Are rational speech standards to combat bigotry on campses such a bad thing?

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When American university and college students try to deny “free speech” platforms to arch-conservative opinion leaders they consider dangerous purveyors of bigotry, or just shout them down, right-wing complaints of suppression are swift and virulent.

The constant trope is that American higher education institutions are controlled by “woke,” “liberal” academics and students who want to disallow contrary free speech because their own opposing arguments are weak.

But what are they actually trying to shut down? Speech like yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater? And are the arguments against such speech weak?

Disinviting a classics professor

Consider this case: In 2019, Canada’s research-intensive Concordia College (French: Université Concordia), located in Montreal, invited conservative Harvard (Massachusetts) University government and classics professor Harvey Mansfield to give the spring commencement address, an invitation that was later rescinded by Concordia.

Mansfield wrote in an April 2019 Wall Street Journal op-ed that 12 high-profile alumni demanded he be disinvited because of his “‘scholarly and public corpus … [which] heavily traffics in damaging and discredited philosophies of gender and culture.’ Promoting ‘the primacy of masculinity,’ apparently a reference to my book ‘Manliness,’ attracted their ire. Though I was to speak on great books, not gender, this ‘trafficking’—as if in harmful drugs—disqualified me without any need to specify further. Such sloppy, inaccurate accusation was enough to move a covey of professors to flutter in alarm.”

Mansfield argues that efforts in Western society to equalize the status of men and women are doomed to failure.

Kevin Horrigan, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, in a review of Harvey Mansfield’s masculinity polemic “Manliness

Although this particular disinvitation involves a Canadian university, not an American one, similar oppression of speech hasfrequently occurred in recent years at higher education institutions across the U.S. Here’s a link to a list from Business Insider of speakers disinvited or shouted down during their speech during 2015-2016, and the validity of their justifications case-by-case is mixed. But it shows the contours of the grievances driving the trend.

An article in Reason lamenting Mansfield’s disinvitation, contends:

“Mansfield is a political conservative, and his views on gender reflect his conservative outlook. No doubt many people would disagree with them—especially those on the hyper-woke left, whose gender-related opinions are not shared by the vast majority of the population. If this means that Mansfield should be denied a platform, then no one who has ever expressed a problematic opinion on any matter would be deemed fit to speak on campus.”

This sounds like a reasonable academic free-speech argument, but it’s moot.

Would inviting a violence-preaching theocrat be OK?

Consider, for example, if a university learned one of its invited speakers planned to speak on the need for violent insurrection to establish a Christian theocracy in a secular democracy (White Christian nationalists are actually plotting this as we read, and have been for decades). Certainly, calling for a theocracy, although such a religio-political system would be patently un-American and unconstitutional in our country, should be an acceptable topic in university speeches. The incitement to violence is what’s problematic and, thus, could be justifiably oppressed by any university.

So, should all speech be freely allowed anyplace anywhere? I suggest the rational answer is, “no.” It should be case by case.

What about the dustup over professor Mansfield’s ill-fated invitation? How should a university view a speaker insulting and potentially traumatizing its likely many LGBTQ students, whose lifestyles are diametrically opposed to the professor’s untethered belief in the “primacy of manliness.” The toxic, paternalistic view of masculinity today is anathema in much of the country, which has in a few short years codified legal, constitutional protections for LGBTQ Americans, who have for centuries been ostracized, persecuted, and traumatized by fallible biblical precepts that still undergird American culture.

For one thing, Mansfield’s views are not fact-based. His is a reactionary, even primitive, ideology that was debunked and out-of-date even before he wrote it.

‘Who’s the Man’ review trashes Mansfield polemic

A New York Times review by Walter Kirn of Mansfield’s book, Manliness (2006), portrays the professor’s views as an anachronism, a throwback to more chauvinistic times when John Wayne was the machismo king. The review is cheekily titled: “Who’s the man?” Kirn wrote:

[T]his Harvard professor of government and the author of ‘Manliness’ (yep), a new polemic about the nature and value of masculinity, shows little awareness of much that’s happened recently — televisually and otherwise — in the allegedly feminized culture that he aims to shake up. Like Austin Powers (who, come to think of it, made even more fun of ‘manly’ than Hans and Franz), Mansfield seems stuck in a semantic time warp in which it is still possible to write sentences like ‘Though it’s clear that women can be manly, it’s just as clear that they are not as manly or as often manly as men. …’

In just which far-off galaxy has Mansfield set up his telescope to scrutinize the doings of us earthlings? Or, if he dwells among us, when was the last time he left the faculty club?

