The Banality of Campus Speech Controversies

We may be reaching peak meltdown in the current campus “free speech” conflagration. The political correctness / free speech crisis has been a manufactured trope of the conservative right for decades, certainly dating back to the swirl surrounding Allen Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind and Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education nearly three decades ago. But the crescendo of conservative consternation in the age of Trump and Twitter is laughably hyper-inflated and transparently staged.

For sure, the current political environment has surfaced campus hot spots that deserve scrutiny and introspection. In particular, the odd behavioral dynamics that can characterize (barely) post-adolescent populations sequestered within (essentially) closed communities have made problematic the vagaries of institutional control, due process, and proportional response when it comes to student (and faculty) misconduct cases – sexual and otherwise.

But the attention given recent challenges at Berkeley and Middlebury to the free speech “rights” of provocative speakers – Milo Yiannopoulos and Charles Murray – is beyond ludicrous. Let’s consider the facts of these cases; the definitional haze extending beyond these facts; the identities of those manipulating and distorting and generally mangling these facts to trigger maximal emotional fallout; and the reality obscured by this fallout.

Facts

Speaker smackdowns on college campuses are exceedingly rare. While the Berkeley and Middlebury incidents were unfortunate, they were also each sui generis moments that bore little resemblance to each other and that provide no serious basis for generalization except for those who already know how they will fit the data into their political map of the world. Generally speaking (so to speak), invited speakers can say whatever it is they have to say without disruption or controversy.

Milo Yiannapoulos is a professional agitator and attention whore with nothing of substance or interest to say to anyone who cares about ideas, truth, problem-solving or other lofty goals associated with a liberal education. Milo arrived at Berkeley hoping and assuming that mayhem would ensue. The shit show he ignited perfectly fits the definition of shouting fire in a crowded theater. Those organizing his appearance always intended for it to end before it started – with a stampede.

As for the Middlebury incident, the Charles Murray debacle (and it was definitely an unfortunate and unnecessary debacle) involved an aging and prolix policy wonk who surely does occupy the world of ideas, no matter how deranged and twisted they might seem to most people. Murray presumably wanted to be heard and deserved to be heard. But given the manifold differences that separate them, there is no possible universe in which Milo Yiannapoulos and Charles Murray would appear together on the same stage.

Haze

Yes, protesting students (and non-students) at Berkeley and Middlebury could not have more stupidly (and perfectly) conformed to the narrative envisioned by campus conservatives (and their sponsors). The students were not wrong to protest; they simply would have been far more successful in achieving their goals (to the degree they could identify their goals) with a less is more strategy.

At Middlebury, for example, the image of student protesters simply standing (or sitting) silently with their backs to Charles Murray would have been incredibly effective theater. Unfortunately, when students turned their backs and shouted down Murray, they didn’t undermine Murray and his ideas. The students merely undermined themselves.

But given the inflected spatial and emotional boundaries of college and university campuses, important questions arise that stand in the way of immediate judgment or generalization.

  • Many of the protesters at both venues were not enrolled students. Are the campuses public spaces or private spaces?
  • College students, generally, are young and boisterous. In these liminally uncertain protest environments, do we consider these students impulsive and emotionally challenged adolescents or fully realized and responsible adults?
  • Education can be (and should be) a many-splendored thing that activates and places at risk the entire person, not just an abstracted concept of mind. Are student actions and reactions in these liminal settings and situations part of an ongoing learning experience that requires some (hopefully controlled or limited) acts of stupidity that produce more sublime moments of self-awareness and self-correction? Or are these students notionally fixed and predetermined agents entirely in command of their actions and so entirely responsible for the consequences of those actions?

The haze of hysteria surrounding these specific events conceals from us a simple truth. The issues at stake in these manufactured narratives have little to do with free speech, political correctness, marginalized and enfeebled conservative viewpoints, and the collapse of western civilization, and everything to do with how campuses encourage students to think about and explore the interplay between freedom and license, judgment and tolerance, and words and deeds. A hugely important matter left hanging concerns the proper role of college and university administrations in managing and framing and adjudicating these fraught situations – how schools can imagine such moments as opportunities, not threats.

Identities

The conservative victim narrative is also laughable. As Jane Mayer and others have fully disclosed, massive amounts of private money exist to support conservative causes, spotlight their ideas, and hail their champions. Most college administrations will take money from anyone with deep pockets, and the most prestigious and wealthiest (and most “liberal”) institutions have been hollowed out and privatized from within through the infusion of conservative cash to support largely unaccountable intellectual “beachheads” on behalf of free market and culture warrior agendas.

