Freedom of speech’s speech

Of dynamite and celery sticks

To Yale University students:

I’m an Alumnus. When I try to form an opinion about recent events (for some context see this and that), I find myself floating in mid-air around campus, looking at student gatherings from behind a tree, eavesdropping on students’ conversations in hallways. Maybe I feel so out of place observing you, and certainly ill-advised having an opinion and sharing it, because I’m some sort of ghost, the real kind of ghost: the unbearably pathetic kind that just can’t part with places and people.

From where I stand, Yale looks like a battlefield. The real kind of battlefield: the unbearably pathetic kind — the kind where very few know exactly what their role is, and where many are unsure why they’re holding their ground. Obviously, this is not Yale’s war; this is only a small stick of dynamite in one of the last enemy bunkers, at the end of a long march toward autonomy. By the time we break in to that bunker, when the empowered are able to feel the pain, everything inside it will have died, and the leaders will not stand trial. We won’t have our moment of expiation after such long wars.

In a recent article for Slate, Nora Caplan-Bricker rightfully explains why some of you can’t think of the debates you are still having on campus as being about ideas; for those of you, they are about having a home. To people who cannot understand that, I will concede two things: first that through the rhetoric of safe spaces, the left has impeded on free speech; and second that all attempts to limit freedom are about ideas, and not just about having a home. That is all true. But you should try to listen to her, and to the despair of the soon-iconic student who can be seen on YouTube crying that “this is not about creating an intellectual space.” You should try because the reason the bunker’s concrete walls — the ones that have to be shattered — are still standing is because of our inability to distinguish between life and speech.

20th Century philosophy teaches us a great deal about how discourse shapes our experiences of reality. In that sense, distinguishing between life and speech is misguided. But the idea of free speech is much older than Freud, Deleuze, or Austin. And I believe that’s where we get lost in the argument. We forget the simple fact that when it came together with ‘freedom’ to form the disgustingly trampled upon expression of ‘freedom of speech’, the word ‘speech’ was not what it now is. In ‘freedom of speech,’ ‘speech’ means an opinion or a work of the mind. Speech requires a speaker, intent, a listener, and the possibility of an exchange. In freedom of speech, speech does not mean discourse. It does not mean uttering things that can’t be refuted, discussed, or critiqued.

I don’t know about you, but, in order to form an argument, I have to think about it. And when I share it with the world, I should know with whom. Only when I know why I speak and to whom I speak — and when I am free to do so — does my speech become the cornerstone of a free and open society. It’s not just any sound coming out of my mouth. Vacuous sounds are heavily censored (though that may be a topic for a discussion of its own). Sound pollution has consequences; making too much noise at night is socially and legally unacceptable, as is yelling in a classroom. Freedom of speech is the cornerstone of democracy not because noises beget politics, but because you can’t have democracy without an agora. You can certainly have democracy without loudspeakers.

I live in a country (France) that struggles with freedom of speech, not because we misunderstand speech, but because we, as a society, don’t agree on what freedom is. In that way France is very different from America. We think in absolute terms about everything; we always have, and we always will. (Probably.) We are incapable of picturing the reality of social interactions, and the true impact of individual freedom on others. What is freedom of speech for, if not for figuring out the type of interactions your ideas cause you to have? It might even be the purpose of a liberal arts education to learn that fact alone.

Interactions matter when we discuss the distinctions between ‘freedom of speech’s speech’, discourse, and speaking. My eleven-year-old cousin learning about my views on international criminal prosecution is not the same as my Ph.D. flatmate of a father listening to my theories about why we should eat that piece of celery before “it loses all its vitamins.” These two conversations are not the same, because my dad hates celery, because I always buy celery, and because I always find pseudo-scientific excuses for why he should eat the celery. Now he gets mad whenever I mention celery, and tells me he doesn’t want my goddam celery (“Mais je n’en veux pas de ton putain de céleri”). His utterance is speech. Notice how he is yelling; he is yelling because what I said is not speech; he cannot interact with it, it’s mechanical, it’s not something I have decided to let him access. That is why he has to yell — it’s the only way to force me into a conversation. What I said is noise that describes my disruptive behavior, and accompanies the realization of my power over him, because I did the shopping, and there is nothing else to eat. He could order in, but that’s expensive and confrontational.

