I am both psyched and honored that Marc asked me to contribute to The Legal Satyricon. I am a First Amendment lawyer and president of FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Marc and I know each other through the First Amendment Lawyers Association, a group of bad-ass attorneys that have devoted their careers to defending the rights that make all other freedoms possible.
For my first post, I’d like to debut a great new interview I did earlier this year with author and Atlantic columnist (and FIRE Board of Advisors member) Wendy Kaminer. Wendy is a no-nonsense defender of civil liberties who shares a deep understanding of why campus censorship—the field in which I work—should concern everyone right, left, and center.
The interview includes discussion of everything from the rise of wildly broad bullying policies, to the role of pop psychology in leading to the campus-speech-codes movement, to how campus censorship interferes with opportunities for students to develop critical thinking skills (a point I hit repeatedly in my new book Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate. All royalties from the sale of the book go to FIRE, by the way).
I thought her point here was particularly interesting:
There is this trend towards protecting students from whatever is considered offensive or insulting or uncivil speech. And the consequence of that is that they get out into the world and they don’t know how to argue. I’m afraid we’re going to be plagued for a very long time by these mindless, stupid mindless shouting matches that now dominate our political debate.
You know, it’s one of the ironies of this drive for civility that when you label argument or any kind of offensiveness as incivility and you write all these civility codes and you discourage people from vigorously arguing or engaging in satire that makes fun of other people or makes fun of their sacred cows. The irony is that you end up encouraging incivility because people don’t know how to argue. They don’t know what to do when confronted with an idea they really don’t like. They don’t have an administrator they go complain to, and so they just shout it down because they haven’t learned how to do anything else.
Sing it, Wendy.
Both Wendy and I fully agree that civility, otherwise known as “politeness,” has some value, but it is nowhere near in value to the crucial role of debate, discussion, and candor in a free society. I think she is right when she says that attempts to force civility actually foster group polarization and what I call in my book, an unscholarly certainty about complex issues.
I encourage readers to check out Wendy’s recent column about a controversy at Harvard where, as is often the case in my experience, the campus interpreted an obvious piece of satire and social commentary to mean precisely the opposite of what it almost certainly meant (and don’t take my word for it, the experts over at Comedy Central agree, as well.
In closing, Marc suggested I just come out and ask that you support FIRE. No nonprofit works harder or gets more done with less than this little organization that punches way above its weight. Thanks again to Marc, have a happy new year, and I hope to write again after I get back from my long-delayed honeymoon in late January.
-Editor’s note – we put our money where our mouth is. I donated to FIRE this year. I urge you to as well.