Free Speech is for White People: Sam Harris Edition

I about threw my coffee mug into a wall just now. I just read this from the Sam Harris Blog:

I consider Salon to be among the worst offenders of the new pseudo-journalism, and I have long maintained a personal boycott of the website. I ask my publishers to ignore any requests from its editors for interviews or for review copies of my books. And on the rare occasions that Salon publishes good work—the articles of Jeffrey Tayler stand out—I decline to forward the links on social media. My reason is simple: Despite the work of a few blameless writers, Salon has become a cesspool of lies and moral confusion.

However, in response to the repeated requests of one Salon writer, Sean Illing, I decided to make an exception. I agreed to do an interview with Illing under two conditions: 1) I would get final approval of all the words attributed to me; 2) I could say whatever I wanted about Salon. These conditions were agreed to, and I spent several hours producing the following exchange by phone and email.

In the end, Salon published a bowdlerized version of my interview, cutting out the parts that were critical of the website. I don’t blame Illing for this. He was a pleasure to correspond with and appears to have made his best effort to get the whole text of our conversation published. And I’m actually happy that his editors decided to help make my case for me by further demonstrating their lack of integrity. Salon is irredeemable. I urge the few talented writers left there to flee a sinking ship.

Taking Harris at face-value here—not something I’m actually inclined to do, but whatever—it was bad for a reporter to say they’d violate basic journalistic practice and then go back on that. Both parts of that are a problem. Journalists can and should edit interviews, though we can argue about whether or not Harris was misrepresented. The point is, they should make that clear upfront. It is unusual for the subject to have editorial control, which is what Harris should have been told. Once such a bargain is struck, it is also unethical to go back on it; obtaining an interview under false pretenses is not generally considered ethical. My intuition here is that an editor cut them because Illing made a deal he should not have, but the correct thing to do was probably to pull the interview and reprimand Illing.

We can spend some time parsing if the cut would have been fair under normal editorial standards, but I’m going to punt on those issues for the most part. That is, I want to treat whether or not Harris was right to feel slighted by the particular cut as separate from the issues of editorial control. I want to juxtapose this with another big issue about coverage from just a few weeks ago. One that Harris alludes to in the section that was cut.

When Harris mentions in the cut part “political correctness and masochism”, he is alluding to the left’s attempts sway publications towards a certain narrative. I’m on record as being sympathetic to this, albeit with qualifications, so I will not pretend to be all that worried that Salon has openly advocated for it. But it is awfully rich to claim to be worried about the wrong narrative and journalistic integrity while complaining that a publication did not let you edit your own interview.

When protesters at universities have tried to bar journalists from covering or put conditions on access, they are doing almost exactly what Harris was. In both cases they worried that they would be misrepresented and tried to leverage their positions into what they judged was fair coverage. The main difference is that Harris, with his extraordinary privilege, parlayed a deal while the protesters often had to take a more confrontational route to assert themselves. Harris gets to dress up his complaints about unfair coverage in respectability while black protesters have to fight for their narrative.

To be sure, this isn’t to say I think every protest and every protester handled the press correctly—they did not. Likewise, I’ve been pretty candid that Harris has a legitimate beef with how this handled because of the multiple failures on Salon’s part. What I want to know is where is the outrage that Harris tried to make a deal with reporters to undermine the independence of the press? Why is this not a threat to the press? Why are black protesters an existential threat to democracy, but Harris demanding control of the press is not?

Right. Free speech is meant to work for white people.

Why This Blog Will Never Say it is Too Soon to Talk Politics on Political Violence

I don’t have the words to express my sorrow at the Paris attacks. I’ve been out of words to talk about terrorist attacks for a long time. Watching Syria, a place many of my friends and acquaintances and even a few former students have roots, be torn between terrorist violence and state violence has left me without words. I lack the imagination to understand what happened in Paris or what living under the threat of bombing is like or any of the other myriads of tragedies. And so I cannot find the words.

But a lot of people have the words.

Many people have started writing, trying to make sense of it.

One thing people are saying is that it is too soon to talk politics. I get this. This is a time of grief. I certainly respect anyone who wants to remove themselves from the conversation and grieve. More, not everyone bringing up politics is doing it in good faith—I certainly mean to give them no aid and comfort.

But I think to make that our societal rule dishonors the people who die in political violence. There is a connection between French Colonialism, neo-Colonialism, and what happened in Paris. There is a connection between the politics and policies of France and the violence that happened there. Western policy for two centuries gave us IS and that did not end in Paris. There can be no pretending that political violence is somehow divorced from politics.

Again, if you don’t want to pretend but rather step away from that, you do not need my permission. This is not carte blanche to say whatever you want about Paris—speech about politics should be thoughtful and subject to scrutiny. It is just asking that we acknowledge that deaths by political violence are necessarily political.

Free Speech and Calling for People to be Fired, Part 109,932

This is part 109,932 of my four bajillion part series on bad criticisms of social justice concepts. This time, we find ourselves at Yale University, but with significantly lower tuition costs. It is going to take a moment to go through the entirety of the kerfuffle, but stay with me.

