This story is very familiar.
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.
For the past several days DePaul University has been dealing with the aftermath of a visit by alleged journalist and noted provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. Yiannopoulos writes for alleged news site Brietbart.com, and everything that I've seen suggests that they are perfect for each other, in that both the writer and the website are far more interested in stirring the pot then in actually engaging in journalism or seeking to enhance or promote democratic discourse. Zach Beauchamp at Vox.com has described the ideology that Yiannopoulos represents quite well:
Once you understand that Yiannopoulos thinks norms against offensive speech and action are themselves a terrible form of authoritarianism, then the rest of his persona starts to make a lot more sense. He sees himself as a hybrid journalist-activist, leading a movement he calls "cultural libertarianism" to protect "free speech" from the egalitarian bullies.
What "cultural libertarianism" is, in practice, is a lot of people on the internet saying intentionally offensive stuff. What better way to end the left's taboo on being sexist than by actually being sexist and getting away with it? ...
All of this, basically, reduces to high-profile trolling — a term that, if you aren't familiar with it, means posting stuff online that's deliberately designed to offend people, often purely because you think irritating other people is funny.
That's intentional. Yiannopoulos is, self-consciously, weaponizing trolling: taking tools invented by internet pranksters and deploying them in his self-declared war on the cultural left. His stunts are designed to appeal to a warped sense of humor as much as they are to help batter down liberal taboos. He thinks things like pretending to be a BuzzFeed editor and tweeting stuff like "#FeminismIsCancer" is a "hilarious" way to stick it to stodgy liberal elites.
Yiannopoulos was invited to campus by the DePaul Republicans. This provoked a reaction among many of the DePaul students who, as it turns out, finds making intentionally racist and sexist comments far less hilarious than Yiannopoulos and his fans. A student group organized protests outside the event, and some students opted to disrupt the event, blowing whistles and shouting Yiannopoulos down. Things escalated from there, as Yiannopoulos decided he was unhappy with the security response and took to the streets. The DePaul Student Center was shut down and eventually Yiannopoulos left and the protestors dispersed. The next day, President Dennis Holtschneider wrote an email to the campus community condemning the disruption and apologizing to Yiannopoulos and the College Republicans. This letter was the first I knew about either the event or the protests.
The apology, it seems, satisfied nobody. The Yiannopoulites found it insufficiently groveling, while many students and faculty at DePaul found it outrageously conciliatory, given the content of Yiannopoulos' words. Meanwhile, things continued to escalate at DePaul, as anti-Mexican graffiti was found on campus, and then a noose was discovered in a student dorm. Several of my faculty colleagues were subject to some fairly severe harassment on Twitter. I posted a tweet in support of one colleague, and then turned in.
I woke up Thursday morning thinking about the question of how it was that someone like Yiannopoulos, who did not really have anything of genuine intellectual worth to add to the discourse of a university, had gotten invited to speak. Of course, people get invited to do a lot of things at universities. Some are invited to give academic lectures, some are invited because they represent a controversial point of view, or because they are public figures. Some are comedians. But whatever the purpose for which someone is invited to speak at a university, it occurred to me that what they offer ought to be consistent with the academic mission of the school. It needn't agree with any particular political position, or even, I would argue, in the case of DePaul, be consistent with Catholic teaching, in order to be worth of a hearing. But it should rise to some minimal threshold of intellectual worth in order to be worthy of inclusion in university programming.
With this in mind, I took to Twitter once again, and posted the following series of tweets.
If one comes to a college to say something that has no intellectual worth can interrupting them be a violation of their right to speak?— Scott Paeth (@ScottPaeth) May 26, 2016
If a student group brings a speaker to campus for the express purpose of offending others, does that person have any genuine right to speak?— Scott Paeth (@ScottPaeth) May 26, 2016
If a student group wanted to bring a speaker to defend the Rwandan genocide, would they have a right to do so? Where is the boundary here?— Scott Paeth (@ScottPaeth) May 26, 2016
Some things are clearly on one side of the protected speech boundary, some things are clearly on the other, but how do find the line?— Scott Paeth (@ScottPaeth) May 26, 2016
These comments were intended to raise precisely the question I noted above: What is the purpose for which any particular speaker is brought to campus? And what are the limits to what kinds of discourse are permissible.
Given that I have a very small community of Twitter followers, and that I hadn't used any hashtags to draw attention to the tweets, I figured it would promote some mild discussion among my followers -- if that -- and that would be the end of it. I'd continue to ruminate on the topic, and probably no more would come of it. Oh, how wrong I was!
Apparently, I eventually got retweeted by Yiannopoulos himself, or at least one of his more prominent hangers-on, and the tweets went viral. Before I knew it, I had well over half a million impressions on Twitter. That in itself was surprising, but what was even more surprising was the degree of vitriol, as well as the complete lack of comprehension, represented by the response to my words. My initial reaction was amusement, as most of the responses weren't actually interested in engaging me, but insulting me. Again, based upon everything I know about Yiannopoulos and his minions, this is pretty much the sum and substance of their MO. They never engage in thought when they can engage in purile name-calling. So, I responded with snark. Eventually though, real life called, and I realized that continuing to engage these folks was a classic case of feeding the trolls, so I moved on.
