By Iain Espey
I followed last week’s pissing contest between The Stanford Review and David Palumbo-Liu with perverse delight. Catfights like this don’t come along often enough in student journalism, and in otherwise despondent times (winter quarter, I mean) such performative spite is a welcome distraction from the darker aspects of our current reality (mass druggings, say). At first, I wished desperately for my own dog in this fight; rarely can I resist an opportunity to air my opinions, especially when they’re unsolicited. Name-calling is good fun, yet what will prove more productive in this fetid, sorry excuse for a dialogue is a skeptical examination of the terms involved.
I stifle a gag at the thought of siding fully with either party here, but at risk of sounding like I’m doing just that, I must credit Palumbo-Liu for elevating the conversation by way of that most slippery and timely of phrase: free speech. Palumbo-Liu finds common ground with The Review in pointing out that, as a private institution, Stanford can and should determine its own values and regulate speech in this community accordingly. I’d like to make explicit the more interesting problem lurking in Palumbo-Liu’s response; that is, what form those regulations should take and in what cases they should be deployed.
We must draw a distinction between free speech conceived of as an institutionally protected negative freedom and the conviction that engaging opinions you find objectionable or offensive is a productive pursuit, both for the individual and society. The former is less at issue here and, I think, far less interesting, and if it sounds like I’m beating my same old drum, it’s only because I care immensely about this issue. Here’s why: If you want to oppose something effectively, you must understand it. What better way to delegitimize an opponent than hear him out and critique the specifics of their arguments? If you want to understand an ideology, you must scrutinize it seriously but sympathetically. Failing to do so squanders the privilege of a Stanford education and forsakes your own intellectual development in favor of willful ignorance.
Palumbo-Liu aptly identifies The Review’s strategy as one relying on, “McCarthyist guilt by association” and yet, disappointingly, his essay takes the same tack. He positions The Review as agents of the alt-right and the faults of the argument in their initial article as intentionally devious tactics. What, then, does it say of a group who invites Robert Spencer to speak on campus? Precisely that they want to listen to what Robert Spencer has to say and have the chance to engage him on his arguments in person. Hearing out is not, on its own, proof of condoning.
You may rightly point out that a clear difference exists between, for instance, reading an article online and paying for its author to speak at your event. Consider this line of argument: One can be identified as a racist to some degree if he says at least some racist things. However, everything he says will not turn out to be racist. I challenge you to think of a single person with whom you concur perfectly in every opinion. You may end up disagreeing particularly with Richard Spencer or David Palumbo-Liu but you have no a priori means of knowing you will. You must evaluate each claim a speaker makes, and to do that you must listen.
To listen, you must not be prevented from hearing. The Review is correct in believing Antifa disrupts and infringes upon the rights of others. They don’t protest, they disrupt, so it seems fair game, maybe even a moral imperative for a conservative-leaning publication, to criticize such a group. Yet singling out a distinguished member of the Stanford faculty as an excuse for attacking a larger entity is in unforgivably poor taste, especially when you make your case so shoddily. Talk issues, don’t take unnecessary casualties.
Suppose Stanford were predominantly conservative (tough to imagine, I know; goodbye compost bins, co-ops and community centers!) and the Stanford Democrats were publicly crucified for inviting a controversial liberal speaker to campus. Would that piss you off? With the obvious (and boringly straightforward) exception of immediate incitement of violence, views different from your own are something you ought to seek out no matter what you already believe. Easier said than done, of course.
When I read Palumbo-Liu’s response, my fear is how closely his rhetoric lines up with the excuses Antifa members use, even if he himself bears no direct responsibility for their lawless conduct. Search “Antifa interview” on Youtube and you’ll learn how few of these so-called activists are capable of doing much more than spouting vague accusations (He’s a racist! Homophobic! A fascist!). Few can produce arguments to demonstrate why their accusations apply to the specific speakers they protest; fewer still seem interested in doing so at all. This is why I find Palumbo-Liu’s failure in the conclusion of his response to clarify what precisely constitutes fascist activity disingenuous at best, at worst, dishonest. His essay is “undeniably” above the level of The Review’s muck, but in the end it’s still tough to tell the pot from the kettle.