A few days ago I wrote about an incident from last fall in which author and attorney Wendy Kaminer used a racial slur illustratively in the course of a panel discussion on freedom of speech on campus, and in fact encouraged the audience at the panel to call out that slur.
That incident — and the op-ed that Kaminer wrote about it last week — came up last night at a debate I participated in on whether “liberals are stifling intellectual diversity on campus,” and I’d like to take a moment to discuss some of the issues raised there in greater detail than the debate’s format allowed.
First, I’d like to address a complaint that was made on the stage. One of my opponents, Kirsten Powers of Fox News, claimed repeatedly that I misrepresented Kaminer’s actions when I described to them last night. I’m pretty confident that I didn’t, and that what I said there was consistent with both my characterization of the event in my earlier essay and with a transcript that I’ve checked against an audio recording of the Kaminer panel. Until the IQ2 video is released I can’t be 100% certain, however. When the video is available I’ll put my comments up here so that readers can judge for themselves, and in the meantime I’ll just say that the account of Kaminer’s actions that appears in my previous post is one that I stand by.
Second, there is the question of censorship. Last night I noted that Kaminer had accused her ideological opponents of “censorship” three times in her op-ed, though she did not, in my view, identify a single instance in which anyone’s speech had been censored. This was, I suggested, symptomatic of a tendency among critics of liberal-left identity politics to tar legitimate debate as “violent” or “censoring” or “silencing.”
In response to my claim, Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education argued — and again, I’ll put up quotes when the video is available — that Kaminer had in fact been censored, because a transcript of the debate had expurgated words that the transcriber found offensive.
I find this argument unconvincing. Here’s why.
The transcriber of the panel was a recent graduate of Smith College operating on her own initiative. Hers was not an official transcript of the event, nor was she representing any public entity. She was simply a person interested in the subject who wanted to bring wider attention to what had been said. To call her a “censor” because she chose not to spell out every slur that was uttered is incorrect — the right to free speech includes the right to use asterisks or brackets in one’s work, even when quoting others.
Last night I asked Greg if he believes that it is censorship for a newspaper to maintain a policy of not printing the word “nigger.” He said he believed it was. I believe that it is not, and if, when our debate is broadcast on NPR, the slur I had to utter to ask the question is bleeped, I will have no cause to complain that my free speech rights have been violated.
There’s another issue raised by the Kaminer piece that we were only able to touch on briefly last night, and that is the fact that her charge of censorship was not limited to the transcriber discussed above. In her op-ed Kaminer recounted a litany of negative responses that she and others received. She was, she said, accused of committing “an explicit act of racist violence.” Smith College’s president subsequently expressed regret that students “were hurt” by her remarks. In a similar incident at Brown University a debate about rape culture was criticized in the student newspaper as undermining “the University’s mission to create a safe and supportive environment for survivors,” and the college president invited students troubled by the planned debate to attend a different event instead.
Here’s what Kaminer said at the close of this litany, in her first use of the word “censorship” in her op-ed:
“How did we get here? How did a verbal defense of free speech become tantamount to a hate crime and offensive words become the equivalent of physical assaults? You can credit — or blame — progressives for this enthusiastic embrace of censorship.”
Clearly, “censorship” in this passage is not referring to a student’s amendments to a transcript. It’s referring to critics who called Kaminer a racist and declared her speech to be violent, to a college president who characterized her words as hurtful, to a student newspaper that criticized others’ views on rape, and to a college president who invited students to attend a lecture.
None of these things are censorship. All of them are speech acts. For Kaminer — a member of the board of advisors of the civil libertarian group that Greg Lukianoff heads — to characterize such speech as censorship is wrong. It’s factually wrong, and it’s morally wrong.
Both Lukianoff and Powers expressed concern about the chilling effects of intemperate criticism last night. Powers, in particular, argued that using the term “racist” to describe speech that is not racist can silence speech. I disagree with that — if I retain the right and the capacity to speak my mind, the fact that someone else criticizes my ideas, however harshly, cannot be said to have silenced me. But if we are going to make the case that criticism from a student journalist or a mild rebuke from the president of a college with which one is not affiliated can be silencing, how much more silencing must it be to see oneself and one’s allies described as censors by a civil libertarian attorney in the pages of one of the nation’s leading liberal newspapers?
The question posed in last night’s debate was whether liberals are chilling speech on campus. By the end of the evening I think all of us agreed that free speech is under attack on many campuses, and that many of those who are doing the attacking would describe themselves as liberal. In that sense, the proposition that was put forward was accurate.
But that’s not the sense in which commentators like Wendy Kaminer or Jonathan Chait or other critics of “PC culture” would construe the claim. To them, liberal and left campus culture is distinctively hostile to freedom of speech, and the very speech that emerges from that culture — robust, aggressive, freewheeling debate about contentious social issues — is offered as proof of that hostility.
Wendy Kaminer is not censoring her critics when she accuses them of being enemies of free expression, any more than they are censoring her when they condemn her own intentionally provocative speech. But the view of campus leftists as enemies of freedom that she and others promulgate is, as I argued last night, a grossly distorted one. Moreover, it’s one that hampers our ability to engage in clear and substantive discussion around issues of great importance to our society.
And I’d like to see more of free speech’s defenders saying so.