirely on our colleges and universities into genuine intellectual communities, we would probably be in a bad way. The arguments for free speech I described as abstract matter, but I think that students, at least those of us who are not good at using speech to get the better of other people, are more likely to be swayed by such arguments if they have a taste of intellectual community. The presence of entertainer-extremists doesn’t mean that such a community isn’t also present; but the one should not be taken to be a necessary or sufficient condition of the other.

  2. Professor Marks, I thank you for your insights into why undergraduates so often under value free speech as a right. Your distinction between hucksterism and the pursuit of truth is vital, and too rarely acknowledged. The US Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision contributes greatly to the popular confusion of hucksterism (which is self-interested) and the pursuit of truth and open debate of political and religious views, which is what the Founders had in mind when they wrote the First Amendment.

    A question for you. German law does not allow Nazi viewpoints or symbols to be advocated or used. Other European countries have similar laws. Do you think such legal prohibitions on advocating Nazi beliefs have inherently have a detrimental impact on free speech and open debate, over politics and non-genocidal issues, in those societies?

    Nazis do not really believe in free speech for all, but they do demand free speech for Nazis; much of what they advocate, today as in the 1930s, is massive violence against specific groups of people.
    Hitler was clear before 1933 that, if his party gained power, there would be no right to free speech. Nazis today, and other “white nationalist” groups as well, endorse violent ethnic cleansing — mass murder or expulsions — of tens of millions of people in the United States. If advocating that viewpoint were suppressed by law in the US, would that really impinge on free speech as a right to pursue the truth?

    These are sincere questions, from me. I am for free speech! But I wonder, is there a principled case to be made that speech aimed at immediately provoking violent responses and, ultimately, at mass murder by government controlled by white nationalists, could be restricted, even banned, without harming the free speech rights of other people?

    Excuse please my rambling sentences; I hope that my genuine questions are sufficiently clear.
    Thank you for the post!

    • Professor Higbee:

      I’m sorry I missed your visit to Ursinus last year. It was, I heard very successful. Thank you for your question. The short answer is that I do not know enough about speech in Germany to express an informed opinion. So here comes my uninformed opinion, My hunch–and that is all it is–is that this law has not been all that effective in preventing the spread of poisonous ideas. Another hunch is that even if one could draw a law so narrow that it caught only the speech you wanted to capture the principle used to justify the law could justify future restraints on speech. For example, you note that Nazis don’t believe in free speech and would get rid of it if they could. But I don’t think one would want to make it a principle that only ideas that include within them an endorsement of free speech as we now understand it, are entitled to protection or even that those who would establish stringent limits on political speech if they had their way should be prevented from advocating for them (Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gillman observe in their recent book that our present expansive understanding of freedom of speech is quite young, and it would be surprising if only those who accept it could advocate for their views). I also, in spite of the argument I make in the post, would not wish to rely entirely on the argument that free speech furthers inquiry into the truth as a justification for free speech. There are also arguments concerning the dangers attendant to state power over speech that I find convincing, which would lead me to conclude, for example, that arguments that have been thoroughly refuted merit protection, even if they are disturbing or dangerous (e.g. the Holocaust didn’t happen). In making that argument, I am not proposing that countries in which hate speech is not protected are on the road to being North Korea. But I do think they are–in at least that respect–at risk of further undesirable infringements on important freedoms. I do think there is a principled case for taking some speech out of the circle of protection, even when it is not that easy to distinguish between what’s inside and out (e.g. true threats, incitements to imminent lawless action).

Your comments are welcome. They must be relevant to the topic at hand and must not contain advertisements, degrade others, or violate laws or considerations of privacy. We encourage the use of your real name, but do not prohibit pseudonyms as long as you don’t impersonate a real person.