Are relatively few students politically or culturally conservative? Perhaps. But that does not mean that an unbridled “liberal” or “progressive” or “communist” radicalism sweeps the halls of higher education. Of course, more indifference or opposition to economic or cultural conservatism will exist at elite universities and liberal arts colleges (e.g., Harvard, Oberlin) than at schools with a strong regional or religious or vocational identity (e.g., University of Alabama, Brigham Young, Drexel University). But most students do not deeply understand or care about abstract debates concerning and contesting lofty ideals. Most students are not, and do not want to be, social justice warriors.

Reality

The daily rhythm and reality on nearly every college and university campus is incredibly prosaic and pedestrian. Millions of students go to class, study in libraries, write papers, take tests. They are not at college to change the world. They are at college to detect or divine or deduce – partially and haltingly – their own identity and their own future, which they ponder and conjure with anticipation, excitement, anxiety, and doubt.

The controversies surrounding matters of intellectual freedom on college campuses can take on a life of their own because these semi-closed environments are generally so institutionally self-referential and disconnected from their surrounding communities. Because education is largely about words and language, colleges and universities tend to be discourse communities, not actual communities. So of course words and language matter, and deserve to be taken seriously.

But “taken seriously” does not mean everything must be politicized and adjudicated and litigated. Is language and diction unnecessarily fraught in the classroom? Do professors or students spend too much time worrying about topical minefields or hazards of word choice? I’m not sure anyone knows. But we might do well to de-escalate and de-politicize the conversation about these important (and interesting!) matters.

The reality is that campuses are contingent and liminal places because their populations are unformed, peripatetic, and transient. Students come and go. The (tenured) faculty and administration abide. The institutions themselves must do a much better job of conceptualizing how the education mission can accommodate and make productive use of the developmental and identity dramas that inform student life and student consciousness. The best way to accomplish these goals might be to consider students not as discrete, self-contained, fixed moral entities, but as works in progress.

The Mugging of Richard Sherman: Fox News, Free Speech, and the New Racism

In February, the Seattle Seahawks annihilated the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII, an outcome decisive, complete, without reproach, and — given the leadership of Scripture-spouting nerd quarterback Russell Wilson — virtually providential.

More than anyone else on the Seahawks, the victory belonged to the team’s All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman, for this triumph redeemed not merely Richard Sherman, “talented football player”, but perhaps even more, Richard Sherman, “freewheeling, trash-talking, truth-seeking, life-affirming human being.”

Joe Namath, who rashly guaranteed victory in Super Bowl III, tossed the coin at the beginning of Super Bowl XLVIII. So fitting, because Richard Sherman, more than any player since Namath, 45 years earlier, staked both his professional and his personal reputation on the outcome of the Super Bowl.

The reputational stakes matter. Had the Seahawks not prevailed over Denver, the Sherman story would likely have taken a darker turn, as high stakes gambles that fail often do. To better understand how much of a turn, and how dark, we must unspool a larger and more sordid story, one in which national media outlets such as Fox News and ESPN commit to dubious journalistic practices that encourage race-baiting and that actively and systematically corrupt the meaning and impact of free speech.

A Short Disquisition on Free Speech

Free (or independent) speech is the foundation precept of democracy and the enabling condition for human dignity. It is the ultimate human right. In a world where many nations severely limit freedom of expression, it is incumbent on Americans to fiercely defend the right to free speech.

At the same time, we must recognize that free speech (understood as expressive freedom) differs greatly from speech that is merely “free” (understood as the absence of transaction costs, intellectual effort, and community standards). Free speech is a positive good. “Free” speech is simply the absence of restraint.

The Internet, imagined as communications pipe that vastly shrinks the transaction costs of speech, has served us well as a “speech utility”. However, “utility” is not utopia. The benefits of easy access to Internet chat rooms and comment threads are self-evident. In the past decade, however, the frenzy to eliminate speech transaction costs on behalf of a cynically flawed, business-driven concept of “community” has permitted a serpent to slip into this garden.

Enter any of these online communities — particularly on any subject that involves President Obama, the federal government, taxes, global warming, health care, or race relations — and consider whether you may not have been deviously transported to the Eden that provides the setting for Lord of the Flies. Far from experiencing communion, on these comment threads you encounter hailstorms of cheap, empty, incendiary, malicious, and craven speech, not always and not inevitably, but sufficiently often and with enough predictability that one quickly forgets that speech was ever anything but acid-tipped shards and fragments of thought.

