A Constitution Day Conversation: 2017
Free Speech, Diversity, and Inclusion: Is there a Balance?
American colleges and universities in recent years have made a concerted effort to be more inclusive in deciding whom to recruit to study, to research, and to teach on their campuses, and I think no one will deny that in many respects this has been a very good thing. It was a travesty in the past that people who were capable of attending or working in institutions of higher education were excluded because of their race or ethnicity, and although I think a case can still be made for single-sex education in certain settings, life has been enriched by coeducation at most schools as well as by the addition of women faculty. Inclusion is not merely a matter of admission or hiring, but of full membership, and that means having access to all the resources of a university, not only to lecture halls but to libraries, and not only to physical places but to conversations, both with faculty and with fellow students. In some institutions, such inclusion has entailed genuine cultural change.
That said, I want to add that sometimes “exclusion” is a good thing, too. The leading institutions in the United States remain exclusive, not offering admission to everyone who applies; if they did, they could not deliver to those they select the peculiar intensity of a college education—for example, at a liberal arts college, the experience of living in a small community, the sustained and developing discourse within each learning group, the encouragement of intimate and continuing friendships, and much else. Advancing in knowledge in the classroom is difficult if not impossible unless the students are more-or-less able to progress together, and that requires a high degree of preparation before coming to college and a high capacity to learn and achieve once on campus—and exclusion of those unprepared or unable. Moreover, all sorts of exclusions are appropriate within the curriculum: prerequisites for courses and for majors, seminars only for freshmen or only for seniors, classes in a language other than English, and so forth. The general principle is that knowledge is rightly made available to all who have the capacity and the desire to attain it, but the attainment of higher learning is a complex and even delicate matter, and experience has shown that not everyone is suited for every study at every time. I leave aside for now the perversity of human nature that desires only what is exclusive: Ambitious students prefer exclusive schools as much as the socially ambitious prefer exclusive clubs. I leave aside as well intercollegiate athletics, where the pursuit of excellence requires that the mediocre be excluded from the rosters of competitive teams.
So if inclusion and exclusion are both good things, the question is which is better or more appropriate or more just in relation to what and when. I tried to begin with examples on which we might all agree, but there are also matters where it is difficult to discern what is the right policy. Can religious societies, particularly on campus, exclude members of other faiths? Perhaps we could agree they can if the question is liturgical celebration or worship. What if it is a matter of discussing moral beliefs? Can a student group be formed that admits only members who share the same faith? Who establishes the test of faith? Can a school require—as the Supreme Court has allowed in public universities—that all student groups be open to “all comers,” so that no student religious group can exclude those who don’t share its faith, even in the election of its leaders? What about political groups or societies on campus: If Republicans can pack a meeting of Campus Democrats, should they be able to elect their officers? Vice versa? Doesn’t religious liberty in the one case and freedom of assembly in the other require a capacity to exclude those who don’t share the religion or the politics in question, or at least those who are actively hostile to it? What about groups based on some other measure of identity—sex, for example, or ethnicity? If we shudder to think of endorsing the all-male or all-white groups that were characteristic of a discriminatory past, what about all-female groups, or all-black groups? And besides formal rules about these things, what are the norms for informal gatherings? For friendships?
Something similar can be said about diversity: Its goodness depends on what kind of diversity, in what circumstances, and to what end. Even an excellent small school cannot possibly find qualified students from every country, maybe not even from every state, much less diverse representatives from all of these. Should geographic diversity outweigh ethnic diversity, or religious diversity, or diversity of intended field of study, or socioeconomic diversity? Does too much diversity in student backgrounds make it difficult for students to find enough others whose interests or opinions or tastes are sufficiently like their own that they can easily make friends, rather than feel isolated? Whose interests are served by the search for diversity: the students themselves who discover they are in the minority in most campus settings, or the students in the majority who gain by exposure to others who are different from most of their friends, or even administrators who can impress their colleagues with their school’s diversity statistics?
