I read with concern Lorenzo Bradford’s op-ed, “The Problem with Discourse.” Mr. Bradford’s basic argument is that societal power structures affect discourse, and therefore discourse cannot always be trusted. But, unlike Paulina Mangubat’s inviting reflection on campus discourse last month, he neglects to distinguish between the effect of power on the efficacy of the marketplace of ideas and the effect of power on one’s opportunity to participate and be heard in it.
Last semester, this confusion also plagued both Daniella Greenbaum’s “A color coded right to speak” and the response to it by Bianca Guerrero and Mr. Bradford. Indeed, this has become rather routine, even outside the pages of Spectator. Both critics and proponents of identity politics fail to note the difference between the marketplace of ideas as a truth-finding system and the factors which affect participation in it. Observing this pattern, I feel compelled to clarify.
The marketplace of ideas is a system for establishing truth. It has only two rules:
1. Nobody has a special claim to the truth.
2. Every person must always seriously consider the possibility they might be wrong, and therefore no view should be prevented from being said.
Power structures undoubtedly affect whose voices are heard in the marketplace and, thus, whose opinions have the opportunity to be adopted as true by other members of society. But in a debate, whether one participant has more systemic power than the other simply has no bearing on whose ideas actually are true. Ms. Greenbaum argues the latter while neglecting the former. Mr. Bradford and Ms. Guerrero emphasize the former and neglect the latter.
To argue the necessity of the marketplace of ideas is not to advocate for a “colorblind society” that neglects existing power structures. It is to say that somebody’s opinions should not be accepted as true or rejected as untrue on the basis of her position in society.
Conversely, to emphasize the existence of power structures is not grounds for abandoning the marketplace of ideas as our system for finding truth. Power structures indeed oblige us to fight for the inclusion of marginalized voices in the marketplace, but they do not oblige us to abandon the rules of the marketplace in deciding what’s true. This is demonstrated by a simple induction: every argument which justifies the abandonment of the marketplace’s rules in order to establish our views as true could be used by our political opponents to establish their views as true in turn.
The logical extension of abandoning rule #1 in order to give certain participants—usually the historically oppressed—special claims to the truth is that, on race issues, we should believe Ben Carson and Herman Cain more than Tim Wise. Clearly, what does and should matter in finding truth is simply whether the ideas have merit. Carson’s and Cain’s don’t, and upholding rule #1 allows us to ascertain and argue that. Awarding special claims to truth invites the obvious question: Who determines who gets special claims to truth? And who determines who determines who gets special claims to truth? Again, I cannot emphasize enough that “giving one special claims to truth” is different from “ensuring the opportunity to present one’s view of the truth.”
Consider the implications of abandoning rule #2 in order to censor views deemed harmful. Much as Mr. Bradford and I agree that non-white citizens are disproportionately threatened and disempowered, Richard Spencer really does think that white people are persecuted by the Left and that white nationalists have been powerless for too long. While we believe that Trumpian rhetoric emboldens bigots, some right-wingers really do believe that criticizing law enforcement, kneeling during the national anthem, teaching about white privilege in college and satirically lauding “white genocide” constitute serious calls for violence. I’m not arguing that these right-wing views are just as valid as mine or Mr. Bradford’s because I don’t think they are. But the moral and legal impasse reached whenever one begins censoring views deemed offensive is that others are just as certain that their political foes’ views are offensive. The Left must not abandon the principle that serves as its only protection: speech cannot be censored on subjective grounds.
Mr. Bradford might argue that as much as we like to think otherwise, it’s not only the ability to be heard that is affected by power structures, but discourse itself. He might argue, for instance, that even given an equal platform debate, a Trump supporter’s views are automatically more likely to be actualized by society, and therefore the rules of the marketplace cannot be trusted. But this is precisely the reason to insist on, not abandon, the rules of the marketplace—one’s views being accepted on the basis of one’s power is a violation of rule #1!
These rules are protections. Mr. Bradford’s more incriminating accusation is that critics of violence fail to defend the rioters. I contend the opposite; it is precisely out of concern for marginalized voices that we should demand subscription to democratic norms. Once it becomes acceptable to censor or respond violently to views deemed harmful, marginalized voices are the first to go.
Mr. Bradford also blurs the line between rioting as a desperate measure against systemic violence and rioting in order to punish specific individuals for their objectionable views. Let’s be clear—all of the recent disinvited speakers have been targets of the latter motive. I suspect that the immediate counterargument from some Leftists will be that these views are systemic violence. Is it supposed to comfort us that this equation rings of McCarthy and Torquemada?
The cure to bad speech is more of our own speech, not active censorship of others. Our own speech does include protesting, but it doesn’t include violence or censorship. Not only because we protect ourselves by refraining from censorship, but because it’s the best way to expose and refute bad ideas. I would've eagerly attended Yiannopoulos’s Berkeley event to articulate during the Q&A why he is wrong.
It may seem easy to dismiss the violence toward Spencer and Yiannopoulos as inconsequential rarities, and thus the slippery slope argument as a theoretical abstraction. I’m not as concerned with the consequences of those two events as I am with the attitudes exhibited in the public celebration and defense of them. These are not victories, and the gradual widespread acceptance of them as victories is how democratic norms are eroded. Our goal should be to defeat dangerous ideas on their merits in the realm of debate, and the rules of the marketplace protect us in our efforts to do so—without requiring us to ignore the power structures that make it more difficult for some people to be heard.
The author is a CC '16 alumnus who graduated with a major in astrophysics. He was President of Columbia College Student Council for the '15-'16 academic year.
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