Free Speech, Safety and the Triumph of Neoliberalism

Free Speech, Safety and the Triumph of Neoliberalism

I’m reading another article about debates over free speech on campus, this time at Williams College, an elite school in the northwestern corner of Massachusetts.  A faculty petition asks to formalize and tighten the college’s policy on free speech by adopting the Chicago Principles, which state that “concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.”  Over three hundred students, however, have signed a counterpetition arguing that speech which harms minorities should not be allowed.  These disputes are interesting to me, partly because my own school, Evergreen State College, went through a conflict along these lines.

Consider for a moment the idea that speech activities can be evaluated by the emotional effects they engender.  One person’s speech makes me feel good: fine.  Another’s makes me feel terrible and should be disallowed.  What this amounts to is assessing political acts according to the utility or disutility experienced by those affected by them.  The “do no harm” criterion is a bit problematic, however, since people can also be subjected to disutility by restrictions on their speech as well as by hearing the speech of others.  If one person feels unsafe because of being silenced, but if they talk, another will feel unsafe because of the speech content, a purely rights-based framework becomes inconsistent.

I can see two ways out.  One is to put forward a hierarchy of rights-bearing, a ranking that resolves rights disputes between any two such individuals.  This seems to be implicit in the way disputes like this actually play out, but if you subscribe to the principle of intersectionality (or more subversively, the principle that individuals are not reducible to their “identities”) the ranking is indeterminate.


The other would be to allow for bargaining and side payments.  Yes, your speech makes me feel unsafe, but I will consent to it if you simultaneously agree to adopt a program I favor, give me additional personal guarantees or something else I value.  Then we are in MarketWorld, where different parties buy and sell pieces of their political agency.

You can probably sense where I’m going.  The neoliberal worldview holds that as many actions in as many spheres as possible should be evaluated according to the effect they have on individual preferences, as revealed by market choices.  Take the example of restoring salmon habitat by taking down a dam.  This is an action with economic consequences, but it is also a matter of social values—how much a community values having an environment in which wild fish, among others, can prosper.  The neoliberal approach is to interpret that value as a consumption good: what affect does salmon restoration have on your sense of preference satisfaction, on your utility or disutility?  There are various techniques that can be used to estimate this, such as a contingent valuation survey.  Instead of having to deliberate politically on the values which we want our community to uphold, giving reasons for them to try to persuade one another, we should take our preferences as given and simply record the overall effect of a proposed choice on well-being.

My reading is that the core psychological principle of neoliberalism, that life is an accumulation of moments of utility and disutility, is alive and well within certain sectors of the “left”.  A speech (or email or comment at a meeting) should be evaluated by how it makes us feel, and no one should have the right to make us feel bad.

I realize I will be accused of trivializing, that I’m not appreciating how bad speech can make some of us feel.  And I agree that the degree of disutility in relation to the political context matters.  Some speech has as its primary purpose making others suffer, through insult or instigating fear, and has little or no persuasive intent.  That’s hate speech, and I don’t see a problem with curtailing it.  Arguably, much of the “provocative” right-wing babble, whose goal is to demean and threaten rather than change minds, falls under this stipulation.  But what distinguishes hate speech is not simply the degree of anguish it evokes but also its lack of any other motive.  Giving an antiwar speech may well cause similar anguish among family members who have lost loved ones in battle, but if the purpose is political, to persuade and enlist, it should be evaluated on political grounds, not its impact on utility.

It’s the greatest power of an ideology that it can seep into the worldview of those who claim to oppose it.