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In defense of counter-speech: A liberal response to The Stanford Sphere

On Nov. 3, the Stanford Sphere’s editorial board published a piece titled, “Right Wing Trolls on Campus Don’t Deserve Your Time.” Its argument echoed another piece published by The Sphere’s editor Ravi Veriah Jacques last April, titled, “It’s Time to Let the Right Win on Campus.”

Both pieces share a similar argument: A small group of campus conservatives manufacture controversy – in order to gain any sense of relevancy on an otherwise indifferent and/or liberal campus – by soliciting speakers from a narrow class of professional provocateurs. To the College Republicans, the beliefs of these speakers – Ben Shapiro, Ann Coulter, Dinesh D’Souza, Robert Spencer, Charles Murray, Richard Spencer, Charlie Kirk, Candace Owens, Milo Yiannopoulos, etc. – are secondary to their provocation. And while college liberals should rightly object to these speakers, they are too often forced to react and waste their time objecting to the “endless provocation of right-wing hacks” instead of investing their energy in meaningful activism. Put simply, why feed the troll, when you can just leave it, screaming or silent, to starve?

The Sphere’s argument is tempting. A pluralistic society necessarily generates tension because there is no perfect cohesion between free speech and inclusion. Why should College Republicans’ desire to provoke so disproportionately absorb the predominantly liberal student body’s time and energy, when ultimately the conservatives’ agendas are themselves reactionary and outmoded? Liberal students, particularly at a university predicated upon so much inequality and with such disproportionate privilege, should utilize this opportunity to create change.

But The Sphere’s argument falls short on two critical points in my opinion. First, college Republicans are not just trying to provoke liberal students. Sure, they likely have fun “trolling or sticking it to the libs,” but they’re aspiring to something more consequential. Through these speakers, they are looking to debase the fundamental nature of academic discourse at the university. It is not merely incidental that few of the conservative speakers coming college campuses have substantiated academic credentials – none of these speakers would ever be invited by an academic department.

Nor is it a coincidence that each of these speakers has a speaking platform based primarily against acknowledging the existence of systems of oppression, diversity, inclusion, identity politics, political correctness, etc. These speakers and the College Republicans are seeking to make their attacks on personal identity, diversity and inclusion a matter of academic and intellectual discussion, or at least to so severely blur the distinction between this hatred and academic speculation that the university loses its intellectual authority.

Liberal students cannot just phase out these conservative provocations, precisely because these events are not isolated or discrete, but a continuous process of anti-intellectualism and anti-empiricism, promoted directly by “conservative activism” in America for the last 30 years – a process carried out most directly through attacking the belonging and inclusion of our most vulnerable communities. And beyond a defense of intellectualism, it’s worth noting that the university is not an inhuman thought factory or even an abstract corporate “marketplace of ideas,” but a community, where students, faculty and workers exist together.

And it’s precisely this sense of community that I want to emphasize in my second point. The Sphere incorrectly criticizes the energy expended by liberal activists as being a matter of individual choice, rather than an administrative and institutional failure to properly build and regulate our student communities. Liberals have needed to organize coalitions, write op-eds, etc. precisely because our current institutional response has been so severely lacking.  

The provost and president have been strong in their support of abstract values like free speech and inclusion, but have often been tepid in their condemnations and responses to expressions of hatred and bigotry on campus. In the wake of Stanford College Republicans’ attacks on students and professors in our community, they have delegated direct criticisms of campus politics to other administrators like Susie Brubaker-Cole’s joint post on the Spencer event, and they have unnecessarily prioritized the development of failed programs like Cardinal Conversations, which ignore the central problem of campus discourse: It is not that we have a lack of substantive, intellectual political dialogue – instead, we have an excess of deliberately hateful, anti-intellectual noise.

And the administration has failed to substantially address the institutional cause of this problem: a lack of articulated values for academic discourse or an actionable set of community norms for students and our organizations. For example, Student Activities and Leadership (SAL) hasn’t transparently replied to petitions and complaints about Stanford College Republicans’ potential student group violations. And as of now, there’s no transparent model for actually holding any group accountable for its speech or actions since the webpage for the SAL Fundamental Standard has been “under construction” all year.

To that end, I’m excited about the ASSU’s new position for Academic Freedom Director held by Zintis Inde Ph.D. ’19. That ASSU has provided funding for groups’ speaker invitations on a procedural basis thus far is a matter of convention and culture rather than one of the first amendment or the Leonard Law (as the 2014 GSC denial of the Anscombe society’s funding request demonstrates) – and to that end, how we enforce our values as a community is a continuing conversation.

 

Contact Justin Wilck at jwilck ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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