Free Listening or Why The Free Speech Bogeymen Exist

This week Dean John (Jay) Ellison of the University of Chicago sent a letter to all incoming University of Chicago Freshman. The letter offers a bold defense of academic freedom: “one of the University of Chicago’s defining characteristics is our commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression.”

Ellison’s decision to inform incoming University students about the importance of free speech is praiseworthy. He also rightly explains that free speech is not absolute, writing that “Civility and mutual respect are vital to all of us, and freedom of expression does not mean the freedom to harass or threaten others.” This claim is legally and morally correct. It offers a principled defense of free speech with an awareness of the limits on uncivil, harassing, and threatening speech. Ellison succinctly informs students that academic and political freedoms depend on encountering contradictory and opposed ideas, limited, of course, by concerns of outright harassment and calls to violence. None of this is controversial, or at least it should not be.

But Ellison’s letter has unleashed a controversy by stating clearly that the limits on free speech for harassing and threatening speech do not mean that we should impose formal “trigger warnings,” cancel speakers whose ideas offend some, or provide “safe spaces” to those who experience offensive speech as delegitimating and oppressive. He writes:

“Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called “trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual “safe spaces” where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

Such a statement of principle by a Dean at a major University is beyond reproach. It should be a non-event. Sadly, it is necessary at a time when colleges around the country are disinviting speakers to prevent uncomfortable or unpalatable views from being expressed. It is important for academic institutions to stand up and state clearly that sustaining the life of the mind means that we listen and think with those with whom we disagree.

So why has the letter from Dean Ellison caused such an uproar? Here it is helpful to turn to one of the first and most widely cited responses to Ellison’s letter, a blog post by Kevin Gannon (aka the Tattooed Professor). This is how Gannon reads and opposes Ellison’s letter:

“And as a statement of principle, the letter — as does much of the general argument against trigger warnings and safe spaces — relies on caricature and bogeymen rather than reason and nuance. The document comes from a place, I imagine, where the true defenders of Academic Rigor™ man the parapets against the encroaching legions of namby-pamby liberals who want to coddle students instead of teach them. Ohhh, you want a safe space so the mean nasty Truths of the world won’t hurt your wittle feewings. You want to be “warned” before we discuss “sensitive” subjects. WELL HEY JUNIOR, “WAR AND PEACE” HAS WAR IN IT. If you don’t like it, go sit on the quad and sing kum-ba-yah with the other flower children. That’s the specter that arguments like this conjure up: the greatest threat to genuine academic freedom comes from within. Coddled students who are used to getting trophies for everything don’t want to engage with stuff they don’t like, so they wrap themselves in entitlement and demand trigger warnings to protect their feelz. Or they want safe spaces to hide from the big, bad world. Or they want the university to cancel a lecture because the speaker is from the wrong demographic. And if universities don’t make a stand against this foolishness, Western Civilization itself will collapse.
That’s a comforting narrative to the academic elite who feel like they’re faced with an existential crisis. Rather than seeing themselves as clinging to the last vestiges of the 1950s, they get to paint themselves as staunch advocates of all that is good and worthy. And there’s an audience for this fiction-people still read Alan [sic] Bloom. But as critiques of inequality have shown time and again, when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the backlash against so-called “political correctness” in higher education has intensified in direct variation with the diversification of the academy, areas of scholarship, and-most significantly-the student population. Underlying much of the hand-wringing about the state of the academy is a simple desire to have the gatekeepers remain in place. The perception of the threat is entirely out of alignment with the reality on the ground. For every ginned-up hypothetical scenario of spoiled brats having a sit-in to protest too many white guys in the lit course, there are very real cases where trigger warnings or safe spaces aren’t absurdities, but pedagogical imperatives. If I’m teaching historical material that describes war crimes like mass rape, shouldn’t I disclose to my students what awaits them in these texts? If I have a student suffering from trauma due to a prior sexual assault, isn’t a timely caution the empathetic and humane thing for me to do? And what does it cost? A student may choose an alternate text I provide, but this material isn’t savagely ripped out of my course to satiate the PC police.
To move from the hypothetical to the real, the Virginia Tech students who protested their university’s invitation to Charles Murray to deliver a lecture weren’t some sort of intellectual gestapo, they were members of a community calling out other members’ violation of the community’s ethos. Murray is a racist charlatan who’s made a career out of pseudoscientific social darwinist assertions that certain “races” are inherently inferior to others. To bring him to campus is to tell segments of your student community that, according to the ideas the university is endorsing by inviting Murray, they don’t belong there. This isn’t a violation of academic freedom. It’s an upholding of scientific standards and the norms of educated discourse-you know, the type of stuff that colleges and universities are supposed to stand for, right?
These two examples-one centered in an individual classroom and the other involving institutional decisions-speak to the diversity and complexity of the issues involved.”

