Activism, Education, Free Speech

Stigmatizing Legitimate Dissent: A Response to J. Oliver Conroy

Editor’s note: this is a reply to an article published on October 29 titled Get on the Bus or Get Under It: Shouting Down Free Speech at Rutgers by J Oliver ConroyIn the spirit of constructive disagreement we have published this formal reply here, but it will also be posted at the Heterodox Academy. If you would like to join the debate please email claire@quillette.com.

 

Can a threat to free speech masquerade as a defense of free speech? We believe it can, if that self-styled defense denounces and stigmatizes legitimate dissent by unjustly framing it as illegitimate. Just as a false accusation of abuse or harassment can itself be a form of abuse or harassment, falsely tarring dissent as a threat to speech when it is not can itself be a threat to free speech.

Unfortunately, many people seem to be highly sensitive to such threats from their political opponents and entirely tone deaf to such threats from their political compatriots. When someone on the Right condemns leftwing threats to speech, they may be correct to do so, but unless they also condemn similar threats from the Right, their defense of free speech is political, not principled.

When someone on the Left condemns rightwing threats to speech, they may be correct for doing so, but unless they also condemn similar threats from the Left, their defense of free speech is political, not principled.

We are not leftist apologists. Lee Jussim has a long track record contesting leftist biases in the social sciences. He is a founding member of Heterodox Academy, and has been featured in Quillette regarding the accuracy of stereotypes, the ballpark accuracy of Damore’s Google Memo and he has a book that just came out exposing a broad array of leftist biases in the social sciences. He also helped Spiked arrange the event at Rutgers which we discuss below. Akeela Careem is working with Lee on a variety of projects involving dissent and speech, and assisted in the Spiked event that is at the center of this essay.

Spiked is a British online current affairs magazine that bills itself as a champion of intellectual risk-taking liberty, and free speech. The tour of American campuses organised by the magazine had been called “Unsafe Spaces” as an intentional provocation – a proverbial poke in the eye to leftist academics and, especially, those students who appear to be so opposed to engaging with controversial ideas that they are willing to shut down others’ right to speech. Their ‘Unsafe Space,’ then, stands in contrast to university “safe spaces,” which are supposed to be where people, usually students, can go to avoid feeling threatened by exposure to views different to their own.

However, safe spaces are not as simplistic as they seem. From a progressive standpoint, students, especially those from historically stigmatized or marginalized groups, are frequently subject to hostility and even harassment. As a result, this view suggests they are not actually free to express their views, which may differ strongly from mainstream views. At minimum, they do not feel free to do so, and need spaces (physical or intellectual) where it is safe to express their views.

The concept that a socio-political environment should be created that permits most people to express their ideas without fear of insult or harassment is not a ridiculous idea. Note that we said “most” not “all.” Karl Popper, in The Open Society and Its Enemies (p. 543), drawing on Plato, pointed out the paradox of freedom: “freedom in the sense of absence of any restraining control must lead to very great restraint, since it makes the bully free to enslave the meek.” Thus, even bedrock human rights, such as that to free speech, must have some limits in order to actually maximize the free exchange of ideas, including but not restricted to political protest. Although the U.S. government cannot prohibit expressions of even perspectives some consider vile or ridiculous, your right to free speech does not entail a requirement that anyone else take you seriously. We personally feel no particular need to seriously engage with violent extremes, such as white supremacy, Nazism, Marxist totalitarianism, or advocacy for subjugation and mass murder. We similarly feel no need to engage with flat earthers, anti-vaccination advocates, or people who believe the world is 6000 years old.

Our hope is that by not wasting effort on the most absurd and reprehensible views, we can inspire thoughtful engagement on serious but controversial topics, such as affirmative action, policing, human evolution, and understanding sources of inequality. A person who opposes the preferential selection version of affirmative action, or who argues that police racism is not a major cause of disproportionate incarceration of African Americans, or who argues that valuing marriage, hard work, and civility are important ingredients in personal success, may or may not be right. But the act of making those arguments does not mean they are a racist, White supremacist, Nazi, or sexist.

Spiked’s Unsafe Spaces tour doesn’t provide an outlet for extreme views. Rather, it challenges audience members to listen. The format brings together panelists of academics, lawyers, and activists to discuss a variety of controversial topics, such as identity politics, political correctness, and why evolution is true. It is highly interactive, with only brief introductory comments by the panelists after which the floor is open to the audience for questions and comments, the idea of which is to then provide an avenue for extended, thoughtful engagement with these ideas between the audience and the panelists.

