Monday, December 12, 2005

Free Speech - Marc Cooper vs. Nathan Newman

I wanted to offer some comments on an exchange between two left-of-center blogger-journalists whose writing I generally find valuable, intelligent, and illuminating. (That's true even when we don't agree--but it happens that, on most subjects they talk about regularly, I usually agree with both of them. Not all subjects, however.)

The admirable LA-based journalist Marc Cooper is, among other things, one of the few left-wing opponents of the Iraq war whose arguments on the subject I can consistently respect, even when I think he's wrong. On most subjects, he tends to be right on target. For example, Cooper wrote recently:
Either we believe in free speech. Or we don’t. I find Ann Coulter to be a buffoonish political idiot. I suppose if I took her seriously enough I would also find her views to be repulsive.

But the brain dead students at the University of Connecticut who shouted her down in front of a crowd of 2000 the other night make me shiver.

Who in the hell do these kids think they are in deciding what people can and cannot choose to say and hear? Who appointed them censors? [....] If you can’t come up with arguments to defeat the stupidities that roll out of the mouth of Coulter, it’s probably better you just check out of the university. [....]

As someone who has done a good deal of public speaking, I can tell you from first hand experience how 2 or 3 determined hecklers can ruin an event for hundreds of others. When that’s happened to me, my personal reaction is “What little fascists!” Same goes for the supposed anti-haters who broke up Coulter’s speech. (And you can be sure Ann Coulter just loved this. What better propaganda for her than to have her opponents act as if they’ve just been released from a zoo?).

Shame on Ann Coulter for everything she says. A double-dose of shame on the little fascistoide students who won’t let her say it.
Cooper then referred to a partly-related recent post by Nathan Newman (having to do with whether military recruiters should be allowed on campuses) in the belief that Newman agreed with him on the issues of free speech and the open clash of ideas. It so happens that Newman doesn't agree. He responded with a clarification of his views, "Confusion on 'Free Speech'", which I quote in full:
I appreciate Marc Cooper praising me for my post on why law schools should lose their case on military recruitment.

But I think he misses the politics of why I'm glad the military will be on campus each year. Instead of the administration quietly keeping them away, the military will be there every year-- forcing students to organize protests and, yes, even jeer them to highlight the problems with the military's anti-gay policies.

Marc thinks students jeering Ann Coulter violates free speech. But "free speech" is not about those with power getting uncontested control of the podium. If the government forces the military to have the equivalent of a podium at law schools, it's free speech for those who oppose their presence to have a chance to make that opposition known, and not just in polite little signs or meek little questions.

Frankly, if someone like Coulter gets jeered or even driven from one podium, that's hardly censorship. In fact, as Marc's piece illustrates, it's usually a one-way ticket to even more publicity of the person's views. So street protest has a self-correcting feature-- pick a worthy target for denuniciation and you convey a message of disapproval that may resonate. Act like idiots and shout down a reasonable view and your protest has just helped the person shout their views even louder to the rest of the world.

That's the beauty of real free speech. Speech and counter-speech correct each other. And all kinds of speech count, including jeering and raucus behavior by those who don't control the podium and may need less academic means than Marc might prefer to make their point.

University podiums are -- as the lawsuit this week makes clear -- a government-subsidized position of privilege. For those excluded from that government-subsized privilege, jeering may be the only way to make opposition to the speech widely known.

So while individual instances of jeering can be denounced on its merits -- since politeness should be the norm unless there's a good reason otherwise -- just deeming anyone engaging in such jeering to be "little fascists" is wrong.
With all due respect, it seems to me that the one who's confused here is Newman, and that Cooper is entirely correct. Either we believe in free speech or we don't. I hope Newman won't regard what follows as unfriendly, but I feel quite strongly that the attitude he expressed in this particular post--an attitude that is by no means restricted to Newman--is quite mistaken, intellectually sloppy, and politically pernicious.

It's one thing to heckle, jeer, criticize, demonstrate, and denounce--as part of open expressions of disagreement. It's quite another thing to shout down people, prevent them from talking, and disrupt the possibility of any real discussion. To put it even more simply, exercising "counter-speech" of your own is not the same thing as shutting down someone else's speech.

This may sound like a statement of the obvious, but Newman doesn't seem to grasp the distinction. If someone with views that appall Newman "gets jeered or even driven from one podium," then for him that's "real free speech." The reason is that "speech and counter-speech correct each other. And all kinds of speech count." Can Newman possibly believe that? "All kinds of speech" count the same? Sorry, but this overlooks the fact that different kinds of speech have very different effects and significance. Without wanting to get too fussy, pedantic, or excessively rationalist about it, the reality is that some kinds of "counter-speech" potentially contribute to understanding and some don't. Arguing, for example, is a kind of counter-speech that may occasionally "correct" what someone else said. Or, if you don't like their speech, you can give a speech of your own. Disrupting their speech doesn't "correct" it, but simply shuts it down.

