The Volokh Conspiracy

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Law School Free Speech, Wokeness, and "The Etiquette of Equality"

A different take.


As a general rule, essays on "wokeness" and law school free speech debates shed more heat than light.  But I found this essay from Harvard Law professor Ben Eidelson, "The Etiquette of Equality," to be a particularly interesting read.  Eidelson offers a middle ground that probably won't make advocates on either side happy, but I think he makes some illuminating points along the way.

The paper begins with this hypothetical:

Imagine a classroom discussion of Lawrence v. Texas, the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision holding sodomy laws unconstitutional. One student argues that the Court's ruling was correct because a state may not base its criminal laws on bare moral disapproval. Another student picks up on Justice Scalia's dissenting opinion and responds that, if that principle were sound, polygamy and bestiality would also be immune from punishment.A third student chimes in to observe that those comparisons are offensive, even harmful, and urges or intimates that the second should apologize. What should happen next?

One natural thought is that it depends on whether the offense that the third student took (or supposed others would take) is justified. That is evidently what Justice Scalia himself thought: faced with an openly gay student's similar request for an apology, Scalia rebuked the questioner for failing to grasp the reductio argument that he had actually made. Insofar as Scalia had "compared" same-sex intercourse and bestiality, after all, he claimed only that bans on these practices are alike by the lights of the principle that the Court invoked to invalidate sodomy laws. As Scalia correctly observed, that claim really has nothing to do with whether same-sex intercourse is morally tantamount to bestiality at all.

Yet I suspect many will share my instinct that this point of logic is not all that matters, from a moral point of view, in the kind of encounter that I have described. For if many people confronted with Scalia's analogical argument will foreseeably take its expression as implying a moral equivalence between same-sex intercourse and bestiality—or, more simply, as an anti-gay insult—that fact alone seems to bear on whether, or at least how, one should voice the argument. And insofar as Scalia or the second student in our imagined dialogue predictably caused gay audience members to think they were being insulted (even, in a sense, mistakenly), and did so without good reason, taking offense at that behavior—under that revised description—could well be warranted after all. In a sense, the listener's interpretation, which starts off foreseeable but mistaken, seems to bounce off of the speaker and return to the listener vindicated in the end.

This line of thought might suggest that the second student did act wrongly and should indeed apologize. But that is not a comfortable result either. Treating the student's mere invocation of the analogical argument as an insult will tend to ratify the misunderstanding of what they actually said, to discourage the expression of other ideas that could also be misunderstood, and to raise the overall "symbolic temperature" within the community. Indeed, a general practice of validating reactions such as the third student's here could well result in gay students facing more, rather than fewer, comments that they rightly take as offensive—at least in a belief- or evidence-relative sense of rightness—and thus leave them only worse off. So, again, what should the characters in this story do? I am tempted to say that, if you think the answer is obvious, one of us is missing something important.

Read the whole thing here.