Kate Manne (Cornell) and Jason Stanley (Yale) have a piece purportedly on recent events at Yale here. (Some if it invokes some of Jason's ideas about propaganda, discussed here. I won't rehash any of the criticisms made in that review, though it does seem to me this is another case of treating everything as a nail because you have a hammer.) I find it a disappointing and misleading intervention (and I've heard similar comments from other philosophers), and for the sake of the reputation of our discipline, I would urge philosophers to write letters to the editor; feel free to make any of the points, below.
The trouble comes early, when Manne and Stanley write:
More worryingly still, [the students] are held to be attacking freedom of speech rather than exercising it to call for institutional reform....
Rather obviously, they can be, and were, doing both. In spitting on speakers, petitioning for the removal of people from their jobs because of their speech, and heaping vulgar abuse in public on a faculty member in order to shut him down, they are trying to suppress and punish speech. Why pretend otherwise? At the same time, some students (maybe some of the same ones!) were speaking on behalf of institutional reforms. Perhaps someone, somewhere has called for shutting down that lawful speech; if so, they are mistaken too.
There was a funny, if over-the-top piece by a Harvard Law Student, denouncing the "fascist" techniques of some of the students at Yale. The word "fascist" is being abused here: the "fascist" response doesn't involve spitting or cursing, it involves breaking people's head open with bats. But put the hyperbole aside, the author correctly identifies the misconduct at issue (substitute "behavior incompatible with the functions of a university" for "fascist," and "speech compatible with the functions of a university" for "not fascist" and you'll get the point):
|Tactic||Fascist or Not Fascist?||Explanation|
|Blocking people you disagree with on Facebook||Not Fascist||Maybe a bad idea, but you’re not actively transgressing on another person’s right to speech.|
|Calling for people to be fired for expressing their beliefs||Fascist||You are (1) calling for reprisals (2) for people expressing what they believe.|
|Organizing a protest against an editorial you disagree with||Not Fascist||You are condemning a belief you disagree with, but not trying to punish the speaker for saying it.|
|Calling to defund a newspaper for publishing an editorial you disagree with||Fascist||You are (1) calling for reprisals (2) for people expressing themselves.|
|Putting up fliers demeaning people that disagree with you||Not Fascist||Using an ad hominem attack is silly and hurtful, but does not use positions of authority to punish free speech.|
|Spitting on people attending a meeting you disagree with||Fascist||You are (1) committing a crime against someone (2) because they exercised their free speech.|
|Calling for a University to change its seal||Not Fascist||You are not punishing anyone for their beliefs. Not fascist in the slightest!|
|Tearing down fliers that you disagree with||Fascist||You are (1) committing a crime against someone’s property (2) because they exercised their free speech.|
|Condemning people for wearing offensive Halloween costumes on Facebook||Not Fascist||You are expressing indignation at someone else’s choices, but not calling for them to be punished because of their expression.|
|Calling for students to be expelled for wearing offensive Halloween costumes||Fascist||You are (1) calling for reprisals (2) for people expressing themselves (even if in a hurtful, offensive way).|
Manne and Stanley simply obscure what is at issue, not once acknowledging that calling for people to be fired for their expression, or spitting on them, or heaping vulgar abuse on them to shut them up are not behaviors compatible with a functioning university environment--as little as racist abuse and racial discrimination are. But the key difference, of course, is that no one is rationalizing or justifying the latter, whereas lots of people--even philosophers!--are rationalizing the former.
Manne and Stanley repeatedly obliterate the pertinent distinctions throughout their essay, setting up their opponent as a strawman. For example:
Following Christakis’s email, protests erupted among students of color and their supporters. Their political activity has since been written off by many commentators as a silly tantrum thrown in response to a one-off email, rather than a reaction to chronic, structural racial injustice — such as the persistent paucity of black faculty members and administrators at Yale, the common experience of being the only black student in some classes, and being disproportionately likely to be stopped and asked for ID — or worse — by campus police officers, as students have movingly testified. An article in the National Review went so far as to call these students of color "defective people from defective families" — an eyebrow-raising choice of language.
