Free speech is an incendiary issue in current American political debate. This debate has exploded on college campuses, becoming a flash point for the American culture war. Arguably, more than any other single issue, the status of speech has taken center stage in the eternal fight between the left and the right.
It is thus the perfect time for Uli Baer’s* just launched “Think About It,” a podcast devoted to “the power of ideas and how language can change the world.” The first thirty discussions directly tackle the problem of free speech. For example, Joan Wallach Scott, professor emerita at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton asks, “Who has the right to speak on campus?;” the never boring Stanley Fish insists “There’s No Such Thing As Free Speech!;” and Columbia philosophy professor Akeel Bilgrami inquires, “Does social justice need free speech?” Baer’s podcast is extraordinarily rich in ideas and provocations, and is as intelligent as they come. Just to whet your appetite, additional discussions and guests include:
“What is at stake for the university in the speech debates?” with Prudence L. Carter, Dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley, and Professor of Sociology;
“What are the biggest threats to free expression today?” with Suzanne Nossel, Executive Director of PEN America;
“Could limits on speech result in totalitarianism?” with Jeremy Waldron, University Professor in the School of Law at New York University;
“Why does America think so differently about speech from the rest of the world?” with Julie Suk, former Professor of Law at Cardozo, currently at the CUNY Graduate Center;
“Is believing in free speech a little like believing in Santa Claus?” with Carolyn Rouse, Professor of Anthropology at Princeton University;
“Can Hate Speech Only Be Countered With More Speech?” with Nadine Strossen, former President of the ACLU and current professor at New York Law School.
Buddhist readers of this blog might take this opportunity to reflect on the effects that their “right-speech” principle has on shared discourse. I have argued elsewhere on this blog that the “right-speech” prescription too often amounts to a subtly coercive form of self-imposed censorship. Virtually all of the discussion in Uli Baer’s podcast can be transposed from the university to the sangha. Buddhist readers might thus ask, for instance: “What is at stake for the sangha in the right-speech debates?” or even “Could limits on the sangha’s speech result in a kind of x-buddhist thought-totalitarianism?”
Well, can we at least “Think About It“!?
*Ulrich Baer is University Professor of German and Comparative Literature at New York University. He is the author of numerous books and articles, including a volume of short stories and a novel. Concerning the topic of free speech on university campuses, he has been to hell and back. I am referring to an article he wrote for the New York Times in 2017 that catalyzed a frenzied response from both the left and the right. That article, “What ‘Snowflakes’ Get Right About Free Speech,” is also the title of his forthcoming book, which has the subtitle On Speech, Equality, and Truth in the Age of Trump.