Sunday, February 06, 2005

Ward Churchill and free speech
Many writers (on the internet) are shocked, shocked to find that gambling support for mass murder is going on in our universities. Although many of those who despise Ward Churchill's remarks think he should be fired, there are others who not only believe that Universities should have freedom of speech, but actually seem to understand what this means. In particular, there are some excellent remarks here, here, here, here, and here.

I refuse to discuss the issue of Churchill's racial purity -- or lack thereof -- except to state that anyone concerned about someone's racial purity deserves to be lied to about it. However, I'd like to add:

1) Eugene Volokh should be commended for having the patience to explain once again why our notion of free speech must be very extreme. I find it very sad that such obvious things have to be said over and over again to intelligent people -- sad that we have to treat these people like children. It's not that it's impossible to make a reasonable argument for a mild notion of freedom of speech, it's just that no one who wishes to do so seems to be aware of the most basic issues. I'm happy that Volokh spices up the lecture by distinguishing between different types of "slippery slope" arguments.

2) Usually "slippery slope" arguments are hypothetical. In this case, the bottom of the slippery slope was reached a couple of decades ago. For a long time, in most respectable North American universities, it has been very risky to say anything antagonistic to the extreme left. Last I checked, Larry Summers was still apologizing, undergoing re-education, and buying indulgences for his incorrect remarks. In my university, incorrect speech is rarely spoken. The last time I spoke incorrectly, numerous administrators threatened to fire me, and they are still trying. The only thing stopping them is my Tenure.

3) This raises the question: given that we have tenure, why aren't tenured professors not-of-the-extreme-left (NEL) more outspoken? Of course, the extreme-left has seen to it that NELs are under-represented, but there are still many of us around. Why don't tenured NELs speak more? I'm not sure, but some of the reasons are: fear of reprisals in spite of tenure, and fear of being different. Tenure has certainly not had the effects its supporters would like it to have, but I still think the situation would be very much worse without it.

4) My reference to "Casablanca" above was intended to poke fun at NELs who either pretend to believe or actually believe that Churchill said something unusual. His "Eichmann" language is more colorful, but it is not basically very different from the "root causes" rhetoric that has taken over our campuses. Similarly, the people who shout "death to Jews" are not really different from the intellectuals who advocate a "one state solution" and the "right of return" and who openly support groups whose members routinely shout "death to Jews". In fact, I much prefer that extremists say what they mean in plain language rather than speaking in code phrases. By being overly harsh with Churchill we are merely encouraging people like that to go back to their coded language. Rather than fire him because he is worse than Chomsky et. al., we should leave him alone because he isn't. If Churchill does get fired, it will be because the extremists are more than happy to sacrifice him: this not only warns others to use proper codes, but it is a small price to pay in return for getting NELs to abandon the principle of freedom of speech on campuses.

5) Some people think that free speech should not apply to nontenured professors. They think that free speech is a perk we give to those with tenure, but this is backwards. Rather, tenure is something we give to help ensure free speech. Then why don't we give tenure to every professor? This wouldn't be feasible, since tenure represents a huge economic commitment. So we compromise, and only give tenure to those who we believe have demonstrated sufficient excellence to at least somewhat justify that commitment. But free speech costs nothing, and should be for everyone. Of course, this tenure system is not necessarily the best one, and I can see all sorts of arguments for modifying or eliminating tenure.

6) Eugene Volokh argues that free speech tends not to be especially desirable in private enterprise. I don't think it should be forced on private companies, but I think a reasonable amount of it is very desirable. Volokh mentions that one of the benefits of free speech is that we get to hear his opinions. Wouldn't I also want to hear his opinions if he worked for a private company, even if producing such opinions was not a mandate of the company? Wouldn't he want to express his opinions, even if he worked for a private company? So the right of employees to express opinions without reprisals is, by and large, desirable for the public good.

If I work as a software engineer, shouldn't we hope that my employer allows me to express my opinions on my own time? What if my co-workers want me fired because of my politics, even if the politics don't interfere with my work? What if the customers I deal with state that they want me fired because of the abhorrent ideas I've just written, even though we've gotten along fine before? What if, instead, these people have no objection to my politics, but can't accept my race or religion? These aren't easy questions, but I think my employer should try to convince my co-workers and customers to be reasonable and professional in their dealings with me.

There is one class of employee that I think should be given relatively little freedom of speech by his employer. I am referring, of course, to journalists. After all, the freedom of speech of the employer is central to the enterprise, and he must be allowed to choose journalists who will not, on their own time or in their work time, speak in a way that is too inconsistent with the goals of the newspaper. If I hire journalists to be "objective", I don't want them to express insane opinions and beliefs even on their own time, for then my readers wouldn't trust them. If I want my newspaper to be a warm x-ist cocoon, I wouldn't trust my journalists if they went around speaking ideas of their own, and it would disturb my readers as well.

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