In this online vortex, the governing rule of engagement seem to be “stand your ground” and “ready, fire, aim.” Lacking a shared and committed and enforced awareness of what constitutes “community” online, we instinctively assume a combat stance.

Anonymity is clearly part of the problem. In the absence of any expectation of transparency or accountability, there is really nothing to prevent us from acting on our worst impulses. The effect, as we know, has been to drive Americans further apart, into solipsistic echo chambers of ill repute.

When speech is easy, slick, shallow, rote, insincere, or unkind, we debase our words, we debase ourselves, and we debase our democracy. We cannot afford to confuse this sort of speech with the independent speech that both secures and affirms our civic and personal freedom. Indeed, “free” speech and independent speech must fight to the death, and only one can prevail.

Richard Sherman. Better at Life.

In October 2012, most Americans learned about Richard Sherman for the first time, when in a Sunday Night Football game between Seattle and the New England Patriots, Sherman picked off Tom Brady and then taunted Brady after the game ended with the now-famous Tweet, “U mad bro?”

In March 2013, Sherman once again blew up the Internet when, smarting from Skip Bayless remarks about his limitations as a player, he told Bayless on ESPN First Take that “in my 24 years of life, I’m better at life than you.”

Sherman’s media profile rose enormously after the First Take episode, not merely because he is telegenic, confident, and articulate, but because unlike most professional athletes he has refused to separate (or has simply not been capable of separating) his professional identity from his personal identity. More to the point, he has refused to distance either his professional or his personal identity from an emerging commitment to serve as an emissary for his community.

  • Is Richard Sherman a black man? Then how can he be so articulate and intelligent?
  •  Richard Sherman a good man? Then how can he be so gangster and thuggish?
  • Is Richard Sherman a team player? Then why won’t he shut up?

As one journalist wrote, Richard Sherman chirps at the media like a modern-day Muhammad Ali. He is a meme machine, Not surprisingly, Sherman’s audacity, particularly when amplified by the emotion surrounding professional football, has enormously irritated many Americans who just don’t know what to make of him.

Of course, these are precisely the questions that Richard Sherman wants us to ask, the point of his mission being to discomfort, disrupt, and shift our perspective on what it means to be young and black and male in the United States in the early part of the 21st century. What he’s saying is “I’m here. I’ve made it. I deserve what I’ve achieved. I don’t need to change. But if you have difficulty accepting me, than perhaps it is you who needs to change.”

In 2013, Richard Sherman claimed the spotlight, and forced us to look at him not just as a football player, but as a man. Black, dreadlocked, and tall, yes. But also a kid from Compton who rose far beyond the expectations of American society for kids who match his profile, and who can claim, in his 25 years, to have fully realized his potential. In other words, Richard Sherman is great at life. How can we ask anything more of him?

By forcing us to look at him, understand him, and accept him on his terms, Richard Sherman also has required us to look at, understand, and accept the community that birthed and raised him. The bottom line for Richard Sherman is that in the United States young, black, males are like a Rorschach ink blot. Whether we, as a nation, see “potential” in this Rorschach both illuminates the fault lines that divide us and discloses where we can build bridges that unite us.

Foxhole of Fear and Loathing

This brings us to Fox Nationa digital arm of Fox News devoted to capturing the raw, authentic popular voice, our native soundtrack, as it were.

In its Statement of PurposeFox Nation extends an invitation to all of us, with commitments to tolerance, mutual respect, open debate, civil discourse, and freedom of thought, expression, and worship. Terrific! Sounds to me like a summons to a kind of national high tea, or an NPR “conversation,” cool and refined and sublime. I’m on board!

Except Fox Nation blatantly is not (fair and balanced), does not (embrace all of us), and will not (commit to tolerance, mutual respect, open debate, civil discourse, and freedom of thought, expression, and worship). Instead, with Orwellian cynicism, Fox Nation invites us into a black hole of national fear and loathing.

Fox Nation lives on and lives for troll-bait. And race-bait. Which its managers know can reliably dog-whistle the misbegotten, the misinformed, and the intellectually malnourished to a trough of despair, from which Fox benefits both financially and politically.

And this is the problem. At the end of the day, online “conversation” and “commentary” and “community” on Fox Nation and on far too many other digital news platforms, is about little more than mouse clicks, the cheap high of canned cat food, the meth wheeze of suffering that knows no name.

The Mugging of Richard Sherman

Let’s backtrack. In March 2013, Richard Sherman “takes down” Skip Bayless. In reality, if you watch the video, what one really sees is an uncertain, tentative 24-year old man who has entered the den of the dragon at ESPN to deliver a message to one of the more powerful, if reviled, sports media celebrities in the nation. With Stephen A. Smith writhing on the monitor to the far left of the television screen, and with Skip Bayless acting like, well, Skip Bayless, Richard Sherman, in the heat of battle, must have wondered who was taking down whom.

