Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Free Speech, Safety and the Triumph of Neoliberalism

I’m reading another article about debates over free speech on campus, this time at Williams College, an elite school in the northwestern corner of Massachusetts.  A faculty petition asks to formalize and tighten the college’s policy on free speech by adopting the Chicago Principles, which state that “concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.”  Over three hundred students, however, have signed a counterpetition arguing that speech which harms minorities should not be allowed.  These disputes are interesting to me, partly because my own school, Evergreen State College, went through a conflict along these lines.

Consider for a moment the idea that speech activities can be evaluated by the emotional effects they engender.  One person’s speech makes me feel good: fine.  Another’s makes me feel terrible and should be disallowed.  What this amounts to is assessing political acts according to the utility or disutility experienced by those affected by them.  The “do no harm” criterion is a bit problematic, however, since people can also be subjected to disutility by restrictions on their speech as well as by hearing the speech of others.  If one person feels unsafe because of being silenced, but if they talk, another will feel unsafe because of the speech content, a purely rights-based framework becomes inconsistent.

I can see two ways out.  One is to put forward a hierarchy of rights-bearing, a ranking that resolves rights disputes between any two such individuals.  This seems to be implicit in the way disputes like this actually play out, but if you subscribe to the principle of intersectionality (or more subversively, the principle that individuals are not reducible to their “identities”) the ranking is indeterminate.

The other would be to allow for bargaining and side payments.  Yes, your speech makes me feel unsafe, but I will consent to it if you simultaneously agree to adopt a program I favor, give me additional personal guarantees or something else I value.  Then we are in MarketWorld, where different parties buy and sell pieces of their political agency.

You can probably sense where I’m going.  The neoliberal worldview holds that as many actions in as many spheres as possible should be evaluated according to the effect they have on individual preferences, as revealed by market choices.  Take the example of restoring salmon habitat by taking down a dam.  This is an action with economic consequences, but it is also a matter of social values—how much a community values having an environment in which wild fish, among others, can prosper.  The neoliberal approach is to interpret that value as a consumption good: what affect does salmon restoration have on your sense of preference satisfaction, on your utility or disutility?  There are various techniques that can be used to estimate this, such as a contingent valuation survey.  Instead of having to deliberate politically on the values which we want our community to uphold, giving reasons for them to try to persuade one another, we should take our preferences as given and simply record the overall effect of a proposed choice on well-being.

My reading is that the core psychological principle of neoliberalism, that life is an accumulation of moments of utility and disutility, is alive and well within certain sectors of the “left”.  A speech (or email or comment at a meeting) should be evaluated by how it makes us feel, and no one should have the right to make us feel bad.

I realize I will be accused of trivializing, that I’m not appreciating how bad speech can make some of us feel.  And I agree that the degree of disutility in relation to the political context matters.  Some speech has as its primary purpose making others suffer, through insult or instigating fear, and has little or no persuasive intent.  That’s hate speech, and I don’t see a problem with curtailing it.  Arguably, much of the “provocative” right-wing babble, whose goal is to demean and threaten rather than change minds, falls under this stipulation.  But what distinguishes hate speech is not simply the degree of anguish it evokes but also its lack of any other motive.  Giving an antiwar speech may well cause similar anguish among family members who have lost loved ones in battle, but if the purpose is political, to persuade and enlist, it should be evaluated on political grounds, not its impact on utility.

It’s the greatest power of an ideology that it can seep into the worldview of those who claim to oppose it.


rosserjb@jmu.edu said...


Sorry to hear this stuff is bubbling up at Williams. Are things doing better at Evergreen these days?

I confess that I am a bit confused regarding exactly where the supposedly neoliberal view is fitting into all this.

Peter Dorman said...

That the public sphere is to be regulated according to disutility minimization. It essentially puts us in the role of consumers of public speech, judging it by how it makes us feel at the moment.

Sandwichman said...

It's all about the Benjamins.

Sandwichman said...

Inside Higher Ed:

"At least 60 entities -- including colleges, universities and higher education systems -- have embraced the Chicago principles since they were first introduced four years ago. The growing support for the principles is due in part to a promotional campaign by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a civil liberties watchdog group."

A civil liberties watchdog group?
A civil liberties watchdog group?


"The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education does not disclose its donors, but some of its funding sources are known through other tax filings. FIRE's known funders include:

Adolph Coors Foundation: $45,000 (2012, 2015)
Bradley Foundation: $1,490,000[9]
Charles G. Koch Foundation:$955,561 (2008-2014)
Claude R. Lambe Foundation: $740,000 (2005-2007)
DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund: $1,372,500 (2012-2015)
Jaquelin Hume Foundation: $235,000 (2001-2011)
Randolph Foundation: $62,000 (2009-2011)
Sarah Scaife Foundation: $355,000 (2012-2014)
Searle Freedom Trust: $300,000 (2008-2013)

rosserjb@jmu.edu said...

Obviously there is not a neat line on this controversial matter. My prior has always been a Millian default in favor of free speech unless there is clear harm to others from it. I have never been impressed by all the "I feel bad because Bad Visiting Speaker microagressed against me by saying something unpleasant about a group I belong to so ban him/her."

For me the obvious line is when a speaker encourages violence against others, especially others who are nearby and even on campus. Needless to say, I have no sympathy whatsoever for those who actually engage in violence on either side against others, which has happpened from both sides.

Peter Dorman said...

But note, Barkley, that the it-makes-me-feel-bad argument against speech is rather new. It applies a (dis)utility standard to questions that used to be addressed only with public criteria (freedom of speech, protection of institutions, public order, etc.). I've kept my eyes open, but I haven't seen any careful analysis of the disutility stance. I'm raising it here and pointing out its consistency with neoliberal framings that reduce as much as possible to questions of consumer choice.

Sandwichman said...

"Free speech" is the framing that right-wing activists want you to fall for. It has as much substance as "drain the swamp" or "make America great." Conservatives pointed out what their real objective was decades ago. They hold hegemony in most of the "commanding heights" of society -- business, finance, government, the military, the police, broadcast media -- but feel that they are vulnerable in higher education and the arts. Their objective is a clean sweep to establish a totalitarian business-conservative society.

The SJW faction are a small fringe whose influence and impact is magnified far out of proportion by their politically incorrect "victims." Most undergrad students are apolitical, grad students are pedantic and faculty are mostly career and grant oriented rather than ideological.

Barkley Rosser said...

Well, I have been at this for a long time, both as a teacher who has had students complain in official evaluations anonymously from both the right and left wings about evenly over several decades anonymously, with me in fact adjusting what I say in classes over time in response, as well as someone who has brought speakers in from outside to speak on campus in our official seminar series.

So, in rhe latter in over 30 years, I have brought in several hundred speakers representing an incredible range of views from super anarcho-capitalist libertarian to Trotskyist, and almost everything in between. On occasion a speaker has said things that some individuals found offensive, although without any warning ahead of time, and again with these offenses coming about equally from different sides of the ideological spectrum.

As it is, in all this time, there has been only one instance where a faculty member in my dept suggested I try to bring someone in to speak and I refused to do so. It was not that the person was going to say something politically incorrect or threaten violence, but that the person, very well known right now, had been widely reported to have falsified data and used a sock puppet to misrepresent himself, along with several other ethical violations. My ultimate criterion was and remains that I am not going to have somebody in that I cannot go to dinner with, and this notoriously unethical individual is the only one to meet be so bad I could not stomach it, although there was one egregiously offensive individual who I had a lot of trouble not really going after during the dinner afterwards.