Gannon argues that the letter from the University of Chicago is unnecessary, that it aims at fictional bogeymen. It is, he writes, “red meat” designed to appeal to an academic elite threatened by the new demands for equality that are transforming colleges and universities. This is an argument heard frequently and it is worth considering.

For Gannon, there is no real threat to freedom of speech. Yes, there are calls to disinvite speakers; yes, there are many who argue for the creation of “safe spaces” where students are protected from offending ideas and others who insist that college itself should be such a safe space; and yes, there are some colleges that have required formal “trigger warnings” that make it a policy to require professors to warn students about potentially traumatic material and, in some cases, to excuse them from reading or viewing that material. But none of this, Gannon insists, is a threat to free speech.

According to Gannon, it is a mistake to see “dis-invitations,” “trigger-warnings,” and “safe-spaces” as being threats to free speech. They are, he argues, instead part of a political movement to challenge the privileges of an elite and make colleges and universities more equal and more welcoming to women and minorities. Calls to limit offending speech and disinvite speakers are not limitations on free speech so much as they are efforts to make elite campuses more equitable, to make them spaces where all people feel at home and comfortable. And is promoting equality not simply common sense and humane?

The need to promote equality at elite universities is real. It is true that as the composition of students changes, the faculty too must come to understand the realities and worlds inhabited by their students. And this means there are legitimate concerns about faculty diversity. We should also have important conversations about how to design curricula that inspire a new generation of students. And we need to follow through on those discussions in ways that reflect our best judgment.

At the same time, it is important that students from all backgrounds be acculturated into the ethos of a university. Faculty should listen to student complaints but they should also respond with their own arguments. We have done that at Bard in the last few years in conversations with students about the books read in our First Year Seminar Common Course. Students suggested books. The faculty in charge read them and considered them. The faculty choose the books for the course, but they listened to the students and communicated their decisions. The result is a better course, one grounded in the classical theme of freedom that also encounters significant non-classical and uniquely disparate approaches.

Faculty and administrators need to state clearly that protest on campus is welcome and even encouraged. While students are free to protest and make demands, faculty and administrators must work with students and tell them when those demands go too far. This is certainly the case with demands for “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” and “disinviting speakers.” Students advocating for such changes are mistaken, but they have every right to do so. I take it as a sign of engagement and energy that students are protesting. Our job as faculty and administrators is to encourage their activism while also seeking to educate, to guide them to see limitations on free speech are seductive but ultimately anti-democratic and anti-intellectual ideas that undermine both freedom and equality.

To understand why the rise of “dis-invitations” and the demand for “safe-spaces” is not simply a fictional bogeyman but a real threat to freedom of speech, we need only look at the examples Gannon offers. First, he argues that “trigger-warnings” are not crazy demands by spoiled or coddled students, but “pedagogical imperatives.” And second, Gannon argues that disinviting controversial speakers, as, for example, Charles Murray, “isn’t a violation of academic freedom. It’s an upholding of scientific standards and the norms of educated discourse — you know, the type of stuff that colleges and universities are supposed to stand for.”

I take the second example somewhat personally. I did invite Charles Murray to speak at Bard as a keynote speaker at our annual conference in 2014. You can watch his speech here. I make it a point always to seek out speakers who challenge conventional wisdom and Murray does that and does it well. He is a serious intellectual and social scientist. He has made provocative arguments about welfare. He has also argued that intelligence is determined by both genetic and social factors, including socioeconomic status, family history, and education; in discussing the relation between race and intelligence, Murray and his co-author wrote, “It seems highly likely to us that both genes and the environment have something to do with racial differences.” There is no good evidence that genetic differences relate to racial differences in intelligence, and Murray has been rightly criticized for such a claim. But it hardly invalidates the rest of his work. In his latest book, Coming Apart, Murray asks hard and important questions about what inequality is doing to the idea of America. To say, as Gannon does, that “Murray is a racist charlatan who’s made a career out of pseudoscientific social darwinist assertions that certain “races” are inherently inferior to others,” is simply untrue; it is an ad hominem attack that seeks to discredit ideas by smearing a person. Even those who strongly disagree with Murray take his research and conclusions seriously.