On October 2, Spiked hosted an Unsafe Spaces event on Identity Politics at our home institution, Rutgers University. The panelists were quite diverse (Kmele Foster, a black libertarian entrepreneur; Sarah Haider, who leads Ex Muslims of North America; Brian Stascavage, a former military intelligence analyst and current student at Wesleyan University; Mark Lilla, a Columbia humanities professor). The event was undeniably raucous. However, “raucous” is not equivalent to “shutting down” free speech. Instead, our view is that attempts to delegitimize protest that does not shut down free speech by claiming it does are themselves a far more serious threat to speech than those they condemn.

An article about this event written by J. Oliver Conroy appeared in Quillette, which routinely posts thoughtful essays on all sorts of controversial topics. This article was titled, “Get On the Bus or Get Under It: Shouting Down Free Speech at Rutgers.” Its tone conveyed the impression that the event was conducted under almost police-state conditions, and, as per the title, that speech was “shouted down.”

Here is what the article gets right about the event. There were police outside the event conducting bag checks as attendees entered, and there were several police in the event room, although we hardly noticed them, once the event started. The event also had moments when it was not clear that civility would be maintained, though, ultimately, it almost always was. It is definitely right in casting the activists who spoke as presenting strident and condescending monologues. Furthermore, there are so many real world cases where protestors are bona fide threats to campus speech and academic freedom that, in general, U.S. academic discourse needs more, not less, pushback against those threats.

Nonetheless, for us the problem is that this was not one of those cases. Here are some excerpts from the Quillette article, followed by our perspective indicating something not quite right about the factual claims:

The quiet suburb of New Brunswick, New Jersey, felt more like East Berlin, or Belfast, when I visited on the evening of October 2nd. The student center of Rutgers University had been transformed into a loose approximation of Checkpoint Charlie … visitors were screened by a gauntlet of police officers and security guards, who inspected our bags for weapons before allowing us into the building’s auditorium.

Of course there were police and security checks, as at any open-to-public event, including football games. It may even have been somewhat stronger than at other events of its kind. We do not know if calling the police presence a “gauntlet” and comparing security to a military checkpoint was meant to be literally true or simply overheated rhetoric. Our point is simply that these charged descriptions do not reflect our experience.

[I]t soon became clear that the protesters had no intention of listening to, or participating in, a debate. They were there to shut it down.

We agree with the first part. We saw little evidence of the “protesters” (a term that, as we will go on to explain, we reject as unfair) actually engaging with the speakers’ ideas. However, refusal to listen is not a threat to anyone’s speech. The second part – “there to shut it down” – is an inference about motivation that the author was not in a position to draw. Neither we nor Conroy can know what the intentions were. What we do know, however, is that no one actually shut down the event.

The first disruption set the template. A student stood up, interrupting a man who had raised his hand to ask the panel a question, and announced, “Before we get to that we’re gonna stop this little rhetoric here.” He then berated the panelists with a rambling indictment of structural oppression until the moderator finally cut him off.

This is a strange mix of truth and fiction, as is apparent from the video of the event, because it all takes place at about 25 minutes in. The supposed template was not set until about a third of the event had already taken place. At this time, a student did interrupt a man who had raised his hand, and did make the “rhetoric” comment, and he did want to continue. But the moderator and panelists quickly (within about 45 seconds) persuaded him to sit down and wait his turn. We also heard no “berating.” Was the interruption uncivil, even rude? Is it subject to criticism? Yes on all counts. There was, however, no “shut down” of speech. And that it set any sort of template is belied by the long stretches of uninterrupted back and forth between the panelists and the audience that followed.

Were it not for the heavy presence of police and security guards, it is entirely possible that the protesters at Rutgers would have stormed the stage and physically prevented the panelists from speaking, as recently occurred at William & Mary.

It is possible. Whether or not it would have actually happened in the absence of security is unknowable, but the audience displayed no evidence of being interested in violence. Our opinion is that such violence was unlikely mainly because, although there is some history of disruptive protest at Rutgers, there is no recent history of such violence of which we are aware. Was it good that security was there? For sure. Is the implication that the attendees intended to commit violence left unsubstantiated? Also for sure.

The Quillette essay then links these events to what it characterizes as the inherently intolerant nature of “intersectionality” – an issue we do not address here.

Sticker advocating dissent, Portland, Oregon (2007)

When is something a threat to free speech? The most obvious answer is when it actually attempts to prevent speech. There are ample examples from campuses around the country where leftist protestors have actually prevented speech through physical attacks, aggressive protests, and calls for retraction of controversial articles. A more subtle form of threat, however, comes from attempts to delegitimize speech through denunciations and condemnations.

