Building on my piece from yesterday, a great deal of my objection to the idea of having certain speakers on university campuses was rooted in the idea that, given the university's mission as a place where ideas can be debated and discussed, and where those ideas can advance intellectual inquiry, a speaker whose sole motivation was to offend others was not appropriate for a university setting. The response I got, initially on Twitter, but also in other contexts as well, was "well, who are you to judge whether it was intended to offend?" Or "Isn't offense in the eye of the beholder?" To which I have typically responded: "I believe it is possible to infer the intent to offend based on the record of the speaker." In other words, from what was known about Milo, and what was known about his rhetoric, and the substance-free nature of the writing in which that rhetoric was typically contained, it was possible to infer that his sole motivation was to offend a substantial portion of the student population. I would extend that argument to the group that invited him: I think we can infer from their invitation to Milo that their entire motivation was to offend the progressive student groups that they knew would show up to protest the event.
Certainly the fact that Milo's events had been protested in a similar way at other venues suggests that everyone involved knew what the likely outcome was going to be. I'd suggest it was exactly what they were hoping for. But I want to expand the conversation beyond this particular speaker on this particular occasion and ask whether or not we can be permitted to infer the intent to offend, generally speaking.
My point here is not whether we can know that people are, as a matter of fact, likely to be offended by a particular speaker. I'm not suggesting that the mere fact that people could be offended is a reason to bar a particular speaker. On the contrary, as I noted before, I think that speakers of all positions on the left-right spectrum, whose views may happen to offend some portion of the student population, certainly have a place as speakers in a university setting. For example, I believe that a pro-choice speaker should be permitted to speak at a Catholic university, even though many Catholic would be offended by them, because the argument about abortion itself has merit, and having that argument in the midst of university life is part of the mission of the university. Similarly, I believe that a speaker advocating building a Trump-style border wall on the American-Mexican border should be permitted to speak, as that argument is part of the larger debate about immigration reform in the United States. I think in either case, it should be unsurprising if protestors showed up, and as in the case of Milo's event, I think it would be ill-advised if those protestors disrupted the event, but protest is certainly an appropriate response.
My question runs to a more difficult issue: To what degree are we permitted to infer that, when someone says something offensive, they are saying solely to offend, versus saying something for the purpose of advancing an important conversation which just happens to offend? The person advocating for abortion rights may indeed offend pro-life Catholics, but that would be in the context of advocating a point of view about the rights of women over their own bodies. Compare that to a speaker who was invited to a Catholic university for the purpose of trampling on a consecrated communion wafer. The later speaker would clearly have no goal except to offend Catholics, and I think it would be well within the purview of the university to exclude them.
Similarly, in the case of the advocate of the border wall, while their viewpoint would be offensive to many, and certainly to me, as long as it was not couched in an argument that Mexicans are in some way innately inferior human beings, but in say economic terms, then offensive as it would be, it wouldn't be solely offensive. On the other hand, inviting a member of the Aryan Nations to campus would clearly have no other purpose but to inflame anger and cause offense to people of color around campus.
Again, if you know what someone's record of speech and action is, I believe it is entirely possible to infer intent from action, and to infer future intent from past action. We do it all the time. A substantial part of human interaction in every context involves the inference of internal states from external actions. Much of human language is about negotiating the differences between what people say and what they intend. And of course, as imperfect creatures, we often get that wrong. But I would suggest that we get these things wrong most in ambiguous, marginal cases where what is being communicated is unclear, or the connection between external act and internal state appears to conflict. But again, to use the communion wafer example: Someone who came to campus for the express purpose of doing that would leave no ambiguity with regard to their goal of offending.
But then the rejoinder would no doubt be: Well shouldn't people have the right to act in an explicitly offensive manner? On the one hand, in your own home, I suppose you can act as offensively as you want. If you can find people who are willing to pay for you to be offensive, you can take the show on the road. If you set up your soap box in a public park, you can be as offensive as you please as long as you obey park rules. But that's not what a university exists to promote. If you are offensive because you are presenting controversial ideas that are otherwise of worth in advancing the intellectual mission of the school, then a university can and should permit that to take place. But no one has a right to be offensive in the context of a university setting, even when presenting controversial ideas. To put it another way: If someone is presenting an idea I disagree with, then it is not a refutation of their idea for me simply to say that I find it offensive. However, if a person is acting in such a way that they are advancing no real idea, but simply trying to get a rise out of me, then to respond by saying "You are simply being offensive" is indeed a refutation. It's saying, effectively, "You are not advocating an idea that is capable of response or rejoinder, but simply trying to be offensive for offensiveness's sake."
Take the communion wafer example again. Let's give the example some detail. Suppose I were to invite a member of the Church of Satan to campus to advocate for the idea that religion was false, that would be an acceptable speaker for a university setting, even a Catholic university setting. But if, as an illustration of his contempt for religion, he pulled out a communion wafer and trampled on it, that would cross the line to pure offense. It is entirely possible to make the anti-religion argument without the offensive act. And making that argument may indeed offend some people. The simple fact that the speaker is from the Church of Satan may offend some people. But those things are offensive in the context of advancing a conversation that is part of the university's mission. The trampling of the communion wafer, on the other hand, is not.
To push it a step further. If we knew that the particular speaker was in the habit of coming to campuses in order to trample communion wafers, then I would argue that it would be perfectly acceptable to say that the speaker was not welcome, because we, once more, can infer his intent to offend based upon what we know he had done in the past.
Next question: suppose our communion-trampler somehow bypassed the university administration and got invited anyway. When word got out, a group of Catholic students decided to protest the speaker, and what's more, some of them decided that they were going to interfere with the speakers act of wafer-trampling. What would we say about their actions? I honestly am not 100% sure. Would the university president have apologized to the member of the Church of Satan if those students succeeded in shutting down the event? I don't know. What I do know is that the problem started when the decision was made to invite the speaker who was known for committing such an act.
As I've argued elsewhere, given the substance-free nature of Milo's offensive rhetoric, and given the demonstrated tendency of his followers to respond to his opponents via intimidation, I believe that the original sin in this entire drama was the decision to allow him to speak at DePaul in the first place. I think it was entirely possible to infer his intent to offend based upon his past actions, and that those actions gave a good indication of what was likely to happen.
What university policies should exist to prevent this kind of thing from happening in the future? I admit I am not sure. Where should the precise boundary be between acceptable and unacceptable speakers? I'm not sure about that either. I'm not even 100% sure that Milo fell on the wrong side of that line, though as I've argued, I have a strong suspicion that he does. But I do think that ultimately we should recognize that not every speaker is acceptable in the context of a university, and determining which are, and which aren't, is part of the university's mission.