To address such matters and to make choices informed by good judgment requires serious thought and inquiry. What makes these possible? Civil peace, I suggest, freedom of speech, and a commitment to reason. The first should be obvious: In the midst of rioting, much less of civil war, civil discourse is impossible, and no one has the leisure to weigh an opinion other than how to fight or flee. There is a place for protest even on campus, I concede, but when protests become coercive, making it impossible for invited speakers to speak or for those who want to hear them to listen, not to mention when protests turn violent and do physical harm, they violate the rights of others and need to be suppressed. The requirement of free speech is also critical. Precisely because our minds are imperfect, often biased in favor of the familiar and resistant to the effort required to think something through afresh, we rarely learn except when encountering other minds who bring to the conversation opinions and perspectives different from our own. Even in science progress takes place through rigorous dispute about hypotheses. Since the time of Socrates, philosophy has been understood to proceed dialectically, a practice systematized in the medieval university by the practice of disputation. In politics, everyone knows both parties deserve a hearing, however little each side pays attention to what the other says. Things are a little different in music, literature, and art, where whole products are displayed or performed without interruption, but these are subjected to critical judgment, which is often quite fierce. Unless hypotheses, propositions, opinions, and works of art can be offered freely and freely contested, it is unlikely that scientists, philosophers, citizens, or artists will arrive at truth or wisdom or justice or beauty. Freedom is no guarantee that truth wins out, much less wisdom or justice or beauty, but in our society it is axiomatic that without freedom, none of these good things stands a chance of success. I should be clear that I do not mean that all opinions are equally true or all artistic creations equally beautiful. Free speech is not an end in itself, but it is a necessary condition for these others. And thus I agree that free speech cannot be “absolute”: Words that threaten or defame or defraud can be punished; restrictions as to the time, place, and manner of speech are appropriate and even necessary; and images that do serious or irreparable harm to vulnerable minds, such as pornography, can be severely restricted or even banned. But these are exceptions: The general rule ought to favor free speech and promote the virtues that enhance it: the courage to tell the truth, for example, or the justice to listen and reflect.
I said that a commitment to reason is also necessary to address the issues before us, and I want to conclude with a few words about that. I do not think that every social situation, even that whole societies can be governed only by reason, but I think that colleges and universities make the cultivation of reason in all its dimensions and all its forms their central purpose for being; when they betray this, they grow corrupt at their very core. To be committed to reason requires keeping an open mind and being willing to encounter and ponder different opinions, but it requires more than this: It requires a positive commitment to learning what has been discovered and known in the past, to being aware of fundamental alternatives, to encountering great works of music, art, and literature and to allowing one’s taste to be formed by them—and to finding one’s own place and purpose in the light that these provide. I am not suggesting that one dwell in the past; precisely if one goes there, one sees ways in which other ages had aspirations and achievements that we barely imagine if we confine ourselves to the noise of the marketplace or the buzz on the internet, and this can be the catalyst for innovation. Inclusion in the wellsprings of knowledge and culture is a great privilege and the truest form of inclusion that college makes possible. What a travesty if, in the name of repairing past injustice, faculty and administrators at colleges and universities deny our students the very good they inchoately seek.
Alas, at least if one attends symposiums, like hockey games, for the fighting, I agree wholeheartedly with James Stoner’s remarks. But perhaps I can add to them.
Stoner, in a move reminiscent of Allan Bloom’s “Fellow Elitists” introduction to his 1988 address, at Harvard, reminds us that universities, and even the righteous among its students and faculty, sometimes regard exclusion as a good. One can say the same of social justice movements in and out of the university. Think of the Chicago Dyke March’s exclusion of Zionists, or, the shout-down of Charles Murray at Middlebury College. To be sure, anti-Murray partisans point to errors in his scholarship. But these errors occurred over twenty years ago regarding a matter Murray is not now proposing to discuss. University social justice advocates want to exclude Murray, as the Chicago Dyke March wants to exclude Zionists, because they think either that his views impede the fight against oppression or that making a show of force against Murray will otherwise be helpful in that fight.
