In a recent opinion piece for The New York Times titled “What ‘Snowflakes’ Get Right About Free Speech,” New York University vice provost Ulrich Baer insinuated that the very concept of truth is a tool for oppression.
Baer’s underlying assumptions on the nature of truth are dangerously postmodern and threaten a more liberal understanding of free speech.
According to Baer, free speech “does not mean a blanket permission to say anything anybody thinks.” Instead, free speech is about balancing the “inherent value of a given view” with the participation of historically oppressed groups.
To accomplish the goal of furthering participation of oppressed groups, Baer rejects the “dichotomy between a younger generation’s oversensitivity and free speech as an absolute good that leads to the truth.” Instead, he adopts the position of philosopher Jean-François Lyotard.
Baer summarizes Lyotard’s view:
“Instead of defining freedom of expression as guaranteeing the robust debate from which the truth emerges, Lyotard focused on the asymmetry of different positions when personal experience is challenged by abstract arguments.”
Truth is subordinate to personal experience. Baer goes on to write that free speech must have parameters based the experience of oppressed groups.
“We would do better to focus on a more sophisticated understanding [of free speech], such as the one provided by Lyotard, of the necessary conditions for speech to be a common, public good. This requires the realization that in politics, the parameters of public speech must be continually redrawn to accommodate those who previously had no standing.”
Unfortunately, Baer’s commitment to Lyotard’s postmodernism means that levelling social groups’ relative power is more important than truth. In an age of fake news and alternative facts, that doesn’t seem helpful to any group.
Baer’s ideas have dire consequences for a pluralist society. Take for instance, the recent controversy at Claremont McKenna College, where Black Lives Matter protesters shut down the Manhattan Institute Scholar Heather MacDonald from speaking.
The BLM protest at Claremont McKenna is a perfect example of the consequences of a postmodern approach to speech. It involved a historically oppressed group, a contentious political issue over police brutality, and public speech.
The central question both BLM and MacDonald try to answer is as follows: Is there systematic oppression of black men by the police? BLM says yes. MacDonald says no, and that police brutality is episodic.
This is an incredibly important question. Before investigating to find a true answer, however, Baer would have everyone first consider the importance of personal experience and giving black men a voice. After all, they make up a historically oppressed group.
This is exactly what the BLM protestors at Claremont McKenna did. They asked themselves: How can we rectify the fact that black men have historically been silenced and oppressed—especially considering the debate of systemic racism in law enforcement?
Their chosen method of rectifying this asymmetry was to keep MacDonald from speaking by blocking off the auditorium.
Baer says that it’s not very hard to find the information MacDonald wanted to offer students. A quick Google search would do the trick. But that’s not the point. The postmodern approach to speech is authoritarianism cloaked in language of compassion.
Postmodernists’ reasoning is circular. To them, just questioning whether black men are systemically oppressed by the police is a form of oppression itself. Reality is whatever they say, and questions are only allowed if postmodernists are giving the answers.
The answer to postmodernism is liberalism. Liberalism (as originally understood) does not discriminate in its search for truth between the powerful and the oppressed. Powerful groups may use metanarratives to justify oppression in the past, but that doesn’t mean they always do. A collective condemnation of the powerful is unfair to the individuals who don’t act in concert with their social class.
Rather than focusing on groups, liberalism focuses on protecting the individual’s right to decimate his or her ideas, regardless of social status.
Postmodernists like Baer would seize the means of public discourse to rectify historic wrongs, sacrificing the rights of the individual. And what’s the point of seeking truth at all if they can just spoon-feed the answers?
While Baer’s explanation of free speech may sound elegant, he really just supplants truth and individual rights in favor of the collective mob. If Baer had his way, perhaps Google wouldn’t be so accommodating to the MacDonalds of the world.
And if not MacDonald, why anyone?