Free Speech Friday: My Right to My Views is Your Right to Yours

Disclaimer: In this blog, I illustrate the argument with some hypotheticals. This is not the first time I have done this. To make these hypotheticals obvious, the interactions with my dean are fictional. Why I need this disclaimer is because the fictional interactions illustrate a truth in today’s society and so they feel very real.

Assume I am a Christian (I am not, but go with me on this for the sake of argument). As an article of faith, I believe Jesus is the son of God. One day I say so around others in the faculty lounge and a Muslim at the table tells me that this is a false doctrine. In Islam, he explains, Jesus is recognized as a prophet and messenger of God, but he is not the son of God. He cannot be, the Muslim tells me. God is one, indivisible, and does not have any associates in his divinity.

Is it appropriate for me to demand that the Muslim affirm my belief in Jesus as the son of God or, at the very least, to not deny it? I find his denial of a core tenet of my faith offensive. My religion means everything to me. My core identity is Christian. It is who I am. The Muslim should be sensitive to that and at least not deny Christian doctrine in my presence. So I ask my dean to admonish the man for offending me. What do you think the dean will do? Did you say “nothing”? You are correct.

Muhammad solving a dispute over who should rebuild the Kaaba and dedicate the sacred black stone, Edinburgh University library

Suppose I am a college professor who teaches sociology of religion (I am this, so you don’t have to suspend your disbelief on this point for this illustration, or the two after it). For lecture today I will be introducing the unit on Islam, and the opening slide is a painting originating in Tabriz from the year 1307 of the Muslim prophet Muhammad solving a dispute over who should rebuild the Kaaba and dedicate the sacred black stone (which they do cleverly and collaboratively by use of a cloth). I will also share another painting from this place and time: Muhammad receiving his first revelation from the angel Gabriel.

Muhammad receiving his first revelation from the angel Gabriel, Edinburgh University library

A Muslim student in the class complains that my showing pictures of Muhammad in class violates her religion’s prohibition against depicting Allah or the prophets in art, statues, or other representational media. This prohibition is called aniconism. It is the belief or practice found in many religions prohibiting the manufacture or use of icons, idols, or images of religious entities. I am unsympathetic to her complaint. The student complains to administrators and I am summoned to the dean’s office who tells me that my training should have taught me to be sensitive to such matters and threatens me with formal disciplinary action if I do not apologize to the class and promise never to do this again. (See The Continuing Problem of Compelled Expression.) What should I do?

Suppose I am teaching a class on ethnic and race relations and, in the context of a lecture about the history of anti-black bigotry, I use the word “nigger.” Black students in the class tell me that, as a white man, I am not allowed use that word. I try to explain the difference between using the word in a derogatory manner and using it to accurately convey the language used in historical situations, but they’re having none of it. They want an apology. I don’t apologize and they report me to the dean. The dean is even more forceful with me this time. He is close to moving the matter to a disciplinary level and placing a reprimand in my personnel file. He suggests sensitivity training. Maybe I need tutoring in how to create an inclusive classroom. How shall I respond?

Now suppose I am lecturing on gender and sex. At some point during the semester, a student asks the question, “What is a woman?” I respond with a objective non-tautological definition: “A woman is an adult human female.” “So a trans woman is not a woman?” “No, a trans woman is a male who identifies as a woman.” Another students angrily asserts, “Trans women are women!” A lot of cross talk and dramatic body language ensues and, unable to regain command of the room, I dismiss the class. A group of students follow me to my office, taunting me with accusations of “transphobia.” Within a few minutes I receive a call from the dean. The students told on me. This time, he is formally reprimanding me and enrolling me in a DEI training course. Should I speak with the union? A free speech organization? A lawyer?

Except for refusing the admonish the Muslim for denying an article of my faith, all the actions the dean has taken are inappropriate. Just contacting me with concerns about showing a depiction of Muhammad, uttering the word “nigger,” or observing the objective fact that men can’t be women is a violation of my free speech right and academic freedom.

The dean’s actions reinforce the chilling effect of patterns of suppression. I was already hesitant to show pictures of Muhammad or say “nigger” in class. And I was dreading the question “What is a woman?” I had often thought about how I would answer that question—and what I would do when students reacted to my answer, since I had decided my response would have to be straightforward.

I have discussed the free speech right on Freedom and Reason before, and I have a post coming soon delving more deeply into the matter. But some readers might be unfamiliar with the principle of academic freedom, which is something of an added layer of protection for scholars and teachers. Academic freedom refers to the idea that educators and researchers enjoy the freedom to engage in intellectual inquiry and communicating their findings and the findings of others without fear of censorship, interference, or retribution from those who pull the levers of power.

Academic freedom is essential for the advancement of critical thinking, the production of knowledge, and the pursuit of truth. By respecting scholar’s freedom to research and teach controversial or unpopular ideas, challenge existing assumptions and paradigms, and express their views and opinions freely, without fear of persecution or retribution, to choose their research topics, use their preferred methods and approaches, and select their teaching materials and pedagogical styles without undue interference or pressure, society benefits the diversity of ideas necessary for innovation and progress—while respecting the humanity of the individual, from whom cognitive liberty and free of conscience are the most essential rights of being.

