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Free Minds & Free Markets

The Spurious Move to Stifle Speech on Campus Because it is 'Dehumanizing'

It's another of a panoply of ways to silence opinions academics and students disagree with.

Robert Spencer — the controversial author and founder of the blog Jihad Watch — spoke Tuesday at Stanford University at the invitation of the university's College Republicans. The event proceeded relatively peacefully, with minimal disruption.

But there were many who believed Stanford should never have allowed Spencer to speak in the first place, including a group of Stanford faculty and students who published an open letter urging the university to block Spencer's talk.

The argument of the letter's authors is that while they "fully support the principle of academic freedom that allows us to disagree about issues," Spencer's views on Islam are "not debatable" because they are "fundamentally dehumanizing."

Whenever the claim is made that an identity group is inherently less worthy of full personhood — whether that claim is made about people who are Muslim, Rohingya, Jewish, Black, trans or gender non-conforming, Bosnian, queer, immigrants, Mexican, etc. — it is always unacceptable.

This has quickly become one of the most common, insidious, and dangerously slippery-slope arguments against free speech on college campuses and beyond. Let's set aside for a moment that even most truly "dehumanizing" speech is protected by the First Amendment. (Although Stanford is not a public university, California's Leonard Law applies the protections of the First Amendment to non-sectarian private schools.) The reality on campus is that any debate over any controversial issue will, for proponents of this viewpoint, unjustly demean the value of someone's identity.

Consider students at the University of Florida who earlier this week vandalized promotional materials for an upcoming pro-life event on campus put on by the university's Young Americans for Freedom. In a Facebook message bragging about the vandalism, one student wrote: "just poured water on your lovely creations that are an insult to my entire major and life experiences!"

To others, an opposing view on immigration policy is an attack on the humanity of undocumented immigrants. As NYU professor and provost Ulrich Baer wrote last spring in The New York Times, "[s]ome topics, such as claims that some human beings are by definition inferior to others, or illegal or unworthy of legal standing, are not open to debate because such people cannot debate them on the same terms."

Meanwhile, after Laura Kipnis — the feminist Northwestern professor who was twice investigated by Northwestern for Title IX violations over her criticism of campus sexual politics — spoke at Wellesley College, the faculty on the school's Commission for Ethnicity, Race, and Equity issued a statement calling for changes to the outside speaker policy. Speakers like Kipnis, the statement said, require students to "invest time and energy in rebutting the speakers' arguments… in order to affirm their humanity."

When Heather Mac Donald, a vocal critic of the Black Lives Matter movement, spoke last spring at Claremont McKenna College, violent protesters attempted to shut down the event, forcing the Manhattan Institute fellow to give her talk via livestream. Three students from nearby Pomona College issued a statement saying "[t]he idea that the search for this truth involves entertaining Heather Mac Donald's hate speech is illogical. If engaged, Heather Mac Donald would not be debating on mere difference of opinion, but the right of Black people to exist."

And who can forget the reaction of Yale students to Erika Christakis's thoughtfully worded email, in October of 2015, questioning whether an institution of higher education should police the Halloween costumes of adult college students?

Students blasted Christakis and her husband, Nicholas, for failing to create a "safe space" for them, despite their reputations as nurturing residence mentors. In one article describing how her world was "shaken" by Christakis's "offensive" email, a Yale student wrote, "This kind of racism in disguise — where a false debate about 'free speech' is used to question people of color's humanity — needs to stop."

Two months after her email, Erika Christakis resigned from her teaching role at Yale, later explaining that she had "lost confidence" in her ability to teach in an environment where "full discussion of certain topics… has almost become taboo." In May 2016, both Nicholas and Erika announced that they resigned from their Silliman College duties to pursue academic work full time.

The "humanity denying" argument for censorship is not self-limiting, as these examples illustrate. If accepted, the argument can and will be used to shut down debate on a variety of issues profoundly important to us — including that "scholarly debate over affordable health care" the Stanford professors claim they would welcome.

Any serious health policy debate involves questions of priorities. And what might call humanity into question, if not a discussion of who is or isn't entitled to health care under some hypothetical new system? Disability activists, for example, were none too pleased with Princeton professor Peter Singer's discussion of disability in a New York Times article entitled "Why We Must Ration Health Care," accusing Singer (as they long have) of "promoting the devaluation of people with disabilities."

