The White House Correspondents Dinner at the end of last month sent social media and the commentariat alight once again, reporting a scandal where the only scandal is how easy it is for persons across the political spectrum to be scandalized by what is, in fact, the healthy efflorescence of expression in a free society. This time, the source is Michelle Wolf’s routine at the Dinner, viewable in its entirety here. Immediately after her performance, multiple reports of Wolf’s impropriety followed, including a condemnation from Margaret Talev, President of the White House Correspondents Association. These responses themselves were met in turn by sympathetic summaries, such as this one on CNN.
In response to the controversy, it appears that the hosts of the evening, are prepared to make changes. The incoming President of the White House Correspondents Association Olivier Knox believes that “the dinner should be ‘boring,’” and this means that the event should be “focused on journalists and the work of good reporters;” thus, he concludes: “I am very open to suggestions about how to change it.” This, in itself, seems to me scandalous: the idea that the evening dedicated to journalists doing their work in keeping the most powerful people in (what is at least arguably) the most powerful capital in the world, should be boring. In a healthier media and civil society environment, such a statement itself would be an outrage, not Wolf’s satirical routine. Wolf herself has made such a point when she responded to the controversy, saying that she “wouldn’t change a single word that I said,” and that she is “very happy with what I said, and I’m glad I stuck to my guns.” In light of this comprehensive and (in my mind) correct response, what can I contribute to the debate surrounding this recent scandal that is only a scandal because some have decided to be scandalized? My suggestion is that the outraged response to Wolf’s performance — coming as it does largely from actors on the political right-of-center — has gained public traction largely because of their success in describing Wolf’s actions as a kind of “bullying,” combined with a reasonable and right growing consensus that bullying is a grave evil. I, too, agree that bullying is grave evil; I dissent, however, from what seems like a widespread view that the mere expression of difficult truths, or provocative opinions, constitutes a form of bullying that is described as the disruption of “safe spaces.”
The controversy concerning classrooms (at all educational levels) as safe spaces is not new. But as reported in the Guardian, there is new evidence for it, as for instance in a report of the Joint Committee for Human Rights, a Parliamentary select committee in the UK. The committee concludes (here I quote from the Committee’s Report, p. 20) that while “most student union officers who responded to our survey (comprising 33 responses in all) say they are confident that they and their companions can speak freely,” it cannot be denied that there “are real problems which act as disincentives for students to put on challenging events,” and further that “such disincentives could be having a wider chilling effect, which is hard to measure.” Broadly speaking, it seems as though the Joint Committee has in mind a “piggy-backing” relation between free expression in academic settings and in society at large, where a healthy free speech environment depends on members of academic campus communities feeling welcome to host and contribute to events where matters of (perhaps profound) controversy will be discussed openly. This is impossible in situations where — as the Committee believes is the case in (at least some spaces within at least certain) British universities today — communities are “disincentivized” from participating in or contributing to such events, through possible disciplinary action or loss of student union funds.
It is in light of this report that I want to read the response to the Wolf’s performance. If we are really going to take seriously the claim that Wolf’s performance of political satire — which any honest assessment would recognize as in every way in keeping with the general pattern of greater or less “civility” in the satirical performances at the Dinner over time — merits condemnation, then we can only expect the worst fears of the JCHR with respect to British universities to come true in the American public sphere. And worse.
Yet, this refraction of the conclusion of this JCHR report through the public discourse around Wolf’s performance is interestingly refracted by research Matthew Yglesias discussed recently in Vox, which actually shows a growing support for free speech on college and university. Yglesias’s key conclusion regarding the findings is this: “Overall public support for free speech is rising over time, not falling. People on the political right are less supportive of free speech than people on the left. College graduates are more supportive than non-graduates. Indeed, a 2016 Knight Foundation survey showed that college students are less likely than the overall population to support restrictions on speech on campus.” This would seem to imply, contrary to the working presupposition I have followed until here, that it is false to assert that the increasing sensitization to the potential psychological and personal dignity harms of controversial speech contributes to a general discursive situation where (even) a performance like Wolf’s can prove “beyond the pale.” Rather, if Yglesias and his sources are right, universities remain a bastion against limitations on putatively controversial speech. Further, to the extent that speech is endangered, Ygelias’s intervention suggests, it is not the kind of “provocative free speech” I have been addressing in earlier pieces on this theme (think: Spencer, Milo, Murray, Shapiro) that is somehow “endangered.” Rather, it is the speech of those most systematically marginalized in American society more widely (especially Muslims) that is held to be subject to legitimate exclusion by those who welcome curtailing speech rights.
So, which is it? Is the “safe space” movement contributing to an environment in which the overall commitment to free speech is declining, or at least stagnating, as I contended above and as the JCHR report suggests? Or is the post-secondary classroom still the best place to buttress citizens’ commitment to robust free expression, as Yglesias, Sachs and the Knight Foundation report suggest? One clear response, if an unfortunate dodge, is to say that the empirical data is lacking, especially when we face (as we do here) the need to compare the experience in the US and the UK on a sound basis . Yet, even without a definitive empirical analysis, it is not difficult to make an argument for both reports being right. That is, nothing prevents it being the case — while we amass further data to determine the question definitively — that both claims are true. First, that pursuing a higher education is still the best safeguard of a robust commitment to free expression, including or especially the freedom to say things that are unpopular or (potentially or actually) offensive. Second, that higher education institutions, and in particular the administrations that guard student “well-being” above all else, and pressure faculty to do the same, are privileging a false idol of “safety” to the detriment not only of the freedom of expression, but also of the commitment, on principle, thereto. This, in my humble opinion and judging from my experience in a variety of post-secondary educational environments (public and private, in the US, Europe and Israel) over the past 25 years, is in fact the case.
If I am right, my contribution to the conversation here is more or less to reiterate the defense of her speech offered by “J.K.” and those “old-school liberals” at The Economist: that to expect anything else from Wolf than the kind of unapologetic and possibly offensive (to some) satire that she offered is a sign of “servile” and not a “civil” public sphere. With the added proviso that, should we waver in the slightest degree in our commitment to college and universities classrooms being a space entirely free of that kind of servility, we can expect more “allies” in the center and center-left, joining with the conveniently offended conservatives the next time someone refuses to be civil/servile in speaking truth to power. And I assert, notwithstanding Ygelsias’ review of the Knight Foundation report, there are reasons to believe that at least some in that post-secondary education space are wavering in that commitment. Anyone offended by the faux-offense taken in response to Wolf’s performance ought to join me in condemning any attempt to mitigate the freedom of expression in such spaces, lest we find ourselves unable to answer the false charge that speech like Wolf’s is itself offensive and triggering.
Michael Weinman is Professor of Philosophy at Bard College Berlin and the author of: The Parthenon and Liberal Education (SUNY 2018), Language, Time, and Identity in Woolf’s The Waves (Lexington 2012) and Pleasure in Aristotle’s Ethics (Continuum 2007).