Why Are You so Silent?

Hmm. There’s an odd statement in here – in the AAUP’s statement on the Ward Churchill fuss. Well, that’s not surprising, I guess. Pretty much whenever people start talking about freedom of speech and academic freedom, odd statements get made. It seems to be a subject that inspires odd statements – no doubt because there are so many competing goods at issue, and because people don’t always notice the competitive aspect, so they’ll cheerfully make contradictory statements from one sentence to the next.

Needless to say, the AAUP thinks Churchill should not be fired for writing the ‘little Eichmanns’ article, no matter how livid the right-wing pundits get. Needless to say, I agree with them, however much I may mock Churchill’s Billy Jack routine. But there are some oddities, all the same.

One of them is utterly routine and predictable, but it’s one that always makes me wonder a good deal.

Freedom of faculty members to express views, however unpopular or distasteful, is an essential condition of an institution of higher learning that is truly free. We deplore threats of violence heaped upon Professor Churchill, and we reject the notion that some viewpoints are so offensive or disturbing that the academic community should not allow them to be heard and debated.

The thing that always bothers me about statements like that is that it leaves out a real problem – thus making the free speech position seem a lot easier than it really is. Because there are views and viewpoints that are not just unpopular or distasteful or offensive or disturbing – they are dangerous or harmful. That’s where a lot of the disagreement takes place, obviously. That’s the issue that’s central to the disagreement over the incitement to religious hatred law in the UK – whether such a law can, in principle and in fact, distinguish between speech that is unpopular or distasteful or offensive or disturbing, and speech that is dangerous – or (more complicated still) potentially dangerous. And surely the idea of danger is behind laws against incitement to racial hatred. The point is not that such speech is offensive, it’s that it has the potential to get people killed. And yet – free speech statements so seldom talk about the subject in those terms. That seems to me to be an evasive way of proceeding. I think I think the religious hatred law is a bad idea, but I also think that it’s quite true that it is possible to incite hatred and violence by means of speech about religion. Competing goods, you see. I think there are competing goods here (as there usually are, after all), as opposed to all good versus all bad. Statements endorsing free speech that pretend the worst speech can do is offend or disturb people are stacking the deck. (Which is not, just in case it’s not clear, to say that I think Churchill’s article is dangerous; I don’t; the point is a general one. I’m not making a ‘don’t you know there’s a war on?’ argument against Churchill.)

In fact the tension is visible right inside the statement. ‘We deplore threats of violence heaped upon Professor Churchill.’ Yup. But threats of violence are speech too. But they go beyond unpopular or distasteful or offensive or disturbing. I think that should have been mentioned somewhere in that statement, if only as a parenthetical stipulation. ‘Freedom of faculty members to express views, however unpopular or distasteful (provided they fall short of threats or incitement),’ perhaps. There’s a large snake-swallowing-tail element in all this, because people often use their freedom of speech to make threats against other people in order to shut them up. As we saw in Birmingham a few weeks ago. Well that’s how free speech is, isn’t it – there’s a huge de facto element. The powerful have more free speech than the powerless; those who own newspapers and radio stations have more free speech than those who don’t; the rich who can buy advertising and bribe politicians have more than the poor who can’t; and so on. ‘Sure, honey, you have a constitutional right to say whatever you like, and if you say it I’m going to punch you in the face. Go ahead.’

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