TCS Daily

We Need More Speech Codes

By Douglas Kern - March 1, 2005 12:00 AM

Let us have more speech codes on college campuses -- many more. Let us have more detailed, carefully wrought Indices of Forbidden Opinions. Every institution of higher learning in the United States should present its incoming students with a list of all the beliefs that will lead to official disfavor.

It's not a matter of free speech. It's a matter of transparency.

The Larry Summers fiasco has taught us that, at Harvard University, faculty members are not permitted to believe in differences of intellectual capacity between the sexes. Do you suppose Larry Summers might have wanted to know that fact before presenting his now-infamous remarks? Similarly, it seems that comparing 9/11 victims to "little Eichmanns" is not the path to career success at the University of Colorado. But no one told Ward Churchill until it was too late. And for Ward Churchill, the criticism is especially cruel. Oh, how thin a line separates the good anti-American moon-battery that gets you a tenured sinecure from the bad anti-American moon-battery that gets you sacked!

Big academia promulgates the illusion of free speech while quietly enforcing the de facto reality of opinion censorship. It's the worst of both worlds.

Like every good baby conservative, I spent my college years inveighing against academic speech codes that canted the sphere of acceptable public discourse to the far left. Naively, I assumed that the abolition of speech codes would inaugurate a new era of open, civilized academic discourse, free from artificially imposed bias. Ah, the bitter folly of youth! There was nothing artificial about that bias. Ridiculous speech codes were a symptom of deranged ideology, not the cause.

So let's stop playing five-card socialist stud and start playing five-card Texas Cultural Hold'em. Let's pull our smelly little institutional orthodoxies out in the open. Hey, big academia: you don't like social conservatives? Don't want to tolerate anti-feminist opinions, or reactionaries who reject rights for gay couples, or Neanderthals who question Darwin? Fine -- but say so directly. And be prepared to accept the consequences from alumni, bloggers, and taxpayers. The same goes for conservative schools, or schools supported with tax money squeezed out of conservatives. Don't want the Ward Churchills of the world to promulgate crypto-Islamicism on your time and your dime? Okay, but have the guts to put that rule in writing.

I hasten to add that I have no problem in principle with smelly little orthodoxies. I hold to quite a few of them myself, and some orthodoxies aren't so smelly. Every thinking person embraces a host of biases and prejudices with which to sort through a confusing, contradictory world. But I accept my prejudices. I don't conceal them. Quite the contrary -- I hold them up for public display and judgment. My "speech codes" are a matter of public record. Can Harvard say the same?

Had Harvard told its faculty from the very start that belief in the equality of the sexes was non-negotiable, reasonable people might have asked some probing questions: Why can't faculty members hold that view? What harm could come from such an opinion? Why does the pro-equality crowd fear even the possibility of open discussion of the subject? Open, fully articulated rules can be discussed, and accepted or rejected on their merits. But what good comes from a "speech code" that hides the preferences of the school under an unconvincing veneer of free speech?

Big academia suffers from the same problem of bias that afflicts the mainstream media. It's fine to be overtly politicized, but when you hide your biases behind a posture of perfect, disinterested neutrality, you insulate your biases from critical scrutiny. Behold the debacle of Memogate. Would CBS have behaved so recklessly but for its irrational certainty that its left-wing biases were nothing more than tough, objective journalism? Having concealed its prejudices for so long that it even fooled itself, CBS was rendered helpless when those same prejudices consumed its professional judgment. Harvard and Colorado know that helplessness well.

Yet I suspect that many schools conceal their left-leaning preferences not because they secretly aspire to promote liberalism, but because they have no idea what they want to promote. For what reason do most colleges and universities exist? To secure good-paying jobs for their students? To perform advanced scientific research? To win college bowl games? Or to suck tuition money out of the pockets of middle-class parents? And why should a college do any of these things? The answer in most cases is "All of the above" and "I dunno." The only master purpose in big academia is self-perpetuation. And institutions propelled by inertia will inevitably reflect the inchoate biases and preferences of the faculty members and administrators who rise to the top of the academic heap. Political correctness in academia isn't a conspiracy. It's the excreta of intellectual bottom-feeders. Small stupid ideas occupy the space where big, inspiring ideas ought to be.

Admittedly, an explosion of detailed speech codes would reduce free speech on college campuses to some degree. But consider another definition of academic freedom: the freedom to explore complex ideas in a like-minded community. Such a freedom might impel politicized academics to greater honesty. For example: radical faculties must now expend their energies refuting (or, better still, suppressing) conservative beliefs and principles. And time spent bashing one's ideological opponents is time not spent in candid assessment of one's own ideological deficiencies. By contrast, a radical college that overtly excluded conservative thought would be a college whose members could explore radicalism with great intensity and purity of purpose. Might not such exploration lead to a more frank, insightful, and self-critical radicalism?

We accept that religious schools should be permitted to exclude non-believers and heretical ideas in order to further their religious goals. Why shouldn't secular philosophies and political beliefs enjoy a comparable privilege? Maybe it's worth allowing students and faculties to nestle in their comfortable ideological cocoons, if butterflies emerge from them in the spring.

Perhaps a liberal society requires illiberal education. Perhaps a true diversity of opinion can only be found among citizens who have been thoroughly immersed in a distinctive culture, an established set of ethical mores, and a well-articulated set of political beliefs. Is it possible that such an immersion requires certain ideas and beliefs to be favored over others at an institutional level?

If so, higher education shouldn't be a farrago of oh-so-inclusive schools handing out homogenized lessons in superficial tolerance and comparative ignorance. Perhaps we should prefer that students attend all kinds of unabashedly biased schools -- liberal, conservative, radical, reactionary, religious, secular. Upon graduation, let these students meet as citizens in the public sphere to share and debate the wisdom of the different traditions from whose wellsprings they have drunk deeply.

Regardless, it's time for academia to tell us where it stands. A speech code is a roadmap of an institution's most cherished principles; it sets forth those beliefs that community members must embrace. Many of those roadmaps lead to stupid places, and many more lead to nowhere in particular. But you need a map when planning a trip. So start cranking out the most detailed speech codes you can devise, academia. It may be worth a little oppression to squeeze some integrity and clarity out of you.

The author is a lawyer and TCS contributor.



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