As you should be aware, Halloween is the time of year when white folks dress up like stereotypes of people they have spent the last five centuries oppressing and then get petulant when it is suggested that might be in bad taste. Yale’s multicultural office sent out an email saying, basically, if your costume is made to belittle a group of people, don’t. They offered some resources.

Then, Erika Christakis sent out a response email that is being hailed as a truth bomb by the usual suspects. There is so much here to unpack. It is going to have to happen line-by-line.

Nicholas and I have heard from a number of students who were frustrated by the mass email sent to the student body about appropriate Halloween-wear. I’ve always found Halloween an interesting embodiment of more general adult worries about young people. As some of you may be aware, I teach a class on “The Concept of the Problem Child,” and I was speaking with some of my students yesterday about the ways in which Halloween – traditionally a day of subversion for children and young people – is also an occasion for adults to exert their control.

Okay, so far so good. Though, it is kind of weird this is about pre-schoolers when the real question is about college kids.

When I was young, adults were freaked out by the specter of Halloween candy poisoned by lunatics, or spiked with razor blades (despite the absence of a single recorded case of such an event). Now, we’ve grown to fear the sugary candy itself. And this year, we seem afraid that college students are unable to decide how to dress themselves on Halloween.

Are you implying anti-racist efforts are just mass hysteria? Because I think you are.

I don’t wish to trivialize genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation, and other challenges to our lived experience in a plural community.

Then don’t compare it to things that never happened? This is grade A concern trolling. 10 Points to Slytherin!

I know that many decent people have proposed guidelines on Halloween costumes from a spirit of avoiding hurt and offense. I laud those goals, in theory, as most of us do. But in practice, I wonder if we should reflect more transparently, as a community, on the consequences of an institutional (which is to say: bureaucratic and administrative) exercise of implied control over college students.

This sets the theme for the rest of my response. The standard here for far-reaching control and impact is very low. It is set at offering suggestions and asking students to consider them. Or, as we call it in education, teaching.

It seems to me that we can have this discussion of costumes on many levels: we can talk about complex issues of identify, free speech, cultural appropriation, and virtue “signalling.” But I wanted to share my thoughts with you from a totally different angle, as an educator concerned with the developmental stages of childhood and young adulthood.

Because there is literally nothing derailing about making this about 3-year-olds. That is not literally infantalizing nor is it in any sense misdirection.

As a former preschool teacher, for example, it is hard for me to give credence to a claim that there is something objectionably “appropriative” about a blonde-haired child’s wanting to be Mulan for a day. Pretend play is the foundation of most cognitive tasks, and it seems to me that we want to be in the business of encouraging the exercise of imagination, not constraining it.

I will actually grant Christakis the point, though with a caveat. While the child may not be aware of the racial dynamics, what better time than pre-school to have a conversation about them? Gentle, and broad. “You have to think about how people feel about your actions.” If they mention race, “Race is a sensitive topic for a lot of people and leads to hurt feelings, so we have to think about our impacts on people.” In the best spirit of Mr. Rogers, famous for giving simple advice about living to adults that was not so different from what he told kids, the Yale diversity office actually wrote the grown-up version of that in an email.

Almost as if they were providing guidance to young adults as their role at an educational institution.

I suppose we could agree that there is a difference between fantasizing about an individual character vs. appropriating a culture, wholesale, the latter of which could be seen as (tacky)(offensive)(jejeune)(hurtful), take your pick. But, then, I wonder what is the statute of limitations on dreaming of dressing as Tiana the Frog Princess if you aren’t a black girl from New Orleans? Is it okay if you are eight, but not 18? I don’t know the answer to these questions; they seem unanswerable. Or at the least, they put us on slippery terrain that I, for one, prefer not to cross.

They are answerable. Dressing up as Tiana is fine, even as an adult. (At least as fine as the original work, and there are legitimate questions about The Frog Princess. The following discounts that for simplicity.) Dressing up as Tiana using blackface is always wrong.

If you go back to the original email, the multicultural office offered this litmus test for race: “Does this costume reduce cultural differences to jokes or stereotypes?” The answer for a Tiana costume as a rule seems to be “no”. It is dressing up as a specific character. Frankly, if Christakis feels that it is hard to define and a slippery slope, then she is willfully misinterpreting the original email.

Which is my point. I don’t, actually, trust myself to foist my Halloweenish standards and motives on others. I can’t defend them anymore than you could defend yours. Why do we dress up on Halloween, anyway? Should we start explaining that too? I’ve always been a good mimic and I enjoy accents. I love to travel, too, and have been to every continent but Antarctica. When I lived in Bangladesh, I bought a sari because it was beautiful, even though I looked stupid in it and never wore it once. Am I fetishizing and appropriating others’ cultural experiences? Probably. But I really, really like them too.

Provided without further comment. (Emphasis added.)

