Last week, Erika Christakis, the Yale professor and residence hall supervisor whose e-mail about Halloween costumes sparked outrage on campus, resigned. Apparently, suggesting that the university had no business telling young adults how to dress and that freedom of expression should triumph over censorship was too much for some students to bear.
In response to the e-mail, tensions arose and quickly flared. Students took to the metaphorical streets, with some going so far as to disrupt professor Christakis’s classes, stating in essence that they no longer felt safe on campus. Yes, because of an e-mail, some of the most privileged young adults in the country claimed that they could no longer focus on their put-the-world-in-the-palm-of-your-hand Ivy League education or sleep in their baby-grand-piano-equipped dorms.
That this circus forced a brilliant woman’s resignation is more than just ridiculous. It’s harmful to our democracy and to social justice movements nationwide—and not in the “you’re making us look bad” way, either.
This incident has been swept up in a broader debate that is currently happening all across the country, with college campuses serving as ground zero. Discussions about microaggressions, safe spaces, and political correctness are now familiar aspects of the zeitgeist. Writers and thinkers agonize over what one has dubbed “the coddling of the American mind,” lamenting the devolution of discourse and study, even as the schools themselves scramble from one fire to the next in an effort to avoid bad press, lawsuits, and disruption of campus life. Dominating the ever-terrorizing social media megaphone are the student activists, pushing a narrative from which they tolerate no dissent and considering every scratch a stab wound.
All the while, rubble piles up in the form of a false dichotomy. Through these debates, a two-sided war appears to take place, with freedom of expression on the one hand and cultural sensitivity on the other, as if they are mutually exclusive.
They aren’t. Let’s dive into what the Yale students don’t understand about the freedom of expression.
The freedom of expression, enshrined in the First Amendment, is not an abstract concept. The freedom of expression is protected for damn good reasons, and—more importantly for present purposes—its application is guided by several theories, one of them towering above the rest.
“That theory, when properly understood, leaves no room for doubt that the students at Yale and others like them do social justice movements more harm than good.”
Given the current state of affairs, America would do well to make the following information a mandatory part of high school curriculum. As it stands, most people who go to law school don’t even learn the ideas behind what is arguably the most important aspect of a free society.
The theory guiding the freedom of expression’s application starts with its central tenet: speech should only be checked by speech. Forget censoring it, and note the word “checked,” for that is the key going forward here. The only appropriate way to check speech is with more speech.
This is not absolute. If it was, then nothing could stop someone from shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater. The law recognizes a few exceptions, for lack of a better word, to the First Amendment’s protections, where the expression in question both brings almost no value to the realm of thought and has disastrous consequences. Yet, these exceptions are rare; almost all expression—from political debate to exotic dancing to someone’s preference for yellow shirts—has at least some value worth protecting, and, by “disastrous consequences,” we’re talking on par with people being trampled to death as everyone in the theater rushes towards the fire exit.
And, if there is one inviolable rule, it’s that speech cannot be censored—that is, does not warrant an exception—simply because someone finds it offensive.
“For offensive speech, the only appropriate check is more speech.”
Let’s turn now to why the last paragraph is true. This is where it starts to become clear that the Yale students and others like them do social justice movements more harm than good.
Understanding Free Speech
The theory at hand is the marketplace of ideas. Picture an actual market, except, instead of people selling and buying products, they’re hawking and shopping for ideas. Like products, some ideas in the marketplace sell better than others. With more people buying a particular idea, there in turn are necessarily more people selling that idea. As time goes on, some ideas lose popularity or disappear entirely, even as new ones appear for the first time. Oftentimes, a new idea will pop up in direct response to an already existing one. All the while, ideas compete with each other, for someone who sells or buys idea “X” can’t at the same time sell or buy idea “not X” without being a hypocrite—hypocrisy that the marketplace itself exposes, as buyers call out anyone trying to sell both ideas at the same time. Indeed, this competition is responsible for strengthening and expounding upon ideas; if idea “X” exists in isolation without challenge, then there’s nothing forcing it to improve and grow. The more ideas in the marketplace, the better it is. The only way for an idea to vanish is for another one to be there competing with it. During the struggle, the victorious idea becomes all the stronger, gaining more and more buyers and sellers while simultaneously sharpening its edges and giving birth to new, related ideas.
In practice, this theory works really well. Consider it in the context of racism and race relations. Both before and after the Revolutionary War, enslaving black people was an idea with a lot of buyers and sellers. To argue against it was to offend a lot of people. Time goes on. Fewer and fewer people buy and sell the idea of enslaving black people, while more and more people buy and sell the idea that slavery is reprehensible. Time goes on. Slavery has diminished in popularity, yet the idea that black people are unfit to live side by side with white people has a lot of buyers and sellers. Segregation is doing well in the marketplace. Time goes on. And on, and on, and on.
What would have happened if, all those years ago, we decided to tamper with the marketplace by excluding people who wanted to buy and sell the idea that slavery was reprehensible—you know, the same idea that would have offended so many people way back when? The only answer: slavery would have died a slower death, as the arguments against it would have taken longer to gain strength and popularity. And all because we didn’t want to offend people!
Free speech and the marketplace of ideas
And what happens if we prevent people from wearing offensive costumes? There’s no opportunity for anyone to say “that’s offensive.” There’s no opportunity to explain why it’s offensive. There’s no opportunity for people to learn why it’s offensive, which means there’s no opportunity for the idea that is offensive to gain more buyers and sellers. There’s no opportunity for the argument that it’s offensive to gain strength, to refine itself, or to give birth to related ideas. Excluding an idea from the marketplace hurts more than just the idea that’s barred; it hurts the ideas that compete with it as well.
There’s more. When someone buys or sells an idea, they are necessarily holding themselves out as proponents of that idea. If you’re in the marketplace, and someone tries to sell you the idea that enslaving black people is a good idea, you know that that seller thinks slavery is a good idea. In other words, you know that seller is a racist.
“I like my racists out in the open. I like to know who they are, so that I know not to associate with them.”
For how long was Donald Trump able to secretly think the disgusting things that have been spilling out of his mouth lately? For how long have people who now find him abhorrent helped to line his pockets by staying at his hotels or buying his real estate? No longer. Now that he’s selling ideas, people are giving their money to someone else.
Censorship didn’t do that. The marketplace of ideas did.
Ironic though it may be, the students at Yale and others like them are woefully uneducated when it comes to the freedom of expression. To quote Toby Ziegler, “you don’t silence your critics; you make them wallow in their loserdom.” Societies advance the fastest and become the strongest when the marketplace of ideas is left to its own devices. Just so long as no one stands in the middle of it and shouts “Fire!”