‘The left has been infected by the disease of intolerance’

American free speech warrior Wendy Kaminer on liberals, hate speech and how students have become 'Young Authoritarians'.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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spiked is the online partner of the Battle of Ideas, the two-day festival of debate that will take place in London on 28 and 29 October 2006. In the run-up to the Battle, we will publish a series of taster interviews with some of the speakers and participants. In the eighth in the series, Brendan O’Neill talks to Wendy Kaminer, who is speaking in the session Reassessing Liberty: Is John Stuart Mill still relevant today? on 29 October.

‘Asking why academic freedom is important is like asking why love is important, or why it’s important to eat when you’re hungry.’ Wendy Kaminer is momentarily stumped. For her, the need for free thinking and free speech in universities, both on campus and inside the classroom, is so obvious, such a no-brainer, that: ‘You know what? I’m having trouble articulating a defence of it!’

A social critic and former member of the National Board of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), whose latest book is Free for All: Defending Liberty in America Today, Kaminer says it should be apparent to anyone who has ever set foot in a university that ‘freedom is essential there’. Yet today, in some universities on both sides of the Atlantic, academic freedom is in danger of being corroded from within – by academics and administrators intolerant of colleagues who hold unconventional, unpopular views, and students who rush to ban anything that offends their sensitivities, be it right-wing rags, Eminem or Kit-Kats (more of which in a minute).

‘Okay, why is academic freedom important? Because in order to think, in order to exercise your freedom, you need to be educated – and in order for people to be educated they need to have the freedom to consider a very wide range of ideas, to have their own preconceptions questioned, and questioned vigorously’, says Kaminer. ‘They have to learn how to tolerate ideas that are really abhorrent to them. They need to learn the difference between ideas and actions. They need to learn that people can have very different ideas, and they can debate them without coming to blows.

‘You know, in our world today, one way you can stop people from coming to blows about their conflicting ideas is by teaching them how to argue, and teaching them not to be afraid of argument. There’s an important difference between being embarrassed or feeling intellectually or emotionally wounded because you’re at the losing end of an argument, and actually being physically assaulted. I think it’s incredibly important for students to learn how to argue, and to learn how to appreciate and even enjoy argument.’

Kaminer believes that the need for this kind of attitude in universities – where people are encouraged not only to swot up on facts and figures but also to be open-minded, robust, self-critical – goes hand-in-hand with a Uni’s traditional role of guarding and imparting knowledge.

‘Being exposed to other ideas, being challenged, being put on the spot, being made to examine their own most basic beliefs – for students that is at least as important, if not more important than learning the fundamentals of their subject. What good is it to learn facts if you don’t learn how to think and how to defend your ideas? John Stuart Mill talks about this. When he talks about freedom of speech and freedom of thought, he talks about the importance of having your ideas tested and learning how to defend them. If you don’t know how to defend your ideas, then they can’t mean very much to you.’

Kaminer, a free speech warrior of the Noughties, has been brushing up on Mill, that free speech warrior of the nineteenth century whose On Liberty, first published in 1859, remains a guiding text for defenders of freedom. On Sunday she will speak in the session ‘Reassessing Liberty: Is John Stuart Mill still relevant today?’ at the Battle of Ideas in London, alongside human rights barrister Michael Mansfield, Observer columnist Henry Porter, and me. Kaminer has been referred to as a ‘First Amendment Fundamentalist’, in reference to her impassioned defence of the First Amendment of the American Constitution, which prohibits the government from infringing freedom of speech and freedom of the press or limiting the right to free assembly. She cut her teeth in the ACLU, and was a national board member until June 2006: she declined to stand for re-election to the board in protest at a proposal by the ACLU (discussed but never adopted) to limit public criticism of its staff by board members. Kaminer called that an attempt to ‘squelch dissent’ and said it went against everything the ACLU stands for (1). She has since become embroiled in a very public spat with ACLU executive director Anthony Romero and president Nadine Strossen.

Kaminer has also worked as a lawyer, at the New York Legal Aid Society and the office of the Mayor of New York City, and has written extensively on law, liberty, feminism, religion and popular culture. She is a scathing critic of ‘contemporary irrationalism’ and also the rise of a therapeutic culture that treats adults like fragile beings – as detailed in her books Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and Perils of Piety and I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional: The Recovery Movement and Other Self-Help Fashions.