Students responded to Christakis's odd e-mail (see the careful discussion of its actual content here) by calling for her to be fired. When her husband defended her, they called for him to be fired, leading to the now notorious mob scene. This is what is objectionable: that students respond to ordinary speech and a defense of free speech with calls for sanction and vulgar abuse by a mob intent on intimidating the speaker. (Manne and Stanley even manage to misrepresent the absurd National Review piece [a tantrum in its own right]: the "defective families" being criticized have nothing to do with race, rather the author is explicitly attacking "a certain strain of upper-middle-class American culture that cultivates an excess of self-importance that grows cancerous when it isn’t counteracted by a deep understanding that the world is full of things that are much more important than you are...That American striver culture has many invaluable aspects...but in the absence of transcendent values it turns everybody into a miniature Donald Trump.")
This whitewash of the objectionable behavior pervades the Manne & Stanley piece. Describing the reaction to the Associate Master's e-mail opposing the campus-wide e-mail about Halloween, they write: "the students then opposed her opposition--alleging that she ought not to have spoken as she did, given her position as associate master of Silliman College. And many pundits have, in turn, opposed their opposition--holding that the students ought not to be protesting thus..." But the alleged "symmetries" here are fabrications by Manne and Stanley: the students didn't simply criticize or "oppose" the Associate Master, they launched a petition to have her fired; when her husband came to her defense, they added him to the list of people who needed to be sanctioned for their speech. When the husband tried to talk with the students, he was shouted down and subjected to vulgar abuse. That is what sane people are objecting to: some students are behaving horribly and utterly differently than those they are criticizing.
It's true that sometimes "sounding reasonable can be a luxury," but not at a university: it's how the whole place works. And, contrary to Manne and Stanley, it's quite clear the student concerns, despite the absurd misconduct by some, have been met with a "receptive, even sympathetic audience" (contrary to Manne and Stanley's suggestion that the students could not presume such an audience). Witness not only the Master's forced apology, but now this interview with Yale's Dean of the College (who does, tactfully, note towards the end that today's students are less "resilient"). Ivy League students, including students of color, enjoy unprecedented attention and solicitude. (You'll notice there's not even been any talk of disciplinary action against any of the students engaged in the documented misconduct.) Manne and Stanley go so far as to write that the racism that exists at Yale "is not the sort of racism that is generally considered newsworthy...There are no black bodies on the pavement to focus on. The violence being done is subtler..." It's so subtle, in fact, that it's not clear how it constitutes "violence" at all. Racially tinged rudeness and insensitivity (e.g., so-called "microaggressions") is not the same as murder or beatings: why cheapen the coin of racist "violence" by abusing the language this way? Thank God there are no bodies on the pavement at Yale.
Yale students have legitimate grievances (e.g., the scandal of a college named for an apologist for chattel slavery!). And it's sometimes true that (as Manne and Stanley write) the "notion of freedom of speech is...co-opted by dominant social groups, distorted to serve their interests, and used to silence those who are oppressed and marginalized." But it is an irrelevant point when, in fact, some of the Yale students are trying to suppress the kind of free speech that is part of academic life, and through tactics--calls for firings, spitting, shouting down by a mob--that would spell its end.
It is true that "the protesting Yale undergraduates have become pawns in the culture wars," but it is false that it is a mere "myth" that some of them pose "threats to freedom of speech": they obviously do in the ways noted. Why can't Manne and Stanley acknowledge that? It's mystifying.
ADDENDUM: Several readers point out that Manne and Stanley also, falsely, state that "hate speech" is an exception to the constitutional protection for speech, along with 'fighting words" and slander. Although this mistake is perhaps telling, it's also largely irrelevant to what is so wrong-headed with the argument in this piece. The Constitution does not constrain Yale, and it's constraint on public universities is tempered by Pickering and progency, as we discussed in the context of the Salaita case.
UPDATE: For those interested in reactions to the preceding, see here.