You Are Not An Experience

Ulrich Baer argues that the so-called “liberal snowflakes” are actually right, that free speech should be sacrificed in the name of securing the legitimacy of personal experience. He is mistaken, but worth taking seriously. Baer writes:

“At one of the premieres of his landmark Holocaust documentary, “Shoah” (1985), the filmmaker Claude Lanzmann was challenged by a member of the audience, a woman who identified herself as a Holocaust survivor. Lanzmann listened politely as the woman recounted her harrowing personal account of the Holocaust to make the point that the film failed to fully represent the recollections of survivors. When she finished, Lanzmann waited a bit, and then said, “Madame, you are an experience, but not an argument.”
This exchange, conveyed to me by the Russian literature scholar Victor Erlich some years ago, has stayed with me, and it has taken on renewed significance as the struggles on American campuses to negotiate issues of free speech have intensified — most recently in protests at Auburn University against a visit by the white nationalist Richard Spencer.
Lanzmann’s blunt reply favored reasoned analysis over personal memory. In light of his painstaking research into the Holocaust, his comment must have seemed insensitive but necessary at the time. Ironically, “Shoah” eventually helped usher in an era of testimony that elevated stories of trauma to a new level of importance, especially in cultural production and universities.
During the 1980s and ’90s, a shift occurred in American culture; personal experience and testimony, especially of suffering and oppression, began to challenge the primacy of argument. Freedom of expression became a flash point in this shift. Then as now, both liberals and conservatives were wary of the privileging of personal experience, with its powerful emotional impact, over reason and argument, which some fear will bring an end to civilization, or at least to freedom of speech.
My view (and, like all the views expressed here, it does not represent the views or policies of my employer, New York University) is that we should resist the temptation to rehash these debates. Doing so would overlook the fact that a thorough generational shift has occurred. Widespread caricatures of students as overly sensitive, vulnerable and entitled “snowflakes” fail to acknowledge the philosophical work that was carried out, especially in the 1980s and ’90s, to legitimate experience — especially traumatic experience — which had been dismissed for decades as unreliable, untrustworthy and inaccessible to understanding.”

Baer goes on to argue that there are good philosophical reasons for rejecting free speech in favor of personal testimony and narrative. According to the cultural shift he suggests took place in the late 20th century, “personal experience and testimony, especially of suffering and oppression, began to challenge the primacy of argument.” Where many are understandably “wary of the privileging of personal experience, with its powerful emotional impact, over reason and argument,” Baer argues that the elevated importance of personal experience is founded upon good philosophical arguments.

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Citing Jean-Francois Lyotard, Baer writes that we can no longer expect that freedom of speech will lead to truth. The old idea that in a marketplace of ideas the truth will win out is, Lyotard shows us, disproved by the “asymmetry of different positions when personal experience is challenged by abstract arguments.” In other words, vulnerable populations who speak their personal experiences may find that others deny the truth or at least the worldly relevance their experiences. In such an unequal situation in which some speech is privileged over other speech, free speech can be seen to re-enforce hierarchies.

Baer follows Lyotard in offering the example of Holocaust denial. When “invidious but often well-publicized cranks” confront survivors of the Holocaust, they place the burden on survivors to produce incontrovertible eyewitnesses and to argue over the Holocaust. For Baer, this challenges the “Jewish survivors to produce evidence of their own legitimacy in a discourse that had systematically denied their humanity.” Similar arguments are made today to justify the claim that colleges and universities should refuse to hear from speakers whose views are, according to some, racist, sexist, transphobic, xenophobic, or otherwise offensive.

Baer’s rhetorical claim that holocaust deniers put the burden on holocaust survivors to respond is, I think, not correct. It is the responsibility of all of us to confront ignorance and hate. If someone comes to our campus and spews racist or sexist vitriol, it should not only or primarily be those attacked who respond. I imagine some from the attacked community will seethe in silence. Others will walk out. And some will respond. That is a personal choice of each person. But it should also be the personal choice of everyone in the audience, not simply those who feel attacked in their persons. And it is also the personal choice of anyone not to attend the talk or to protest the talk from outside. These are all legitimate and I hope empowering potential responses to speakers one finds offensive.

Beyond his rhetorical claim, Baer offers an argument that underlies the rising support for censorship on college campuses today. When the Arendt Center invited Suzanne Venker to speak two weeks ago, we were told doing so was harming women. This coming week, we are hosting a panel conversation on talking across the political divide with those we dislike, and even those we find offensive. Amongst six wildly diverse panelists, one is a gay Trump supporter and former Bard graduate, Lucian Wintrich. We have been inundated with calls complaining about Mr. Wintrich’s participation. Thankfully, Bard has a vibrant intellectual community and most of these calls and emails have not insisted we disinvite Mr. Wintrich. But many have sought to make a nuanced point, one similar to that made by Baer.

These students affirm their commitments to free speech and intellectual plurality. They realize that disinviting offensive speakers would be wrong and also tactically counterproductive. But, these students insist, Wintrich and Venker should never have been invited in the first place. The presence on campus of such people, they argue, creates a threat to the safety of vulnerable students on campus. The argument explaining why Venker and Wintrich’s mere presence on campus are threats is rarely spelled out. Especially in Wintrich’s case, as he was a student at Bard for four years and somehow the campus survived him. And yet, there is an insistence that Mr. Wintrich’s presence and talk poses a threat to vulnerable people on campus.

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Baer’s essay articulates the argument for not allowing offensive speakers to speak on a college campus. When we allow views that “invalidate the humanity of some people,” we create asymmetrical speech situations and thus “restrict speech as a public good.” In such instances, Baer writes, “there is no inherent value to be gained from debating them in public.” It is enough, he argues, to read those offensive views on the internet or in the newspapers.

