June 19, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

‘Speech Freaks’ Don’t Want to Protect Speech

They want to destroy it. Liberals are helping.

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As you read the following, bear in mind the scandal involving Kyle Kashuv.

He’s one of the Parkland, Fla., teens who rose to prominence after a gunman killed scores of his classmates. But instead of participating, as his peers did, in a revived gun control movement, Kashuv declared his love for the Second Amendment, and a star was born.

Turns out Young Master Kyle said a few very racist things on social media. That got Harvard’s attention. The school had accepted Kashuv for admission, but this week rescinded its offer, thus sparking a firestorm of “debate” about free speech and higher education. —JS

You may know there is a debate going on over the role of free speech in American universities. What you may not know is that this “debate” is not a debate, that free speech isn’t the point, or that its role in American universities isn’t the issue.

I take that back. Among liberals and anyone who cares about democracy, there is indeed a genuine debate. For these citizens, free speech is the point, as is its role in American universities. For them, free speech is central to the people’s ability to govern themselves and a necessary check against the tendency of centralized power to become corrupt. Moreover, liberals place high value on knowledge and wisdom in the belief that they are a surer path than most to political equality and individual freedom.

Liberals, being liberal, are therefore in the habit of taking every argument, no matter how vile, on trust and in good faith. Liberals tend to presume, even when they should not, that anyone claiming free speech is in jeopardy on college campuses, and that its infringement signals the republic’s decay, really does want to engage in a genuine conversation with deference to known facts, sound reasoning and proper etiquette. Liberals tend to believe that even the cruelest person and the most virulent views should have access to the public square, and that protecting them is protecting everyone.

The conservative mind runs into a problem. It can’t attack equality and freedom openly.

This is the first mistake. It’s a mistake to give complainants of the kind seen in virtually all quarters of the conservative commentariat the benefit of the doubt. They should not be given the benefit of the doubt, because they do not care about protecting free speech on college campuses. They do not care about the ideals and integrity of intellectual inquiry or the pursuit of knowledge. They do not even care about debate, per se, because debate requires a shared understanding that one’s claims must be substantiated, one’s conclusions falsifiable, and one’s goals ultimately benevolent.

And because complainants of the kind seen in virtually all quarters of the conservative commentariat do not care about the same things liberals do, liberals are making a categorical error in believing that they do. So the first step is stop. Next step?

What is their real objective? The goal, in almost every circumstance, when you drill down far enough, is to silence free speech even as they claim to be its champions. And their goal is to attack American universities even as they claim to uphold the university’s noblest virtues. When you think about it, it’s much simpler than most understand. So-called conservatives don’t like what lots of people talk about when they go to universities, and so-called conservatives want them to be quiet. Why?

Because universities, for all of their many problems, are still the most fertile forum in this country by which individuals discover self-awareness and self-realization, which is to say that American universities are still the best place for our society to achieve its highest ideals. And by that, I mean political equality, justice, liberty, the whole shebang. It’s a republic if you can keep, Ben Franklin famously said. Part of keeping it is arming the citizenry with the tools and resources that an education provides.

This, to the conservative mind, is troubling, because, to the conservative mind, equality is not an indisputable good, nor is freedom for people empowered by equal treatment before the law. These are not good things to the conservative mind, because the conservative mind is radically and inexorably hierarchical. (It can’t not be.) There are those at the top of society and those at the bottom, and any meddling with the natural order is profaning God. Such meddling must be stopped, the thinking goes. Moreover, it must be punished for disrespecting the authority of the order.

But the conservative mind runs into a political problem. It can’t attack equality and freedom openly. That hurts you. That tactic backfires. “So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.”

That quote, as you may know, is from Lee Atwater. George HW Bush’s advisor was talking about presidential campaign rhetoric. But the same methods have been used by those attacking universities and the exercise of free speech. No one in his right mind would accuse universities of defiling the sacred order of God’s universe without looking helplessly old-fashioned. No one would attack speech, freedom and equality.

So instead, people like David Frum, Ben Shapiro, David French, David Brooks and others attack or tut-tut “Marxism” in the name of free speech. They blast “liberal indoctrination” in the name of intellectual integrity. They critique “cancel culture” as if it were a real thing. It is not a real thing, not in the way it’s said to be, which is another reason never to give so-called “speech freaks” the benefit of the doubt.

—John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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