Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The End of Free Speech: On the Civility of Nicholas Dirks

Nick Dirks took the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Free Speech Movement to maneuver for control of the campus as political space. His “civility letter,” as incoherent and historically inept a document as one could imagine, has already been well-diagnosed by various sources including Remaking the University, Counterpunch, and here at ReclaimUC. That lattermost assessment was particularly clear-minded in showing that free speech has been not an ideal but a site of political struggle. While paying it lip-service in the abstract, university administrations (and not these alone) have as a matter of custom and practice sought to curtail the concrete use of free speech, and further concrete struggles have been required to preserve it.

Dirks sets up a series of oppositions the boundaries of which we must attend with vigor and zeal, including — in the most bizarre moment — that “between free speech and political advocacy.” It’s one of the great spit-take moments of administrative palaver, splitting the difference between non sequitur and nonsense. It makes your brain freeze. My anonymous colleague here offers a pretty sensible explication of a pretty crazy sentence: to understand it as a rhetorical strategy, not a truth claim.
I don’t think he’s stupid. I think he wants to create a campus climate where we accept that “free speech and political advocacy” are two different things, and where we fight over the difference. I think he’s smart enough to understand that political advocacy is explicitly protected speech—that it’s very specifically the form of protected speech which both the Free Speech Movement and the First Amendment specifically defend—and that this rhetorical gesture nudges his audience towards accepting indefensible trade-offs…to make it seem natural that free speech means the freedom to say things that are not prohibited.
I think this is largely correct. If I take any distance from it herein, it is only because I wish to take some distance from free speech itself — or, rather, from free speech as such. The extant rebukes to Dirks’ absurdity are quite effective at setting forth how the civility standard serves to undermine the very free speech it purports to buttress. The risk of these accounts is that, taking up an immanent critique of the letter’s logic (and by extension the logic of the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana and all the other mongers of repressive civility), the critiques leave free speech as the ultimate horizon of debate and struggle. I worry that this plays into what is for Dirks et al. a broader and more pernicious strategy, both rhetorical and practical — regarding not only what counts as free speech, but what free speech itself is, both within and without the university.

The strategy is to treat free speech as an absolute end. In this understanding, free speech is itself both fruit and proof of freedom tout court. Consequently, we must at all times contemplate what might be necessary as means to preserve free speech as end. It turns out, via the peculiar pseudologic of power, that the means to this end include prohibiting certain speech. And this turns out to be a doubly desirable role for the university administration: not only is it authorized to curtail expression, but it gets to do so in the name of an abstract principle, a general ideal of social existence, divorced from any particular antagonism. In this vision the defense of free speech is a neutral and noble pursuit; it is the very opposite of taking a side, and thus of any sort of advocacy. Even if they are doing it wrong, Dirks et al. are still endeavoring to do the right thing.

This is the world stood on its head. Free speech is side-taking. The very reason we value free speech is because it is a means: an instrument and a condition of possibility for political struggle. Free speech is not a virtue in and of itself any more than is an umbrella. Or perhaps we might come to enjoy umbrellas for themselves, as an aesthetic or sensuous matter, were there to be no more inclement weather. Alas, it continues to rain, and worse.

Which is to say that there is an underlying fantasy to the position fomented by Nick Dirks. The only situation in which one would treat free speech as an end would be one in which there were no fundamental problems: no iniquities, immiseration, exploitation. No need for free speech as means. So we might say Dirks is speaking from the position of campus-as-utopia, a campus of nothing but speech, where the sun always shines and all other issues have been resolved happily for all. A campus wherein there was no privatized public education, no massive debt- and labor-loads for students, no shitty working conditions for campus workers, no cops being called in to beat or pepper-spray students and faculty into the hospital. No struggle over BDS, no systematic racism, no burying of rape statistics and accompanying leniency for perpetrators — struggles in which the administration is an aggressive antagonist, a side.

In this Panglossian vision, the absolute deference to civility makes perfect sense. Except, in one of those funny turns, there would be no need for such deference. There would be nothing about which to be uncivil.

This paradox is an expression of, among other things, the character of our moment. For most of history, it has been perfectly well understood that “free speech” and “political advocacy” offer not an opposition but an identity: they are names for side-taking in real antagonisms. In what situation, then, do they seem to stand apart from each other? Necessarily in a situation where there is something at stake, something that power needs urgently to dissimulate. It is when side-taking lurches toward political crisis that power will endeavor to sequester free speech from that taking of sides.

In this regard, the Dirks letter is not a historian’s betrayal of history, but a sign of the present as one of political possibility — and, in particular, a sign of the significance of the confrontation over Palestine, Israel, and the fissure on campuses and elsewhere between fundraising practices and liberation struggles. In this and accompanying fights, free speech will be only one of the means we will need at our disposal.


  1. On the off chance that we are to instruct our understudies in an all encompassing manner, and help them to learn and develop into full grown persons, then our personnel should lead the pack by showing experienced and common conduct themselves. Requesting that people be polite in their treatment of others ought not risk free discourse or scholastic flexibility.
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