Cross Post: In Defense of Offense

Written by Michael Robillard

*  Please note that this essay was originally published at Quillette Magazine


In Defense of Offense

“The urge to censor is greatest where debate is most disquieting and orthodoxy most entrenched…”

–Chief Judge Alex Kozinski

In September of last year, conservative speaker, Ben Shapiro, spoke at the UC Berkeley campus for approximately 90 minutes. The cost of security for the physical protection of Mr. Shapiro, an American citizen, and Harvard-educated lawyer came to approximately $600,000. Prior to Mr. Shapiro’s visit at the Berkeley campus, right-wing British speaker and internet provocateur, Milo Yiannopolis, was prevented from speaking on campus due to security worries caused by approximately 150 masked agitators who committed various acts of vandalism, arson, and violence, resulting in the harm of several innocent Berkeley students and local citizens and totaling around $100,000 in property damage. In May of last year, at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, biology professor, Bret Weinstein, refused to participate in the “Day of Absence” in which “white students, staff, and faculty,” were, “invited to leave the campus for the day’s activities.” Weinstein’s refusal resulted in him being surrounded by an angry mob of 50 students who called him a racist and insisted that he resign. He was later advised by campus police to remain off campus indefinitely for his own physical safety. Weinstein and his wife, also a professor, did so, and eventually resigned from their positions at Evergreen in September. In March of 2017, at Middlebury College, demonstrators physically attacked libertarian author Charles Murray and his liberal host, professor Allison Stanger, pulling her hair and giving her whiplash, sending her to the ER.

Berkeley. Evergreen. Middlebury. Missou. Yale. Brown. McMasters. Wilfred Laurier. The list goes on. One must wonder where this trend will ultimately take us. There have been several justifications given for this increasing rash of no-platforming, shaming, and at times, physical violence on North American campuses. In essence, these justifications can be distilled into a triad of well-meaning but ultimately flawed theses, namely, 1.) that all discourse is  about power and that any speech that renders a listener physiologically uncomfortable therefore rises to the level of a physical attack upon that individual, thereby justifying actual physical violence in response, 2.) that for the sake of historically marginalized voices, persons who are members of historically privileged groups should forfeit their right to free speech or ought to remain silent, 3.) that certain assertions, even if possibly true, are nonetheless morally impermissible to make since to do so will likely create conditions whereby bad-intentioned persons will inevitably and successfully advance their morally heinous projects.

This first thesis—that all discourse is fundamentally about power—finds its philosophical origins in the likes of post-modernists such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. To quote Foucault, “Discourses are tactical elements or blocks operating in the field of force relations.” Thus, on Foucalt’s view, if all discourse is, at heart, really just veiled force relations between competing groups; if language isn’t fundamentally capable of being about objective truth or about the world in any meaningful sense, then the ink symbols written on the page and the shaped air admitted from one’s mouth in the forms of ‘rationality’, ‘facts’, ‘knowledge’, and ‘truth’ are just another set of weapons in a person’s overall arsenal to seize and maintain power, no different in kind from weapons of a physical sort. To speak then, on Foucault’s view, is to wield a weapon, albeit a subtler and refined one. The uncomfortable physiological feeling of hearing offensive speech, it would then seem, vindicates this view that one is being attacked. One might thus conclude, “Why not attack back with heavier, more effective, and more expedient weapons?”

This thesis, however, generates contradictions of both the conceptual as well as performative sort. Conceptually, the postmodern thesis is self-referentially incoherent. If, ‘all assertions are never about truth, but only about power’, then what are we to make of that particular assertion? By the postmodernists’ own lights, it would seem that he must accept that at least one claim is objectively true, i.e., ‘that all assertions are only about power.’ But, of course, in accepting this claim, he necessarily endorses the position that ‘not all assertions are about power.’ Since anything follows from a contradiction, the postmodernist is then necessarily left cherry-picking which epistemic, and historical claims to regard as fixed, whilst papering over the proliferation of absurdities following from the contradiction with ever-increasing ad hoc adjustments.