Some will counter that academic freedom does not mean unlimited freedom, noting that scholars and educators are subject to academic standards, institutional policies, and professional ethics. They also have a responsibility to promote intellectual diversity, tolerance for others’ views and standpoints, and maintain a safe and inclusive learning environment. Indeed! But if standard and policies are written in such a way as to infringe on academic freedom, the standards and policies are contrary to the purpose of a free and open system of inquiry and communication and are therefore illegitimate.

Moreover, the right to free speech, a constitutional right, one recognized in international law, cannot be abridged by standards and policies of any sort in the public sphere except time and place restrictions and real threats. Promoting intellectual diversity is part of academic freedom; tolerating other viewpoints is part of the free speech standard generally. These comprise the foundational right with which the students are interfering in demanding the dean address my speech acts in any thing other than a supportive way. Maintaining a “safe and inclusive learning environment” is code for suppression of free speech and academic freedom. The rules of equity and inclusivity constrain free speech and academic freedom. They are therefore illiberal and contrary to the core mission of the university.

Again, why should the dean even call me to his office to explain myself in the first place? Can’t he explain free speech and academic freedom to the complainants? He is still an educator. I remind him every time we speak that the United States is a country with a formal bill of rights and that the first article of this bill protects freedom of speech and conscience from restriction by authorities in public institutions and spaces. I quote to him not only the First Amendment, but the 18th and 19th articles of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I remind him about the doctrine of academic freedom, found in the AAUP’s 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure and his obligation as an administrator to protect both the fundamental law and the institutional practice.

He tells me that the issue here is that there are asymmetries of power in the United States that mean that minorities cannot be treated the same way as the majority. The demands of social justice make special demands of me as a Christian white cisgendered man. The Muslim, black, and trans communities lack power. They are vulnerable populations. The intersection of my identities make me the most privileged person in history and justice requires that take that privilege into account in designing course structure and content and shaping my pedagogical style. While a Muslim can deny Jesus is the son of God, blacks can refer to whites as “crackers” and to each other as “niggers,” and trans gender individuals can assert that men are women, exceptions they should be allow because of their marginal status in a Christian, white, and cisgendered world and the long history of oppression they have experienced, a man of that world, who has not experienced oppression, cannot speak in this way because of the unearned power he inherited and possesses. The dean, who also exists at the intersection of my identities, is the paradigm of how such a man is supposed to act.

This is woke progressivism and it’s a quasi-religious ordering of institutions that violates the core principles of a free and open system, as well as the ethical demand to regard individuals as sovereign and autonomous. It is at best one theory about the world. (See Free Speech Friday: The False Doctrine of “Weapons of the Weak.”)

One obvious problem with the dean’s argument is that the free speech right, both in United States and international law, is a human right that obtains at the individual level. We don’t have differential access to free speech on the grounds of group membership and an abstract theory about asymmetrical power relations. Voting is the obvious analog. My vote counts the same as everybody else’s. Black Americans don’t get two votes to my one. Likewise, white Christian men are no less entitled to exercise their free speech right than members of any other group.

But there’s another problem, and it lies in predicting outcomes based on asymmetrical power relations. If Muslims have little or no power, then why did I worry about showing depictions of Muhammad in my sociology of religion class? Why, if blacks have so little power, are most white people reduced to talking like children, using “N-word” instead of the word itself? Why am I expected in order to avoid admonishment and possibility disciplinary action to affirm gender ideology by agreeing with the slogan “Trans women are women?”

Maybe I hesitated showing depictions of Muhammad because of the tyranny of Islamic terrorism. In the fall of 2020, Chechen refugee Abdullakh Anzorov, who had been living in France for years, beheaded Samuel Paty as he was leaving the Paris middle school where he taught history and geography. Anzorov said the attack was revenge for Paty showing his class the Mohammed cartoons associated with the 2015 massacre of French cartoonists in Paris. It was a lesson on free speech. Maybe I should be happy that all I received was my dean expressing concern over my classroom behavior. (See Threat Minimization and Ecumenical Demobilization.)

I was likewise concerned about the question about defining what a woman is because of the rampant terrorism of trans activists from New Zealand to California. I saw the scenes at San Francisco State. I saw the deranged activist screaming at Gaines as she escaped the mob down a hallway to a safe room, protected by security and university staff. “Yeah you fucking transphobic bitch—I fucking see you!” “Bye bitch! Fuck you,” the activists shouted. Holding “Trans Lives Matter” signs, zombie chanting “Trans rights are human rights” and “Trans women are women.” The mob held Gaines hostage for several hours. The San Francisco Police Department had to be called in to resolve the situation. They made no arrests.

How did vulnerable minorities obtain the power to terrorize, intimidate, and punishment me for using words they don’t like if they are vulnerable minorities? How are the police on their side. Incident after incident, from Antifa to Black Lives Matter, we see who the authorities stand with. How does a trans identifying woman enter a Christian school and massacre children but the state blame the victims? Who is in control of the asymmetrical power relations posted by the theory of intersectionality when the supposed oppressor is the one who feels the weight of boot on the back of his neck?

