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Free Speech and Racism

Michael Albert

 

What are we to make of the hubbub over Khalid Muhammad's talk at Kean College where he slandered everyone from the Pope, to all Jews, to Nelson Mandela's family, with hate-mongering language, fabricated history, and generalized mayhem? Faculty senates now periodically meet to censure this type of speech. University presidents offer contrary lessons to their flock. And, in the case of the Kean College address, even the U.S. Congress rallies to educate the public and censure the wicked messenger. This is big stuff, so some questions arise.

A lot of people spend a lot of time on the first two questions. It isn't clear why. They don't seem particularly complex. Free speech, of course, protects and should protect all speech and all writing (except yelling fire in a movie theater, assaulting an individual with threats, and so on). Free speech therefore protects and should protect the words of a demagogue, or a group of demagogues, including, for example, a faculty senate or the U.S. Congress. It applies to purveyors of racist claptrap and to advocates of social justice. It applies to historians who manipulate their data or corrupt logic, whether to serve the interests of capital or to slander some constituency they despise, as well as to historians who speak truth to power. Except for extortion, libel, and the like, free speech makes no reference to content. Period. Whether something should be said may be a matter of responsibility, context, purpose, accuracy, and so on. That things may be said, is a matter of right.

Thus, believers in free speech will, presumably, not want to curtail free speech as a way to counter racist, sexist, homophobic, or classist views. So, the antidote to vile free speech, is, as the old saying goes, better free speech, in larger doses.And so it also follows that there is nothing intrinsically undefendable when a faculty senate, or a university president, or even the U.S. Congress indicates via speech to their respective constituencies their horror over potentially harmful, manipulative, misleading, dishonest speech or scholarship put forth by others. Taking such a step might or might not be prudent, wise, informed, or moral, but it is and should be protected as a right.

The first two questions above, therefore, are really quite simple to address, both consistently and humanely. Maybe one could stretch out the discussion somewhat, addressing fine points and complicated instances, but the essentials are a matter of a couple of paragraphs, as above. The problem arises with the latter two questions.

We can answer the third question consistently, if vaguely, by saying something like, speech or scholarship that lies or otherwise distorts reality in ways likely to directly hurt people, or to add to the hurt that people already feel by providing tools for its furtherance or by justifying it, qualify for critical public response.

Muhammad, of course, has little power or influence over the world of actual events. Nor is he listened to by people who do have such power. And a forum at Kean College has hardly any reach into the halls of power, nor is it particularly likely to directly translate into hurtful policy or actions. So, if we say that, nonetheless, Muhammad's speech at Kean College or others like it elsewhere deserve attention throughout society, by faculty senates, university presidents, and even Congress, for example, we are setting a quite demanding standard. For if Muhammad deserves a public response, then any speech or scholarship that is more likely to do harm, or to aid harm, would deserve as much or more response to ward off the ill effects that might otherwise transpire.

But have the various faculty senates and university presidents and the U.S. Congress who are now all taking note of Muhammad-like speeches and offering rejoinders actually come around to an enlightened attitude to the need for countering harmful speech and scholarship?

Quite obviously not. There are a number of clues that give the game away. For example, no one runs ads in major newspapers or goes into apoplexy because Muhammad attacked Blacks like Cornell West in grotesquely denigrating and threatening terms and likewise also threatened Nelson Mandela and his family, etc. Similarly, Muhammad's sexism and homophobia are not the proximate cause of his being criticized in the Halls of Congress. Apparently, the pivital sin was Muhammad's admittedly quite vile--if also socially punchless--anti-Semitism, and perhaps also his inclusion in his list of targets of the Pope and whites more generally.

One plausible conclusion is that in our society some speech (that irritates a powerful constituency and is uttered by the weak) matters a lot and deserves rejoinder. But other speech (that serves the strong and damages only less powerful constituencies) matter less, or hardly at all.