These ad hoc adjustments often take the form of obfuscating language, rhetoric, social shaming techniques, and the policing of speech. Manifestations of such adjustments can be increasingly witnessed within the American social zeitgeist, on social media, and on American college campuses with ever-increasing frequency. These manifestations include; claims that biology and Western medicine are oppressive and ‘part of the Patriarchy’, that the concept of health is ‘merely a social construct’, that formal a priori logic is gendered and ‘phallo-logocentric’, and that, ‘free speech is hate speech’. This increasing failure on the part of postmodernists to acknowledge the absurd entailments following from the contradiction of their initial premises— as well as the increasing attempts to suppress free discussion about the said absurdities— unavoidably leads to a series of performativecontradictions as well.

Postmodernists, for instance, rail against the oppressive ills of logic on social media platforms built on principles of formal computation and mathematics. They condemn the oppressiveness of western civilization, whilst living in buildings constructed on classic western architectural principles, and while helping themselves to the many benefits of western scientific progress. And they call for an ethic of tolerance and the recognition of a plurality of epistemic viewpoints and voices but attempt to aggressively and sometimes even violently suppress views that are antithetical to the politically correct orthodoxy of the present moment.

Aside from these conceptual and performative contradictions, the fundamental flaw in such reasoning lies in its lack of proper reflection on power’s possible origins. Why would we ever think that repeatedly coming into contact with the contours of objective reality, wouldn’t, of necessity, make an individual a society or a culture more knowledgeable, and therefore more powerful? What’s more, why would we ever think that such a process, of testing our mental models against the sharp and unforgiving edges of the objective world wouldn’t also, by necessity, be somewhat uncomfortable, if not at times, even existentially devastating? Could it really be any other way?  One should not, therefore, assume that speech and ideas that challenge one’s worldview and make one feel uncomfortable, necessarily constitute a physical threat, as opposed to a positive opportunity to break, rebuild, and refine one’s thinking and model of the world ultimately for the better. We do no favors to our students and the future leaders of this country by actively coddling them from sometimes uncomfortable ideas and discourse.

The second thesis,—that members of historically privileged groups ought to, therefore, be silenced for the sake of traditionally marginalized voices—takes a very reasonable position, i.e., regard for different epistemic perspectives and the practice of epistemic humility, but then goes too far with it. The fact that we ought to listen to a plurality of historically marginalized voices and perspectives does not, therefore, rise to the level of justification for censoring voices coming from historically privileged groups, nor does it mean that persons from such groups ought to, therefore, forfeit their right to free speech. Within academia and any liberal democratic society ostensibly committed to the values of freedom of speech and freedom of expression, the chief principle governing our civil discourse ought to be one of both/and rather than one of either/or.

The third thesis,—that prima facie norms of assertion can nonetheless be overridden by other more morally weightier considerations—finds some plausibility, especially in one-off cases. Take the following hypothetical example: if Jones has a gun and I know that if I mention last night’s sports scores Jones will predictably fly into a rage and shoot ten innocent bystanders, then it seems I have a duty to remain silent about voicing this insignificant fact in this particular instance. Furthermore, if Officer Smith knew that I was too stubborn to restrain myself and that I was going to mention last night’s sports scores nevertheless, then Officer Smith might then be permitted or even obligated to prevent me from speaking in order to save the lives of the ten innocents. Analogously, one might argue, ‘because there are Nazis and fascists in the offing’, any speech whatsoever, even if potentially true, that could possibly give such groups a potential foothold towards greater social legitimacy cannot, therefore, be allowed since the certainty and severity of harm that would result is so very high, and the cost of silencing for this one, particular one-off instance is so very low.

