Review of Kirsten Powers, "The Silencing: How the Left Is Killing Free Speech"

tags: free speech

Luther Spoehr, an HNN book reviewer and Senior Lecturer at Brown University, teaches a course on the history of academic freedom.

Kirsten Powers’s The Silencing, written by a journalist often characterized as Fox News’ liberal-in-residence, is a mixed bag.  On the one hand, it piles up examples of contemporary intolerance like cordwood.  They come from politics, the media, and, perhaps most disturbingly, the university.  On the other hand, they are all chopped to the same length:  there is little nuance, little attempt to distinguish actual “silencing” from polemic, invective, and sheer noise.  Sometimes the stories are incomplete, with no mention of successful resistance to suppression. 

Powers starts by making a distinction (and correcting a misimpression created by the subtitle):  she is not talking about the “left,” she says, but about the “illiberal left,” the far end of the political spectrum that wants to suppress debate rather than engage in it.  Good point.  But it quickly gets lost in the rest of her book, as more often than not she refers only to “the left,”, including “lefty” pundits like Ed Schultz and liberal Democratic politicians.  And most of her stories from the public arena do not exemplify “silencing” so much as competitive shrieking.  For instance, in June 2014 George Will wrote a column about sexual assault on campus, sarcastically asserting that colleges and universities “make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges.” Polemical enough (and Powers doesn’t include that line in her summary of the column).  The “illiberal left” exploded. “By publishing George Will’s piece,” MoveOn.org fumed, “The Washington Post is amplifying some of the most insidious lies that perpetuate rape culture.  It’s not just wrong—it’s dangerous.  Tell The Washington Post:  ‘Rape is real.  No one wants to be a victim.  Fire George Will.’”  To her credit, Powers credits the Washington Post, presumably a charter member of the “liberal media,” for refusing to do so.  She adds, “It’s sad when it has to be explained to liberals that engaging with ideas or opinions they don’t like is a critical and expected part of life in the public square.”   I presume she meant “illiberals.” 

Powers is effective when analyzing the elastic, often willfully vague buzzwords of the “illiberal left”:  “rape culture,” “microaggression,” “mansplaining,” “hate speech,” even “privilege.”  She knows that if you control the terminology of the debate, you control the debate, and that if your opponent can be “delegitimized, demonized, and dismissed,” you win the debate by default.  Thus the ad hominem attacks not only on the conservative Will, but on more liberal (but not “illiberal”) writers and speakers such as Wendy Kaminer, who provoked a firestorm at Smith College with her defense of Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, or Slate’s Emily Yoffe, pilloried as a “rape denialist” for suggesting that women college students are less vulnerable to sexual predators if they don’t drink too much.  Nasty stuff, often pushed far beyond the nasty and well into the vicious by social media, a world of fun-house mirror exaggeration where hyperbole reigns.   On Twitter and the like, nobody is ever “bothered,” “irked,” “annoyed,” or even “offended”—they are always “outraged.”  And then they pump up the volume.  Everything is a moral issue, with no compromise possible. 

Predictably and understandably, Powers would prefer that political disagreements focus on policy.  But here she is much less than evenhanded.  When she says she wishes that debate over Obamacare had considered the Republicans’ alternatives to it, I was brought up short.  What alternatives?  Were they drowned out by the right’s rhetorical tsunami in opposition?  What alternative was one Representative suggesting when he referred to the Affordable Care Act as being “as destructive to personal and individual liberty as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850”?  What kind of policy analysis was Sarah Palin engaging in when she called the ACA “downright evil” and warned of “death panels”?  How did the House of Representatives advance the conversation by voting more than 50 times to repeal the law?  (It needs to be repealed, said Rep. Michele Bachmann, “before it literally kills women, kills children, kills senior citizens.”)  Powers mentions none of these—or any of the dozens of available equivalents—in her book.  On politics and public discourse, it might be said that she is “fair” but not “balanced.”

Powers is also “fair” but not “balanced” when pointing out that the Obama administration has carried on its own repressive campaign against the press.  She emphasizes what she calls the “War on Fox News,” but it’s much more than that.  Despite candidate Obama’s promises of transparency, the government has stonewalled, intimidated, and investigated the press—in many regards, the New York Times and Fox News occupy the same bulls-eye.  The left-right divide has relatively little to do with it; it’s revealing that one of the most common adjectives applied to the government’s obsessive attempts to enforce secrecy is “Nixonian.”

