There’s no pro-campus censorship theory for me to debate

When I was young, the stereotype about the left — the socialist left, the radical left of which I was and am a part — is that we were stuck in theory, that we never looked up from our books. We were more concerned with grand philosophical questions than with the day-to-day work of real-world politics.

Today I often think the condition is the opposite: too much of the ostensible radical left in this country has become completely vacuous of content. It’s all social branding and culture, no substance. If it can’t be expressed in a meme or in 140 characters, it won’t be expressed at all.

Academic freedom and free expression on campus are a good example of this condition. I am a staunch defender of these things — not in spite of the fact that I am a leftist, but because I am a leftist, as support for civil liberties is a time-honored and existential facet of American socialism. But many people who self-identify on the left disagree with me. These conversations are always a trip because they involve me talking to people who express themselves with utter confidence about their beliefs, but with absolutely no consistency in what they’re arguing. It’s what happens when you have a rabid commitment to a belief that you’ve never actually bothered to think through very deeply. I can’t actually say that I debate these issues at all because to have a debate would require some consistent theory of campus speech promoted by those who are interested in censoring, and there isn’t. At all.

The following conversation is fictional, but only barely — all of these things are points that are made to me, often, and often by the same people.

Pro-censorship leftist: You’d allow Milo and Richard Spencer to speak on campus?!? They’re literally white supremacists!

Me: But Condoleeza Rice has been pushed off campus before. I’m fairly sure she’s not a literal white supremacist, though I hate her politics.

PCL: What?!? Condoleeza Rice is a war criminal!

Me: Yes, I know, I was protesting Iraq to the tune of dozens of hours a week when I was in college. But most politicians supported the Iraq war, including Bill and Hillary Clinton, who show up on campus without issue all the time. It seems like these rules only apply to political conservatives, like Anne Coulter.

PCL: Anne Coulter! She’s not doing dialogue! She just spouts propaganda! She isn’t interested in really having a debate!

Me: But wouldn’t conservatives say the exact same thing about, say, Michael Moore? Why does this “propaganda” rule only apply to mainstream conservatives?

PCL: What, you want to give “mainstream conservatives” a place to speak on campus? Any conservative contributes to racism, war, and poverty!

Me: Considering we’ve been arguing for decades against the perception that campus is a left-wing indoctrination center, and that the GOP has used that perception to massively defund public universities, this seems like a suicidal stance. But anyway — you think the average Democrat doesn’t contribute to racism, war, and poverty? Why do these controversies so often fall along predictable partisan lines?

PCL: Look, students get to pick and choose because this isn’t the public square. These people are invited to campus!

Me: OK. But conservative students and professors aren’t invited to campus, right? They have a natural right to occupy that space. But there’s been all sorts of incidents where conservative student voices have been the subject to silencing efforts by student activists.

PCL: That only happens when students feel unsafe.

Me: But Zionist student groups claim that pro-Palestinian activism makes them feel unsafe all the time. Yet you guys laugh off those claims. Who decides when feeling unsafe actually constitutes a reason to censor?

PCL: B-b-but power differentials! POWER DIFFERENTIALS!

Me: I’m not sure what you think that means, but since we’re talking about power — where did you get this idea that students at elite private colleges, where most of these activism controversies start, are somehow the powerless of the earth? Those schools pull overwhelmingly from the most affluent families, and their students go on to be parts of the economic and social upper classes in large majorities. Besides, in the neoliberal university, students are customers, and customers have power when negotiating with institutions.

PCL: You’re only talking about this because you’re a white man!

Me: Rosa Luxemburg was a white man? Frederick Douglass was a white man? History is rife with examples of left-wing heroes who were not white men and who were avid defenders of free speech.

PCL: You freeze peach defenders never speak out for marginalized voices on campus, only when conservatives are silenced!

Me: That’s just not true. I’ve expressed outrage about censorship of pro-Palestinian activism time and again. I wrote about the Steven Salaita case a half-dozen times, several times for large national audiences, and went to UIUC to protest his firing in person. In grad school I publicly defended a controversial professor, a black woman, who was being dogpiled by senior scholars in the field for controversial statements about Israel. I risked my career to do so. What you’re saying is simply not accurate. Anyway: claims of hypocrisy aren’t substantive. What’s the principle involved here?

PCL: Look, does any of this matter? It’s just happening on college campuses. Who cares?

Me: I am a leftist and an academic; therefore it’s natural for me to be interested in left-wing discourse in academic spaces. For those individual students and professors who suffer the consequences of these censorship pushes, these issues are a big deal. Besides, it’s very weird that you’d be ostensibly defending campus activists by asserting their irrelevance. I take student activism seriously. So seriously, in fact, that I’m willing to treat those activists like adults, which means honestly engaging with their ideas and tactics.

PCL: These are just college kids! We need to give them a chance to fail and learn and grow!

Me: I agree entirely. That’s why I’m willing to publicly criticize them. How can they learn and grow if we adopt this reflexive, unthinking refusal to criticize them, just because they’re on “our team”? Where did the concept of critical solidarity go? How can we become a healthy and effective movement if we are so terrified of appearing to align with conservatives that we never criticize those with whom we are broadly in agreement?

PCL: [posts Simpsons Old Man Yells at Cloud jpg]

You get the idea. No matter what the defined standard is for who can speak on campus and who can get censored by whom, the very next statement will completely revise that standard. It’s an endless grasping for whatever argument might seem convenient at the moment. There’s no there there.

In particular, the progression is always the same: from “we’re only keeping out the worst of the worst” to “sure, it’s fine to censor anyone who doesn’t toe the woke liberal line 100% of the time.” They make that journey because they have to; campus activists aren’t just trying to censor the worst of the worst, and since their defenders refuse to ever say “I agree with campus activists sometimes but not in this instance” — again because that would violate the social branding of the defenders — they end up having to defend widespread and massive regulation of the ideas allowed on campus.

If you actually care about our colleges and universities, rather than just enjoy yelling on the internet to prove you’re down for the cause, you have to advance a workable, positive definition of who can say what and when. That never, ever happens in these debates; nobody bothers to articulate livable rules. What’s more, if you actually care about our colleges and universities, you’d think strategically, understanding that conservatives always use the perception of bias in higher ed to attack the funding of state colleges. But there’s absolutely no strategic sense here. People will straight up tell me that Republican students have no right to speak on campus, which is basically begging our state legislatures to destroy tenure and further impoverish our vulnerable state colleges.

The purpose of actual moral discourse is to present people with a set of alternative behaviors they can perform to avoid doing harm. The purpose of bogus moral grandstanding is to align yourself with people in your broad social circle, to advance your personal brand and demonstrate to others that you’re the right kind of person. I have no interest in that. Politics is about principle, not about teams. So articulate a principle, and lay out a feasible, constructive, positive vision for who can say what, when, on campus, that does not result in even further defunding and politicized assaults on our public universities. Then we could have a debate. Or else stop pretending that you actually care about this issue beyond your desire to be part of the right tribe.