Widgets Magazine


A transformation from progressive skeptic to progressive

Author’s note: Four weeks ago, I wrote a column on liberalism and free speech in universities, responding to one of my fellow columnist’s characterization of free speech as a positive right. Against the advice of my well-wishers, I decided to explore the comments section. There, I came across the Man with the Axe, who had this to say about my column:

“You wrote: ‘Framing of free speech as a negative right … tends to prioritize protection of what an individual already has, and in doing so, reinforces existing social inequities and injustices.’

No, it doesn’t. It allows both the haves and the have-nots to express themselves. If you are going to limit free speech as a means to correct social inequities, you are simply being a totalitarian. You are saying, ‘you marginalized people can speak, unfettered, but you rich people can only speak when we, the enlightened, say you can.’

You wrote: ‘The second thing that liberal critics of college leftists get wrong is that conservatives are somehow marginalized and wield little influence in the world, implying that colleges should therefore go out of their way to accommodate viewpoints that are not typically liberal, even idiotic ones like climate change denial.’

Why should only marginalized people, whatever that means, be allowed free speech? When colleges start only allowing viewpoints with which that liberals agree, how will liberals ever figure out what is wrong with what they believe? This sounds a lot like the medieval church wanting only to hear what it already believes. Other ideas are idiotic. Who says? Why, the liberals, of course.

You wrote: ‘ … platforms that enable speech have an obligation to help prop up the voices of those who typically have been excluded from the main channels of expression … ‘

This is exactly nobody. Are you telling me that blacks, lesbians, transgenders, et. al., are not being heard these days? I hear more about and from such people than I ever hear about or from conservatives, especially on campus.”

While I thought this individual was completely wrong, I recognized some of the frustrations that this commenter was expressing. I myself had voiced some of those in the past, during my first two years at Stanford. Therefore, I decided to respond to this commenter to illustrate what changed my thinking about progressivism and campus politics, and why it did so. This is my response.

Your main critique here is that framing free speech as a positive right goes to the extreme of promoting the voices of marginalized communities (i.e. communities that have been systematically discriminated against by both social and legal norms) at the expense of suppressing voices from groups that are usually named as complicit in or enablers of said marginalization (usually, this is said to be straight white men). You end your comment with the implication that conservative voices are unjustly drowned out on campus. I will address both these arguments here.

My article framed free speech as a positive right – which means that universities ought to enable voices that are not necessarily being heard to be heard. This is predicated on the status quo being one where said voices are not currently being heard – a “positive right” view of free speech aims to use the right to free speech to ensure that these voices are heard.

The distinction between positive and negative rights is not a value judgement, but instead a philosophical distinction between different rights that are enshrined in liberal democracy. A positive right is something that requires positive/constructive action on the part of an institution for some other individual to fully realize that right – e.g., your right to an attorney, in some cases, requires the government to provide you with one. A negative right requires what might be termed as a “negative duty” on the part of an institution/individual – e.g., “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of assembly” requires Congress to not make laws abridging freedom of assembly, instead of making laws that declare freedom of assembly to be legal. In the former case, the status quo is characterized by the absence of whatever abstract thing the law entitles you to – e.g., you might be too poor to afford an attorney, so a public defender will be provided to you. In the latter case, the status quo is characterized by the presence of that same abstract thing – you assemble with your friends/colleagues in different environments every day, therefore your freedom of assembly is predicated on the government doing nothing to stop you from assembling with your friends/colleagues in different environments.

I can illustrate my argument for framing free speech positively through the following example. According to the Fifth Amendment, no person shall be compelled to be held witness against themselves – i.e., you are under no obligation or duty to incriminate yourself if suspected of committing a crime. Now, consider a situation where a poor, uneducated individual is brought in for interrogation, and a confession is coerced out of them because they falsely believe that they are legally obligated to do so. If the Fifth Amendment is framed as a negative right, then this becomes a case of “caveat emptor,” where this individual ought to have known beforehand what their rights were. But, under the status quo, they didn’t, and were thus unfairly subjected to interrogation and trial. Framing this as a positive right would mean that investigators would have to proactively enforce the Fifth Amendment, i.e., inform this individual as to what their constitutional rights are, and provide them with appropriate guidance in fully exercising this right. Without proactively enforcing the Fifth Amendment, you would have a disproportionate number of poor and uneducated individuals being convicted of crimes that they did not commit, solely because they believed that they had to confess to something if taken into custody, even if they didn’t do it.

Applying the same framework to free speech within the context of a university means proactively making sure that marginalized voices are heard. These communities are referred to as marginalized because they collectively suffer worse socioeconomic and legal outcomes than the majority, mainly due to an immutable characteristic like race, religion or sexual orientation (e.g., black people are incarcerated at much higher rates for the same crime than white people, LGBTQ people are more likely to be homeless, women, on average, make less money than men). Framing free speech as a positive right means that the university ought to proactively ensure that these voices are heard – e.g., having a space dedicated to LGBTQ expression, or funding a Chicano Studies center.