Kaminer’s description of a free university, where challenging and even confrontational ideas are batted between and among teachers and students, sounds very appealing – but all too often today, the reality is quite different. She says: ‘There are still a lot of very good schools and very good teachers, who try to stimulate their students and expose them to different ideas.’ No doubt that is true. But in some universities there is also a creeping culture of conformism, a sense that certain ideas are beyond the pale and thus must be crushed by the long arm of the censor (often, these days, a university-appointed ethics committee or a self-righteous students’ union).

Increasingly, university administrations restrict what academics can talk about. In the US post-9/11, some academics were chastised for speaking out against America’s war in Afghanistan. Trustees of the City University of New York made ‘formal denunciations’ of faculty members who criticised US foreign policy at a teach-in, and similar measures were taken against academics at the University of Texas at Austin, MIT, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (2). In both American and British universities there has been a proliferation of ethics committees that judge what are suitable and ‘appropriate’ areas of research for academics, and even advise teachers on the minutiae of how to communicate with their students. Durham University in England recently decreed that lecturers should obtain approval from an ethics committee if they want to give tutorials on difficult or potentially heated topics, such as abortion or euthanasia. Universities even prescribe what kind of language to use. The University of Derby, also in England, has a pretty Orwellian ‘Code of Practice for Use of Language’, which advises teachers that their ‘use of language should reflect the university’s mission and support relationships of mutual respect’. As Frank Furedi has argued on spiked, such illiberal policies are not ‘simply the handiwork of a few philistine zealots. [They are] the inexorable consequence of an academic culture that is increasingly prepared to censor itself and others.’ (3)

Then there are students. Once seen as being among the most progressive, or certainly the most open-minded members of society, today more and more of them are increasingly ban-happy, responding to controversy not by having the argument out – by ‘questioning things vigorously’, as Kaminer puts it – but by demanding censorship, silence, an end to words or images that might potentially upset fragile members of the student body.

In a stinging piece on a ‘mob of students’ at Brown University in Rhode Island, who stormed the offices of the student newspaper The Brown Daily Herald and seized its entire print run after it ran an advert paid for by a right-wing politician who denounced reparations for slavery, Kaminer wrote of ‘the distressing number of young authoritarians’ on American campuses. ‘Self-righteous intolerance of dissent remains distressingly common among supposedly progressive students on liberal campuses’, she complained (4).

Such self-righteous intolerance is rampant among British students, too. In recent years, the Sussex University Students’ Union has banned the right-leaning tabloid the Daily Mail for being ‘bigoted’ (ironic, I know), leading one Sussex student to complain that the union is ‘treating us like babies and it’s offensive’. The union at Sheffield University banned the playing of Eminem records at student dos, because the rapper’s use of words like ‘fags’ breaks the union’s anti-homophobia policies. At the School of Oriental and African Studies in London the union has banned Israeli Embassy representatives from speaking because part of its union policy states that Zionism is racism, and racists should ‘not be given a platform’. Other unions have banned the sale of Coca-Cola and Kit-Kats in protest at the working practises of their parent companies (5).

Far from being a site of free thinking and free exchange of ideas, the university seems to have become a laboratory for new forms of censorship and conformism. ‘Kids come to college, and for the first couple of weeks of freshman year they’re in a sensitivity course, where they’re told what they’re allowed to say and what they’re not allowed to say’, says Kaminer. ‘They are subjected to thought-control programmes the minute they arrive. That is not a very good start.’

For Kaminer, this subtle but pernicious stifling of free speech on campus is bad news. Firstly because it helps to alter the way some students and teachers think, tending to make them closed-minded and fearful of challenging arguments – at institutions where openness and free debate are essential. And secondly because it denigrates the quality and level of public debate more broadly. Censorship is not only a bad rap for those who are censored: the right-wing advertisers or the Eminem record-players. It is also a bad rap for the rest of us, in the sense that genuine conflicts of views and interest are never had out and thus never resolved, and certain ideas are given authority not through public interrogation and debate but by being hand-picked and elevated as ‘correct’ by small cliques of student organisers or ethics committees. Censorship therefore encourages ignorance and conformity – a kind of medieval nodding along with the whims of authority – rather than a critical culture where ideas can be thrown around, debated, defeated, improved or pushed further.

