Famed biologist James Watson has become the latest would-be campus speaker to be disinvited for political reasons, according to Jerry Coyne. One would think that the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA would make for an excellent guest speaker at NYU’s medical school, but Watson has said some controversial things in the past, so his speech was canceled when students complained.
Many NR readers are familiar with Theodore Dalrymple’s observation that the purpose of Soviet propaganda was “not to persuade or convince, not to inform, but to humiliate; and therefore, the less it corresponded to reality the better.” The idea is that having to accept obvious untruths gradually dulls people’s senses and makes them more malleable, which is a technique that Dalrymple also attributed to modern-day political correctness. I always thought the comparison was a bit overdramatic, but now I’m beginning to get a similar vibe when I read the justifications that universities offer for disinviting speakers.
NYU’s explanation is indeed humiliating for anyone who must pretend it makes sense. It first praises the students who demanded censorship, then claims its commitment to “tolerance” prevents the school from allowing other points of view, then announces a new event on “inclusion and diversity” for which it promises – with no sense of irony – that “we invite all voices to be heard.”
We would like to take this opportunity to commend the students, deans, and faculty who have been involved in this discussion for their devotion to our shared community. At NYU, we have a strong commitment to equality as well as freedom of speech, and the right balance between these is not always easy to determine. While we may have differences of opinion, we also have tolerance. The Neuroscience Institute will be partnering with students and administration in holding an open forum on inclusion and diversity in the sciences. Please be alert to future notifications for this event as we invite all voices to be heard.
Perhaps most troubling is the part where the university representatives imply they have been doing some deep soul-searching in order to find the best possible “balance” between free speech and their own views. (Mozilla struck the same pose when it fired its CEO for opposing same-sex marriage.) To state the obvious: If you feel that you need to “balance” your belief in free speech with your desire to avoid hearing opinions you don’t like, then you do not believe in free speech. After all, the whole purpose of free speech as a principle is to protect the kind of speech that some consider wrong or unwanted. We don’t need free speech protections to say things that everyone already agrees with.
When I first started seeing these “We believe in free speech, but…” justifications for campus censorship, I naively assumed that rational people would eventually step in and restore order. It hasn’t happened. For that reason, I fear that every new justification for censorship is, like Dalrymple’s view of propaganda, not necessarily persuading anyone, but eroding the public’s will to object.