Saturday, March 25, 2017

A Strange Kind of Liberty

Six professors at Wellesley College, members of an entity with the daunting title of "The Commission on Race, Ethnicity and Equity", recently sent to other members of the faculty at that college an email which has made the news.  As one might expect from a body so named, the email is in the nature of a pronouncement, but is in the guise of a recommendation, that recommendation being that certain kinds of people not be invited to speak at Wellesley.  Also as one might expect from members of such a commission, the email's closing salutation is "in solidarity."

Wellesley's mission, according to its Web Site, is "[t]o provide an excellent liberal arts education to women who will make a difference in the world."

The email is peculiar in several respects, but most of all I think in its use of the word "liberty."  The members of the Commission were apparently induced to issue it because within recent years speakers professing "controversial and objectionable beliefs" were invited to the college.  The members of the Commission are careful to say that they--of course--defend free speech and believe it essential to a liberal arts education,   However, they note that as noted by a historian, the "enlightenment principles" underlying free speech prescribe that the limits of one's liberty begin when it imposes on the liberty of another."  The Commission then declares: "There is no doubt that the speakers in question impose upon the liberty of students, staff and faculty at Wellesley."

For me, the fact that professors at an institution like Wellesley refer, with apparent approval, to enlightenment principles is something of a surprise in itself.  I may be misinformed, but I was under the impression the Enlightenment is disapproved as being too European, imperialist; too committed to an unsupported and detrimental regard for what was and still is considered to be science and reason.

But I digress.  I wonder, primarily, just what liberty of (evidently) everyone at Wellesley was, without doubt, imposed upon by speakers holding controversial and objectionable beliefs.  Regrettably, the members of the Commission are not clear just what the liberty is, or how it is being restricted.  Reference is made to students who feel "the injury" most acutely and "invest time and energy in rebutting the speakers' arguments."  Is their liberty imposed upon because they feel injured?  Or, is their liberty imposed upon because they devote time and energy to rebutting arguments; time and energy which could have been devoted to some other activity, or restful inactivity?

My guess is that the members of the Commission think liberty is being imposed on because of the former.  They reference in various ways the distress of students, and harm to them, several times in the email after their declaration regarding the clearly offended liberty of all at Wellesley, so I don't know what else they could intend.  So, the pertinent question would seem to be--is the liberty of a person "imposed on" when they feel disturbed or offended ("harmed") by the fact certain people say certain things?

"Liberty" is defined as consisting of freedom, i.e. the freedom to do or say what one pleases, the freedom to choose.  A person's liberty is infringed when that person's freedom to do something or other is restricted unduly.  Arguably, a person feels disturbed or distressed when he/she isn't free, but that feeling isn't itself the state of being unfree anymore than pleasure is the state of being free.  I don't have liberty because I feel good nor am I lacking it when I feel bad.  I feel distressed when I'm insulted, but that doesn't mean my liberty has been taken away or infringed upon.

This strikes me as fairly obvious.  Did the members of the Commission actually mean, instead, that liberty was being imposed upon because the students felt called upon to rebut the objectionable speakers, or somehow had a duty to do so?  I think when someone is actually compelled to do something we can say that he/she had no choice, and so wasn't "at liberty" to do otherwise.  But if one's liberty is imposed on whenever one rebuts a claim or argument, it is imposed on whenever there is disagreement, or strong disagreement, and I don't think we use the word "liberty" in that manner.  Besides, isn't time and energy invested in rebutting an incorrect concept or idea time well spent, especially (even?) in the halls of the Academy?  Regardless, I think the professors of the Commission are using "liberty" in a most unusual, artificial manner.  Which is to say that they use it inappropriately.

I think they do so because they understand that their "recommendation" will be taken to be a recommendation to restrict free speech on a college campus, and understand also that it is such a recommendation.  They could, of course, claim that free speech should be restricted in order to avoid students being harmed, or disturbed, or distressed, but would rather not say that. 

The quote from J.S. Mill I inserted at the beginning of this post should be familiar to most academics, and probably is familiar to the members of the Commission.  They're also no doubt familiar with something else he wrote, to the effect that we should be free to do as we wish provided we cause no harm, i.e. that our liberty is permitted to the extent that it doesn't infringe on the liberty of another; that is where they began in their email.  But it's clear that Mill didn't think, with them, that speech should be silenced when it is disturbing.

Silencing speech is clearly a limitation of freedom.  Preventing someone from speaking imposes upon that person's liberty.  Hearing someone speaking doesn't impose upon the liberty of the listener, though, nor does hearing of someone speaking or having said something objectionable or controversial in any normal sense of the word.

The Commission and those who share the opinions of its members must resign themselves to the fact that much as they may support free speech, they seek to prevent it in certain circumstances.  The more honorable course would be for them to admit this and maintain that certain speech should not be permitted.  That, of course, is not an easy claim to make or defend, but that is the actual claim being made, today, by some of those involved in higher education. 

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