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Late in the Intelligence Squared debate, during the question and answer session, Harper, still speaking against the proposition that free speech is threatened on campus, was asked: Is there a difference between speech made in a social setting and “tenured professors being censored for comments made in an academic setting”?
Thanks for your question, Matt. To be sure, I don't want anyone's speech to be suppressed in any setting. So even at a fraternity party, you know, if someone said something that sounds a bit off color, I would want one of his fraternity brothers or someone at his party or whatever, to engage him in a conversation about it, not with the goal of shutting him down, but to actually—again, we're on a college campus. And fraternities are on college campuses, so I would want this to be a space where even peer teaching and learning and engagement is happening.
I was surprised when he gave that answer, because a guy who characterized free-speech defenders so uncharitably at the beginning of the debate turned out to share their position: If something “a bit off color” happens at a party, he hopes that students will adjudicate the matter among themselves (just as Nicholas and Ericka Christakis urged); but he explicitly doesn’t want colleges to impose punishment.
Why is he so suspicious of civil libertarians whose focus is advocating a position he shares?
I was similarly surprised when, an hour into the debate I held with Jelani Cobb at Connecticut College, my interlocutor, having criticized my free-speech advocacy in “Race and the Free Speech Diversion,” turned out to oppose punishing even racial slurs and was less interested in policing speech than in educating students to be resilient.
He spoke with typical eloquence when asked to draw the line between speech that should be protected on college and university campuses and speech that should be punishable:
I'm not in favor of establishing that line.
I'm in favor of educating people and letting them establish the line for themselves—to say, do you understand that when you use the name of the Washington football team, you are insulting my ancestry and my community and so on. Now if you choose to still use that name, I just want you to understand what you're doing. I'm not in a position of telling you that you can't do it. I simply want you to be clear in what you’re engaging.
If that results in stigma, if that results in people thinking horribly of you, then so be it.
And finally, I'm a pragmatist. I tell this story to students as a bit of hard won wisdom in my own life. The first time I was ever called nigger is when I was 13 years old. I was shocked. It was this thing that my parents told me, then all of a sudden it happened. I was like, 'Man, they were telling the truth.'
Like, this thing exists in the world.
The second time I was called nigger I was in my 20s, and I was enraged. And the third time that this happened I burst out laughing. And the reason was, I thought it was absurd that someone actually thought that they could diminish me. That word existed during slavery, but black people survived slavery. That word existed in the post-Reconstruction period, but black people survived the post-Reconstruction period. People used that word as a means to bolster Jim Crow. But Jim Crow was killed. And in each instance in which people have attempted to dehumanize and use this word as a stand-in for a broader socioeconomic state of affairs, people have found the reserve and the will and the ingenuity and the creativity and the spiritual fortitude to forge a way forward. And so I understood that I had the wind at my back and this was a kind of weak last gasp at a dying sentiment.
But it takes a long time to get to that place. I'm less interested in policing other people's speech than I am in building stronger people who are not as easily derailed by the attempts to keep you in a marginal position.
It seems to me that many in the campus speech debate are talking past one another rather than at least cooperating against the forces that threaten free-speech norms. In closing, here’s an attempt to set forth what I perceive as areas of agreement and disagreement. I encourage emails with feedback if you think I’m wrong.