Now that I’ve laid out that framework, the end of your comment says that you hear more from “blacks, lesbians, transgenders et al” than conservatives, especially on campus. You imply that these voices are no longer sidelined on liberal arts college campuses (and Stanford specifically), and that anybody with an Internet connection and a Medium account can make their voice heard, and that it is, in fact, conservatives who are the marginalized minority on campus. I have three points to refute this:

  1. While the voices of these communities might be heard on campus right now, said communities are still marginalized. At Stanford itself, you have disproportionately less representation of black and Latino people in the faculty, as the majority of faculty are still white men, and about 45-50 percent of the student body comes from higher-income backgrounds. This is below the levels expected based on the demographic breakdown of the United States, and a consequence of a history of exclusion of women, people of color and LGBTQ communities in higher education. Therefore, despite these communities now playing pivotal roles in campus discourse, their position is nowhere near dominant and is, in fact, precarious.
  2. It is evident that Stanford is both an elite institution and an engine of wealth creation and socioeconomic and political change. It is also evident that Stanford is not an insular ivory tower; our faculty and researchers effect massive change in the world beyond Palm Drive through their work and as a consequence of their reputations, and our students go on to do the same once we graduate. Indeed, our mission statement states that the purpose of the university is to “promote the public welfare by exercising an influence in [sic] behalf of humanity and civilization.” I doubt that anyone will argue that promoting the public welfare on behalf of humanity and civilization does not entail righting the wrongs of history. Given that Stanford has such an outsized influence on the world outside – a world where the aforementioned communities are disproportionately underrepresented in business, media, academia and government and face higher rates of poverty, poor social outcomes and violence – Stanford thus has an obligation to itself to help end marginalization on campus. One way to do so is ensure that their voices are prominently heard on campus.
  3. While it is true that the majority of students and faculty on this campus tend to identify as liberal/progressive/left-leaning, it is a bit of a stretch to say that conservative voices are actively suppressed on campus. The Stanford Review is an example of a conservative publication that’s widely read; we have columnists at The Daily critiquing liberalism/progressivism every week. This is all part of healthy debate, and the university has an obligation to provide a platform for such discourse. However, in the era of “alternative facts” and rising hate crimes, it is imperative that the discourse in which we engage is grounded in empirical evidence and free from the personal insults, bigotry and intellectually dishonest hogwash that the Right seems to have adopted these days. Therefore, I do not think that the university should host a speaker like Richard Spencer, nor that it should host a conference on widely-debunked pseudoscience. Nor do I think that hurling racial slurs willy-nilly should be without social or practical consequences. However, I think it is imperative for the university to have a reasoned debate between left-leaning and right-leaning approaches on ending poverty or combating climate change, assuming that these debates are rooted in empirical methods.

When living within the bounds of zip code 94305 (colloquially known as the “Stanford bubble”), it is easy to think that conservatives do not exist or have little power. I used to think this during my first two years – suddenly, I was uncomfortable saying things that I would never have gotten flak for in high school, or I felt that I could not positively assert an opinion contrary to what was popular. The biggest example of this was the movement to divest from companies that did business with the Israeli government – I thought then, and I still do now, that the BDS movement is wrong.

However, spending six months away from Stanford reshaped my perspective drastically. Outside of Stanford, the world was still unfathomably cruel towards marginalized communities and voices. Whether this was Republicans in Congress bullying climate scientists for doing their job, right-wing political groups pouring money into campaigns to defang consumer and environmental protections or governments around the world using state apparatuses to silence journalists and dissidents, it was evident that real power still belonged to traditionalists and conservatives, and that whatever power the Stanford Students of Color Coalition had was drastically reduced the moment you crossed El Camino and entered Palo Alto.

Nor was it apparent that marginalized communities had made the astronomical gains towards equality that the Right keeps harping on about. I felt this particularly as an Indian-American and de facto immigrant interning for a Congressman on Capitol Hill. A number of my boss’s constituents had no qualms about asking me if I was here legally or employed by a call center when they called in. I was shocked to find out that there was only one Indian-American Congressman in the Capitol during my time there. But what really got me was the reaction of an Indian-American couple in their 70s to whom I gave a tour of the Capitol. At the end of the tour, they were both moved to tears – never had they imagined, they said, that they would have a college student with the same accent as them showing them around the center of the American government. Within the rainbow coalition that is the Stanford student body, I had never imagined that such an experience would be unimaginable to anybody, but here was the proof, right in front of me.

Outside of the liberal arts university, there is a huge network of right-wing think tanks, non-profits and advocacy groups. Usually, these groups are well-funded, work hand-in-glove with big business and harken back to a past where government did not provide so many positive rights and certain communities were much more marginalized than they currently are. Their reasons for this range from narrow self-interest towards concerns over the modern technocratic state exceeding appropriate limits of state power. While there are also large networks of left-leaning think tanks, non-profits and advocacy groups, one thing that is indisputable is that there are few groups representing marginalized communities that can be said to have that much power – looking at electoral outcomes alone, it is clear that the Koch Network wields more power than the NAACP.

Conservatives on campus have always called on the Left to leave their coastal enclaves and look at the “real world.” Leftists/progressives/liberals have been doing so for years, and they have rather truthfully concluded that the real world sucks, especially for specific communities – black people, poor people, LGBTQ people, etc. Universities are one institution where their voices and demand for respect can be heard – and that, too, is only up to a limit and still with significant pushback from skeptics such as you and me.

One of the most impactful experiences of my time on the Capitol was a meeting with Senator Cory Booker ’91. Having grown up in an era of campus activism as frenetic as ours, he knew what we were thinking and what values we had in common. As we were leaving, I remember him giving us the following warning:

“You’d be amazed at the kinds of things people say over here. Stuff that you could never repeat in public on campus. But you have to live with it, and keep moving forward.”

One of the ways we can move forward is by promoting the voices of those who aren’t being heard enough outside of the university. Is it really a problem if the university attempts to elevate these voices and makes them heard to a larger audience, or if students from those communities develop the courage to voice themselves with strength and conviction? I do not think so.


Contact Arnav Mariwala at arnavm ‘at’ stanford.edu.