Ethics Quote Of The Week: Ken White of Popehat

“A few hysterically censorious kids screaming for a professor’s termination for crimethink do not threaten the foundations of free speech, but Yale lauding them does. Relatively few thugs disrupting a speech and even physically assaulting a professor don’t call into question the culture’s support for free speech, but Middlebury offering weak slaps on the wrist and shrugs for that violent behavior does. A violent mob in Berkeley does not undermine the legitimacy of free speech doctrine — a mob is a mob — but Berkeley’s timorousness or indifference in the face of violent censorship does. Students furious at a professor disagreeing with them don’t call into question the nation’s commitment to freedom, but state officials refusing to guarantee a professor’s safety do. In short: the regrettable behavior of officials who have failed to stand up to disruption of speech are the people most responsible for legitimizing further disruptions of speech, whoever commits them.”

——Lawyer/blogger/ free speech champion Ken White, writing about efforts on both the Left and the Right to interfere with or punish speech and opinions they don’t approve of.

Well and truly said, Ken.

Ken continues,

“But we can, and should, do better. Commitment to free speech as an American value — as an element of American exceptionalism — has always required tolerating evil and injustice and idiocy. We don’t refrain from disrupting speech because the speakers deserve it, or because we’ve been treated fairly by the speakers or their allies. We refrain from disruption — and ought to punish those who disrupt — because free speech is the necessary prerequisite of a society based on individual rights and freedoms. It’s the right that’s the gateway to all other rights. Shrugging and abandoning it as a value is an abandonment of our commitment to all rights.”

Why is this so hard to teach in colleges? Perhaps because the faculties and administrators prefer that their students never learn it.

13 thoughts on “Ethics Quote Of The Week: Ken White of Popehat

  1. One thing I have noticed on those rare occasions when I truly listen to someone whose viewpoint is diametrically opposed to my own is that I discover there are indeed legitimate points being made and legitimate concerns that need to be heard. That doesn’t mean that I experience a paradigm shift. I will still believe that opposing viewpoint is incorrect, but at the same time I discover that my understanding of that opposing view was actually wrong.

    There’s a great deal of satisfaction in being right, and I confess that at times I am more concerned with being right than with listening to someone whom I think is wrong. But there may be much more to the desire to be right than mere ego. Our brains are wired to find the simplest and easiest course. We learn actions that can then be performed by rote, without even thinking about them. That is why we find ourselves, upon walking into the kitchen, opening the refrigerator door and staring at food for five minutes before we recall we really entered the kitchen to find a flashlight. Our brains have developed a pattern that says: “enter kitchen, open fridge”. Having the right answer is a great thing, for our brain can discard all else and hold onto that right answer. It is easier. Simpler. Life now makes sense and we can proceed with cataloguing the more important details in life (the current Kardashian scandal or the names of all the Pokemon and their evolutions).

    Being challenged in our right answers is uncomfortable. It can be especially distressing when someone presents us with a set of facts that, at least on the surface, contradict our right answers. We have two choices when confronted with such a challenge: we can either try to hone our own arguments, or we can retreat and try to insulate ourselves from further confrontation. We’ve seen quite a bit of the latter. We develop little adages about how it is impolite to discuss religion and politics — the two most important areas of life, and the two areas most likely to spark an argument. We surround ourselves with like-minded people, listen to the news that most appeals to our viewpoints, and never venture outside the echo-box. Certainly all these tactics are easier than constantly assimilating new arguments, researching new theories and developments, stringing together logical narratives, and perhaps even adjusting our own viewpoints when our conclusions lead us to recognize errors in our previous judgments.

    I’ve read a little bit recently on St. Thomas Aquinas, and in reading I gained a peek into life in the universities of the thirteenth century. Students did not come to a university to attend lectures. They essentially apprenticed themselves to a master, who then did not teach so much as dialogue. They demanded that their students ask questions and find answers themselves. I read an account of how universities would host open debates, and the masters would throw their students into the ring to answer the challenges and objections people would raise.

