Monday, May 12, 2014

A bad day for the right to offend

Just wondering:

Do all these people who found the the idea of the Satanic Mass so repugnant (to use Cardinal O'Malley's term) and abhorrent and reprehensible and so on, and demanded that Harvard censor it (even though it involved no desecration of actually sacred objects, only some theatrical mockery), think Putin was right to jail the Pussy Riot for desecrating an actual sacred place?

The right to offend IS the right to free speech, since nobody needs any rights to be inoffensive. So I count today as a loss for free speech, since giving in to the bullies inevitably empowers other bullies who push a little further the line of what they claim to find so offensive and repugnant that other people should not be allowed to listen to it.

Yes, I know, officially the student group pulled its support of the theatrical, but given the sequence of events, it amounts to a pullout under pressure.

Personally, I always found repugnant the idea that I was eating the body of Christ. Sorry, friends, but it's true, and no amount of metaphysics about transubstantiation, and I read a lot of it once, made it seem a less barbaric practice. (Two! Four! Six! Eight! Time to transubstantiate! Could Tom Lehrer have sung that today?)

As if that wasn't bad enough, the admirable Christine Lagarde has followed Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Condoleeza Rice as women that American college students find too offensive to listen to on their graduation day. (Ruth Simmons has replaced Lagarde.) This is idiotic. It's not the same thing as the theatricals, because the university chooses speakers, but not the performances student groups put on. But having three pull out in the same month is a terrible trend. What the hell is so terrible about listening to Christine Lagarde, -- or deciding not to if you prefer? She isn't exactly the Shah of Iran, who was my commencement speaker.

Of course the Satanic Mass production was a dumb idea. The problem is giving some authority the power to say which ideas are dumb, because the authorities will inevitably push the line in their favor. Remember, King George did that, which is how we wound up with the First Amendment. I am sure he thought Common Sense was repugnant and abhorrent and made a mockery of the monarchy!


  1. Interesting take on the matter. I'm wondering if you might clarify how this is a loss for the right to free speech despite the fact that there was no intervention from the federal government. I'm by no means a constitutional law scholar, but it seems to me, given the wording of the first amendment, that if the government hasn't made a law attenuating the freedom of speech, then no right's been violated. Is that not correct?

    1. Excellent question. Nobody has been jailed, what's the problem? The First Amendment is about what citizens have a right to do without being held by the government for lawbreaking. Why is it even relevant to the Satanic Mass, Tom Lehrer, Drew Faust and so on unless somebody tries to call the cops?

      I'm of the view that the right to speak freely applies at universities, because fostering uncomfortable and unconventional thinking is one of the social roles universities play. In fact, free speech ought not just to be tolerated but encouraged at places like Harvard. That is, we should be teaching students to be skeptical, edgy, even offensive, because teaching them always to think twice before speaking is teaching them that is better to be safe and conventional than to risk offending.

      Greg Lukianoff does a good job in Unlearning Liberty of explaining how this duality plays out in practice in colleges today. I don't agree with every word of it (how could I, given the value I put on critical thinking?), but it has lots of good examples and has the major themes right.

    2. Nice job by Christopher Robichaud explaining why there is a point to this ritual, and why I was too dismissive of it.

  2. What about claiming that studies show one group or another has higher IQ average? Or that one group has longer penis average?

    What about hate speech? The Universities started censoring speech when they decided to stop hate speech.

    1. What about those studies? One person says them and the scientific community refutes them. You fight words with more words, not less.

      I have a lot of trouble with the very notion of hate speech. Because hate is subjective, the term gets generalized. It has been applied to the Satanic Mass for example, which is ridicule, not hate. The problem with prohibiting hate speech is exactly that someone has to do the classifying, produce the Index Librorum Prohibitorum for which the Church was famous. As long as it is only speech and not action, respond in some way other than the censor's gag. Rules of different universities differ on this stuff, but you are right that a lot of students and others think all universities ban hate speech, even though nobody can define the term.