Nonetheless. The Internet blows up. Richard Sherman acquires infamy. And the next day, USA Today publishes “Richard Sherman blasts Skip Bayless on First Take”, a short piece on the Sherman-Bayless spat that pulls out some of Sherman’s tastier “money quotes”.

Hilarity ensues. Over the next few days, the USA Today article receives 176 reader comments, most of which are thoughtful and/or light-hearted. By March 9, the Sherman-Bayless controversy fades from the news. Everyone moves on. Except for Fox Nation.

… Time Passes …

On January 19, 2014, Richard Sherman tips away a Colin Kaepernick floater that allows the Seattle Seahawks to defeat the San Francisco 49ers to win the NFC championship and earn the opportunity to play the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. As the game ends, Richard Sherman, overcome by emotion, goes off on 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree while being interviewed by Erin Andrews in front of the entire world. The Internet blows up again. Richard Sherman acquires even more infamy.

Fox Nation Gets Ornery

Here’s where the story begins its descent. On January 20, 2014 (as it happens, the federal holiday for the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.), Fox Nation publishes a selectively edited digest of the March 7, 2013 USA Today article, without identifying the story’s dateline, leading many readers to assume the Sherman-Bayless interview occurred after the NFC playoff game with San Francisco, not ten months earlier.

Hilarity does not ensue. Over the next four days, Fox Nation republication of the USA Today story receives 170 reader comments, most of which are misinformed, crude, angry, racist and/or unintelligible.

Let’s roll the Fox Nation “conversation” tape (not edited for grammar, syntax, spelling, nor for consumption by children).

  • You can take the boy out of the ghetto and EVEN send him to Stanford BUT you can’t take the ghetto out of the boy!!!
  • And then they wonder why some of them are called what they are called . This is the proof .
  • Wish some of that would rub off on the rest of his race.
  • Gee, not another hyper-esteemed angry balack man.
  • $400.00 for Rosetta Stone is a bit much for a copy of “Ebonics”
  • Thanks manyou just proved to a large percentage of us what we thought all along. Black football players are just street thugs in shoulder pads. Slime.
  • This nut played a minor roll in Planet of the Apes.
  • New body guard for the Black House in DC..
  • If Obama had a football playing son.. he would be just like Sherman!
  • He gets his arrogance from Obama.
  • Arrogant, hateful, and just really disgusting human being.
  • I remember a boxer that talked like that, and he is part brain dead today……….. good luck with that jive talk now, because you can be half brain dead too Richard!
  • Did you expect anything different from a blaaaaaaak football player he’s another OJ waiting to happen .
  • Richard Sherman is an animal. Nothing more.
  • I think Rodman spoke a lot like this in the past as well. And then, one day, they wake up singing happy birthday to a murderous dictator.
  • Just another delusional, self appointed, egotistical hood rat! Can’t wait to see him break a leg and have no where to go on his uneducated pass from Stanford….you reap what you sow!

Heading into the Super Bowl, it’s now clear that many people in the United States took Richard Sherman personally. He had morphed into something raw that stuck oddly in their craw, indigestible, not quite choking, but certainly neither pleasant nor comfortable. In days that followed the NFC Championship game, sentiment did shift back towards some semblance of rationality and balance, and in the end Richard Sherman played an important, but not outsized, role in the Seahawk’s Super Bowl victory.

And so Richard Sherman did silence his critics, and truly his capacity to walk the talk may well have silenced them indefinitely. But the fact remains that had the Seahawks not prevailed against the Broncos, the trolls would have come hunting for Richard Sherman. No physical mugging, perhaps, but certainly a hungry, persistent claim upon his spirit and soul, retribution for not following the unspoken rules of the race game, for not being sufficiently grateful, sufficiently humble, sufficiently ignorant, sufficiently safe.

In the aftermath, we must wonder why, more than 150 years since the American Civil War, we continue to labor under illusions and misconceptions and prejudices and fears that illustrate the degree to which socially constructed racial categories still rub raw our psychic wounds.

And, too, we must wonder about the unmediated or disintermediated structure of our discourse, the degree to which open online publishing and illusions of digital anonymity tap deeply into the fear centers of our brain, a persistent amygdalic hijack inflamed by coded words and images, a pervasive and journalistically devastating reduction of thought, conversation, ideas, and truth — the constituents of our social coherence — to a mere slurry of tokens, memes, verbal discharge that resembles sewage more than it does considered speech.