One could offer a near infinite amount of evidence that this is, in fact, the case, (for example, the lack of response when people like Jesse Helms or Rush Limbaugh spew venum) but here let's merely use two examples, one for speech and one for scholarship, to make the general point.

We know that anti-Semitic words that have very little likelihood of translating into actual widespread hardship within the Jewish community are sufficient to warrant public response, To discern if the reason why such words are accorded that importance is concern for the negative social effects of hate speech on assaulted constituencies--which would be fine, of course--we might wonder whether anti-Arab and specifically anti-Palestinian sentiments that translate almost directly into policies of violent suppression of whole communities also occasion opposition. But the answer, of course, is no. Palestinians can be referred to as "Third World detritus" in the Times, or have their culture termed crazed in the sense of being unable to "distinguish between fantasy and reality" and prone to "gratifying" "acts of bloodlust," in <I>The New Republic<D> --and so on, ad infinitum--without occasion for response. It would seem that something other than or at least in addition to concern for the well being of targets of hate and racism lies behind much of the public concern about anti-Semitic speech-making.

Turning to "scholarship," when some witless, anti-Semitic fanatic uses a classroom to teach that there was no holocaust, there is a general campus revulsion and often public effort to correct the lie via counter evidence and discussion. Noting that the harmful perspective put forth in this case is so idiotic as to be transparent nonsense, and that such a teacher's bleatings are unlikely to have even a minuscule effect on actual events in society, we might still say that offering counter evidence and fostering critical discussion is a good thing to do. But, having said that, if we are serious about it, we have again set a rather encompassing standard for the level of ensuing harm scholarship must potentailly involve for it to warrant a reply--that is, not very much. So, we have to ask, is there any critical response by faculty Senates, university presidents, the Congress, or the mass media to courses in history which deny or obscure the easily verifiable role of the U.S. in the charnel house events of Latin America's history (thereby directly contributing to the continuation of the horrors); or is there any outcry of counter evidence for the "scholarship" of neoclassical economists, virtually universally and without dissent, asserting that markets and private ownership are the best conceivable way to organize an economy, are efficient, promote balanced development, foster democracy, and so on (thereby contributing to continuing poverty, alienation, and other horrors) all in the face of easily obtained counter evidence, the existence of alternative models, etc? You may say that to realize that these later forms of scholarship are harmful requires some effort, but, in fact, the problem is moral. The amount of factual and intellectual work required to see through to the vile nature of these forms of scholarship is very modest indeed, once one has the means at one's disposal to find out the facts, peruse alternative formulations, etc., and assuming one feels a responsibility to be on the lookout for potentially harmful scholarship which deserves public comment.

The simple fact is, what is happening in faculty Senates, mainstream media, and the Congress regarding the domain of "free speech" and appropriate response, is almost identical, under all the rhetoric and posturing, to what is happening in the domain of "what in the world is worth paying attention to." That is, on-going massacres and starvations and subjugations throughout the world that dwarf, for example, events in Bosnia, or the shoot-out in Iraq, or the turmoil in Rwanda, in terms of human loss, are invisible, uncommented on, unworried about, or even supported. The reason, of course, is that there are no Westerners at risk in these other contexts, or that no Western interests are threatene, and no gain is to be had for Western elites by giving the other instances of death and destruction widespread attention, or even that the death and destruction is supportive of Western interests. So it is not true concern with defending human rights and the well being of oppressed or otherwise targeted constituencies that occasions attention by the mass media, the Congress, University Presidents, and University Senates, whether we are talking about the domain of foreign policy, the condition of our cities, the condition of our education system, or the content of speeches, but, instead, it is pressure from elites, sympathy with elites, and direct defense of elite interests that calls forth their vigrorous involvement. Every once in a while, this means they take a correct position, but for the wrong reasons.

In short, even at the level of faculty Senates, much less the U.S. Congress and the New York Times, it is all hypocrisy as usual, and nothing more.