And what about intimidation and threats, including death threats? Those are certainly "kinds of speech" that people can use "to make [one's] opposition known," and sometimes they're a lot more effective in shutting down the other side than what Newman derides as "polite little signs or meek little questions." (I guess hostile or angry questions are somehow ruled out.) Do death threats, for example, also count as "real free speech"? OK, I don't believe that Newman is really justifying violence or the threat of violence to drive the 'wrong' kinds of speakers off the podium. But if you take his argument at face value, it's not entirely clear why the conception of "real free speech" he advocates wouldn't include threats and intimidation. Sometimes they work better than being polite or resorting to those wimpy "academic means" like making counter-arguments. Right, comrade? And since Newman slides directly from heckling and jeering to "street protests," it's worth noting that street protests are often about physical force, not discussion or even just sloganeering.

But let's leave aside violence or threats of violence, just to avoid giving people who agree with Newman's catch-phrases a way to side-track the argument. Let's just stick to the heart of Newman's position, (a) which says that there's nothing wrong with denying your opponents a chance to talk by screaming them down or disrupting their events; (b) which argues that screaming slogans or simply generating outraged noise should count the same as making arguments; and (c) which sneers at the idea of allowing free discussion as "academic," "meek," and generally weak and wimpy. Well, exactly how does that differ from the perspective of a fascist storm trooper (or, if you prefer, a Stalinist activist)? Help me out here, someone.

What I find most laughable--but also, frankly, a little eerie--is Newman's attempt to argue that screaming down one's opponents and driving them from the podium is OK because this activity has an automatic "self-correcting feature." If you scream down the 'right' kinds of people, you will discredit them and win friends. If you scream down the 'wrong' kinds of people, you will discredit yourself. So why bother with these tiresome formalities about respecting everyone's right to free speech? It will all sort itself out naturally.

If I hadn't begun by directly quoting Newman's post, some readers might suspect that in the previous paragraph I've caricatured his position. But in fact that's just what he says, as we can remind ourselves:
So street protest has a self-correcting feature-- pick a worthy target for denuniciation and you convey a message of disapproval that may resonate. Act like idiots and shout down a reasonable view and your protest has just helped the person shout their views even louder to the rest of the world.

That's the beauty of real free speech. Speech and counter-speech correct each other. And all kinds of speech count, including jeering and raucus behavior by those who don't control the podium and may need less academic means than Marc might prefer to make their point.
Perhaps Newman really believes that "reasonable" views are inherently less vulnerable to being suppressed and censored that unreasonable and simplistically idiotic views, but if so that strikes me as a bit naive. In fact, the logic of this argument I've just quoted really points in another direction, which can be brought out more sharply by clarifying a few of Newman's formulations a bit. Essentially, what the passage above says is this: "Be sure to pick a target with unpopular views. Shout them down, and you convey a message of disapproval that may resonate and win you friends. Shout down someone with popular views, and you look like idiots win them friends." From a pragmatic standpoint, there's probably something to this analysis. But it seems odd to describe it as a defense of "real free speech" ... and especially odd to hear it come from people whose own views are likely to be unpopular in many quarters.

=> Newman tries to add a few more excuses, clarifications, and qualifications, but I'm afraid that none of them stands up to close examination.. One passage is especially confused.
University podiums are -- as the lawsuit this week makes clear -- a government-subsidized position of privilege. For those excluded from that government-subsized privilege, jeering may be the only way to make opposition to the speech widely known.
Yes, as a general proposition it's true that people who are "excluded" from opportunities for free speech have less responsibility to observe the norms of free speech where other people are concerned. (Though, in that case, the best solution is to improve their opportunities, capacities, and resources for free expression, not to shut down other peoples'.) But the fact that the speaker at one particular event doesn't agree with you doesn't necessarily mean, by itself, that you have been "excluded" from the possibilities for free expression and argument. Get real! It's not just that there are ways to express your opposition other than suppressing the speech. The more basic point is that if you don't like a speaker, then invite another speaker--or give your own speech.