I cringe at using the word “nigger” because I am the oppressor? Is that how it has worked down through the ages: the oppressor is the one who cannot speak his mind while the oppressed are able to say whatever they will? The oppressor in a cisgender ordered world cannot say a woman is an adult human female, but the oppressed in that same world can insist that trans women are women? A Christian must endure the insult that Jesus is not the son of God, but showing depictions of Muhammad in a classroom is insensitive? How did the oppressed wrest institutional power from the oppressor? How did the oppressor end up less powerful than those he is accused of oppressing?

Yet another problem with the dean’s paradigm is the act of infantilizing supposedly vulnerable minorities by treating them as if they are so fragile that they cannot endure seeing depictions of Muhammad, hearing a derogatory slur they themselves constantly use, or being reminded that men cannot as a matter of objective reality be women. We have seen that the power of these groups the dean feels such paternalism towards is such that they represents the church over against Galileo Galilei and Giordano Bruno. The church did not suppress the ideas of these astronomers because the clergy were infantile. They suppressed their ideas (and put Galileo under house arrest while burning Bruno at the stake) because they did not want to see the reproduction of mutual knowledge that would bring into question church doctrine. The dean is a bureaucrat for the clergy. Trans activists don’t harass people for failing to affirm the slogan “Trans women are women” because they are infantile. They do this because they need others to affirm the slogan because the delusion the slogan is attempting to support is obviously false.

We see the same infantilization at work in the oft-repeated warning that failing to affirm trans gender identities will cause people to commit suicide. Just yesterday we learned that Zooey Zephyr of the Montana legislature, censured for telling colleagues he hoped the next time “you bow your heads in prayer, you see blood on your hands,” was upset because the censure statement used he/him pronouns in describing him, a transgression the trans community characterizes as “misgendering.” Zephyr is, after all, a man, and the legislators are under no obligation to affirm his delusions. (Nor am I.)

In a tweet sharing a letter in which a trans person threatens suicide because the legislature passed legislation stopping doctors from performing life-altering experiments on children, Zephyr wrote: “When I said there is blood on their hands, I meant it,” adding, “All legislators (& the Gov) received a letter from an ER doctor who dealt w/ a suicide attempt from a trans teen who cited OUR LEGISLATURE as a factor in their suicidality. ‘My state doesn’t want me,’ is what they said.”

Here is Zephyr’s original tweet, along with Zephyr’s follow up tweet with the blackmail letter:

While a child threatening suicide if he doesn’t get his way is not uncommon in human history, in the case of the trans blackmail play, this is a concerted effort to prey on the conscience of the public. The tactic is to stop thought about medical experimentation on children and shift attention to the problem that trans identifying youth, like many other mentally disordered persons, are at elevated risk for suicide. To suggest that disagreeing with a person’s argument or refusing to affirm their delusions means bearing some responsibility for that person’s self-harm or harm was also heard following the Charlie Hebdo massacre and other acts of terrorism justified by the actions of the terrorized. Indeed, the similarity between trans activism and Islamic terrorism should have been obvious from the beginning. Just as the common resort to words with the suffix “phobia” give away the propaganda game.

* * *

The world we are being asked to disbelieve is the one in which offending a trans persons is grounds for discipline, but a trans person can harass, intimidate, even perpetrate violence against the cisgender person and this is rendered as social justice. But this is the world we live in. On the one side, there are those who voice and wear the slogan “Trans women are women.” On the other, there are those who voice and wear the slogan “Women: adult human female.” To each side, these are true statements. Each have their arguments for why this is so. But the former are fighting for human rights (another slogan: “Trans rights are human rights”), while the latter is decried as “bigotry.”

Imagine if those of the latter group—the collection of feminists, lesbians, liberals, and conservatives who believe in free speech and scientific reality—physically assaulted those of the former. They bully the person with the T-shirt bearing the slogan. They wade into an assembly of trans activists and assault the participants. They demand laws punishing those professing gender ideology and queer theory. They demand mandatory training so that everybody can made aware that women are adult human females.

Of course, you will have to imagine this because it doesn’t happen. Liberals and all the rest are prepared to allow those who wish to believe the tenets of gender ideology to have those beliefs and even to express themselves however they wish. Why should they care that a person believes a man can be a woman if that belief does not affect their lives? To be sure, sometimes, though not enough, when it does affect their lives, they speak up, but there is no violence. There are no calls for laws to silence them. There are no calls for mandatory training sessions.

This is not of course true for the advocates of gender ideology. We have a treasure trove of videos feminists, lesbians, liberals, and conservatives being assaulted by trans activists. That it is those opposing Islamization, limits on expression, and affirming delusions who are portrayed as the threat. The threats to religious liberty, free speech and conscience, these are portrayed as good and righteous. This tells you where the power is. Everything we feared about the postmodernist contamination of language has arrived. Why? Control. How are they able to do this? They have captured all the major institutions. It’s the endgame for the republic. Welcome to existential crisis.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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