The Left does not have a monopoly on such threats. President Trump’s call to challenge the license of NBC after its reports criticized him constitutes just such a threat. Attempts to ostracize or delegitimize kneeling football players – who are not burning flags, spitting at soldiers, or engaging in any behavior that disrespects or suppresses individuals, institutions, or symbols of America – are another.

Further, and most relevant here, the mischaracterization of protests as “shutting down” speech when they do not actually do so is yet another. The Quillette essay is wrong, but not because the facts reported are in error (though some are). It is wrong because it is a threat to legitimate expressions of dissent.

There was, in fact, no shut down of free speech, and we think even the term “protester” is unfair to those condemned by the original article. Their views differed from those of the panelists, but at no point did they try to prevent the panelists from speaking, or even object to the permissibility of discussing their views. Therefore, we refer to those who engaged in the more strident behaviors as “activists” rather than “protesters.” Here is a summary of what actually happened:

00:00:00 Moderator remarks.
00:04:55 Opening remarks by the four speakers.
00:24:47 Moderator invites audience questions.

Note the absence of disruption for these first 25 minutes.

00:25:07 Audience member about to ask a question.
00:25:08 Activist interrupts and starts speaking, (“we’re gonna stop this little rhetoric here” followed by moderator attempting to get him to wait his turn).
00:26:00 Activist returns to his seat to wait his turn.
00:26:01 A series of audience members (including the first activist) ask questions, sometimes in ways that challenge the panelists, but respectfully.
00:31:36 Foster responds to audience.
00:33:23 Activists start chanting “Black lives matter”; Foster responds with, “Has anyone here disagreed with that?”; raucous back-and-forth ensues between Foster and audience.
00:34:00 Activist steps in with a speech (which we would describe as a fairly incoherent leftist rant). Moderator and panelists let him have his say.

This was a serious interruption and we view it as crossing a line, because it did, temporarily, prevent Foster from finishing his statement.

00:36:00 Activist stops speaking, Foster resumes speaking.

Notice that this line was “crossed” for a grand total of two minutes, after which Foster did get to complete his statement. The audience member who stepped in at 00:34:00 was uncivil, but he did not, in fact, prevent anyone from speaking their mind.

00:37:41 Activist interrupts very briefly.
00:37:48 Foster resumes speaking, and other panelists respond, in turn.
00:46:45 Moderator invites more audience questions.
00:46:53 Audience members ask questions and make comments in an orderly manner.
00:52:11 Panelists respond to audience.
01:04:38 Moderator invites more audience questions.
01:04:53 Activist speaks, with an impassioned statement, plausibly interpretable as another “rant,” about imperialism, structural inequality, and racism.
01:05:30 Moderator tries to interrupt twice to move to the next question, but audience member keeps speaking.

Our view here is that the moderator prematurely interrupted the audience member, who, in fact, was not finished, and had been speaking for under a minute.

01:07:00 Activist stops speaking.
01:07:12 Another audience question is taken.
01:08:40 Panelists’ closing remarks interspersed with activist shouts, comments, and some back-and-forth between individual panelists and individual audience members. Lilla & Haider push back hard, repeatedly pressing the activists about how they expect to accomplish anything without taking the reins of power and how they expect to do that in a democracy if they have no interest in persuading anyone.

There was no “shut down of speech.” Some activists were raucous, and there were some brief interruptions, and one longer one. There is a fuzzy line between disagreement and protest, and, whether one agrees or disagrees about how best to describe them, there was no protest that shut down others’ right to be heard.

Even when individual activists talked at some length, it was never more than a couple of minutes, and they did eventually sit down, allowing others to speak, and allowing the panelists to respond to the full set of points and questions. The activists did sometimes shout over and interrupt panelists when they spoke. Maybe they did cross some line, but, after doing so briefly, they then crossed back (i.e., sat down and let others speak). Reasonable people can disagree about the value of such raucous interruptions. Our view is that, within limits and as long as they do not prevent speech, such interruptions are themselves manifestations of free speech, not a threat to it. They can not only be quite interesting, they can bring some energy to an otherwise potentially staid event.

In fact, in addition to some of the silly, sophomoric comments accurately presented in the article (many of the protestors were probably Rutgers college students, and maybe even sophomores, so perhaps we can be a little forgiving?), the activists made some killer points that at least warranted consideration.  First, the “Don’t tell me about facts” statement was misquoted and/or misrepresented.  The first statement (about 00:34:30 in, and hard to hear because the moderator was talking over the speaker to get him to sit down) was “I don’t need statistics” – and, though it is beyond the scope of this essay, the imperfection of statistics is amply recognized by many actual statisticians. This was probably not the speaker’s point, but when the germ of an important point is actually recognized in such a comment, it is not so easily dismissed.

