Air guitar

Excellent piece over at The Daliy Beast, by John McWhorter.  Several excerpts:

It is painfully obvious that shutting people down is incompatible with the basic principle of free speech. No one at Berkeley could possibly miss the tragedy of refusing to allow views to be expressed near exactly the Sproul Plaza where Mario Savio totemically spearheaded the Free Speech Movement at that very school. No one contests John Stuart Mill’s point that even noxious ideas must be aired regularly so that new generations can be taught their flaws and the rest of us can be reminded of just what they are. Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff have argued, to widespread agreement, that treating disturbing ideas as intolerable psychic injury goes directly against the principles of psychological therapy, as in what most would call dealing with real life.

Of course, speech cannot be entirely free. For reasons of pragmatism and civility, an advanced society need not endlessly rehash why genocide, slavery, male-only suffrage, or open and institutionalized bigotry are not the proper ways to go. However, the people being witch-hunted off of today’s campuses are hardly arguing otherwise. Or, if their ideas could be construed as enabling such revanchist notions to pervert societal procedure, one must consider whether or not these ideas have in fact done so.

The only way this thuggery in the name of enlightenment does make logical sense is if we realize that these people are protesting in quotation marks. The chasing people off of campuses, seemingly so unreasoning, is a physical enactment of the mental process of disagreement, manifesting itself physically as ejection. The assertion that controversial ideas must not even be given an airing performs the sentiment that an idea is noxious, befouls the air, would ideally be absent. Note a common conversational gesture on such topics in which one waves one’s hands as if warding off a stench.

Yes, there is always an element of the theatrical in protest. One makes signs, one speaks loudly, one seeks attention. But these new campus developments are something different. The environmentalist crafts slogans and raises their voice, but their concern for the state of the planet is concrete, based on a literal fear of impending biological catastrophe. One is arguing from different grounds to disallow someone to even give voice to an argument that the police help more black people than they kill, or that the state of the employment market is not the only reason people may be poor, or that our nation’s immigration policies are too lax. Whatever one’s take on those views, to insist that they are equivalent to those of Hitler or a Southern segregationist displays a shocking blindness to simple proportion—unless one’s actual intentions are different than we are assuming. They are.

Obviously, the goal here is the indication of one’s awareness, not a proactive sociopolitical objective.

Thus to truly understand what is happening here, we must see these protesters not as seeking a safe space, but “seeking a safe space,” warning us not of fascists but of “fascists,” “fostering oppression” and threatening “impending resegregation.” Oddly, the kayfabe concept in professional wrestling is the appropriate analogy, a tacit contract under which fans pretend something staged is real. In wrestling the payoff is entertainment; with the new protest movement the payoff is that we all demonstrate our heightened sociopolitical awareness—our faith, as it were. These episodes are religious services of a sort, which is part of why they now occur so regularly.

I do not mean to imply something so simplistic as that these protesters are willfully faking. They are sincere, within their bounds. But the bounds are important—the religious comparison is useful in that the religious person seals off a certain region of their reasoning from the ABCs of pure logic, for what they perceive as a higher purpose. However, we must understand that the protesters are proceeding from just such a cordoned-off area of consciousness, in order to comprehend their refusal to heed calls to observe Enlightenment-style convictions regarding the nature of discussion and the complexities of society.

recapture the frission of those awesome 1960s, described in some places as “Selma envy.”

What has made it feel so normal for students to wield protest as a kind of performance art, adopting the turned-up-to-11 tone justified in someone protesting police murders but now against someone invited to their campus to talk in an auditorium for 45 minutes and answer some questions?

Surely part of the reason is a desire to make a difference in a time when the issues are usually more abstract than battling legalized sexism and segregation. No protester in Selma or Birmingham took to the streets as a performative gesture, none smiled, and none based their participation on the possibility that anyone was abstractly “fostering” or “implying” anything. Today, one may seek to follow in the footsteps of the elders, and may even feel responsible for reproducing their fury. But reality interferes: The racism a James Baldwin knew was more immediate than the institutional racism, microaggressions, and cultural appropriation most of concern today…

When footage of recent protests is endlessly available in everyone’s pockets, the visceral impact of the reproduction as show can take precedence over the substance of the issues that were involved. The event, in its passion and vibrancy, becomes something you want to imitate, to be part of, to “do,” just as one often identifies with movie and musical performances. Our protesters are, in their way, like teenagers playing air guitar.

At heart, it’s “I want to do that.”

So how best to help them understand the other point of view, to wake them to what’s going on?

Because these protests are at heart a kind of acting, sober objections about the nature of free speech and intelligent inquiry argue past the participants. These protesters are quite aware that shutting down the expression of ideas does not eliminate those ideas from society, and if anything, only calls more attention to the speakers in question. All of these protesters are people who would bristle at any charge that they lack strength or self-regard, so fragile as to be constitutionally incapable of hearing dissent from their own beliefs.

Rather, we are watching people who have internalized a sense that to mime white-hot and even violent indignation, against expressions of ideas rather than against actions, demonstrates one’s moral sophistication in modern society. Logical argument will be as powerless against this new practice as it is irrelevant to its motivations.

That is, unless university administrators and professors revise the kind of logical argument they are presenting, and face a responsibility sadly difficult to step up to in our current atmosphere. If we are to allow a reasonable conception of free speech on today’s college campuses, then student protesters of this purging impulse must be told that despite the imperfections of society, their position on right-wing speakers will be neither accommodated nor sanctioned, not only because it threatens free speech and civility, but because it is a histrionic pose based on stark exaggeration.

Short of that—and let’s face it, all indications are that we shall be short of it—it would seem that we are in for a future in which controversial speakers stop even venturing to speak on college campuses, such that collegetown life becomes even more of an echo-chamber than it already was.

What lovely times we live in, in which we not only have a “president” on the right, but also a campus climate in which “progressivism” successfully exterminates the expression of all views rightward of The Nation—as in, most of the spectrum of human opinion.


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