Saturday, October 19, 2019

Ulrich Baer's "What Snowflakes Get Right"

Ulrich Baer was educated at Harvard and Yale and has been awarded John Simon Guggenheim, DAAD, Paul Getty, and Alexander von Humboldt Fellowships. He is University Professor at New York University, and has published, among other books, Remnants of Song: The Experience of Modernity in Charles Baudelaire and Paul Celan, Spectral Evidence: The Photography of Trauma, The Rilke Alphabet, 110 Stories: New York Writes After September 11 (editor), Beggar's Chicken: Stories from Shanghai, We Are But a Moment, and, as editor and translator, The Dark Interval: Rilke's Letters on Loss, Grief and Transformation, and Rainer Maria Rilke: Letters on Life (Modern Library). His podcast, Think About It, is devoted to in-depth conversations on powerful ideas, including freedom of speech, and language that changes the world.

Baer applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, What Snowflakes Get Right: Free Speech, Truth, and Equality on Campus, and reported the following:
From page 99:
An Unholy Alliance:

What Liberals and Conservatives Mean When They Defend Free Speech in the University
If it is a world you want, then strict justice is impossible. And if it is strict justice you want, then a world is impossible.
B’reshit Rabba (300–500 c.e.) 49: 20
In the many debates about free speech on college campuses, free speech absolutists from both sides of the political spectrum have united to defend a great American ideal. Both conservatives and progressives, from Fox News to New York magazine, and from neo-Nazis to The Atlantic Monthly, advocate absolute speech rights on campus against what they view as the encroachment of this right by overly sensitive students and censorious, timid administrators. Universities should be obligated to uphold this bedrock principle of American democracy at any cost, self-styled absolutists maintain, except when it incites imminent violence. In a period when the proverbial aisle between political factions seems like an unbridgeable chasm, it is reassuring that people of divergent political stripes rally around this foundational right, often viewed as the wellspring for all other liberties. Behind the apparent consensus, however, lurk two quite different conceptions of speech rights. In order to settle speech issues in universities in a coherent and consistent way, it is critical to understand the difference between these underlying principles.
Fortuitously, page 99 of What Snowflakes Get Right offers a great view of the book’s argument that both conservatives and liberals get something wrong when defending free speech as an absolute principle. Conservatives defend an idea of personal liberty and autonomy rooted in a belief that there is something like the soul or conscience which needs protection. Liberals defend an idea of reason as a principle which will inevitably lead to better outcomes, and the idea that tolerance will always defeat intolerance. This is an unholy alliance indeed, since conservatives and liberals both say “free speech is absolute” but don’t mean the same thing and also don’t want the same outcomes. The quote from Scripture tells us that absolute principles are incompatible with human existence (which is too complex, beautiful and infinite in its variety for a single explanation), even though we hope for such absolutes to guide our lives.

What Snowflakes Get Right explains how an absolutist position on free speech misunderstands the term “absolute” (it doesn’t mean it applies everywhere and in all cases but that it does not depend on other principles to be valid), how our courts consistently regulate speech they deem overly offensive and detrimental to various public goods (child pornography; libel; deliberate falsehood in advertising, etc. are all regulated), and how the speech debates on campus are not missed opportunities and unresolvable crises but teach us how to handle free speech in a democracy. They remind us that our democracy’s founding principle is equality, and that there is a way to balance speech and equality rather than set these two legal and moral principles on a collision course.

Ah yes, the book also exposes the fact that the current attacks on science and the truth go hand-in-hand with attacks on the university as politically correct, overly concerned with ‘feelings’ and run by hapless administrators beholden to out-of-control students. What's really being attacked in the speech crises is the role of the university as an arbiter of the truth that parallels the function of a free press in a democracy. We can now see that speech crises are generated in order to undermine the university rather than strengthen it.
Visit Ulrich Baer's website.

--Marshal Zeringue