Who is Ulrich Baer, you ask? He’s a university professor and administrator at NYU. According to his faculty web page, part of his job is to “strengthen NYU’s ongoing effort to create the most diverse and inclusive community of outstanding faculty, students, and staff.” Put another way, he’s one of the high priests of the diversity cult.
This may seem like an extreme characterization, but it’s accurate. If you follow this blog, you may remember that I unsubscribed from the New York Times after they published a whole host of op-eds that were not fit for publication. The one that pushed me over the edge was Baer’s argument in favor of censorship.
This morning I watched the recording of a discussion held at Kenyon College between Baer, Charles Cooke, editor of National Review Online, and Stephanie Fryberg, a psychology professor. The topic was free speech. Baer and Fryberg both argued that there need to be more limitations on free speech, while Cooke argued that the robust speech protections in our law ought to be maintained.
Fryberg’s line of argument was the stuff you’d expect from a left-wing academic who is committed to creating social justice at all costs. Native Americans such as Fryberg need to “develop a voice” in isolation from oppressive speech from more privileged groups. If they aren’t given space to develop in this way, then they’re effectively being deprived of their free speech rights. This is a stupid argument. None of the greatest minority advocates in U.S. history relied on censorship of the oppressive majority to “find their voice.” Figures such as Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., and Thurgood Marshall rose to the challenge of an overwhelmingly hostile majority and worked to enact justice. But today’s minorities need to be shielded from bigoted words? Absurd.
But as bad as Fryberg’s arguments were, Baer’s were even worse. At least she was making claims, albeit dumb ones. Baer, on the other hand, refused to say anything substantive, which demonstrates the weakness of his position. Cooke would repeatedly point out that no one person is competent to decide what kind of speech constitutes hate speech. But then Baer would respond that someone is, although it may not be him or anyone else on the panel. It’s not particularly reassuring for the person making the pro-censorship argument to say, “I’m not sure who is competent to censor, but there’s gotta be someone out there to do it, right?”
Later, Baer was pressed by an audience member to be more specific about what kind of speakers he thinks should not be allowed to speak on university campuses. This was in response to claims from Baer that universities ought to be more discerning when it comes to giving platforms to speakers. He basically responded that he could name names, but he wouldn’t do so in order to avoid dignifying the people by acknowledging their existence. Of course, the consequence of his refusal to say just who he thinks should be censored is that we actually have no idea what his position is—maybe he just wants to keep David Duke off of campuses, but maybe he also thinks that Charles Murray and Ben Shapiro are hateful bigots who should be kept as far away from impressionable young minds as possible.
And that’s the problem with these anti-free speech arguments. When taken to their logical conclusions, they quickly lead to absurdity. I can imagine Baer as a character in a Socratic dialogue. Socrates pushes him into a corner, but Baer just keeps doubling down on his claims without clarifying them or supporting them until he angrily storms away, saying something like, “I don’t know how to answer you, but you’re wrong, and I’m right.” Eventually, of course, he will conspire with his fellow citizens to have Socrates killed, because that’s what you do when people are “corrupting the youth.”
The utter spinelessness of people like Baer is what has allowed destructive illiberal tendencies to flourish in our universities. By refusing to talk specifics, they obscure the debate, making it harder to see what’s really going on. And what’s really going on is that people are becoming increasingly pro-censorship, albeit for different reasons than in the past.