So the health care debate? It's probably off the table, too.

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  • Quo Usque Tandem||

    "just poured water on your lovely creations that are an insult to my entire major and life experiences!"

    If this does not invite parody....

  • some guy||

    I'm getting sick of people enshrining their own "life experiences" or "lived experiences" as something inviolable and holy. Get over yourselves. You're not special. You're just another brick in the wall. And no one cares about what you've been through, only how they can use you.

    Treating your major as something that can be insulted is a new one, though. This person is beyond hope.

  • Quixote||

    But clearly all forms of insult should be suppressed, including parody that is not clear and comical enough, inappropriate debate, and disparagement of a major too. If we begin by allowing insults, then what will we not allow? Surely no one here would dare to defend the outrageous "First Amendment dissent" of a single, isolated judge in America's leading criminal "satire" case? See the documentation at:

    https://raphaelgolbtrial.wordpress.com/

  • Earth Skeptic||

    And has zero job prospects.

  • Brother Kyfho||

    If the major was anything that ends in "Studies" then, ... yeah.

  • Finrod||

    Aka degrees with negative value-- smart employers trash those resumes as soon as they see them.

  • Mitsima||

    I'm pretty sure that those who wish to shutdown a debate lack faith in their factual or moral premises. They are, I think, self-suppressing bigots in dire need of some serious introspection.

  • some guy||

    Either that or they have enough hubris to have complete faith in their premises. So much so, that they need not explain, defend or even identify those premises.

  • Unicorn Abattoir||

    Either that or they know that a college campus is the only place they could get away with it without legal repercussions. And what you said.

  • AndyWingall||

    Which means they have enough hubris to use whatever means to inflict their wills on others for the "common good" without any remorse for the bloodshed left behind. I think humanity has been through this before. Sad that we might have to relive the first half of the 20th century.

  • Just Say'n||

    Only a bigot who hasn't had the lived experiences of these protesters would say that

  • Just Say'n||

    Woah, woah, woah- you're missing a ton of 'to be sure's in this article. Are you honestly just unapologetically defending the principle of 'free speech'? There's no place for that at Reason. Take your hate speech somewhere else

  • Just Say'n||

    Damn it, what's wrong with disabled? I just stopped saying 'crippled', because I heard it was offensive. I can't keep up

  • Mitsima||

    We've moved past 'crippled'? I guess it's time I should drop 'gimpy' altogether.

  • Bra Ket||

    "differently abled". Not making this up.

  • Earth Skeptic||

    Differently testicled?

  • Trollificus||

    So...I guess "handicapable" didn't fly? (or walk...)

  • Ron||

    Disagreeing with climate change is dehuminizing since its affects hurt people therefore you can't speak against it.

    See how easy it is on more then just social ideals

  • Mitsima||

    That is a remarkably flexible tool.

    Stop. I just know someone is going to say something about college nicknames ...

  • ||

    Remarkably Flexible Tool was my nickname in yoga class.

  • Mickey Rat||

    I suppose that is better marketing than "Limp Tool".

  • Longtobefree||

    Saying that mother earth cannot take of herself, and needs mankind* to step in and help is the ultimate hurting, and can never again be spoken.

    *
    mankind is correct usage in the English language, but we are not talking higher education here, just college.
    Humankind? Oh, wait; still a 3 letter string implying maleness = man
    Personkind? Oh, wait; still a 3 letter string implying maleness = son
    Perchildkind?
    Herkind?
    Zekind?
    Unkind?
    It never ends.

  • ||

    The irony, of course, being that as with the silly emendation of "history" to "herstory," the word "human" is actually from the Latin homo, and isn't related to the English word "man" at all.

    "Man" itself in Old English meant simply "person," a male being a wer and a female being a wyf (the latter word implying nothing about marriage status).

    I'm encouraged that what I'm seeing in practice is that we're not really casually adopting terms like "chairperson" as readily as we are getting comfortable just calling the woman in charge the "chairman," and letting "man" lose a gender signification that it hasn't always had, anyway.

  • ||

    In a Facebook message bragging about the vandalism, one student wrote: "just poured water on your lovely creations that are an insult to my entire major and life experiences!"

    Can I get a rules clarification here?

    Does this mean it would be okay for an economics major to vandalize promotional materials for, say, an Occupy rally?

