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No-Platforming, “Unite the Right,” and New Free Speech Debate

Reexamining the Hannah Arendt Center’s invitation to Marc Jongen

On October 12-13, 2017 — exactly two months after the deadly and morally revolting “Unite the Right Rally” in Charlottesville — the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, held its annual conference, devoted to the theme of “Crises in Democracy: Thinking in Dark Times.” The center’s director, Roger Berkowitz — my friend and colleague — invited Marc Jongen, sometimes dubbed a “Vordenker” (leading thinker/visionary) of the nationalist, anti-Euro (and EU) Alternative für Deutschland(AfD) party, to join Ian Buruma, editor of the New York Review of Books, for a discussion, moderated by Berkowitz, on the question: “Does Democracy Need To Be More Populist?” An intense debate ensued, though not at the event itself, which from the transcript and multiple accounts was not a very acute or inspired interrogation of what is a central question for our time. No, the interesting debate transpired after the event, first on Facebook and listservs, and then in the pages of the Guardian, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the New Yorker, the Washington Post, the Baffler (and elsewhere), with echoes still forthcoming. Indeed, Bard College’s President Leon Botstein, for instance, recently published in the Chronicle of Higher Education  a more sustained — and I would say more seriously reasoned — defense of unlimited free speech on academic campuses, still reflecting on the events at the Hannah Arendt Center in October and the debate he participated in thereafter.

As a Professor of Philosophy at Bard College Berlin honored to collaborate with Berkowitz and the Hannah Arendt Center on events both in New York and here in Berlin, I’d like to reopen this debate to touch upon Berkowitz’s invitation to Jongen itself and examine what light it sheds on the once again topical issue of free speech on American campuses, especially at American colleges and universities. It is easy to see how the opening salvos in the debate, with Berkowitz and Botstein on one side and most of the world’s leading scholars of Arendt on the other, are illustrative of a wider trend. On one side we see (largely center-left) university administrators making the classical liberal defense  of “fierce and open contest of ideas,” along the lines of Mill’s classical defense (1859) of an absolute freedom of thought and expression in On Liberty. Opposed to these, we find students, including Keval Bhatt and Elena Gagovska here on Public Seminar, insisting that such a carte blanche approach to “hearing all views” cannot be seriously advocated in light of “what’s happening today.”

In entering these muddy waters, I will suggest that Richard Spencer’s vendetta against the American academy in general and his alma mater, the University of Virginia, in particular displays the depth of the link between the debate of free speech on university campuses and the challenge to basic rights resting beneath both the events in Charlottesville. With this connection in our sights, I want to ask two questions: What does it mean to be committed to a free and open debate in universities today? What do universities, as spaces of free and open debate, owe or ought to provide to a free and open society more generally?

As it has played out so far, the debate between those who defend the decision to invite Jongen and those who decry it has centered on the issue of “no platforming.” My main contention here is that all parties to the debate would do well to expressly notice that in continuing to disagree about the practical prudence of including a voice like Jongen’s, both sides share substantial normative agreements. All parties agree: first, that the views Jongen expresses are both wrong and wrong-headed; second, it is impossible to preserve a vibrant free and open society absent a vigorous and robust culture of open and civil disagreement. Where participants in the debate diverge, and strongly, is not on normative questions, but rather with respect to a predictive descriptive claim; namely: that by inviting a person like Jongen to speak at an event such as this, Berkowitz has empowered not just Jongen, but also the AfD and its movement. Widening the scope, then, the lesson for those who oppose the invitation is that we must not allow our shared commitment to academic free speech to cloud our prudential calculation as to the (frankly limited) capacity of our social and cultural capital as academics to shape or at least change the political landscape. This capacity might accrue to our status as intellectuals, as Jeffrey Goldfarb has recently discussed, or rather as “experts” or “thought leaders,” disturbing terms as Nicholas Baer  points out. Either way, it is real, if limited, and this is what makes our “academic free speech” debates not “merely academic.”

For the critics of an invitation like Bard’s to Jongen, then, the argument is that because the Hannah Arendt Center and its director have at least some degree of public trust and legitimacy as experts and/or intellectuals engaged with issues of public concern, an invitation to the Center’s highest profile event of the year extends legitimacy to Jongen and perhaps also increases the power of him and his movement. In defending the decision to invite him, Berkowitz and Botstein, accepting much of what the critics argue — including the assessment that what the Center does “matters” at least to some extent — dissent from the view that the invitation increased Jongen’s public legitimacy or power capacity in this way. This, I submit, is what we are really arguing about: whether or not it is helpful to the public cause if we academics expect that an invitation to a nativist, anti-liberal, anti-immigrant political thinker will do more to empower the views that thinker will expose than it will do to promote the critical capacities and commitment to an open and pluralist culture of competing ideas.

We differ, that is, in our calculation — our cost-benefit analysis — of the net benefit or loss to the common good that might derive from our invitation to persons with whom we deeply disagree. It is hard to determine what the right answer is here. Personally, I tend to think that the more political success a poisonous platform enjoys, the more necessary it is, as Mill argued in On Liberty, to consistently and repeatedly rehearse the arguments behind that party platform. Failing to do so does not weaken that platform or its movement; rather, it weakens the public commitment to critical reasoning and to the struggle to achieve whatever degree of consensus is possible in a complex, pluralist and democratic society.

