Tuesday, March 20, 2018

‘Offensive’ Speech: Understanding vs. Banning and Princeton’s Unfortunate Retreat

Last month, Princeton University allowed the shut down of a course because some students complained about the professor using “offensive” speech—specifically, the “N” word—within the context of exploring the origins of bigotry and racism.

To its credit, the Times of Trenton editorialized in favor of the professor and the course. Understanding hate speech is the only way to defeat it is worth a read.

Without condoning or disagreeing with the actual course, I left these comments:

It is a bad sign for the future of free speech in America that Rosen’s course was cancelled, thus letting cowardly intellectual thugs get the upper hand (or is it a fist?). Once it is accepted in the culture that “offensive” speech may properly be silenced, it is only a matter of time before political pressure is brought to bear for “hate speech” laws—censorship.

Anyone who is offended by what they consider “hate speech” should vigorously oppose laws restricting or banning hate speech. One should welcome the chance to expose the person espousing it. One should welcome the chance to challenge, rebut, and intellectually defeat it the only way it can be defeated—in the open light of intellectual freedom and public debate. History has shown, and common sense dictates, that driving bad ideas underground only fosters metastasizing of those ideas, paving the way for them to resurface again and again in unexpected places and in different—and often worse—ways.

More broadly, the importance of freedom of speech is not just utilitarian. Freedom of speech, including “hateful” or “offensive” speech, is an individual moral right derived from every individual’s right to use his own mind and think. If you can’t express your thoughts legally, then your thinking is effectively stifled. What’s the point, then, of schools and universities? Hate speech laws—which is where we are headed, if the “right” of offended kids to shut down a course of study is accepted—would put the government in charge of dictating what ideas can be expressed, and which cannot, effectively ending intellectual freedom.

It’s perfectly fine if a student wants to question the use of what he considers offensive language in the classroom, if he is willing to listen and debate the issue in the context of respecting the instructor, his classmates, and the university classroom. But apparently, the objectors were allowed to disrupt the class to such an extent that it “made it impossible for him to continue teaching the course.” How could the university administrators allow this? These “students” should have been kicked out of the class and out of the university.

I do not dispute the university’s right to cancel the course. What is horrifying is the reason. We should not let intellectual cowards who run like scared rabbits from ideas or speech or words they find “offensive” gain any traction whatsoever. After all, if the universities—those citadels of knowledge and reason and the “bodyguards” of a free society—won’t stand up to intellectual thugs, the rest of us are doomed.

Related Reading:

Budding Grassroots Campaign Against ‘Hate Speech’ is shallow, childish . . . and Dangerous

J.K. Rowling Laudably Defends Free Speech On Principle

“Hate Crime” Laws are Gateways for Censorship and Statism

The Tyranny of Silence—Flemming Rose

The Left Is Conditioning College Students To Hate Free Speech—John Daniel Davidson: From canceled classes at Princeton to sobbing undergrads at Stanford, colleges across the country are training students to be intolerant.

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