One might disagree with, or even view as anti-Semitic, the Dyke March’s exclusion of Zionists, as one might disagree with the determination in some circles to make a pariah of Murray. But it is hard to disagree with this proposition: organizations primarily devoted to combatting oppression can determine on that basis whom to include or exclude, within the limits of the law and even, if they are willing to get arrested, outside those limits.
But as Stoner observes “colleges and universities,” with few exceptions, “make the cultivation of reason in all its dimensions and all its forms their central purpose.” Some scholar-activists might prefer it were otherwise. But since at least the early twentieth century, the privileges universities sought in American society were granted on the assumption that universities exist, as the American Association of University Professors put it in 1915, to “advance knowledge by the unrestricted research and unfettered discussion of impartial investigators.”
Supposing that colleges and universities are devoted to reason, what principles of inclusion and exclusion follow?
John Locke, although he is not writing about universities, suggests one such principle in Some Thoughts Concerning Education. There “cannot be anything so disingenuous, so misbecoming a gentleman or anyone who pretends to be a rational creature, as not to yield to plain reason and the conviction of clear arguments.” Everyone is familiar with conspiracy theorists who, even if temporarily flummoxed in an argument, find a way to cling to their convictions against plain reason, because, for whatever reason, preserving those beliefs is more attractive to them than the truth. We may not throw such people out of our community. But if we genuinely regard it as disgraceful to refuse to follow arguments to their conclusions, then it would be appropriate for colleges and universities to hold conspiracy theorists and other haters of reason at arm’s length, or not fully to include them. If I were faculty adviser to the College Republicans who, in their free speech enthusiasm proposed to invite Alex Jones of Infowars to campus, I would try to talk them out of it, and expect my counterpart advising the College Democrats to discourage them from inviting, in their anti-Trump excitement, Louise Mensch.
In the setting of liberal education, a good question has more than one plausible answer because engagement in such a question is a training against dogmatism. But a good question also has at least one wrong answer because engagement in such a question is good training against relativism. Once we have become persuaded that an answer is wrong, it is perverse to invite people to keep pitching it. If we set aside the phenomenon of shouting people down and stick to the question of what an academic community should seek to include or exclude, it is obvious that a community dedicated to reason will practice openness by and large but will also on some level be closed to unreason.
Why not, then, seek aggressively to exclude unreasonable speech, which might have the incidental effect of also excluding what has come to be called hate speech? One possible answer has to do with how best to train citizens of a liberal democracy, who will be expected to tolerate, if it comes to that, Nazis marching through their neighborhoods. But let me stick to answers having to do with academic communities in particular.
First, a community devoted to reason is not the same as a reasonable community. Even the conviction that the unexamined life is not worth living can harden into dogma. That may not get us yet to why we should tolerate the presence of, say, Holocaust deniers on campus, but it does explain why colleges and universities might give a wider berth to seemingly unreasonable arguments than one would expect.
Second, academic communities include students, who have somehow to be initiated into such communities. They, to say nothing of their teachers, often believe transparently silly things. But if it is disgraceful not to listen to reason in an academic community, it is surely at least a vice to pretend we know or are convinced when we neither know nor are convinced. If so, promoting an atmosphere in which students who voice wrongheaded opinions are drummed out of the community, and so an atmosphere in which students pretend not to hold opinions they hold, undermines the integrity of academic communities.
Third, because, to repeat, communities devoted to reason are not yet rational, colleges and universities have to be wary of demands to shut speech out. Although their core mission does not permit them to dodge the responsibility of judging some arguments egregiously wrong, colleges and universities consist of individuals who are tempted, like non-academics, to shut up those with whom they merely disagree.
For all these reasons, although attempts, as in the case of faculty advisers to clubs, to discourage the presence of fools on campus, are perfectly consistent with the purpose of colleges and universities, colleges and universities must keep their doors open at least a crack even for fools.Show More
“Which is better or more appropriate or more just in relation to what and when? … What kind of diversity, in what circumstances, and to what end? … To make choices informed by good judgment requires serious thought and inquiry. What makes these possible?”
