When Should Campuses Shut Down Debate?


It’s been over a year since mob rule started taking over who is allowed to speak on college campuses. These types of things have obviously been going on longer than the most recent prominent cases, but the visibility seems to have brought us to a turning point. Angry students have learned that the administration will always cave to their demands out of fear. This is no way to run a university, but that is beside the point of this essay.

The question I want to explore is whether there is ever a legitimate reason to not allow someone to speak about or debate a topic. Here are some of the base assumptions I’ll be making:

1. Facts are sometimes uncomfortable and sometimes overturn whole worldviews. Causing some discomfort in the pursuit of truth is never an acceptable reason to shut down a speaker or debate. We’d still believe the Earth was the center of the universe with this mentality.

2. Uncomfortable debates will happen on campuses anyway whether a particular speaker comes or not. We’ve all been in those classes where brief awkward exchanges happen between professor and student, and it quickly becomes apparent that the student believes something antithetical to what is being taught (intelligent design, the only valid foundation for ethics must be derived from a supreme being, the Holocaust didn’t happen, etc).

3. The people who will be so-called “triggered” by a speech or debate will not be in attendance anyway. They aren’t open to the ideas being discussed, so they have no purpose in attending. I’ll assume no one is being forced to go for a class or a grade. If a student thinks they might suffer from PTSD (or whatever hyperbolic acronym is in favor now), they just shouldn’t risk it by attending. Reasonable decisions by the students can avoid all harm that could come in this form.

4. This is almost never a free speech issue. Anyone can debate anything in public. Free speech is unrelated to a university spending resources to invite you to do this on their campus. The question should be whether the current way that universities deal with controversial speakers is in alignment with the goals of a university.

Here’s one legitimate reason for not bringing a particular debate to a campus. A topic is so settled, that there is no reason to publicly air an argument about it. Universities have limited funds, and wasting money arguing whether the Holocaust happened just isn’t a useful way to spend that money.

Note well: If you’ve already invited this debate, I don’t think that reason applies anymore. A group of students protesting the debate should not shut it down. If the university doesn’t want this debate, then they shouldn’t invite the speakers to begin with. Once an invitation is given, no amount of pressure should shut the event down.

Do I think the taboo nature of that debate topic ought to be reason for not having it? Absolutely not! Settled questions like these are probably not worth the time and money, but there isn’t much harm in debating them. When a question is truly decided, it isn’t hard to debunk the arguments. No one fears or protests this.

Sometimes it can even be useful to remind ourselves what makes their arguments bad and what the evidence is. It would be embarrassing if someone graduates from a major university and can’t respond to claims that the Earth is flat. Shielding students from these silly ideas instead of exposing them as frauds makes the ideas more likely to spread not less.

This brings me to the fear some of these students have about hearing certain viewpoints. The violent reaction to these ideas usually means the ideas have some merit. No one is afraid of a flat Earth debate. They would think it’s silly. The spherical Earth arguments win. No one will be convinced of the flat Earth theory in that debate.

The only reason students protest certain speakers is because they fear people might be convinced when they hear the evidence that contradicts their worldview. If they deny this, then ask why they are so worried about the students listening to the speaker. They’ll probably mumble something about not letting hate speech on campus, but if it’s purely hate speech, everyone will see this for what it is.

The reason no one is convinced by the Westboro Baptist Church is precisely because we’ve heard what they have to say. They debunk themselves with their hate speech. Censoring speech about topics makes it look like there is something there when there isn’t. I’ll reiterate, if the administration really thinks they will only get hate speech from a speaker, don’t invite them to begin with.

So far I think we’ve only dealt with really easy cases. Most of the people that students protest pose absolutely no threat. This means Condoleeza Rice, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Christina Hoff Summers should all be able to air their opinions. If they’re wrong, then that will come out in the debate or speech. They won’t convince people. If they aren’t wrong, then that is all the more reason to let them speak.

There are much harder cases, though. These are topics that one can couch in the language of the pursuit of truth, but it is hard to see why anyone would be researching it without some ulterior motive. This would be something like IQ differences between races.

I’m torn on these types of things. Part of the beauty of tenure at a university is the ability to research taboo topics without fearing for your job. We absolutely cannot make people come up with positive impacts of their research in order to fund it. The mathematician that studies the derived category of coherent sheaves on high dimensional varieties in positive characteristic would have a hard time coming up with any sort of real world positive impact as well.

Ah, but that research has no application, so it is somehow “neutral” you say. When there is a clear racist or otherwise negative application, then the researcher must justify it. This is a legitimate slippery slope though. Who gets to decide what is a “positive” application or a clear “negative” application to begin with? Once you allow any sort of censorship of research based on subjective judgments, you run into huge problems when the “wrong” people get in power.

So in summary, I think the types of people who get disinvited from campuses right now are easy cases. They should be allowed to speak. They pose no threat and will often give well thought out counterpoint to the established worldviews of many students.

There is a real and interesting debate to be had on more difficult cases, but overall, I see no way to restrict those debates without setting a dangerous precedent. So I tentatively say that we must also allow these taboo subjects to be researched and debated, at least in a university setting where the pursuit of truth must take priority.

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