  • JWatts||

    What? No of course not. That kind of equivalency could lead directly to thought crimes.

  • This Machine Chips Fascists||

    I find biology and chemistry and physics to be dehumanizing. These capitalist "sciences" reduce even woke folk to mere machines to be exploited by the Koch brothers.

  • Unicorn Abattoir||

    Who are we to say that some copper atoms don't identify as rubidium?

  • Earth Skeptic||

    Math and logic are oppressive!

  • Duke of url||

    q. Isn't abortion "fundamentally, (and literally), dehumanizing" ?
    a. NOT DEBATABLE!!
    q. Is the sky blue?
    a. NOT DEBATABLE, YOU RACIST!!

  • Longtobefree||

    Sometimes the sky is black.
    Does that help?
    Or do we have to go into percentages here?

  • Fuck you, Shikha (Nunya)||

    Only if the percentages don't appear to legitimize white males in any way, based each and every person's life experiences.

  • creech||

    Five hundred years ago, these are the type who would have nailed Martin Luther to the chapel door!

  • JWatts||

    Oh, I'm pretty sure these are the types that would have nailed him to the chapel door last week if the opportunity presented itself ... and they weren't chickenshit cowards.

  • DarrenM||

    Except they probably wouldn't know how to use a hammer.

  • Enjoy Every Sandwich||

    When I was a child, I believed some strange things. For instance, I had the notion that college students were a) adults, and b) smart. Having believed in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny is much less embarrassing compared to that.

  • Sevo||

    "Whenever the claim is made that an identity group is inherently less worthy of full personhood — whether that claim is made about people who are Muslim, Rohingya, Jewish, Black, trans or gender non-conforming, Bosnian, queer, immigrants, Mexican, etc. — it is always unacceptable."

    Why not godwin it from the start:
    Are Nazis to be supported? If not, you've already lost.

  • AndyWingall||

    students should "invest time and energy in rebutting the speakers' arguments… in order to affirm their humanity."

    Even the proponents of free speech sound like ranting lunatics these days. I'm so glad my college days are behind me.

  • Number 2||

    So...it really should be illegal to refer to police as "pigs" and politicians as "jackasses." Because otherwise, they'd also be forced to invest time and energy to affirm their humanity.

  • Earth Skeptic||

    Meh. Professors will still say whatever it takes to get into students' panties.

  • John C. Randolph||

    Whenever the claim is made that an identity group is inherently less worthy of full personhood

    Spencer has never made any such claim, and those commie pukes know it.

    -jcr

  • cc2||

    "Whenever the claim is made that an identity group is inherently less worthy of full personhood" this is a spurious argument. Islam is a religion and many people take issue with religious doctrine...as long as it isn't Islam apparently. BLM is a political movement, and one is on solid ground debating the platform of a political movement...as long as it isn't BLM. One can disagree with someone's religion or politics without denying them their humanity. This rhetoric presumes that if anyone disagrees with you, then your humanity has been denied, but that is crazy. Furthermore, over time people change their religion and their politics. I have seen people who adamantly claimed to not be interested in marriage or children get married and have kids.

  • Rockabilly||

    Hi, I'm changed my name to Janet Jackson.

    Although I looked like a white male, I now self identify as a black female pop singer.

    I love how Janet dresses, all those frilly things and high black boots with that sassy attitude.

    So I applied to Stanford's Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research and self identified as a black woman. They invited me for an interview next month and can't wait!!!

    What will I wear? Shopping!!!

  • Earth Skeptic||

    During your interview, don't forget the wardrobe malfunction.

  • Cloudbuster||

    "[s]ome topics, such as claims that some human beings are by definition inferior to others, or illegal or unworthy of legal standing, are not open to debate because such people cannot debate them on the same terms."

    By that argument, no pro-abortion arguments should be allowed because they claim that by definition unborn human beings are unworthy of legal standing.

  • AlmightyJB||

  • Ghatanathoah||

    If it's okay to shut down "dehumanizing" speech then anyone who wants speech shut down will come up with some way in which it is dehumanizing.

  • JunkScienceIsJunk||

    Are we dredging up a story here where there is none? The story is that Stanford protected the ability for this controversial speaker to speak. In other words, they told (a small subset) of the students and (a small subset) of the faculty to go fuck themselves.

    People who like to claim that universities are havens for people who oppose free speech can't exactly use this story to support their argument...

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