By posing these tough questions, James Stoner makes it clear that the words free speech, diversity, and inclusion do not denote virtue in the same way that courage and temperance do. Instead, they denote neutral aspects of human character, like ambition and pride, which may or may not be virtuous depending on the circumstances.
Such clarity can be elusive in the contemporary university, however. In that setting, free speech, diversity, and inclusion are defined as virtues and invoked to justify policies that may or may not contribute to the institution’s intellectual flourishing. The same is true of ambition and pride, urged upon students as the qualities most needed for material success. Meanwhile, the dust gathers on courage, temperance, and the other classical virtues.
This situation makes it hard for university administrators to exercise good judgment. To take the most newsworthy example: What kind of free speech should we tolerate, in what circumstances, and to what end? This question is best answered by making the right decision in a particular situation. But as Stoner reminds us, good judgment requires serious thought and inquiry. One step in that direction might be to consider some problems with our contemporary American understanding of free speech.
The first such problem is a failure to distinguish between three ways of limiting speech:
1) Coercive censorship by an authority, usually the state, which possesses the power to harass, threaten, imprison, or inflict bodily harm.
2) Self-censorship by an individual or group living under the shadow of coercion.
3) Voluntary restraint by a particular community, for reasons more or less freely arrived at and agreed upon.
Under the coercive censorship of authoritarian regimes like those in China and Russia, provocative speakers like Ann Coulter or Michael Isaacson are legally prohibited to speak in public, publish written material, or appear in the media. Any group, organization, or company that defies this prohibition is threatened, de-funded, or shut down. The provocateurs’ online presence is scrubbed by the same algorithms that place customized ads on your social media. And if the provocateurs persist, they are sent to prison without trial.
The natural reaction to such coercion is self-censorship. Under such conditions, not just provocateurs but serious writers, thinkers, and artists avoid topics deemed “sensitive” by the regime. So these topics never get discussed, and the arguments they invite never occur. Instead, inchoate passions about important issues tend to fester—until they explode.
The third way of limiting speech, voluntary restraint, is central to the American tradition. With regard to political speech, the First Amendment has always stood in the way of coercive censorship.
The same cannot be said of literary and artistic expression, to say nothing of film, radio, and TV. All experienced periods of coercive government control, it’s worth noting that most of this control was focused public morality, not politics. And at all times, Americans have relied less on official censorship than on unofficial gatekeepers—editors, publishers, producers, curators, educators, and others—to judge what is and is not acceptable speech for a particular community.
Some of America’s gatekeepers are still out there, but their authority is weakened by the widely accepted idea that free speech is an absolute, uncompromising principle which, overriding all other considerations, requires the average citizen to find every type of utterance, from obscenity to slander to blasphemy, equally acceptable; and every type of limit, from totalitarian repression to everyday social taboos, equally unacceptable.
This idea is embraced across the political spectrum, from the liberationist left to the libertarian right. But its logic is that of the slippery slope. If we begin with the axiom that every limit on speech is perforce a fatal step toward tyranny, then we are compelled to conclude that the only way to avoid tyranny is to remove all limits.
But this axiom is false. In all of history, no society has ever removed all limits on speech. Yet some societies are tyrannies, while others remain, for all intents and purposes, free. If you are wondering what accounts for the difference, the answer is simple: the ability of a given society to sustain voluntary restraint as an alternative, both to coercive censorship and to the self-censorship that inevitably takes hold in its shadow.
Unfortunately, American society seems to be losing this ability. There are a number of reasons for this, but in the academy, the main one is postmodernist theory, which collapses the distinction between voluntary restraint, whether individual or institutional, and self-censorship. In other words, any professors or students who choose to keep a civil tongue in their heads, or (worse) urge others to do so, are spinelessly capitulating to the hidden coercive power of racism, sexism, cisgenderism, heteronormativity, and other hegemonic discourses with even longer names.
The historian Henry Steel Commager once wrote. “Censorship always defeats it own purpose, for it creates in the end the kind of society that is incapable of exercising real discretion.” Turn that around, and you have our present situation: a failure to exercise discretion and judgment that invites the eventual destruction of the world’s most robust tradition of free speech.