Second, in responses to some statistics quoted by Foster, the speaker did say, ““Don’t tell me about facts,” and went on to suggest that those in power control what the “facts” are. Whether or not you or we agree with either of these points, the fuller context of his statement means his “facts” statement is something more than wilful denial of reality.

Second, the activists pointed out that Foster’s claim that police racism probably does not explain much misses a far bigger problem – the huge number of black men in prisons. Foster engaged this argument and responded with a call to stop imprisoning people for victimless crimes, a general argument that, though it does not rely on identity politics, would, he argued, disproportionately benefit African Americans. Although we agree that the activists showed no sign of engaging in return, they were not the only people in the room. We suspect we were not alone in finding this exchange interesting, and perhaps even a bit enlightening.

Third, as part of his urging the activists to engage in more constructive efforts, Foster presented the example of Michael Bell Sr., who worked for 10 years to overturn unfair police practices. However, one of the activists sitting near us shouted out a response along the lines of (we are paraphrasing from memory because the actual statement is inaudible on the video): “That it took ten years to overturn those practices shows how much of an utter failure the current system is.” We are not sure how much we agree with that, but it was a pretty trenchant point, perhaps worth actually discussing.

We found the event fascinating because there really was a lot of back-and-forth. It was seldom a true discussion, since the activists did not seriously engage with the arguments or analysis of the panelists. They were there to make their points, not to listen to the responses. Nonetheless, the panelists did try to engage with the activists, so, despite the activists’ demeanor, there was an exchange of ideas that some in the audience might have found worthwhile. The activists also made some important points, but, as Conroy correctly pointed out in his Quillette article, they did this in such an angry manner that, with respect to persuading anyone there, they probably mostly failed.

We would have liked to see more actual engagement from the activists, and we disagree with their tactics. Regardless, those tactics were a manifestation of free speech, not a threat to it. Free speech includes their right to present their views with passion, and even anger. Their failure to engage with the panelists’ arguments is not a threat to anyone else’s speech. Free speech does not include a mandate that one listen to others (however wise it might be to do so).

As a result, critics who cast the activists as “shutting down” free speech, or as some sort of threat to speech are inaccurate and unfair in a subtle and important way. Inaccurately characterizing protest as shutting down or threatening speech when it actually did not do so delegitimizes speech that epitomizes exactly the type of speech that is supposed to be protected. As such, we view such critics as a more serious threat to speech than those they call protestors. Surely the critics have not actually shut anyone down, either. However, they have attempted to stigmatize passionate dissent as somehow “unacceptable.” Such dissent is not on the same intellectual or political planet as, say, calls to challenge the licenses of networks that criticize the President, or protesters who physically attack those whose views they oppose.

John Stuart Mill, in On Liberty, recognized this sort of thing as the far more serious threat to speech: “…the chief mischief of the legal penalties is that they strengthen the social stigma. It is that stigma which is really effective…” There is a deep irony here, one that makes this emerging threat to speech especially troubling. Specifically, it is a threat to speech presented as a defense of speech. We hope this essay inspires those who would defend speech to more carefully distinguish between dissent that does versus dissent that does not infringe on others’ speech rights; and to recognize that when they stigmatize legitimate dissent they, and not the dissent, are the bigger threat to free speech.

 

Lee Jussim is a professor of social psychology at Rutgers University and was a Fellow and Consulting Scholar at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University (2013-15). He can be followed on twitter here.

Akeela Careem is a PhD student in Social Psychology at Rutgers University. 

15 Comments

  1. I am the author of the article that Lee Jussim and Akeela Careem refer to in their piece above. I’d like to briefly respond to some of the points raised, which Jussim also made in a post in the comments section of my original article. Here I am partly reprinting what I wrote in response to his comment there.

    Many of our points of disagreement seem to be subjective or semantic, not substantive. One of Jussim/Careem’s contentions is that my article used misleading language. There are a few instances where I am happy to concede that the language may have been hyperbolic or confusingly figurative. The reference to Checkpoint Charlie, for example, was sarcastic and not literal. I obviously don’t think Rutgers is a police state (although some of the protesters there clearly felt America is), or that New Brunswick is as dangerous as Cold War-era East Berlin. I did think the level of security was somewhat strange, and perhaps telling, hence my perhaps flippant remark.