Finally, and probably most importantly, we must consider institutional culpability, the degree to which Fox Nation, along with many other media websites, knowingly and with exquisite calculation, leverages the social psychology of fear (savagely so, given their “media” credentials) by actively dismantling community standards and civic obligations, the mechanisms we have traditionally used to “mediate” speech and to anchor it in a shared belief that empirical truth and spiritual awareness remain aspirations, loftier and more elusive than opinion and emotion perhaps, but still barely within our reach, and predicated on the social trust that collective pursuit of knowledge requires.

Can Free Speech Survive “Free” Speech?

In what way does eliciting and encouraging this version of the vox populieven under the guise of promoting “free” speech — serve any purpose beyond the embellishment of dark emotion and the destruction of civil society?

Fox Nation’s misleading and incendiary republication of a fragment of the USA Today story only encouraged the haters, people who would casually and anonymously make statements to Richard Sherman hyper-esteemed angry balack man that they would never directly say to Richard Sherman human being.

So let’s make speech truly “free”, as in “without cost”, as in “loose and licentious and profligate”, as it is on the Fox Nation comment threads. And this is where we will inevitably land, in a boisterously uncivil, angry, belligerent society.

How do these rage-filled online expletives differ from road rage? Would we allow them on our streets? Would we allow them in our classrooms? Would we allow them in our churches? Would we allow them in NFL stadiums?

But what if speech were not “free”? What if it were not so easy for people to debase and embarrass themselves? What if we all had to work even a little bit hard to fashion and explode Internet hate bombs?

Here I’ll be charitable. One month out, six months out, how many of the folks “sounding off” about Richard Sherman in response to this half-baked article would be proud of what they had posted to the Fox Nation website? How many would stand by their words? How many actually would take these statements offline and repeat them directly to Richard Sherman the human person? Probably very few.

Anti-Free Speech Manifesto for the Digital Age

Setting aside the strange timing of the Fox republication of the USA Today article, and for the failure to make clear the Sherman-Bayless interview had occurred 10 months earlier, not after Sherman’s Erin Andrew rant, what accounts for the remarkably divergent tones of the USA Today and the Fox News comment threads? Well, we might start with what happens when a reader clicks on the Comment button on the USA Today website.

Before one can publish comments, USA Today requires anyone posting to an article’s comment thread to read the media compnay’s “Conversation Guidelines and FAQs” document, which establish clear standards of community conduct, “rules of the road” that actively forbid acts of online “road rage”. USA Today also encourages readers to report abusive or inappropriate content and reserves the right to suspend users and remove comments that violate the rules of the road. Finally, USA Today refers readers to its general Terms of Service (last updated September 23, 2013), which includes a section detailing the newspaper’s policy on user-generated content.

By contrast, Fox News does not offer or require engagement with any conversation guidelines. Moreover, by omission, the Fox News Terms of Service (not updated since May 7, 2010) pretty clearly communicates to its readers that there are no community standards, no conversational rules of the road.

Fox News actually states in its Terms that management exercises no control over user content, and that visitors to the site who post comments should not be surprised if they are the target of offensive, indecent, inaccurate or “otherwise objectionable” content. Moreover, Fox News assumes no responsibility or obligation for monitoring or removing posts that violate common standards of discourse. Fox expects little from its readers and receives less.

How would an influential news organization like Fox actually encourage truly democratic discourse, not empty, angry spewing. How about an Anti-Free Speech Manifesto for the Digital Age? With this Anti-Free Speech Manifesto, we might encourage Fox to lead its huddled, starving masses with their wisest self, not to their most cynical or most angry self.

For example, Fox might adopt the simple precepts below as the minimal conditions for posting comments on your website.

  • Require comments to be at least 100 words. This requirement elicits some minimal thought process and intellectual filtering, rather than impulsive eruptions of bile from our darkest places.
  • Require people to wait 24 hours before they can publish their comments. This mandate encourages people to cool their jets and forces them to reflect a bit on whether they really want to be responsible for the comments they are on the verge of posting.
  • Require people to register and post using their real names. This rule ensures that people “own” and take responsibility for their speech.

Speech should NOT be free. People need to take responsibility for their words as much as they do for their actions. Public speech, in particular, and in a democracy, should require an investment of time and thought, decency and generosity, wit and humor. Everything we don’t find in the meretricious “conversation” Fox Nation sponsored when it poached, pinched, and published the USA Today article about Richard Sherman’s Skip Bayless “takedown.”