Acknowledging that we will continue to disagree about the prudence of interpreting a commitment to the freedom of expression in academic circles seems like an insufficient ask in light of recent events that have transpired on or near campuses. Think of, among other ugliness: UC Berkeley — the riot in February on the occasion of an intended talk by Milo Yiannopolous, and the follow up event, a “free speech week,” in October that was effectively shut, or shouted, down; Middlebury, where acts of violence were perpetrated against Charles Murray , author of The Bell Curve, and Allison Stanger, the Middlebury faculty member who engaged him in conversation; and the University of Florida, where Richard Spencer, uninvited, bought access to a University space. Still, what is chiefly required is not a blanket pronouncement regarding either the sanctity of free speech or the prudence or necessity of “no platforming.” Both norms have salience, and what is required is a sensitive and open-minded analysis of each particular campus-invitation in order to determine, in cases where the norms conflict, which norm ought to be operative in the particular case.

In deciding when we have an instance where the free speech norm ought to trump the prudence of “no platforming,” I return to a thought from Adorno and Horkheimer, preserved in The Dialectic of Enlightenment: “On a wider scale, the same is true: it is not possible to have a conversation with a Fascist. If anyone else speaks, the Fascist considers his intervention a brazen interruption. He is not accessible to reason, because for him reason lies in the other person’s agreement with his own ideas.” My sense is that this pronouncement hits the mark quite precisely when it comes to Spencer’s cheap ploy to “buy” an academic-seeming platform by renting a University space without any invitation from a party at the University of Florida. Here, as far as I can see, the “no platforming” position is exactly right: Spencer (a Fascist—a term I don’t use lightly) can and must be shut out of any academic setting resembling his University of Florida stunt, because there’s nothing remotely academic about his proposed event. There’s nothing remotely telling from a “free speech” perspective about such a performance. It seems equally clear to me, on the other hand, that the protesters — though the violence they inflicted on Murray and Stanger should disqualify them meriting that name — at Middlebury were in the wrong in trying to “no platform” Murray and his interlocutors. Murray, who is no Fascist — even if his flawed and substantially outdated arguments are fodder for avowed racists and white supremacists — was invited and was following the norms of liberal decorum.

Milo’s appearances in Berkeley present a challenge, as I try to think through the events of February and October in light of (i) Horkheimer and Adorno’s assessment of the impossibility of following liberal free speech norms with respect to a Fascist and (ii) the Unite the Right rally and its aftermath. Milo, a blowhard and a fool, who has in the past engaged in flat-out acts of aggression and incitement for which he could and should be criminally charged, surely has no business receiving an academic stage to spew forth his ill-thought and hateful “ideas.” At the same time, he is not the Fascist that Spencer clearly is, and if there are persons on academic campuses that wish to bring his spectacle to their spaces, and he refrains from making illegal acts of incitement and/or hate speech, then it is harder for me to declare such an event “beyond the reach” of the free speech norm.

I present these three cases not to decide them — I know we will continue to debate among ourselves about their lessons — but to sketch out a kind of spectrum of possibilities. Where does Jongen fit, for instance? To me, it seems clear that Jongen falls somewhere between Murray and Milo. Spencer is clearly someone who ought never be invited to a campus event, and who can rightly be “no platformed”; Murray is someone who is wrongheaded and ought to be resisted, but surely not silenced if invited; Milo is somewhere between the two. Jongen, then, fits in somewhere between the “better never to invite, but surely not meriting silencing if invited” position (Murray) and the “better never to invite, but not clearly fit to be silenced if, somehow, he is” (Milo).

Thus placed, we see Jongen as I see him — and let us debate the point if you see things otherwise — and we also see the position I would advocate in the “new free speech debate.” The next time an event is called for a college campus that involves a speaker whose views seem close enough to the “from around Milo to around Spencer” end of the spectrum of intolerance, apply the principle of coalitional politics to deter the invitation at all costs. But if the invitee falls “from around Murray to Milo,” resist the temptation to impede the invitation. We cannot, I believe, grant Spencer the victory — for it would be his victory — of responding to every Charles Murray as though he were Richard Spencer.

The prudence that we cannot tolerate intolerance cannot lead us to the violation of the free speech principle so often that it is no principle at all. As Mill himself wrote in 1859 in On Liberty: “Strange it is, that men should admit the validity of the arguments for free discussion, but object to their being ‘pushed to an extreme’; not seeing that unless the reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case.” Mill claims that if we limit the freedom of expression then we annihilate it altogether; unless it is possible for someone so moved to say everything we can imagine, Mill argues, there is no guarantee that anyone is truly free to express anything. But this is not the only norm derived from Mill that is relevant here; for, his “no-harm” principle is also to the point — and is, indeed, the normative ground for the strategy of “no platforming.” Still, when we violate the “no speech is free if ‘extreme’ speech is regulated principle,” we must do so: (i) knowingly, meaning in possession of an understanding of the practical and prudential benefits that will obtain, so far as we can see; and (ii) limitedly, meaning that we expressly frame the grounds for the violation of the principle on those rare occasions when it seems necessary.

My judgment is that, framed this way, the Hannah Arendt Center’s invitation to Jongen did not merit violation of the free speech principle. Others will continue to disagree. Let us not however continue to adjudicate this past event but take the hard lessons of this debate — in its broader context — to heart as we approach the next invitation that gives us pause.

Michael Weinman is Professor of Philosophy at Bard College Berlin.

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