Monday, February 27, 2006

Screaming Into a Box - Revisited (II)

II. Free Speech "Screaming into a Box" -

Pope Foundation. Two words that I've grown to loathe. Stanley Fish was right when he claimed in There's No Such Thing as Free Speech, and It's a Good Thing, Too (Duke UP, 1994): "In our legal culture as it is now constituted, if one yells 'free speech' in a crowded courtroom and makes it stick, the case is over" (105). The Pope Foundation loves to attack campus hate-speech codes, campus instructors who display an ideological bent, and campuses in general. Why? Campuses squash the "free speech" of students who display any values other than "politically correct" ones.

This imparts a dangerous assumption, to wit, they try to instill in the public consciousness a view that all speech is actionless, that speech occurs in a vacuum. To wit, that screaming bigot who campus police drag away from students trying to enjoy lunch has no effect upon his listeners. He's just exercising his right to free speech. Well, don't I have the right to enjoy my lunch in peace? Don't African-American students have the right to eat and study without hearing some asshole shriek about "jungle music and whores, creating a welfare state and feeding off the public?"

In one respect, this is correct. Speech, by itself, has no inherent actionable value. Speech is harmless. I can walk around all day, chanting "bunnies are nice. I like puppies and eat fish for dinner." This speech has no active value other than the informative sense. It is not speech that is politicized by these people, but rhetoricized speech, and therein lies the true difference.

Rhetoricized speech constitutes action. It is created in response to a situation (real or nonexistent) that a communicator (rhetor) believes must change. The audience of rhetoricized speech is intended to respond to the speech with action. The strategy of First Amendment jurisprudence is to manipulate the distinction between free speech, expression, and action. No body of laws can be constructed to state that "freedom of action" is guaranteed: this would subvert the legal body before the laws are put into place. Here, we gain our conflict.

Pope Foundation rhetors love to point out the "leftist" leanings of college professors. They actively recruit students to enroll in classes and goad the professor into making some censorial remark. These students are told to say whatever they can to get the professor to stop them: offend everyone in class, use racist and bigoted epithets, and wait for Dr. So-And-So to say, "You need to be quiet or leave the class." This, the Pope Foundation says, proves a bias. You're interrupting the free flow of ideas. Dirty liberals.

Not true. Interestingly, the courses targeted are in the Humanities, and nowhere else, courses in which difficult social topics are discussed. Professors work hard - most of them sixty hours a week - and study their fields extensively. The Philosophae Doctor degree is not lightly granted, nor tenure lightly conferred. Tenured professors within the academic environment are entitled to the same level of respect as judges within a courtroom or surgeons within an operating theater. But, since these professors discuss social issues, literature, history that has not been whitewashed by textbook companies, etc., they are verbally assaulted.

The free exchange of ideas is, indeed, one aspect of the university that is necessary. This is precisely what tenure was created to protect. However, it is not the only aspect of the university: if it were, to paraphrase Dr. Fish again, we could all stand on podiums and shout ideas at one another for four years and receive a degree. Some people come to universities to learn from respected scholars. Some come to play athletics. Some come because their parents make them.

The free exchange of ideas is valuable. I firmly believe that our culture has evolved through discussion and debate. Free-speech debates serve to develop a cultural moral character. We are fortunate that, to a degree, most speech in the United States is protected: these debates can take place. A professor, serving the triple role of scholar, educator, and classroom moderator, must occasionally redirect discussion to areas he or she feels must yet be addressed. This is his (or her - from here out, I'll have to use the standard English "his" to refer to an anonymous individual) perogative. He is the expert: he has some one hundred graduate level hours of study in the subject, has written on average two books and dozens of articles on the subject. It is presumptuous and rude to attack him for redirecting unproductive classroom speech. One could also argue that deliberately inserting a student whose sole purpose is to offend the class at large interrupts the free exchange of ideas.

I'm tired of this topic, but I'll probably return later to discuss some other outrage.
currently playing on miPod - Symphony #60, 2nd movement. Composer: Franz Joseph Haydn.

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