‘Again, Mill talks about that’, says Kaminer. ‘He asks: How do you know beforehand what speech is valuable and what isn’t? How do you test out your ideas? He basically talks about a marketplace of ideas…as the only place where real value can be worked out in any meaningful way.’

In On Liberty, Mill writes: ‘There is the greatest difference between presuming an opinion to be true, because, with every opportunity for contesting it, it has not been refuted, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation. Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right.’ (6) In modern English, truth, whether you are right or wrong, can only be established through full and rigorous public debate. And those who seek to stifle public debate – because they presume that they’re right and their opponents are wrong/corrupt/hateful – denigrate truth by turning it into something that, by necessity, must exist separately from that messy marketplace of ideas.

How have students become these self-righteous ‘young authoritarians’? For Kaminer, ‘it is partly because they have been brought up in today’s victimised, intolerant culture’. She argues that restrictions on free speech are made not only by the right seeking to quell dissent among their left-leaning or liberal critics, but also by liberals themselves, who have bought into ideas of ‘hate speech’ and ‘harmful speech’.

‘One of the saddest trends among people who consider themselves liberal or progressive over the past 10 or 15 years has been this increased intolerance of free speech, and this notion that there is some right, some civil right, not to be offended, which trumps somebody else’s right to speak in a way that you find offensive. It is like a disease, an infection, that has taken hold on the left. It is an incredibly regressive notion.’

Kaminer traces it back to the American feminist anti-porn movement of the 1980s, to authors such as Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin. They, and others, were among the first, says Kaminer, to articulate the idea that ‘you have a civil right not to be offended or “arguably harmed”, even metaphorically, by somebody else’s speech’. Indeed, Kaminer points out that some of these feminist theorists made little distinction between words and actions: they argued that porn is violence, that to watch porn is to commit a violent act and that watching porn often directly encourages men to commit violent acts. According to Kaminer, this idea has spread widely, so that many more forms of hate speech – from racist speech to anti-Semitic speech, misogynist speech to xenophobic speech – are now seen as being potentially harmful, as encouraging listeners to hate and act violently towards others.

The same justification is made for clampdowns on both Islamic radicals and fascist groups here in Britain. Apparently if we allow Islamists to propagate their ideas then more young Muslims will be tempted to blow themselves up; and if we don’t censor fascists in organisations like the British National Party then their words will stir the white masses to launch pogroms against foreigners (7).

Kaminer says these arguments are deeply problematic. There is a clear distinction between words and actions, she says, and it is us, the audience, the people who decide whether or not to give words consequences.

‘Words have power, of course they do. If they didn’t, why be a writer? Why be an activist? But words don’t cast spells over people. When feminists argue that giving a man porn is like saying “kill” to an attack dog, it implies that men are just dogs on short leashes, that they have a Pavlovian response that they cannot control. It ignores the fact that speech is a two-way exchange. The speaker is not Svengali: the audience hears what he says, interprets it, and they make their minds up. The way you combat bad speech is with good speech. You don’t combat it with censorship. That just doesn’t work, and it demeans debate.’

For Kaminer, there is far more at stake here than certain words and images. Free speech is necessary for progress, for improving humanity’s lot. ‘Looking at the history of the US, it is hard to imagine how any of our truly progressive movements could ever have advanced if people were not free to assemble and speak – and in ways that other people often found offensive! One hundred and fifty years ago people thought that women shouldn’t speak in public; that was a violation of God’s law. It was only by violating God’s law – and in the process offending a lot of people – that women’s rights were put on the agenda. It is sometimes by being offensive that we push society forward.’

In other words, we are always better off in the marketplace of ideas than in the cloistered halls of officially sanctioned and ethically correct speech.

Wendy Kaminer is speaking at the Battle of Ideas in London on Sunday 29 October 2006. Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

(1) How the ACLU lost its bearings, Wendy Kaminer, Los Angeles Times, 2 July 2006

(2) America: the end of freedom?, Cambridge University mailing list, 2002

(3) See The new Chief Inquisitor on campus, by Frank Furedi

(4) Mob rules, Wendy Kaminer, American Prospect, March 2001

(5) Defend free speech, now more than ever, by Mick Hume

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Topics Politics


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