by Wendy Brown, Political Science, UC BerkeleyI want to make two brief points this afternoon, one about freedom and one about speech.If forced to compress into a few sentences the contours of student freedom and its limits in public universities 50 years ago and now, those sentences might go this way:
Then: Because developing the next generation of Californians as educated individuals, citizens and contributing members of society was widely valued as a public good, the university offered a free, high quality education to qualifying (mostly white) middle class and working class students. Faculty (also mostly white and male) had significant power over large domains of university policy– they determined what was to be learned and how, what counted as an educated person worthy of a degree, and much more. But the university administration not only prohibited student political expression, it codified a panoply of restrictions as it sought to be a zone clear of politics, unmarried sex, illegal substances and, implicitly, non-whites. Thus “the gears of the machine”—from racial exclusion to speech restrictions—were tangible controls that cast students as rightless children being prepared for educated participation in society, economy and politics.
That was Then. And Now? UC doors are open to anyone with the wherewithal, parental pressure or supplemental support structures to deliver the test scores, grades, and profile to compete for admission (or who have singular athletic ability, or are well-off non-residents). No longer a public good or publicly supported, UC is construed as a place to invest in oneself as human capital, and according to a set of calculations about what will appreciate or diminish this capital. Courses are increasingly on offer like Walmart goods, and respond heavily to consumer demand. And faculty power has receded to a few small corners of the plantation—students feel it most in the form of access to classes and grades. In the domain of student political, social and sexual expression, just about anything is permitted.
However, the burden is on each of you to invest your time and effort strategically, not only to gain high return on your expensive investment but to develop the little speck of human capital that is you and that is yours alone to develop.
This burden is so great and so impossible to put down for anything —an alluring music class or other exciting course outside your major, let alone a political cause, or dwelling for uncounted hours with an idea, a question, a compelling bit of text. Thus, if there are few repressive rules or overt restrictions on what you can do or say, the conversion of the university from a public good to a private investment made by you and your family radically changes the coordinates of unfreedom faced by students today. How much can you afford to think, learn, want or do that does not comport with enhancing your future value to employers, grad or professional schools? What freedom to speak, protest or organize against injustice can you exercise that would not be suicidal for the human capital you are enjoined to develop here, into which you have invested family life savings or taken on debt, and which has become the supervening if not sole purpose of a university education?
Thus, today, the gears of the machine don’t clang and grind out there: they are are soft, quiet, and deep inside us. And throwing our bodies on them in resistance requires a complex contortion and commitment.
Ok, that was freedom. Now speech, where I will also mark just one of many major differences between then and now, or between what we might call the repressive liberal era and the putatively emancipated neoliberal era. This one pertains to the ways that the neoliberal assault on public things—a public sphere, public goods, public life–has led both university administrators and would-be activists into a certain confusion about free speech as a distinctly political right, one born from political struggle and secured historically for political life. We have seen a bit of this confusion in recent months when “civility” or “respectful listening” have been mistakenly declared an inherent entailment of free speech or academic freedom. Certainly civility and respectful listening may be expected at a dinner table, a university classroom or a department meeting—it would be good if they prevailed more routinely. But they have nothing to do with the exercise of free speech in public, where (barring threats, harassment, or dangerous incitements), anyone may say anything…and no one must listen or listen well.
A far more treacherous instance of contemporary confusion about our political rights comes from the Supreme Court in recent years. From Citizens United to Hobby Lobby, the Court majority has been busily granting political freedoms—of speech, of religious belief– to corporations who may now use their enormous wealth and power to overwhelm the last standing icon of democracy, elections, and withhold medical insurance for Constitutionally guaranteed reproductive rights.
This confusion, from high places, of whom and what our political rights are for, and what they do and don’t entail, would take hours to analyze properly. But I want to consider one especially troubling version of it on college campuses today, one that we can do something about. This is the effort to regulate public speech to protect certain vulnerable groups from offense, hatred, being retraumatized.
This protection racket begin, alas, a couple of decades ago with well-intentioned feminist and anti-racist efforts to outlaw hateful or offensive speech and images. But this tool, which aimed to shield the historically hated or subordinated from being hit again in the present, has not remained in the hands of the Left. Indeed, while it’s animating the contemporary “trigger warning” madness (a discussion for another day) it has also become one of the more potent instruments of illiberal American ultra-Zionism today. It is what dignifies the fallacious argument that publicly criticizing Israel on campus creates an unsafe or offensive climate for Jewish students.
So what begin as a concern with subordinating or hateful speech has been appropriated to silence protest against power. Of course any political argument can be flipped—Californians know this best from the legislation that ended affirmative action, which, you’ll recall, was called The Civil Rights Initiative. But there’s something more troubling here, which is the confusion of the public sphere with therapeutic spaces or homes. The domain of free public speech is not one of emotional safety or reassurance, and what you might hear in Sproul Plaza or up at this podium might be disturbing, uncomfortable, enraging, even offensive.
Public speech is one of the most powerful weapons ordinary human beings have, and even the most civilly uttered sentences can disturb or terrify. Certainly the speeches of Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., or Malcolm X made neither white people nor many blacks feel safe. Certainly the revolutionary slogan, “liberty, equality, fraternity” did not reassure either the French aristocracy or its minions in mid-18th century Paris. Do you think Wall St Bankers felt safe when they walked past thousands of Occupy protestors decrying the obscene wealth, destruction of democracy, and carnage of public goods for which they were being held responsible? Do you think closeted homosexuals felt safe when the Stonewall rebellion broke out? Do you think men who have pushed, drunk or drugged women into unwanted sex feel safe as women on campuses everywhere are finally speaking out against the commonplace of sexual assault? Or that civil servants, police and other hired guns of regimes across the Middle East felt safe when citizens amassed in public squares to denounce them during the Arab spring? Emotional safety is not what the public sphere and political speech promise. It’s for cultivating at home if you are lucky enough to have one. It is what you seek among friends and intimates where you expect your vulnerability to be taken into account.
A university education, too, ought to call you to think, question, doubt. It ought to incite you to question everything you assume, think you know or care about, not because those assumptions or cares will be jettisoned. Rather, because, as those wild-eyed radicals Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill insisted, there is no possibility of knowing what’s right, justified, valuable or true unless you question deeply and relentlessly…unless you’re willing to consider whether your attachment to an idea or principle is really just a teddy bear you cling to, a comforting familiar. The public sphere and a university classroom are not for hanging onto your teddy bears. Your bears have their place, back in your room where you’re safe and restored. But when we demand—from the Right OR the Left– that universities be cleansed of what is disturbing, upsetting, enraging, “offensive” or triggering, we are complicit both with the neoliberal destruction of university as a place of being undone, transformed, awakened (rather than a place to get job training) AND with neoliberalism’s destruction of public spaces and the distinctive meaning of political rights, (rights that some in this room fought to bring onto campus 50 years ago).
Let’s demand something far more important, which is to be provoked and challenged, every day and down to our very toes in what remains of this extraordinary institution. Let’s have the courage to stand for that, and to be willing to withstand it.