    One of the other points Jussim/Careem raise, which I think is valid and deserves a response, is that the article may have given the impression that the Rutgers event was literally “shut down” by protesters. If the article did give that impression, it was not my intention. After several deliberate disruptions and some hostile heckling, the protesters did somewhat respect the event format – or, at least, did so after the moderator, panelists, and other audience members made it clear they were not going to allow the event to be derailed. The event proceeded despite disruption and I think most people who were there would say it was successful. One could even argue that the behavior of the protesters was fairly mild by the standards of other recent campus confrontations. Incidentally, Jussim and Careem prefer to use the term “activist” rather than protester, which is fine, but I do think that chanting “Black Lives Matter” to drown out a speaker is the act of a protester as well as activist.

    As Jussim and Careem also note, there was “back-and-forth” between the panelists and audience; a few of the activists raised points worth debating. What I question is the necessity of their methods. The panelists and moderator were not shrinking violets; they were ready for tough questions and I suspect they would have been disappointed with anything less. For that reason the event had multiple periods allotted for the audience to ask questions, making the protesters’ repeated interruptions of the panelists (and sometimes other audience members) completely unnecessary. Even when the activists actually waited their turn to speak, their hostility to the speakers was strange and totally disproportionate to the occasion. Despite the activists’ occasional references to “white supremacy” – a term increasingly used, in a sloppy and sometimes disingenuous way, to conflate anyone who disagrees with you with racists – the speakers were obviously not white supremacists or neo-Nazis. They were a group of intelligent, diverse, and nuanced thinkers whose ideas were well within what most people would consider mainstream political discourse. The fact that the activists found the panel so threatening said far more about them than the members of the panel. As I put it, in reference to American University, “panels of writers and tweedy intellectuals” don’t typically “strike terror into [one’s] heart.” I often got the impression that the protesters were not protesting the event actually taking place so much as the event in their minds that they wanted to protest.

    It’s unclear to what extent the protesters wanted to “shut down” the panel in the literal sense. As I said earlier, despite some rather hostile disruptions the activists mostly respected the event format. But I think it is crucial to recognize that the disruptions only subsided because of the moderator’s refusal to cede the floor to the protesters and grant them license to run the meeting, which is what they wanted. Of course, when I said that the activists wanted to “shut down” debate, I also meant it in a broader, less literal sense. They were angry at the very existence of the panel, because it opened for debate topics they believe should not be debated.

    When it comes to free discourse, I think there is a fundamental philosophical difference between my view and that of Jussim and Careem. They, as well as a few of the commenters on the original article, have made the argument that the protesters were themselves exercising freedom of speech. That argument opens a complicated line of enquiry and could easily be the subject of a lengthy essay itself. But my own view is that the “heckler’s veto” is not a form of free speech, and treating it as such creates a precedent that activists on college campuses have already shown themselves eager to exploit. You certainly have the right to protest outside an event you disagree with, and you have the right to attend a public event and use the question period to confront the speakers’ views, but you don’t have the right to disrupt or shout down the speakers or dictate the event’s agenda.

    Although a lot of the reaction my article garnered has focused on the Rutgers event and the actions of the protesters there, the piece was never supposed to be an exhaustive, blow-by-blow account of what transpired. As always I was careful to be as factually accurate as possible. My main interest, however, was not the activists at Rutgers but the deeper implications of the rhetoric and tactics they and other intersectional activists employ. I wanted to open a debate about the ways that identity politics fail to express moral and political complexity or the uniqueness and agency of individual human beings.

    JOC

    • Uri Harris says

      The heckler’s veto is clearly anti-free speech. There’s a good article about it here in relation to university protests:

      https://www.thefire.org/rejecting-the-hecklers-veto/

      The point of the article, as I understand it, was that there was no heckler’s veto, because the protestors didn’t disrupt the event to any significant degree.

    • I think you are far too generous in interpreting their criticism of your article.

      The mere fact that they need to set the bar so high for something to count as shutting down free speech is indicative of how normal such disruptive behaviour has become on North American campuses. I find it appalling that they characterise your article as a more serious threat to free speech than the behaviour of those protestors, who in fact did attempt to shut down free speech. Let’s look at some of the details.

      1: “There were police outside the event conducting bag checks as attendees entered, and there were several police in the event room, although we hardly noticed them, once the event started. The event also had moments when it was not clear that civility would be maintained, though, ultimately, it almost always was.”

      Could it be that the maintenance of civility and the presence of the police might be related? Moreover, is it acceptable that the maintenance of civility, at an academic lecture by moderate speakers at a renowned university, is at moments unclear? Is that what it has come to?

      2: “Of course there were police and security checks, as at any open-to-public event, including football games.”

      Again, is this what it has come to? Security checks at an academic lecture? Sure, if the speaker is the prime minister of a country, or an extremist fanatic, but for a debate by a few relatively unknown intellectuals? To compare a lecture at a university with at most a few hundred people, to a football game, is of course patently absurd.