Even if we could agree on how to avoid offense, […] I wonder, and I am not trying to be provocative: Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious…a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?

Is this a joke? Christakis is arguing, with no apparent irony, that kids will be kids. Yes, of course. But is there no room anymore for Universities to teach them to be adults? Kids will be kids is what teachers say over drinks when venting, not when setting policy. Kids will be kids is why I believe efforts like Yale’s multicultural office are necessary and why it has a shot at working. They might learn something. It is bad teachers who offer it as an excuse, rather than an explanation.

—and I’ll note that no one around campus seems overly concerned about the offense taken by religiously conservative folks to skin-revealing costumes—

Today in conversations I’m tired of having: this is not solely about offense. It is also about power. Religious folks who oppose the baring of skin do not have a long history in our society of being killed and enslaved. Literally the opposite, actually. Also worth noting that Yale’s multicultural office mentions religions explicitly. “Does this costume mock or belittle someone’s deeply held faith tradition?” So, actually, it is like faith is in play, but in terms of power, not offense.

Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive? American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition.

No, it was a place of regressive censorship. The idea that university should be open to women, racial minorities, and even certain religious groups is new. We have never fully realized that vision, and this controversy is just the latest chapter in that saga.

And the censure and prohibition come from above, not from yourselves! Are we all okay with this transfer of power? Have we lost faith in young people’s capacity—in your capacity—to exercise self-censure, through social norming, and also in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you?

Obviously?

But also, let me reiterate a theme here: Do we sincerely believe university institutions have no role in educating students about these issues?

We tend to view this shift from individual to institutional agency as a tradeoff between libertarian vs. liberal values (“liberal” in the American, not European sense of the word).

Christakis should be made aware that this kind of guidance, rather than formal sanction, is also a new trend in the history of academia. Starting with the Post-War generation, there was more freedom on campus. The way this would have been handled (with today’s racial values) would be threatening fines, suspensions, or expulsion. This gentle exhortation that students exercise judgement is the new libertarian view of managing a campus.

Nicholas says, if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.

Sound advice. But the implication that asking educational institutions—have I said this enough?—to take measured steps to encourage their students to think and educate themselves is somehow controlling is ludicrous. This is the literally the least the university could do and still claim to have reached out to everyone. They gave advice about what might be hurtful and offered some pictures as guidance. Then they let the student body make up its mind.

But—again, speaking as a child development specialist—I think there might be something missing in our discourse about the exercise of free speech (including how we dress ourselves) on campus, and it is this: What does this debate about Halloween costumes say about our view of young adults, of their strength and judgment?

It says that we think students have arrived at college with a poor understanding of race and poor judgement around costumes. It says we think some education at college—radical though that is—might be in order.

In other words: Whose business is it to control the forms of costumes of young people? It’s not mine, I know that.

Right! So, when people use their free speech to call for your resignation or firing, it might just be because you don’t see the education of students as a priority. See why that might upset people at a college campus?

Or should I explain it in terms that compare you to a pre-schooler?

Barack Obama is a Member of the KKK

A Lesson in Being Skeptical

I mean, you’ve already deduced that the title here is false. One might accuse me of having put it there to, let’s say, bait for clicks. And to a point, guilty as charged. But I’ve got a real point too.

My first warning that something might just maybe be amiss on the purported KKK dump was that Indiana Senator Dan Coates was on it. I am not fan of Coates, but by red-state standards he is pretty moderate. He is something of a fossil, having returned to Congress after serving the 90s. He’s adapted to this more extreme era, but he has leaned much more moderate than many of the newer Senators. While his track record on race leaves much to be desired, he does not fit the profile for KKK member.

Remember: Accusing someone of being a member of the KKK is accusing them of being a terrorist.

Vox has a good rundown on why you should not believe the evidence that has been released, why we might have more credible evidence coming, and some context around it. The part that caught my eye is here:

But the most important thing to know about these lists is that the people who posted them seem to believe that anyone whose contact information is in a KKK database must be a KKK member.

I get a lot of political emails. And truthfully, most of them go unread. But there are a number of organizations that have my contact information exactly because I disagree with them. The National Organization for Marriage, the Indiana Family Institute, and Florida Family Association all send me updates. I endorse none of them—I get their public dispatches because at one time or another it was useful for me to know their public statements. The longer you organize or politic, the more people you disagree with end up with your name in their black book.

I would like to know how Coates ended up on the list. His few minutes of embarrassment explaining why he gets KKK emails should suffice. I would especially love if his answer were, “Because I’m announcing my new anti-racist platform we’ve been developing.” I won’t hold my breath.

It is easy to accuse someone being a member of the KKK. (SERIOUSLY GUYS, BARACK OBAMA IS A MEMBER OF THE KKK! SERIOUSLY!!!) It is harder to provide evidence for such claims. We should probably treat Thursday’s dox—and make no mistake, this is a dox—with some skepticism as well.

But they at least seem to have decided on a respectable standard of proof.