What I did not expect was the next round of attacks, which consisted of harassing emails and phone calls to my office. I came to find out that I was far from the only faculty member so targeted, and, like the racist graffiti and the noose, this all seemed to be grounded in the hostility of the Yiannopoulites. What's more, it occurred to me that, apart from the childishness and vulgarity of the response, it had a very specific intent, which was to intimidate Yiannopoulos' opponents into silence. The great irony of Yiannopoulos' whole routine is that under the guise of the defense of absolute free speech, it's real agenda is silencing those who would speak out against overtly sexist and racist commentary.
To be clear: There are plenty of people who would be perfectly welcome to speak at DePaul, regardless of the odious opinions that they held. But I return to what I suggested above: A person whose entire goal is quite literally nothing other than to be intentionally offensive is not worthy of an invitation to speak at an academic institution. Many of my respondents on Twitter seemed to be of the opinion that I was taking a stand against free speech in general, or that I was saying something that was contrary to the First Amendment, though this only demonstrated both that they hadn't read what I wrote and that they didn't understand the First Amendment. If Yiannopoulos got hold of a soap box and chose to stand on it in the park, I would have no objection to him being allowed to say whatever he wanted. If the College Republicans wanted to rent a private space off campus to hear him rant, I would have no objection. If he stood in the street off campus and said what he wanted, I would have no objection. My objection was to the use of university space and resources for the purpose of giving him a forum. This has nothing to do with the First Amendment, it has to do with he mission of the university.
Of course, then there is the matter of what should have been done once he was there. I was exceptionally proud of DePaul's students for organizing a peaceful protest in opposition to him. And I am sympathetic to the students who chose to disrupt the event. There may indeed by times and places where disruption is an appropriate tactic in opposition to genuinely vile speech. For example, I see no reason why a neo-Nazi should be given a hearing, and shouting one down seems to me to be a perfectly appropriate response. However, in the final analysis I think that the disruption of Yiannopoulos' event was a miscalculation, primarily because it gave Yiannopoulos and his minions exactly what they wanted. Once the event was interrupted, the story was no longer, as it should have been, how awful Yiannopoulos was and how outrageous it was to give him a forum at DePaul, and became about how he wasn't permitted to speak. Yiannopoulos was thus able to claim the moral high ground in spite of his vile rhetoric, even though it was undeserved, because the interruption seemed to run contrary to the commitment to free discourse in a university setting.
But again, to be clear, nothing that Yiannopoulos had to say was worth a hearing in a university setting. Explicit racism and misogyny don't have any place in democratic discourse. The idea that literally all voices deserve a hearing at all times and places is not an expression of free speech, rather it is a means of thwarting free speech by continuing to relitigate arguments that should be considered settled issues. Again, the goal is silence those who would speak out against entrenched privilege and systemic racism and sexism.
Returning to Zach Beauchamp's article in Vox, he makes an important point about the idea that Yiannopoulos and his followers are not actually racist or sexist, but only say these things for the purpose of being intentionally provocative, for the sake of the freest possible speech:
Even if he doesn't actually agree with these ideas and is just trying to be provocative. He's mainstreaming bigotry.
Beauchamp then goes on to discuss Yiannopoulos' relation to the "alt-right" community:
The alt-right is a group of online dissidents from mainstream conservatism. While they have a diverse set of beliefs and interests, they share one core belief: Mainstream conservatism is full of politically correct sellouts.
The alt-right encompasses a range of views. It includes among its ranks people who’d traditionally be just called white supremacists or white nationalists, people like Richard Spencer of the National Policy Institute (who coined the term "alt-right") or American Renaissance’s Jared Taylor. But it also includes people who reject bigotry, at least in its overt forms, but whose views are still too reactionary for the conservative mainstream.
Regardless, racism and sexism are essential elements of the alt-right movement; it could not exist in its current form without them. Alt-righters tend to oppose mass immigration on grounds that Latin Americans and Muslims dilute the excellence of white culture. They support what they call "white identity politics" — the idea that white Americans should organize and stick up for their own interests because minority groups do the same thing.
Hot arguments on the alt-right include the idea that African Americans are intrinsically dumber than white Americans, that society would be better off if women had fewer opportunities outside of the home, and that Nazism maybe wasn't all bad.
Yiannopoulos loves these guys.
At the end of the day, it doesn't matter whether Yiannopoulos or the alt-right are "sincere" in their racism and sexism. The point at which you incorporate racist and sexist rhetoric into your worldview, and advocate it as a matter of course in your speaking and writing, you are a racist and a sexist. The difference between someone like Yiannopoulos and a character like Borat is that Borat makes bigots the butt of the joke, Yiannopoulos makes women and people of color the butt of the joke. And to excuse that by saying it was "only" a joke, or that it's satire, or that it's insincere simply doesn't wash.
And so that brings me back to my main point: If Yiannopoulos chose to rave in the streets of Chicago about women or African Americans, I'd gingerly walk past him on my way to something that was actually important to do, and shake my head that there weren't better services for someone so obviously disturbed. But to have him at DePaul University elevates him and diminishes the school. The fact that there were students who chose to be provoked by him in exactly the way he wanted to provoke them is unfortunate for DePaul's reputation, but for my part I'm far more worried about the idea that there are DePaul students who would hear or read anything he has to say and conclude "this is a guy we should have on campus." That is a far bigger indictment of DePaul University than anything else.