      3: “”[I]t soon became clear that the protesters had no intention of listening to, or participating in, a debate. They were there to shut it down.”
      The second part – “there to shut it down” – is an inference about motivation that the author was not in a position to draw. Neither we nor Conroy can know what the intentions were. What we do know, however, is that no one actually shut down the event. “

      First, they’re wrong, the inference drawn by the author is entirely justified, given that they accept its premises. If you come to a debate with no intention of listening or participating, then what other intentions could you possibly have had than to shut it down? Were they just seeking shelter from the pouring rain? Did they get lost somehow and found themselves there by accident?
      Second, they claim that no one actually shut down the event. If they mean that nobody actually jumped up onto the stage and attack the speakers, then yes, they’re right, but is that the criterion that we should be using nowadays to judge a debate as a success? It appears so: “It is possible [that the protestors would have stormed the stage]. Whether or not it would have actually happened in the absence of security is unknowable, but the audience displayed no evidence of being interested in violence.”

      4: “There was, however, no “shut down” of speech.”

      This is simply false. If I interrupt you in an extremely loud manner while you are speaking, then I have shut down your speech, it’s as simple as that. There is only a limited time available for everyone to have their say, so any unjust appropriation of time that was allotted to someone else is effectively the shutting down of speech. They concede themselves that this occurred several times, for example when they state that an interruption did “prevent Foster from finishing his statement.”

      5: “Our view is that, within limits and as long as they do not prevent speech, such interruptions are themselves manifestations of free speech, not a threat to it. They can not only be quite interesting, they can bring some energy to an otherwise potentially staid event.”

      By definition an interruption prevents speech, because it is precisely speech which is interrupted. I find the fact that they consider it “interesting” and “fascinating” when people interrupt others whilst “not seriously engaging with the arguments or analysis of the panelists” quite worrisome.

      To conclude, we should all be very worried if academics themselves no longer believe that standards of civil intellectual discourse should be maintained at American universities.

      • Sander,

        You beat me to the response. When I read both the original essay and this rebuttal, I also asked myself the question — really? police and bag-checks for a lecture? For a football game, or a high-profile speaker, I can understand but this was essentially just a college class with a panel of professors. Clearly this indicates to me that the organizers of the event, the university administration, and the police viewed the “activists” as protesters intending to thwart speech or worse. That this didn’t happen doesn’t take away from the fact — yes fact — that many people on all sides of the spectrum (I doubt you can call Rutger’s administration as right-leaning) as a pressure-cooker.

        Now, with that in mind, is it any surprise the tone of Conroy’s piece? Just like i’m sure nobody is surprised by the tone of this rebuttal. The audience of the rebuttal has not been repeatedly exposed to the heckler’s veto that Conroy likely has and many on the political right have. As an example, the author here talks about how there is no point in engaging in discourse with…and lists a whole gamut of views like Nazis, white supremacists, etc. While many would agree it fails to acknowledge the blurring of the definitions such that many of us are cast into that clustering which itself is a heckler’s veto. SPLC’s list is an example. Bannon stating he is a economic nationalist, and being white, led to the faux-journalists suddenly declaring Bannon and anyone of those views a white, nationalist which is of course indistinguishable from white nationalist to most. Voila, oh, you believe in “Buy American?” and you’re white? Congrats! You’re a neo-nazi now! I demonstrated that to my spouse’s very left-wing family and got a litany of shock and outrage until I pointed out a transcript of Bannon’s interview which led to all of the “Neo-Nazi Bannon” slander.

  2. Epson Maverick says

    I sort of don’t understand this point:

    “refusal to listen does not violate anyone’s free speech rights”.

    No of course it doesn’t. But you are also simultaneously arguing that the dissent presented here was “legitimate”. Yet how can dissent be “legitimate” (as in the title of this piece) if you don’t even know what you are dissenting against?

    Are you just trying to stick up for the right to protest and derail panel events for the fun of it?

    If that’s the case, just say so.

    • Epson, the answer to your question is simple. My kids do it all the time when they put their fingers in their ears and go “neener neener neener” when I’m explaining to them why they need to eat their vegetables.

  3. “one of the activists sitting near us shouted out a response along the lines of (we are paraphrasing from memory because the actual statement is inaudible on the video): “That it took ten years to overturn those practices shows how much of an utter failure the current system is.” We are not sure how much we agree with that, but it was a pretty trenchant point, perhaps worth actually discussing.“

    Sorry this dosent really seem like a trenchant point. The speaker was throwing darts at the wall and wanted to see what woukd stick. Of course there are deeply entrenched interests in the criminal justice system that prevent reform. The speaker almost certainly believes the criminal justice system (and the rent seeking interest groups within it) operate under a regime of systemic racism.

