Social democracy and free speech in the university

On March 2nd, a crowd prevented the conservative writer Charles Murray from speaking at Middlebury College. They injured a professor trying to escort Murray away from the event. This is wrong and it’s important to understand why.

Tim Carney makes two points about these events. First, he suggests that suppression of free speech is consistent with if not required by social democratic politics. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Second, he argues that academic communities like Middlebury should function according to norms of “civility, tolerance, and freedom to disagree”. Here he is completely right.

Social democracy is a loosely defined concept with a complex history, but briefly: social democrats affirm democratic institutions, capitalist economies, and a redistributive welfare state. Among the most important writers in the tradition are J. S. Mill and John Rawls, the leading English-speaking political philosophers of the 19th century and 20th centuries. Both writers championed civil liberties.

Mill wrote On Liberty, the most famous philosophical defence of free speech. If we seek truth, Mill argued, we must support open discourse.

In the case of any person whose judgment is really deserving of confidence, how has it become so? Because he has kept his mind open to criticism of his opinions and conduct. Because it has been his practice to listen to all that could be said against him; to profit by as much of it as was just, and expound to himself, and upon occasion to others, the fallacy of what was fallacious. Because he has felt, that the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind. No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this; nor is it in the nature of human intellect to become wise in any other manner.

Rawls is most famous for his doctrine of justice as fairness. But this was not, in his view, the most important principle of justice. Rawls subordinated his egalitarianism to the principle that:

each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.

According to Rawls, the basic liberties include freedom of speech. The left should never forget that its first principle is democracy.

It’s easy to endorse these principles, but it’s challenging to create and sustain institutions that embody free speech norms. The difficulties come from hard cases where principles collide. For example,  suppose a student group wanted to fly Nazi banners from their dorm room windows. This is speech, but it expresses a desire to exclude or intimidate other students. In my view, a university ought to have such banners taken down. Now suppose there was a history seminar on the Holocaust and one of the Nazi students argued that the event never happened. In my view, the professor would be right to fail him: the student is wrong on the facts. But it would wrong to expel the student from the class. The Holocaust is the topic at hand and in this setting the student has the right to state his view.

The Middlebury events, however, came nowhere near the borders of such hard cases. Murray had an invitation to speak from a legitimate student group. There is no report that Murray said anything that can be construed as hate speech. I strongly disagreed with Murray’s book The Bell Curvewhich argued that genetic determination of social structure made social policy futile (see James Heckman’s devastating review of the book in the Journal of Political Economy). But that disagreement would be a reason for me to, say, vote against him if he were proposed for a lectureship in my department. It’s not a justification for shouting him down if he were giving the lecture.

I hear the claim that the threat of fascism justifies violence. While we still have a democracy, this is doubly wrong. On the one hand, violence to inhibit speech is antithetical to democracy. As such, violence communicates exactly the wrong message about who we are on the left. On the other hand, the norms and institutions of free speech are part of our defence against tyranny. In the Trump era, I am astonished that anyone could lose sight of this last point.


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