Given such a one-off case as the one described, the suppression of speech for the sake of the all-things-considered good seems justified. Taken to a macro/societal level, however, and iterated over a series of potentially indefinite instances, the analogy no longer holds. The assumption that any speech deemed ‘offensive’ will inevitably cause hateful fringe third-parties to gain greater political legitimacy and then inevitably succeed in harming large numbers of innocent people and therefore that such speech must be suppressed, ironically, is the very thing most likely to bolster such fringe group’s legitimacy in the public eye. Indeed, the more we clamp down on offensive language and suppress ‘problematic’ views, the more ammunition we give to such fringe groups for more effective recruitment, as well as added evidence to their claims of being actually oppressed. The greater this trend of policing speech in academia and beyond, the greater likelihood of creating the very monsters of which we dare not speak.

Furthermore, if such fringe individuals and groups are stuck within the echo chamber of their fallacious reasoning, wouldn’t it be a benefit to them for us to let them utter their flawed and irrational ideas so that the errors in their reasoning could be quickly and clearly pointed out through argumentation and debate? If the reasoning behind such offensive viewpoints is so absurd, so patently false, so obviously unsound, then why not just allow such views to be brought into the light of public discourse and the fallacies of their argumentation swiftly cured by the disinfection light of reason? Is this not what the purpose and telos of free and open academia fundamentally supposed to be about? Perpetually protecting students from offensive views on college campuses betrays not only a profound lack of faith in the basic reasoning capacities of young students, but also a profound lack of faith in the inherent institutional checks and balances of adult, rational discourse within the academy, as well as lack of faith in reason itself.

Reflection on the particular issue of free speech on college campuses points us to the much larger issue at hand. For not only are the three theses here investigated unsound in their own right, but they are particularly antithetical to the very essence and soul of the American project. If we were considering the censoring of academic or public discourse within fully theocratic or dictatorial societies, such censorship would not be inconsistent with what these social projects purported to be. We cannot say the same for such censoring behavior within liberal democracies. Indeed, what makes this growing climate of censorship within North American academia so insidious is that such censorship fundamentally contradicts the American project by definition. If the sine qua non value of liberal democracies is freedom of speech and freedom of expression for all, then the policing of certain speech renders the social project conceptually self-defeating, by necessity, in all possible worlds. Sure, we can call what we are engaging in a democracy, but so long as free speech is allowed for some but not for others, the social project we engage in is, by definition, no more constitutive of a democracy than a three-sided figure is constitutive of a square.

There is, of course, an interesting wrinkle in all of this. Concerning the particular cases of campus censoring noted originally, none of them thus far have been conducted at the hands of the state. In other words, in none of the cases here mentioned were an individual’s negative rights (i.e., liberties) violated by the United States government. Rather, as was the case with Mr. Shapiro’s prior failed attempts to speak at U.C. Berkeley earlier last year, the state and local government merely failed to uphold Mr. Shapiro’s positive right to be protected from other American citizens intent on causing harm to him or causing mayhem in the local community. This trend brings up an interesting puzzle for democracies in general, and for the particular social moment, we presently find ourselves in. To what extent is the American government obligated merely ‘not to suppress free speech’, but rather ‘to uphold a positive duty of protection for speakers and for bystanders who might be collaterally harmed by pernicious third-parties were a certain speaker allowed to speak’?

Once again, there seems to be something both hypocritical and conceptually corrupting about the idea of a social project that heralds freedom of speech as its supreme and guiding virtue but sees the extent of its honoring of this virtue fully exhausted by a mere negative duty of non-interference. Indeed, without a robustly recognized positive duty on the part of the state, to provide adequate protection to persons and bystanders who might be collaterally harmed by pernicious third-parties, then, in effect, what we end up with is essentially a rioters veto on any speech a big enough or angry enough mob deems ‘too offensive’. Such a default acceptance of such norms is antithetical to western liberal democratic values to its core.