Newman also resorts to a common dodge to try to deny that preventing or suppressing free expression is actually a form of censorship. "[I]f someone like Coulter gets jeered or even driven from one podium, that's hardly censorship," because she can always just go somewhere else. And anyway, the bad guys (like Coulter) are the ones with power, and they have plenty of other means to broadcast their ideas. Aside from the fact that this excuse could be used to defend any kind of censorship or suppression of free speech, I'm afraid that censoring something in one place (one city, one country, one university) is still censorship. This peculiar justification also raises the question of whether we want to promote the kind of society in which people can talk only to friendly audiences, or in friendly environments. (I think the answer is clearly no.) But even more fundamentally, it overlooks the question of whose interests are really being attacked when a talk is disrupted. It's not just the speaker (who, let us imagine, can go off to a more friendly environment), but also the audience. Presumably, if they turned up, they wanted to hear the speaker, and they should have a chance. As Marc Cooper correctly points out, the people disrupting the talk believe they have the right to prevent other people from hearing it, whatever they might want: "Who in the hell do these kids think they are in deciding what people can and cannot choose to say and hear? Who appointed them censors?" Those are the right questions.

(I will admit that, in my opinion, anyone who takes Ann Coulter at all seriously, or who fails to recognize that she is a poisonous and idiotic demagogue with nothing valuable to contribute, has a screw loose somewhere. But rights of free expression and freedom of association also apply to people who disagree with me on this point, or we're not taking these principles seriously.)

Furthermore, at the risk of sounding "academic," I would add that universities--as institutions and as intellectual communities--have a special responsibility to defend and promote the principles of free expression and the open exchange of ideas in public discourse. Newman might respond that, in practice, opportunities for free and open public discourse are too restricted in other parts of the society (from workplaces and semi-public places to everyday politics and the predominant mass media). I certainly think so. But that's precisely a reason for defending them in social spaces where these principles are officially recognized to some degree--and for extending such opportunities further. It's not an argument for condoning counter-censorship in university settings.

(As for Newman's suggestion that since universities receive government money, this somehow means that any views expressed there are an imposition of ideological "monopoly" and thus deserve no free-speech protection ... well, this is an argument more often made by right-wing legislators and talk-show hosts than by people who think of themselves as "progressive." I think it's kinder to Newman just to pretend he didn't say this.)

=> Let me make it clear that I wouldn't take the trouble to criticize this post of Newman's at such length if he weren't someone whose judgments I generally respect, and whose work on issues at the intersection of labor and democracy I find exceptionally valuable (and too rare). But the argument he tossed out in this post is not just wrong (and misleading and pernicious) on its merits; it also brings back disturbing historical echoes. During the 1960s, significant tendencies in the New Left who found it difficult to face up to what Weber called "the ethical irrationalities of the world" drifted toward the conclusions that democracy is bunk, that shutting down your opponents is more politically authentic than arguing with them, and that notions like freedom of speech and discussion are for wimps. (A number of them also wound up admiring mass-murdering dictators and totalitarian regimes in other countries, but that's another matter.) This is an understandable temptation--not at all restricted to leftists, by the way. But it's an understatement to say that it didn't lead to an effective politics--or one that deserved to be effective, for that matter.

Since arguments like Newman's are often presented in a pseudo-"realistic" guise, let's dispose of some more straw men and red herrings that generally go with them. Of course it's true that politics always involves more than talk, and that an exclusive fixation on talk can sometimes be a distraction from the realities of power and action. But it's also true that a principled commitment to freedom of expression and free discussion is a crucial and irreducible part of any genuinely democratic politics. Yes, in real life there may be extreme situations in which even core principles like this may have to be bent or suspended, and the good guys (assuming we know who they are) can't always be 'nice'. But it's always dangerous when extreme exceptions of this sort begin to be accepted as normal practice--not least because that's a game that the bad guys can play, too.

In my opinion, promoting contempt for democratic norms is always a bad idea, whoever does it. But for leftists or "progressives" operating in a political context like that of the contemporary US to do so reminds me of the old line about turkeys voting for Thanksgiving.

Newman concludes his post by chiding Cooper for not being "polite" to people who think they have a right to disrupt other people's speech.
So while individual instances of jeering can be denounced on its merits -- since politeness should be the norm unless there's a good reason otherwise -- just deeming anyone engaging in such jeering to be "little fascists" is wrong.
First, let's note that Newman is misrepresenting what Marc Cooper actually said. When Cooper described some people as "little fascists," he wasn't referring to anyone who does some jeering and heckling, but more specifically to people who set out to disrupt and suppress other people's speech. Newman clearly feels that Cooper's reaction to such people is insufficiently "meek," but I happen to think it was more useful for Cooper to be honest and straightforward. And as for the people he criticized--if the shoe fits, wear it.

Yours for democracy,
Jeff Weintraub

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[UPDATE, December 15, 2005: Marc Cooper paid me the compliment of linking to these comments in a follow-up post, Free Speech Part II.]

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