The strongest chapters in the book (“Intolerance 101:  Shutting Down Debate” and “Intolerance 102:  Free Speech for Me but Not for Thee”) deal with the genuine “silencing” that is happening more and more often in the one place where we might expect free speech to be most protected:  on college campuses.  Powers notes that the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has been quite successful challenging speech codes and the confinement of free speech to tiny, out-of-the-way “free speech zones.” (With no sense of irony, campus police at Modesto Junior College told a student on Constitution Day that he couldn’t hand out copies of the Constitution because there was no room in the zone.)  But despite their unconstitutionality and FIRE’s successes, “free speech zones” continue to be a favorite administrative device for stifling debate.

Powers also cites FIRE on the growing number of on-campus incidents silencing outside speakers , noting that “between 1987 and 2008, 138 protests of planned campus speeches led to 62 incidents of an invited guest not speaking.  Yet in just six years—2009 through 2014—151 protests have caused the cancellation of 62 speeches on campuses,” adding that conservatives were “targeted with nearly twice the frequency” of liberals.  (The obverse would help balance her argument:  more than a third of those “targeted” were liberals.)  Most publicized were protests over schools’ choices of commencement speakers, which frequently resulted in the speaker declining to come.

The good news, although Powers doesn’t report it:  there was pushback.  From liberals.  At Smith College, former Brown University (and Smith) President Ruth Simmons, standing in for the scheduled speaker, said that “Universities have a special obligation to protect free speech, open discourse, and the value of protest. The collision of views and ideologies is in the DNA of the academic enterprise.”  She urged the school to invite the speaker again.  At Haverford College, President Daniel Weiss candidly told a group of students that their letter to the commencement speaker “read more like a jury issuing a verdict than as an invitation to discussion or a request for shared learning.”  At Haverford’s commencement, former Princeton President William Bowen said that losing a speaker in this way was “a defeat, pure and simple, for Haverford.”  (He added that he wished the speaker, University of California-Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgenau, had come to campus anyway.)  The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that “his remarks drew a standing ovation.”

Unfortunately, the pushback doesn’t always succeed.  Those speakers haven’t been invited back yet.  And had Powers dug a little deeper, she could have given much more than a single sentence to an even more vivid example, an incident that took place at my own university.  In the fall of 2013, “activists” shouted down New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly’s scheduled public talk on “Proactive Policing in America’s Biggest City.”  Kelly wasn’t being “honored” and did not receive a speaker’s fee.  He was there to present the case for his ideas, presumably including those about his controversial “stop-and-frisk” policy.   He didn’t get the chance. (There are several YouTube videos of the event, the longest of which is here.)  One protester said, “They didn’t respond to our demands that they cancel the lecture, so today we cancelled it for them.” Brown president Christina Paxson deplored the incident, but to this day it is unclear whether there were any consequences for the disruptors.   Later, the faculty voted to “table indefinitely” a resolution quoting the President’s words and endorsing the University’s own statement on academic freedom.

Finally, and too recently to be included in Powers’s book, an incident this spring at Northwestern University threatened to curdle the academic environment even further by bringing the government into play.  When Professor Laura Kipnis wrote an essay criticizing what she saw as “sexual paranoia” on campus, two students filed a Title IX complaint claiming the essay had a “chilling effect” on students who might want to report sexual assaults.  Universities are legally obliged to investigate all Title IX complaints, and even though the charge was ultimately dismissed, the ordeal of an “investigation” that Kipnis endured, as reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education, might understandably make others hesitant to express their own opinions on controversial topics. 

So the beat goes on.  The press, at least, seems not particularly vulnerable to internal division and intimidation from within its own ranks:  it knows what it stands for.  Higher education, on the other hand, is threatened both from without and within. The price to be paid if institutions of higher learning yield to the formal and informal bullying that Powers chronicles is literally incalculable.  Colleges and universities that permit it risk forfeiting the public trust in them as educational institutions.  Who can know how many speakers will not be invited, how many talks and lectures will not be delivered, how many ideas (inside and outside the classroom) will not be heard, and how much intellectual and social progress will be impeded when such “authoritarian” practices (as Powers rightly terms them) become the norm? 

Overall, Powers’s book is a flawed but useful interim report from multiple battlefronts.  Her occasional quotations from sages such as John Milton and John Stuart Mill are reminders that the fight for free expression has been going on for a long time.  Her compilation of the latest combat casualties leaves no doubt that it will continue for a long time to come.

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