Can We Talk?
Speech has never been free but it has also never been as costly as it is now
Posted Mar 21, 2015
Speech has never been free. It has always had costs. This is now more or less commonsense since most people agree there is no place for racial and gender slurs- like the "n-word" and the "c-word"- and that such speech creates a hostile environment for people from historically discriminated against groups.
But somewhere between commonsense and moral panic, there are a whole range of other speech acts- and that speech is now under attack. And quite honestly, I am unsure how to even talk about it because talking is not something we seem, as a culture, able to do anymore.
Whether it's Congress or the university, dialog seems so 20th century. In the blogosphere, dialog is reduced to call out culture. In the classroom, call out culture mixes with demands for trigger warnings as well as the discriminatory statements of historically privileged groups to create an atmosphere ripe with educational and political possibilities, but also one stagnant with fear and silencing.
A recent firestorm over Laura Kipnis symbolizes the minefield that has become talking. In a provocative essay called "Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe," Kipnis attacks sexual misconduct codes on campus as radically disempowering.
If this is feminism, it’s feminism hijacked by melodrama. The melodramatic imagination’s obsession with helpless victims and powerful predators is what’s shaping the conversation of the moment, to the detriment of those whose interests are supposedly being protected, namely students. The result? Students’ sense of vulnerability is skyrocketing.
Kipnis's controversial piece has produced a variety of responses, including some that are quite thougtful. But what worries me is the response of students and administrators at Kipnis's own university, Northwestern.
About thirty students marched with a mattress (something that has become a rallying symbol in sexual assault cases on campus) to demand that the Northwestern administration respond to Kipnis's piece. The students presented a petition
...call(ing) for a swift, official condemnation of the sentiments expressed by Professor Kipnis in her inflammatory article and we demand that in the future, this sort of response comes automatically.
According to the Daily Northwestern, administrators, including the Dean of Students Todd Adams,
joined the circle of students during the discussion. Adams said the University would 'absolutely consider the petition... I think it’s terrific that they’ve gotten together and decided they want their voice heard on this issue... I think that’s always been important … it’s tremendous and it’s good to see students continue having it at the forefront.'”
And that makes me sad because I fundamentally disagree with Kipnis and yet imagine that something like a conversation could come of it. But conversations cannot happen when protesters demand a university publicly censure someone for offensive opinions or when administrators describe that as worth considering.
The Kipnis contretemps is hardly an isolated incident. In fact, feminists keep getting called out for not being the right sort of feminists. As Suzanna Walters wrote in an earlier Chronicle piece:
This is, of course, not the first time that feminists have directed their resentment at other feminists. Indeed, feminism, in both its theoretical and its practical applications, is well known for vicious infighting. As early as 1976, the pioneer activist Jo Freeman wrote about... “trashing” or, as she put it, the “dark side of sisterhood.”
But in the current cultural climate, trashing/call out culture equates political action with performing the emotions of self-righteous anger.
As if this affective turn is not enough to destroy feminist politics, there has been a simultaneous embrace of the melodramatic. As Kipnis pointed out in her article, an article with which I mostly disagree, many college campuses have rejected more complex and humorous modes of story telling for the melodramatic sense of pure victimhood and pure villiany. The students at Northwestern who organized the march described Kipnis's essay in melodramatic fashion as "violence" and that is what we MUST TALK ABOUT.
Kipnis's essay wasn't violence; violence is violence. We have lost our way as a culture and as movement if we cannot make this distinction. The problem is that at many universities critiques of free speech are used to transform all speech that is potentially discriminatory as similar to hate speech and even violence.
I have sympathy with this impulse. There is a long standing feminist critique of the claim to "free speech" and it is a good one. As Catharine MacKinnon and others have argued, speech has costs especially when its expression is from a dominant class to justify the continued oppression of subordinate groups. In other words, speech is "free" when expressed between those who occupy similar positions in social structure, but since most speech is between people who do not have equal power and, more importantly, speech acts have a history (e.g. the "n-word"), we cannot act as if all speech is without costs.
But what has happened in academe and the culture at large is an absolute loss of economy of scale. Hate speech is confused with offensive speech. Offensive speech is confused with violence. And the only people who feel free to speak are those who are never called out. Not surprisingly the people least likely to be called out are those who are not the feminists, but rather the people who have historically benefitted from speech acts.
In other words, we cannot talk. We have lost our ability to speak with one another. Instead, we insist on silencing offensive or disturbing speech even as we do not have enough time to confront the much larger issues of hate speech and actual violence. We are too busy calling out people who are not the enemy for saying things with which we disagree. I hate to say it (because of the speech acts that will follow), but a politics of anger at other feminists is no politic at all.