But what would be so wrong if a student group did invite a racist or antisemite to speak? A number of years ago I was approached and asked if the Hannah Arendt Center and Bard College would house a burgeoning institute dedicated to studying antisemitism. Since Hannah Arendt thought so deeply about antisemitism, I was intrigued. But the potential collaboration fell apart when I insisted that the institute would be expected to co-sponsor speakers on related topics, even speakers that its director viewed to be antisemitic. My reasoning was simple: How can you study antisemitism without listening to and arguing with antisemites? We need to listen to those whom we find wrong and even offensive. For that same reason Arendt read and cited antisemites in her writing about antisemitism, for which she is heavily criticized. But her willingness to read what antisemites actually wrote distinguished her approach and led her to insights that those who ignored the antisemites could never see. She understood that antisemitism is an ideology, that it is distinct from the hatred of Jews, and that is imperialist rather than nationalist. Arendt knew that even when we disagree, it is imperative to listen to others, even those who are racist. At the very least, we will be forced to understand their opinion and to hone our own arguments. Of course speech that targets individuals or groups in ways that are threatening or harassing counts as hate speech and is afforded neither the legal nor the academic protections of free speech. Such speech is not at issue here. But encountering offensive arguments is a necessary part of understanding and responding to the world.

Gannon’s claim that Murray should not be allowed to speak because he might offend is the kind of anti-intellectual drivel that attacks someone in their person rather than to argue with their ideas. Calling a speaker “racist” or “sexist” or “antisemitic” is said to mean that we don’t need to listen to their arguments. What is more, since they may offend us, those who invite them harm us by suggesting that offensive arguments are worth hearing. Thus we have the right and obligation to prevent such speakers from speaking on campus. That is the thinking behind the movement to “disinvite” speakers. The suggestion is that somehow Murray and speakers like him are so awful that simply to hear them is a violation of one’s dignity. On the contrary, our dignity requires that we listen to those we disagree with and treat them with respect. It also means that we respect ourselves enough to argue with their ideas rather than demonizing them in their person.

Gannon’s disagreement with the University of Chicago letter is important. If anything, Gannon’s example shows that Ellison’s letter to the University of Chicago freshmen is not fighting non-existent bogeymen; Gannon’s anti-intellectual defense of “disinviting” speakers shows just how necessary Ellison’s letter is.

I have similar worries with Gannon’s assertion of the “pedagogical imperative” of trigger warnings. Should I on pedagogical grounds warn students reading the Iliad that there are bloody scenes, inform students that there will be apostasy in Nietzsche, and tell my students reading Ovid that he describes a scene of rape? What then is the cost of simply letting students know to expect offensive material? Sometimes the cost is minimal.

But there are also good pedagogical imperatives for not offering trigger warnings. In literature courses we encounter books that move us, shock us, and expand our thinking. One way books do that is by surprising us, building up suspense, and leading us down dark and uncomfortable paths. Literature teaches us to understand flawed and even morally compromised persons who are also seductively intriguing. And literature deepens us by forcing us to confront the ugliness of the world even when presented beautifully in literary form. Should books that include evil come with a warning? To argue that they should is to say that the shock of encountering unexpected evil has no value. But that is how evil most typically accosts us. One reason we read literature is to be pushed and pulled out of our comfort zones. It is to realize that beauty and ugliness, good and evil, and true and false are closer than we might think. “Trigger warnings” work against that experience.

Similarly, in politics courses, using hypotheticals and examples that shock students, that make them uncomfortable, is part of the pedagogical imperative of forcing them to question their deepest certainties and prejudices. I am constantly using examples that employ racial and sexual and religious themes in order to make students think outside their daily experiences. I am well aware that my examples disturb and may even offend. But so does the world. There are not warning signs on every street alerting us to potential traumas. Politics means that we will confront people and arguments that offend us. We need to learn to hear and respond to such arguments, not be shielded from them. To insist that students in college are to be protected from such challenges and shocks — that they be warned so that when they encounter the shock it is not so shocking — is to argue that there is no pedagogical value in having them learn that people and politics are complicated, ugly, beautiful, all at once.