One immediate response here might be to point out that there must be some prudential considerations taken into account when allowing for the exercise of free speech within the shared public space. Indeed, it would seem pragmatically unrealistic for one to insist that his First Amendment right entailed a right to have a five-day speech in the center of the Berkeley commons in the middle of finals week, or for a political group to insist that their First Amendment right entitled them to have a month-long parade down I-95, complete with adequate state security—not just for themselves—but for any and all bystanders who might be collaterally harmed by pernicious third-party harassers. Certainly then, one might argue, when considering the physical exercising of a person’s right to free speech there must be other prudential and pragmatic considerations taken into account having not only to do with logistics but with the coordination of other social goods within society.

Fair enough. However, where such reasoning goes astray is in its conflation of the restricting of free speech for reasons of pragmatics with the restricting of free speech for reasons of content. It seems that most if not all of us can agree that for good pragmatic reasons, one’s right to free speech does not extend to a month-long parade on a major highway or a 5-day filibuster in the university commons during exam week complete with adequate police protection. But this seems reasonable wholly independent of the specific content of one’s speech. Having adjusted for these logistical and pragmatic constraints, however, it would then seem that for any social project to truly be a democracy not just in word but in deed, some actual physical space must be allowed for, whereby one may assert what one believes to be true, however clumsily, openly and freely without threat of physical harm. This space where the free market of reasons may be exchanged in a civil and adult manner without fear or threat of violence, throughout the course of Western history, has been that of the university.

Princeton University

Such a space, devoted to argumentation, rationality, and the free and civil exchange of reasons, one might think, would be the type of thing that warranted adequate state protection for both types, as well as token instances of speech that might be deemed ‘offensive’ to those unable or unwilling to meet words and ideas they found threatening with better words and ideas of their own.

In the absence of adequate state protection, the phenomenon of the rioter’s veto on free speech will likely persist and social tensions within the U.S. will likely worsen. In the absence of such a physical space, with adequate state protection for citizens to exercise their right to say offensive, (and even sometimes outright dumb things) without fear of physical harm, plausible grounds for non-violent civil disobedience will likely begin to find increasing purchase among the American populace. Either that, or, a more dangerous trend as has been witnessed with the repeated counter-rioters at Berkeley, with Milo Yiannopolis’ public proclamation to return to Berkeley with, “a whole truckload of Blackwater contractors” or, with the presence of the armed “Three Percenter” militiamen in Charlottesville this past summer. In the absence of adequate state protection for the exercise of free speech, other American citizens will likely begin to take it upon themselves at an ever-increasing frequency to ‘pick up the slack’ where the state seems to be lacking. Left unabated, if the freedom to assert true claims or to at least attempt to engage in earnest discourse aimed at truth, continues to be suppressed for the sake of ever-proliferating and niche social justice causes, then we are brought to an impasse as to what American academia, as well as the American project itself, is fundamentally supposed to be about. The only thing capable of breaking this impasse, I contend, is deeper and more careful reflection of what the true nature and value of free speech and democracy actually are.

Freedom of speech is not just any other value; it is a second-order value, a meta-value, indeed, the meta-value that makes the rational coordination of all other first-order values even possible. In failing to honor this shared meta-value within society, and in making exceptions whenever it suits us with regard to the exercise of free speech, we necessarily begin cutting ourselves off from the very process of agreement and disagreement that, through repeated iteration, brings our beliefs, representations, and words into closer and closer alignment with the shape of the objective world. Accordingly, for reasons purely born out of enlightened self-interest, one has good reason to value the value of free speech as such and therefore, to defend all its token incarnations however offensive, abhorrent, or downright ignorant. Absent a social mechanism whereby the free and peaceful exchange of reasons may occur, we run the very real risk of descending into a Hobbesian state of anarchy where ‘might makes right’, as conflicts that cannot find proper expression in words in the academy or civil discourse inevitably find expression in the form of violence in the streets.

