Controlling the narrative vs. free speech

Last Friday’s WSJ had a piece entitled The ‘Postmodern’ Intellectual Roots of Today’s Campus Mobs, in which Crispin Sartwell writes, “If reality is nothing but a ‘narrative,’ then of course it’s important to control what people say.”

We are witnessing the second great era of speech repression in academia, the first coming during the “culture wars” of the late 1980s and early ’90s. One force behind the new wave is a theory of truth, or a picture of reality, developed the first time around. This theory, which we might call “linguistic constructivism,” holds that we don’t merely describe or represent the world in language; language creates the world and ourselves. A favorite slogan of our moment, “Words have power,” reflects that view…

That words have such power suggests that we can create a better world by renarrating. But it also implies that we need to get control of what people say and write and hear and read. If words make reality, then they are central to racial oppression, for example. Changing the words we use about race could change consciousness and ameliorate racism. Many feminists and critical race theorists have taken up this kind of linguistic constructionism, and it often seems to young people, including my students, to be a common-sense truth.

That is a remarkable development, for this sort of postmodernism was greeted as radical and bizarre when it arrived. Here is one reason to question it: After the ’60s civil-rights movement, white Americans by and large learned not to use racist language. We became convinced that racism was to a significant extent a matter of using the wrong terms. We edited these terms out of our public discourse and even out of our consciousness. Then we more or less came to believe that we were no longer racists.

But in many ways, the structure of racist oppression persisted or even in some cases intensified, as in mass incarceration. Fixing the language, by formal and informal social sanctions on one another, turned out to be much easier than addressing material conditions of segregation or poverty. A position like Rorty’s, however, permits no criterion of truth outside the language, no appeal to the “material conditions” beyond our descriptions.

For Rorty, truth is nothing but a story we will all come to accept together—a progressive story in which inequalities of race, sex and sexuality are being steadily ameliorated. The positions articulated by opponents of this narrative are false by definition, false from the outset, known to be false before they are even examined. It is then well within the values of academia—devoted to the truth—to silence those views.

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