Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Drawing the line

One of the things I've liked the most about my seven years writing here at Skeptophilia is that it's given me the opportunity to think, learn, and reconsider my own views.  The point of skepticism, it seems to me, is to be open to revising one's stance if presented with new information or better arguments, and thus refining one's own perceptions.

Yesterday's post, about a couple of incidents in colleges where speakers with unpopular views were harassed or threatened with being banned outright, elicited a couple of comments from loyal readers that got me thinking about what I'd written.  And while I won't say it's completely changed my mind, it has made me realize that the topic is far more of a minefield than I'd realized.

[Note: I am quoting them with their permission.]

The first wrote:
While a person who makes up part of a vulnerable demographic for whatever reason absolutely has the right to avoid going to an event where they might be exposed to hate speech, simultaneously, allowing others on a campus to hear opinions that confirm them in thinking that hate speech against other people is a thing that is acceptable in society today seems overly affirming to people that perhaps don't deserve any audience at all. 
Not every campus speaker speaks hatefully, or on hateful topics, and you're right that unless we are exposed to all sides of an argument, we cannot develop informed opinions on that argument.  It's also incredibly difficult to draw a line in the sand that says 'these words are hateful, these words are just provocative, and these words are fine' - and I'm not sure that we should. 
So how do we listen to all sides of an argument that involves hate speech without making the victims of the hate speech feel that we are supporting the existence of said hate speech against them?   
I'm not sure there's an answer to this out there, but figured I would see what you thought.
I responded:
It's a tough question. I agree that to the disempowered, even having speakers who hold those kinds of views feels like tacit acceptance.  But I still think that the way to combat that is to work toward empowering the disempowered -- the professors encouraging them and supporting them in speaking up, even helping them to formulate questions and criticisms, or showing up with them to a talk -- is much better than denying the speaker the right to speak.  Like in the case with Stanger [the professor at Middlebury College who was assaulted after inviting Charles Murray, a political scientist with controversial views about the genetics of race and intelligence, to speak at the college] -- she was up front that she disagreed with Murray, but wanted him to present as an opportunity for her students to engage in reasoned discussion (and, perhaps, refutation of Murray's arguments).  It didn't work out that way, and the violence that ensued proved nothing.
She wrote back:
But that assumes that the students who feel disempowered by the topic of the speech will be able and stable enough to attend, listen to a speech that denigrates and attacks them (politely), before being able to disagree or question someone with which they disagree...  [You] might liken it to sitting down to listen to an hour of your worst childhood bullies argue about why they should have bullied you, or even to sitting down to listen to an hour of explaining why you shouldn't exist as a person at all. 
Some people are strong enough to do that, but not all of them are, no matter how much empowerment their professors try to share with them, which is why they would be the ones that don't attend - but then we have no one to question and debate.
And it turns out that the views of Laura Kipnis, whose talk at Wellesley prompted a group of faculty to draft a letter suggesting that such speakers be barred from presenting on campus, are not as academic and dispassionate as she claimed.  In a recent essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Kipnis makes some statements that would strike many of us as ethically questionable -- that sexual relationships between professors and students are okay because when she was in college, "hooking up with professors was more or less part of the curriculum...  We partied together, drank and got high together, slept together."  She scoffs at the idea that such relationships could result in a more powerful individual victimizing a less powerful one, or using that power differential for their own gain.

And she doesn't hesitate to engage in low blows against people who disagree with her.  About a man whose attitudes about inappropriate humor and unwanted sexual advances Kipnis considered puritanical and overly delicate, she even went so far as to suggest that his nervous coin-jangling in response to her questions was masturbatory.  In an academic journal.  Kipnis writes:
I recalled a long-forgotten pop-psychology guide to body language that identified change-jangling as an unconscious masturbation substitute. If the leader of our sexual-harassment workshop was engaging in public masturbatory-like behavior, seizing his private pleasure in the midst of the very institutional mechanism designed to clamp such delinquent urges, what hope for the rest of us?
So it seems like Kipnis is dancing pretty close to the line herself.

Another reader commented:
I'm generally with you on this topic, but I think we have to take off our privilege blinders.  Neither you or I would ever be compelled to take time from our schedules and prepare/engage in a "scholarly debate" with someone who says we are part of a genetically inferior race, or that our family members should be immediately locked up and deported. It's very easy for us straight white dudes to keep things civil when our humanity is never attacked.
Which is also spot-on.  My own attitudes about speakers being denied the right to speak based upon controversial viewpoints would probably be very different if I myself was a minority.  As the reader commented, being a white straight male makes it awfully easy for me to be on the side of free speech -- since that free speech is seldom used to harass or demean me.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

So I'm left with the conclusion that this is a great deal harder than it seemed at first.  To fall back on the basic rule of banning only speech that promotes criminal acts or violence is to ignore the fact that free speech has been used many times in the past to incite hatred, discrimination, and marginalization.  And ignoring that fact is only one step away from tacit acceptance.

On the other hand, where to draw the line is problematic.  I still believe that colleges do students a terrible disservice by insulating them from controversy; prohibitions against hearing speakers or reading books or papers that voice dissenting opinions are, by and large, antithetical to the reason we have education in the first place.  But the complexity of this issue, and the spectrum of where those controversial views might fall, make it a far thornier decision than I had realized.

Many thanks to my readers who took the time to respond to yesterday's post -- especially the ones who challenged me on what I wrote.  After all, having written a piece about how important it is to be pushed into reconsidering your preconceived notions, it would be a little hypocritical of me not to be willing to engage in a bit of that myself.

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