Mansfield’s salient point in Manliness is that men and women are “innately different,” to which Kirn adds, “in exactly the ways people always thought they were before they did any thinking on the subject.”

Set in amber, in other words. Before, in contemporary America, Colorado elected an unabashedly gay governor and welcomed his partner, the First Gentleman, to the governor’s mansion. And before the nation broadly accepted same-sex parents and their raising of children.

Another review of Manliness, this one by Kevin Horrigan in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, summarized Mansfield’s views:

“Mansfield argues that efforts in Western society to equalize the status of men and women are doomed to failure.”

See what I mean? Primitive.

Patriarchal chauvinism a form of bigotry

Such intractable, controlling chauvinism despite foundational changes in society is a form of bigotry (like promoting racism), and the question is, why should a university accommodate bigotry being spoon-fed to its students? Note, same-sex marriage wasn’t enshrined in U.S. constitutional law until the Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, years before Mansfield’s book came up. He was still trying to speak to students about the dangers of gender fluidity in 2019.

What’s the educational purpose of invoking free speech to allow ideas spread to students that the courts have already ruled are the equivalent of disinformation? Charles Bronson-style masculinity in American culture, in fact, is no longer de rigueur, so insisting that it still is should be viewed as a kind of lie, particularly when these ideas are often so traumatizing, demeaning, and socially isolating to so many Americans.

on the other hand
ON THE OTHER HAND | Curated contrary opinions

Phil Zuckerman, The atheist case for free speech

So, in the Concordia situation—which has played in various forms all over America and Canada— the net result of disinviting professor Mansfield was to shield students from ideas that had already been rejected as legally unjustifiable by the highest U.S. court. That ruling disallowed sexual bigotry.

Is the solution to bad speech more speech?

Certainly, people may argue, as they are wont, that free speech is sacred and that the way to combat bad speech is with more speech, etc., but the last part is clearly nonsense. The secret to Donald Trump’s success is that his lies whipped objective truth every day of the week because, if people establish an emotional connection to someone, they’ll follow him (or her) anywhere, even an amoral, pussy-grabbing, malevolent narcissist. Hang the truth (or Mike Pence).

So, like America’s sacred gun rights under the Second Amendment and free-speech rights under the First, personal responsibility and reason should ideally attend both.

A good case can be made that professor Mansfield’s anachronistic, chauvinistic fantasies should not be fed to students with a university’s explicit endorsement. What’s the benefit? Was free speech a casualty when he was rebuffed, or was misogynist bigotry? Did Germany’s criminalization of Holocaust denial after World War II damage free speech or protect against dangerous mendacity?

Parallels between free speech and gun rights

In the same vein, gun rights should be attended by common sense and personal responsibility far more than they have been to date, but that may be changing.

The prosecutor in Oxford County, Michigan, on December 3 filed involuntary manslaughter charges against the parents of the 15-year-old sophomore who killed four fellow students and wounded seven others at his high school in an abrupt rampage that week. The prosecutor said the handgun the boy used was purchased for him by his parents as a Christmas present, and they declined to respond when first notified by his school’s authorities that their child was exhibiting concerning behaviors.

Just as Americans should be held responsible for keeping their firearms secured from unsafe use, particularly by children, they should also be responsible for the truth, or not, that comes out of their mouths.

In the “fake news” era, it’s becoming increasingly clear that unbridled free speech—no matter how much of it is available, no matter how supposedly sacred it is in an American context— cannot counter its often uber-destructive effects. Our democracy is under existential assault now because of it, after all. Donald Truck is the anti-Christ of free speech.

How we control guns and speech should be situational and based on common sense, not carte blanch rules based on a document several hundred years old that has proven infuriatingly hard to amend. Or make the Constitution easier to amend; keeping it hidebound is only helping arch-conservatives like Harvey Mansfield—and Trump—spread harmful nonsense.

Keep in mind that many, many people have died and been harmed unnecessarily—the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, the Oxford school shooting, Covid-19, etc.—due to irrational over-reliance on old concepts and new flim-flam. So, I ask again, is free speech a casualty on campuses, or is bigotry?

And don’t get me started on the Bible.

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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...