    The evidence to support claims of systemic racism in the criminal justice system are scant once you control for relevant variables (as foster mentioned)
    There are issues with the system, but primarily issues of increased goverment power and abuse of civil liberties, not race.

    The protestors wouldnt even consider grappling with any discussion of the criminal justice issue outside their rigid reductionist (and erroneous) systemic racism narrative. Instead, with their cowardice in full display, they yelled and grandstanded like fools.

    It isnt at all clear that most of these sjws are intellectually capable of engaging in normal discourse let alone competently performing in university.

    • I apologize for some of the grammatical errors as I wrote the above paragraph at a late hour.
      I would also want to add that everyone interested should check out Scott Alexander’s blogpost “Race and Criminal Justice:Much More than you wanted to know”, at his blog slatestarcodex.

      The post analyzes the numerous factors driving the racial disparities in outcome, treatment and representation in the criminal justice system based on several studies. The results show that at most tiers of the system the disparities are almost entirely due to factors other than racism. (This is not to say that there isnt racism at the margins, surely there are racist coos out there).

    • Max,

      An interesting discussion I had the other day went along the lines of how the criminal justice system is being vilified through identity politics and not through any real merit-based or treatment-based processes. We hear about how it is skewed against African American males yet, isn’t it actually skewed against all males when you view the incarceration statistics? I argued that it isn’t biased against African Americans but actually biased along economic lines with the unfortunate by-product being African Americans when coupled with population densities. AA inhabit more densely populated areas with lower economics which bloat the populations of prisons but when you view areas with differing demographics you see the same arguments and examples only now the incarcerated are “white trash” as they say. The common point is legal representation and the woefully inadequate funding of the public defender’s office. Couple that with charge stacking by prosecutors and you have a recipe for guilty-pleas which parallel nuisance settlements on the civil side.

      An example:
      Many states have 2 charges on the books for DUI. One is the well known per-se at 0.08 BAC. The second is a “DUI less-than-safe” which they charge for < 0.08. A large # of DUI arrests are of this later, where measured BAC is < 0.08. Now, ignoring that a good # of states do not allow defendants to introduce the $4,500 if found guilty. The common sense says 99.9% of people just take the plea, right? Here’s the problem — you only got that plea because you spent $1,500 for the attorney. Those that can’t afford it (most inner-city AA and “white trash” in the suburbs) — they go to jail.

      My long winded example is simply how our system has evolved into one where you “buy your justice” even for the most trivial offenses and the charge stacking is such that everyone will plea-out and end up with a record even if they have the financial resources for representation. The end result? A downward spiral that has NOTHING to do with color of skin but instead with the size of your wallet.

  4. I’m seeing a weird paradox here. Could this article itself be stigmatising the stigmatising of dissenting speech, and thus become vulnerable to its own criticism? To follow their line of argument: do the authors themselves ‘threaten’ speech by stigmatising the type of speech which threaten legitimate consent?

    It’s confounding me because one could present the paradox once again as a critique of my very own argument here. Am i just being pedantic?

    Anyway it’s making me question this whole discourse of ‘speaking about speech’. On the one hand it’s important to emphasise free speech as an important value, and our constant need to speak about it highlights a problem. On the other hand it leads to paradoxes like this, and pedantic attempts to analyse speech and to find where the ‘line’ is for speech, like the latter part of this article did, instead of simply speaking.

    • RE: “Could this article itself be stigmatising the stigmatising of dissenting speech, and thus become vulnerable to its own criticism”

      No. For the same reasons Dr. Murray, and his ilk don’t protection from this doctrine. Imagine a left trying to operate without stigmatization.

      Heads win tails you lose. Can dish it out but can’t take it. Everything you needed to know about SJW reasoning you learned on the playground.

  5. The entire problem with the free

    speech problem in North America is that leftists do not act within the

    spirit of the free speech laws (i.e., they use the heckler’s veto).

    Similarly, I find these authors to be not engaging with the spirit of the problem, and they reveal that to be true towards the end: “Free speech does not include a mandate that one listen to others (however wise it might be to do so).”

    That is the problem. That activists insert themselves into conservative debates to shout rather than to engage, to shut down rather than to listen, that they attend and block speakers from microphones rather than just sit at home or protest outside.

    The decisions should be, you can attend and listen and engage respectfully, or you can stay home or protest outside. But the authors conclude that it is acceptable to go inside, speak “rants”, interrupt others (“stop this rhetoric right here”), and engage in what the authors admittedly describe as nonsensical rants.