When I start telling him about vegetables losing their vitamins in the fridge, I know I’m pushing it. ‘Freedom of speech’s speech’ is filled with exactly the type of mindfulness that enables me to stop talking if my dad has a breakdown about celery — which he might — and to know that my using science to justify eating celery is fallacious. But you know, whatever.

Although my cousin knows nothing about international criminal prosecution, I’m much more generous toward her when imparting knowledge onto her, as compared to when I am pretending to talk with my dad. The difference between my cousin and my dad is my cousin has no views on international law, whereas my dad is someone who I live with and know well enough to understand that he’s never liked celery! And now, I can call it whatever I want, because it stopped being ‘freedom of speech’s speech’ the minute I became aware that my rational arguments did not matter; I was just pushing a vegetable on him because I like celery and also because it’s fun to tease him — and most importantly because I can. “What fun it is to be an adult!” I think to myself sometimes when I do this. To be my parent’s equal, to feel what power feels like, to make him mad and then to make up, at will.

I could refer my father to “The Coddling of the American Mind.” That would do no good because he does not speak English, although he sometimes shouts English-sounding sentences at me when I’m having a loud phone conversation with one of my college friends. American English is just loud, I suppose. But that’s his way of asking me to stop talking.

No one asked the authors of “The Coddling of the American Mind” to stop talking. In fact, one of them was invited to talk at an event held by the Buckley Program. I would never ask the authors of “The Coddling of the American Mind” to stop talking. I would come prepared with quotes from “Humanities and Public Life,” and try to convey to participants that there are many good theories about what we are supposed to do at a liberal arts college, and about how the solution is not to toughen up, but instead “ethical reading.” Most of us who do not feel disenfranchised, my case being that I am a rich white man (who is, admittedly, slightly queer in my own way), would not ask Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt to stop talking because they are not the people whose house we live in: they wrote an article for everyone to read and for everyone to decide not to read. As authors, they are not responsible for triggering anything. They cannot foresee that one of their readers will be one whose household fights have, for the past three centuries, revolved around exactly the issue they speak of in their writing. And if said reader gets upset, it is not their responsibility. How could they have known?

The freedom of a member of faculty or staff to state an opinion, to write to a subset of students, and to refuse to engage in a debate afterwards, is not the same. It’s not the same speech, and it’s not the same version of ‘freedom of speech’s speech’. It probably still is freedom of speech, but they should take the time to consider if it’s not just noise that accompanies someone realizing their power over someone else.

What is not fine is for those educators to be surprised with the outrage, thereby exposing their incredible obliviousness to students’ concerns. Have they even read “The Coddling of the American Mind”? Because I did, and it looks like some college students all over the country are pretty angry.

Outrage was not unexpected, and it was avoidable. One option would have been to write an article about one’s experience as an educator at Yale and many other great institutions as it relates to the piece in the Atlantic. Speech! One could even have shared it with those concerned students who felt too busy to take the time to consider the effect of their speech, and whether it was even speech.

It’s not fine for an educator to do exactly what I’m doing with celery. Or worse, to act like my mom telling my dad all about how I’m so right about celery losing all its vitamins, even though she knows that my dad has had it with celery. Actually, it’s even worse; that person is telling my dad that he should eat the celery regardless of why I’m forcing him to, then acting surprised that he feels betrayed. And that, right after they decided as a couple, that he should have a vasectomy![1]

You know, maybe I’m not a ghost. Maybe you, the current students of my alma mater, are the ghosts. It was never a home to me. It was always “just college”. You have made it one of my homes by haunting my memories of it. I feel haunted by all of you, like you will when, in a few years, something significant happens on your campus, but you’ve graduated and spent so much time embalming your college experience that it will pain you to think about it seriously, not nostalgically, as your former self.

[1] Just to clarify: no one is fighting about celery at my home; we collectively dislike celery as a family, except in soup. I dont’t bully my dad. Neither has anybody decided or even talked about having a vasectomy. But there is something to be said about what had happened to American social movements until recent years, in terms of their ability to be fertile.