Worse even still though, I would submit, is not such a Hobbesian state of anarchy at all, but rather, the slow, incessant creep of increased censorship, increased politically correct speech, and the increased normalization of a social chilling effect, whereby one is forced to swallow one’s own words and one’s authentic voice for so very long for fear of negative social repercussion, that one becomes little more than a self-doubting, docile drone amid a sea of conformity and fear. This is the true insidiousness of the censoring of ‘offensive’ views within free society and the necessary and logical entailment of creeping of political correctness left unchecked and unchallenged. A society where, for reason of social pressure, one must be made to call the profane beautiful, the irrational rational, and the false true. Where the apparatchik must report to his visibly starving comrades that, ‘the grain yields have doubled this season’ and his comrades must nod their heads in feigned agreement whilst looking at their exposed ribs. Where the Emperor has no clothes, and everyone knows it, but everyone is afraid to say.

But perhaps I am overreacting and catastrophizing things a bit too quickly here. Perhaps, I am guilty of a slippery slope argument, and the social chilling effect is not as bad in American academia and American society at large as I make it out to be, either presently or prospectively. I would respond, however, to such a challenge by reminding readers of the many horrors of the 20th century perpetrated by authoritarian regimes on both the Left and the Right and the complicity within the academy that almost always preceded it. And I would likewise remind people that not all slippery slopes are fallacious.

As the reader assesses the veracity of the claims that I have here laid out, I would submit to them a test that they and everyone can perform in the safety of their own home, free from the judging eyes of crowds. The test is simple and goes as follows. While alone, expose yourself to several different pieces of comedy and observe the response in your own body and what makes you laugh the most. For there is something about great comedy and great art in general that is immediately recognizable, immediately palpable and felt on a visceral level, and able to penetrate through all layers of social stifling, orthodoxy, and bullshit. This is the hallmark of great comedy and great art and why authentic individual expression is so immediately recognizable and, therefore, so very dangerous to authoritarians or all stripes and colors. What we laugh at or cry at when no one else is looking, it would at least seem, should somehow count as valuable in our overall assessment of that which is true, or at the very least, that which points towards the truth. The degree to which one regards one’s own spontaneous emotion and felt bodily response as veridical, I leave up to the reader to ultimately decide. But I at least offer one last question for readers to ponder; why do great comedy and great art affect us the way they do?

Following Keats, I would submit, simply because, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”, and because authentic expression earnestly striving towards truth is beautiful and immediately recognizable, always. This is so, I would further submit, because there are such things as facts and such a thing as an objective world, and our words, ideas, art, and representations have the miraculous capacity to be about that world, however imperfectly. That the world pushes back at all and that our words and ideas have the capacity to grip that world despite all its jaggedness, and despite all its strange and unanticipated geometry, in this fact alone, there is beauty—beauty enough so palpable, so recognizable, so immediately obvious that it calls on each and every one of us eventually, regardless of the consequences, to speak.


Dr. Michael Robillard is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Oxford working on the ethics of counter-terrorism. He has also written on the ethics of autonomous weapons, military recruitment, veteran moral injury, and war and its relation to future generations. Michael is an Iraq War veteran, United States Military Academy graduate, and Airborne Ranger.

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One Response to Cross Post: In Defense of Offense

  • Bubblecar says:

    “This space where the free market of reasons may be exchanged in a civil and adult manner without fear or threat of violence, throughout the course of Western history, has been that of the university.”

    Not necessarily by anyone, though. I would hope that universities would routinely refuse a platform for anti-intellectual cranks and cynical self-publicists with nothing of value to offer, for example. Which is why it’s surprising that Milo Yiannopolis was granted a platform in the first place.

    Should universities really be encouraged to provide a venue for fools to say “outright dumb things”? Doesn’t that contradict their role as upholders of respectable intellectual standards?

    By all means let’s encourage free and open debate, but that shouldn’t mean indulging professional internet trolls.

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