As I tell my students when we’re dealing with common literary terms, satire is a form of comedy where one makes fun of individuals or institutions by exaggeration, or by telling the whole truth about them. I suppose I should update the definition a bit, because some people and institutions have traveled so far to the Left, they have essentially placed themselves beyond satire. Exaggeration is no longer possible, and telling the truth inevitably forces readers to think I’m quoting The Onion. One of the best examples of this phenomena is the New York Times, and a recent editorial titled What Liberal Snowflakes Get Right About Free Speech. It’s author is one Ulrich Baer, and it will surprise no one, I suspect, to learn he is a Vice Provost of New York University. I’ll use only a portion of his editorial, which, in the finest sense of absolutely un-self-conscious satire, speaks for itself:
The great value and importance of freedom of expression, for higher education and for democracy, is hard to underestimate. But it has been regrettably easy for commentators to create a simple dichotomy between a younger generation’s oversensitivity and free speech as an absolute good that leads to the truth.
Ulrich has already gone astray, not only from the First Amendment, but from American law and cultural tradition. Free speech must not lead to “the truth,” only. It exists that people may hear all sides of an argument and determine the truth for themselves. When “truth” is up to government—including universities—to define and enforce, one no longer lives in a free nation.
We would do better to focus on a more sophisticated understanding, such as the one provided by Lyotard, of the necessary conditions for speech to be a common, public good. This requires the realization that in politics, the parameters of public speech must be continually redrawn to accommodate those who previously had no standing.
And in a society that protects actual free speech, what, pray tell, prevents those with “no standing,” from saying anything they wish? Are they prevented access to media or to social media? In an age where anyone with Internet access can establish their own blog at no cost, who are these people with no previous standing? Baer’s “sophisticated understanding” is actually a regression to tyranny, which, of course, the contemporary university has become. J
Just for fun, let’s review the First Amendment and keep it in mind as we consider Mr. Baer’s arguments:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Universities invite speakers no chiefly to present otherwise unavailable discoveries, but to present to the public views they have presented elsewhere. When those views invalidate the humanity of some people, the restrict speech as a public good.
What, specifically, invalidates the humanity of “some people?” Baer’s argument, and the contemporary arguments of the special snowflakes he lionizes reveal it is any argument with which the special snowflakes and educrats like Baer disagree. Such arguments need not be obscene, angry, aggressive, or in the least insulting, snowflakes merely need declare themselves microaggressed against, or thrown into fear for their safety by the mere existence of anyone who might have an argument with which they disagree, even though—as in the case of Charles Murray—they haven’t the faintest idea what they believe or have ever said.
In so far as “restrict[ing] speech as a public good,” who gets to decide what the public good is? Refer to “tyranny” above.
The rights of transgender people for legal equality and protection against discrimination are a current example in a long history of such redefinitions. It is only when trans people are recognized as fully human, rather than as men and women in disguise, as Ben Carson, the current secretary of housing and urban development claims, that their rights can be fully recognized in policy decisions.
Put aside, for the moment, the idea that unless one accepts the idea of transgenderism as put forth by “transgender people,” and their supporters, it is impossible to recognize them as “fully human.” No one doubts they are “fully” human. Many, however, think them confused, even mentally ill full humans. But even they are free to try to convince others their view of reality is correct, and no one is trying to prevent them from doing that. There is no such thing as a right never to have one’s assumptions challenged, nor is there a right never to hear anything with which one might disagree. Baer, of course, is disagreeing with this assertion.
The idea of freedom of speech does not mean a blanket permission to say anything anybody thinks. It means balancing the inherent value of a given view with the obligation to ensure that other members of a given community can participate in discourse as fully recognized members of that community. Free-speech protections — not only but especially in universities, which aim to educate students in how to belong to various communities — should not mean that someone’s humanity, or their right to participate in political speech as political agents, can be freely attacked, demeaned or questioned.
Again, no one is doubting anyone’s “humanity,” except progressives like Baer that absolutely deny the humanity of anyone disagreeing with them. Nor is anyone keeping anyone from belonging to “various communities.” Questioning their beliefs, or even calling them poopy-faces, does not prevent anyone from doing anything, including participating “in political speech,” which is the speech most protected by the First Amendment. Oh, and the First Amendment does indeed, with certain notable exceptions which are not at all what Baer is talking about, “mean a blanket permission to say anything anybody thinks.” How anyone attaining a high position in the administration of a public university could have no idea of the reality of the Constitution speaks eloquently for much that is wrong with the contemporary American university.
I am especially attuned to the next generation’s demands to revise existing definitions of free speech to accommodate previously delegitimized experiences.
This is a textbook example of self-satire.
Freedom of expression is not an unchanging absolute. When its proponents forget that it requires the vigilant and continuing examination of its parameters, and instead invoke a pure model of free speech that has never existed, the dangers to our democracy are clear and present.
See my last comment. It would be almost impossible to imagine a more striking example of a lack of historic, constitutional reality.
Only one additional thing need be said: what makes Baer, and those like him, think they’ll always be the ones deciding what constitutes legitimate speech? Once the First Amendment is a relic of the unenlightened past, the only thing determining the boundaries of speech will be who has the monopoly on the use of force. Baer wouldn’t much like being on the wrong side of that equation, because there will no longer be a requirement the speech of the losing side be tolerated.
Baer might want to ask Harry Reed and Chuck Schumer about that sort of thing.