    I mention this because (aside from St. Thomas’ tendency to gather all the best objections he could find, and then answering them in a systematic fashion) it certainly seems to me that universities have devolved over time from institutes in which one enters to expand upon human knowledge to institutes that are a form of job preparation. Classes aren’t about dialogue and exploration of ideas, but are a regurgitation of facts. The professors have the right answer, and the students don’t challenge those answers, but rather absorb them. At least at the undergraduate level, there is little difference between college courses and high school courses. Students are provided with the right answers, and are tested on how well they can repeat back those right answers, so that they can pass their classes, get their degree, and then get that dream job they were promised.

    In the light of human tendency to form an idea and stick with it, and the universities becoming higher-level job training, free speech becomes an unwelcome interruption. If the universities are about delivering the right answers so that students can pass their classes and move to on to get high-paying jobs, where is there room for dissenting views? They’re wrong, they take effort to address, and they distract from the tranquility of all the nicely-packaged right answers.

    • They are certainly the most troublesome to think about and discuss, which is why in my dad’s generation they were always taught to never discuss either religion or politics in polite company. People’s faith is important to them, and so is the direction they believe this country should take, and there’s no way around that. That said, too often those are the issues that make people’s brains turn to water and flow out their ears. There is no reasoning with a strict textualist Christian or a conservative Muslim. There is also no reasoning with a die-hard Hillary or Trump supporter, each of whom sees the other as a disgusting threat. Most adults hold their silence, though you get the occasional whack job like that woman who went after the Trump supporter on the plane because he dared respond truthfully to a question she asked.

    • Wyogranny, I suppose I could be a little more precise in what I mean. From my perspective, which is highly theoretical, religion and politics lay out the grid on which we can build family and meaningful work. To an extent, they provide the background to understanding what family is, or ought to be, and why work is meaningful. So politics and religion are means, and the family and work are some of the ends.

  2. I have to admit a did a double take at my radio on my drive in to the City on Saturday when I first heard about the story Ken was writing in response to, which was the idiot protester that clambered up on stage to interrupt Caesar. It went something like this:

    “A production was interrupted today when a protester climbed up on stage”

    (“Uh huh… Which cis-het patriarchal institution is who bitching about today?”)

    When a right-wing Trump supporter* interrupted a Caesar production.

    (Actually looks at radio, back to road, back to radio… “REALLY?”)

    Now a big part of me hopes, and even believes, that the right will end up treating this protester properly… And that is to say poorly. Disruptive protests are a tool of the left, and we’ve spent a lot of time and energy bitching about the exercise of them in such a way as to stifle the spirit and practice of free speech, and it does us absolutely no favors to get behind someone appropriating the bad behaviors of our opponents.

    *(My radio station fell just short of labeling her a white supremacist, thank God for small miracles)

  3. Love this post and agree 100%. The thing that worries me though is that the college students shutting down free speech are making the claim that the very existence of certain people on campus and their speech (people with opposing views) somehow oppress them and legitimizes white supremacy. The reasons are never given and no true connection is ever shown between a speech by an alt-righter and how that actually oppresses minorities. The student’s main premise is that words hurt and oppress them, and they are the only ones who get to weed it out and decide who is actually doing the oppressing. These college adminstrators really need to step up and say that “No. You’re not being oppressed by these words, and you are not the ones who get to decide what speech is inappropriate or not, despite what credence you think your skin color grants you.”

    • When I was a kid (and that was not soooo long ago by most standards), we had this saying:

      Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me

      I wonder what they say today, because it seems that so many are aggrieved by words today, but that is a real problem in a free society (so much as we have anymore). When it is your thoughts and words that are criminal, what room is left for dissent, and without dissent, how do we gain knowledge?

      • Thanks for replying. Well this is exactly the problem, because what the college students are claiming now is that words have power and can be used to oppress minorities. This is how they justify silencing people. If you read a lot of their comments, they usually say things like “this speech promotes white supremacy and oppressed so and so and it used as weapon against brown bodies and your freedom of speech doesn’t give you the right to oppress my liberty.” They somehow connected speech they don’t like with controlling where they feel comfortable and free from oppression.

  4. Attacks on free speech are unacceptable and undermine the entire Bill of Rights. This is absolutely a situation where the law needs to step in and directly address the campus lunacy in a way that permanently ends “no-platforming” attacks, with serious repercussions against the cry-bullies.

    If they don’t, the loose ends on the Right will snap and there are going to be counter-attacks on Leftist speech, disruption of their progressive events on campus, and basically it’s going to be like a wimpier Millennial version of the Bloods and Crips.

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