To argue, as I do, that there is pedagogical value in resisting trigger warnings is not to say that common sense doesn’t at times mean a professor should not be alert to the potential traumatic effects of a text. There are some students who having suffered in war, having been persecuted for their religion, or having been raped are traumatized by their experiences. I’ve had students inform me of such instances and have tried to work with those students to help them. We are all caring human beings. But that is hardly an argument for depriving all students from the direct encounter with difficult texts and disruptive situations. What is more, someone truly suffering from trauma needs to address that trauma. As any trauma specialist knows, the way to confront traumas is not to protect yourself from them but to encounter them and to learn to overcome them. No one is saying this is easy. As a concerned professor I will work with students to help them. But to treat all students on the assumption that they are traumatized is to infantilize students. Most of my students—the vast majority—understand this and appreciate being challenged. To give in to the few who insist that they and others be protected from difficult material is a mistake. Doing so has little pedagogical benefit and significant pedagogical cost.

Gannon’s claim that the letter from the University of Chicago is fighting fictional bogeymen is simply wrong. His own blog post makes clear how restrictions on the free encounter of opposing and offensive ideas are being intellectually justified. It is not correct to say that “trigger warnings,” “safe spaces,” and “dis-inviting speakers” are about equality rather than free speech. They are about both, and to think through these questions, we need to recall why free speech matters in the first place.

Free speech is not simply about a right to express oneself. And it is not to be defended on the metaphor of the “marketplace of ideas.” Free speech doesn’t necessarily weed out false ideas and confirm true ideas. Rather, free speech is important because only in listening to others with whom one disagrees does one come to expand one’s own understanding and love for the world.

In writing about free speech, Hannah Arendt defends free speech on the grounds of plurality: “We know from experience,” Arendt argued, “that no one can adequately grasp the objective world in its full reality all on his own, because the world always shows and reveals itself to him from only one perspective, which corresponds to his standpoint in the world and is determined by it.” For Arendt, the freedom of speech means that we will always hear other opinions, other perspectives, and other arguments than our own. Free speech is the foundation of all expansive and right thinking. “Only in the freedom of our speaking with one another does the world, as that about which we speak, emerge in its objectivity and visibility from all sides.” For Arendt, free speech is about seeing the world as it is, in all of its plurality and uniqueness:

“If someone wants to see and experience the world as it ‘really’ is, he can do so only by understanding it as something that is shared by many people, lies between them, separates them, showing itself differently to each and comprehensible only to the extent that many people can talk about it and exchange their opinions and perspectives with one another, over against one another.”

The freedom to speak one’s opinion is the root of politics and right thinking. This is true not because free speech leads to truth, but because it expands our understanding and forces us to confront the real plurality of the world.

Free speech is actually less about my right to speak than about my right and need to listen. I need to listen to others, especially to those I don’t understand or disagree with. Only in hearing what strikes me as strange and dangerous do I understand that the world is comprised of a true plurality of people, people with distinct, unique, and multiple perspectives. Free speech is what teaches us to comprehend the plurality of the world as it is and to learn to love that world in its plurality, without having to impose a single, totalizing opinion on others. It is then that politics emerges as the effort to find what unites us as a people amidst our real differences of opinion. Politics is not about imposing one truth on others, but finding our common truths while learning to respect our meaningful differences.

Insofar as free speech is about understanding the world, it is central to the mission of educational institutions. The “Free Speech Project” at the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College includes student-run initiatives that work to expand the plurality of ideas that students confront and encounter. Our “Tough Talks” lecture series brings to campus speakers with strong and controversial opinions. And our “Dorm Room Conversations” series sponsors small-group discussions on selected topics with students who disagree. In addition, the Center is organizing a series of courses grouped together as the “Difficult Questions College Seminars,” designed in concert with our upcoming Conference, “Real Talk: Difficult Questions About Race, Sex, and Religion.” Registration for the conference is now open, and I invite you to join what we hope will be a spirited conversation.


Roger Berkowitz, Academic Director, Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities, Bard College