    The authors’ claims about how the protestors had some points that the debaters engagd with and whch may have englightened some in the audience appears far weaker once you recognize that they have avoided the main issue by claiming to set the record straight by explaining the technicalities of free speech. In the end, the democratic expression of free speech requires that others not shut down free speech, but tolerate it. Whether that means stewing in your seat and angrily waiting your turn to ask a question (and not ranting), or staying at home, or protesting outside. The left cannot possibly claim that free speech literally means I may attend and disrupt; but that’s what I’m seeing here, an account of the event that includes multiple disruptions.

  6. Rich M. says

    Thoughtful article. A few points of contention:

    “Attempts to ostracize or delegitimize kneeling football players – who are not burning flags, spitting at soldiers, or engaging in any behavior that disrespects or suppresses individuals, institutions, or symbols of America – are another.”

    I don’t agree with this. Kneeling football players are in fact disrespecting the national anthem, which is certainly a symbol of America. Indeed, that’s very much the point. No matter how you feel about the issue, it’s absurd to deny that, and to overlook that football players routinely have their speech and opinions suppressed without so much harrumphing when it doesn’t involve a cause célèbre.

    I also think that it is splitting hairs to insist on the label of activist rather than protestor, when said activists actually engage in protest by your own account.

    If Mr. Conroy crossed a line in the use of the phrase “Shouting Down Free Speech” in his title, it seems that the same sort of liberty was taken in the phrase “Stigmatizing Legitimate Dissent” in this article. Noticing that the protestors were in fact crass does not stigmatize them any further than their actual behavior allows, and “Legitimate Dissent” seems a rather euphemistic way to describe an ideological tantrum. I get that the protests (or activism, if you prefer) can be seen as falling inside the range of tolerable behavior, but labeling it “Legitimate Dissent” arguably comes close to calling it laudable, which is more than I can agree with.

  7. Carl Sageman says

    In short, I agreed with much of this article (although I found some of the comments dangerously close to being hypocritical). I also felt most of the responses were excellent. I’d like to pick on one additional point though.

    “From a progressive standpoint, students, especially those from historically stigmatized or marginalized groups, are frequently subject to hostility and even harassment.”

    I’d like to point out “we the internet” video called “silence u part 2”. It contradicts this statement and contradicts my own findings from my experience at university.

    Q: did I ever see racism when I was at university?
    A: yes, one Chinese mocked another Chinese in a few instances (eg. Being camera crazy and driving a particular brand of car). That was it. People loved most of the Chinese students (we even celebrated Chinese New Year). I had an African girlfriend and NEVER saw and issues directed at her or me. But, that was a few decades ago before identity politics and intersectioanlsim were ingrained in our culture as they are today.

    Now watch the “silence u part 2”. It’s filled with racism and sexism (directed at white males, naturally).

    The author made an unfounded statement and I’m calling him on it. I can assure you that this article is getting off lightly compared to James Damore – and I believe James Damore acted with noble intent. I’m not 100% convinced that’s the case of this article. As others have said, the intentions of these hecklers was clear. However, I am highly suspicious of the quote above about the need for affirmative action. As far as I’m concerned, affirmative action is nothing but identity politics, anti-equal opportunity, racist and/or sexist. You either apply it consistently (ie. communism) or it’s just racism and sexism.

    I’m very glad the author recognises intersectional behaviour, identity politics and political correctness. I also greatly respect the idea that free speech must equally be applied to left and right. Many on the right are hypocrites. However, many on the left are too … and they’ll add “white supremacist” and “neo-nazi” just to take it one step further.

    Good article (mostly). Makes me respect Quillette. It made me think!!

  8. Carl Grover says

    I’m a fan of HxA, and an admirer of most of what I’ve read from Dr. Jussim. However, after much internal thought, I’m now seeing more clearly the thoughts of “The Independent Whig” on HxA. At this point, I sense extreme placation. By design perhaps, this article, and many comments on HxA, feel like “baby steps”. Why MUST centrist/libertarian/conservative thinkers censor themselves? Are we picking battles? If we are to be shouted down, is the correct answer to take the moral “high ground”? In these instances, I feel as if we are “engaging in a battle of wits, with unarmed opponents”. They need not our education, when solely focused on the “care” and/or “fairness” foundations. They need any considerations outside of these two foundations eliminated. Realism and pragmatism need not apply.

    Why must we take the moral high ground on what should be simple, pragmatic issues?

    Reverse psychology, placation, appeasement, pacification … call it what you will, but I sense that this is what we’re entrenched in.

    See … we’re not all bad, we listen, even at the expense of our own free speech.

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