Let me give Baer as full a hearing as I can. Baer’s argument draws its force from an empathetic and well-meaning response to the undeniable reality of inequality and discrimination in our society. Given those realities, there is no such thing as truly free speech. Thus, faced with a choice between the values of safety and security on the one hand and the unreachable values of freedom and plurality on the other, we should sacrifice freedom and plurality in the name of safety and security. To ensure the emotional safety of their students, academic institutions should censor those whose speech offends.

The privileging of security over freedom is made easier by Baer’s claims that it is simply untrue that hearing dissenting ideas does aid the cause of truth. This argument addresses the claim that truth will eventually win out in the so-called marketplace of ideas. The classic statement of this idea is by John Milton, who wrote:

“Though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”

A second version of the claim that truth is the product of a free contest of ideas is by John Stuart Mill:

“The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

Baer dissents, first, because the “asymmetry of different positions when personal experience is challenged by abstract arguments” means that there is no free and equal marketplace of ideas. The marketplace is always structured and regulated in ways that privilege some and disempower others. And second, following in part from this first point, Baer argues that free debate — undermined by asymmetry and inequality — will not lead to the victory of truth. Thus, given that truth is a naive dream, we should privilege the safety and security of vulnerable community members above the apparent search for truth.

Baer’s argument is meaningful, and it deserves a response. He is undoubtedly right that there is never a level playing field, whether in politics or in science. There is, therefore, no guarantee that truth will win out in a free contest. In that context, we need to think about the role of the university in the post-truth world Baer imagines.

There is no need to contest the claim that there is no objective truth. But to end the matter there is to operate from a tragically misguided and neutered idea of truth. Objective truth is hardly the only meaningful idea of truth. The inquiry into truth, justice, and beauty need not assume that there is some verifiably certain answer to the questions we ask. That justice and beauty are not objects to be known with absolute certainty does not invalidate the search for truth, the quest for justice and the allure of beauty.

The aspiration of a liberal arts education is not to attain some incontestable truth; it is, however, to become practiced in the humanist, scientific, and artistic ways of asking after truth and reaching for both justice and beauty. The path to such a practice passes through argumentation. Feelings and testimony are of course relevant and meaningful in the human experience. But whether one is a scientist, artist, or poet, one first needs to learn to distinguish good from bad arguments and to distinguish fact from fiction. To say that an objective truth does not exist and to say that truth is stymied by asymmetries of power, does not invalidate the collective pursuit of truth that happens at a college or a university. It simply makes the quest for truth more challenging.

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 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. What Arendt understood is that 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.

The General Assembly meeting in Washington Square Park, New York City on 8 October 2011, by David Shankbone — Own work, CC BY 3.0

Too often today defenders of free speech fall back on arguments from tactics. There is indeed a good tactical argument for hearing uncomfortable and dissenting views. We must always remember that you don’t win an argument when you and your friends are convinced that you’re right. We win an argument when we convince those who have meaningfully disagreed with us. If we want to change the world, we need to learn how to argue with and persuade others. If we give up and protect ourselves in gated communities of liberal purity, we will lose. But as rational as tactical arguments may be, they won’t win the day if we don’t also seek to persuade others that freedom of speech, academic freedom and intellectual openness are values important in themselves. Arendt’s argument that free speech is necessitated by plurality reminds us that there are essential political and intellectual values that can only be upheld in a world where we encounter and seek out dissenting views.

In one final twist, Baer writes that it is enough to simply read dissenting opinions, that offensive opinions can be experienced at arm’s length and kept out of the campus community. But It is not enough to simply read these views (or more frequently to read dismissals of them). A view we disagree with on the internet rarely argues back when we dismiss it. Actually arguing with someone who will respond to our arguments is the only to truly test our arguments. The practice of arguing with those with whom one disagrees is the best way to learn how to engage actively and effectively in the political life of a citizen. It is the only way to learn our weaknesses and our opponents’ strengths. And, at the very least, it is the only way to discover whether, despite our real differences, we share a common commitment to reason and decency.

And what if we or they don’t share that commitment? What if we invite someone to speak and they violate the norms of public debate? They might shout people down or personally insult people in ways that have nothing to do with reasonable and persuasive argument. If they act that way we must call them on it. If they act that way, they will likely lose the argument. Yes, people will be insulted. Yes, we will all be ashamed of another person. But to be honest, we are rarely so lucky that the people we disagree with act so foolishly. It is easy to imagine that people we disdain will resort to irrationality and insult because we are so sure that they actually have no rational arguments. But the greater danger is that they will not act that way and will make arguments to which we will have to respond. If we are confident in our arguments, we should welcome that challenge. And if we are not confident in our arguments, we should welcome the opportunity to hear our arguments challenged. As John Stuart Mill put it, even good ideas wither into “dead beliefs” when they are not openly contested.

Claude Lanzmann certainly understood the value of personal testimony. But Lanzmann had it right when he insisted that testimony cannot trump argument. It is true that arguments are messy, truth is unnerving, and politics is frustrating. In spite of political science departments, politics is not a science. It is an effort for a plural and diverse group of people to build a common life together. Politics is predicated on shared opinions, not on truths. And when there are divergent opinions in a political community, the two primary ways of overcoming those disputes are violence and persuasion. In the contest of personal testimonies, there is no possible resolution. Unless we are to resort to violence, our only path to building a shared world is through argument. Ulrich Baer writes that in the 1980s and 1990s philosophy changed and arguments gave way to sentiment; philosophical trends come and go, but truth has always been complicated and messy. And the only way to find agreement on truth has been and remains through argument.


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

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