On Monday, The New York Times ran an op-ed from Bryan W. Van Norden, professor of philosophy at Wuhan University, Yale-NUS College and Vassar College, calling for de-platforming of all conservative dissenters. Why? Because those opinions are bad, of course.
To open, Norden juxtaposes worthwhile opinions with non-worthwhile opinions. Worthwihle opinions include “historically informed argument from Ta-Nehisi Coates that structural racism makes the American dream possible” and “the nuanced thoughts of Kate Manne, a professor of philosophy at Cornell University, about the role of ‘himpathy’ in supporting misogyny.” Uninformed arguments include those from Jordan Peterson, who “has complained that men can’t ‘control crazy women’ because men ‘have absolutely no respect’ for someone they cannot physically fight.”
First off, it’s interesting to note that Norden feels nothing dishonest about generalizing the most pseudo-sophisticated Coates argument while ignoring his comments about “feeling nothing” on 9/11 while watching planes crash into towers, but cherry-picking quotes from Peterson. And it's fascinating that Ann Coulter is a dolt, according to Norden, but he's happy to non-ironically use the term "himpathy." But that’s just the prelude. Because, you see, Norden knows that Peterson is bad, while Coates and Manne are both good.
According to Norden, the idea of uncertainty in argument is foolish:
We may feel certain that Coulter and Peterson are wrong, but some people feel the same way about Coates and Manne. And everyone once felt certain that the Earth was the center of the solar system. … If this specious line of thought seems at all plausible to you, it is because of the influence of “On Liberty,” published in 1859 by the English philosopher John Stuart Mill. Mill’s argument for near-absolute freedom of speech is seductively simple.
The argument is simple because it is correct. Mill essentially relies on human beings to assess claims of truth on their own, and suggests that government ought not regulate speech in order to prevent the exploration of unpopular ideas. But according to Norden, that argument is empty. Why? Because there is no rationality:
The problem with Mill’s argument is that he takes for granted a naïve conception of rationality that he inherited from Enlightenment thinkers like René Descartes. … Of course, Mill and Descartes disagreed fundamentally about what the one ahistorical rational method is — which is one of the reasons for doubting the Enlightenment dogma that there is such a method.
This is idiotic. This is like saying that because Christianity and Islam disagree about the nature of God, there is no God. Throwing out rationality because Descartes and Mill disagreed on fundamental moral principles undercuts Norden’s entire argument, which is that he is the best source of determining moral things to say.
And indeed, Norden doesn’t think rationality is wrong at all. He just thinks it’s wrong for the nincompoops who aren’t professors of philosophy. All those boobs can’t be trusted with argument. So let Little Ol’ Norden do the thinking for you:
The problem, though, is that humans are not rational in the way Mill assumes. I wish it were self-evident to everyone that we should not discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation, but the current vice president of the United States does not agree. I wish everyone knew that it is irrational to deny the evidence that there was a mass shooting in Sandy Hook, but a syndicated radio talk show host can make a career out of arguing for the contrary.
Norden does acknowledge that freedom of speech has its upsides. He points out that Mill was an anti-slavery, pro-women’s rights advocate — and that these were minority positions that eventually became mainstream. But, he says, times have changed:
However, our situation is very different from that of Mill. We are seeing the worsening of a trend that the 20th century German-American philosopher Herbert Marcuse warned of back in 1965: “In endlessly dragging debates over the media, the stupid opinion is treated with the same respect as the intelligent one, the misinformed may talk as long as the informed, and propaganda rides along with education, truth with falsehood.” This form of “free speech,” ironically, supports the tyranny of the majority.
Free speech, you see, has become a tool of the majority. Why? Because people disagree with Norden’s perspective on the world. So they should shut up, and Norden’s favorite voices — full-fledged political simpleton Noam Chomsky among them — should be elevated. Marcuse, it turns out, was right all along: “we are experiencing what Marcuse described as ‘the systematic moronization of children and adults alike by publicity and propaganda.’”
But quoting Marcuse turns out to have its own downsides: Marcuse explicitly called for suppressing opinions he didn’t like. And to be sure, Norden disassociates himself from that perspective:
I believe that this is immoral (in part because it would be impossible to do without the exercise of terror) and impractical (given that the internet was actually invented to provide an unblockable information network). Instead, I suggest that we could take a big step forward by distinguishing free speech from just access. Access to the general public, granted by institutions like television networks, newspapers, magazines, and university lectures, is a finite resource. Justice requires that, like any finite good, institutional access should be apportioned based on merit and on what benefits the community as a whole.
So, in other words, we won’t jail you for your opinions. We’ll just prevent you from getting your opinions out there as much as possible. In defense of this proposition, Norden supports the firing of Nathaniel Abraham from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute for his private anti-evolution beliefs, or ABC’s firing of Roseanne Barr, or universities uninviting Charles Murray (Norden terms his work “junk science,” providing no data to back that assertion). Norden also initially praises the idea of using violence against political opponents (“Like most Americans, I spontaneously cheered when I saw the white nationalist Richard Spencer punched in the face during an interview”) before acknowledging — not for moral reasons, mind you — that violence is actually politically counterproductive (“Violence plays into the hands of our opponents”).
What just access means in terms of positive policy is that institutions that are the gatekeepers to the public have a fiduciary responsibility to award access based on the merit of ideas and thinkers.
But let’s be clear: Norden isn’t just recommending that his political preferences be implemented by media institutions. If he had his way, the government would get into the business of de-platforming. That’s why his language is so passive throughout — “institutional access should be apportioned,” institutions have a “fiduciary responsibility,” etc. This is the language of legal compulsion, not the language of recommendation. Norden’s invocation of Marcuse isn’t out of place here — and his objections to Marcuse’s fascist view of speech aren’t based on morality, but on convenience (it’s too hard to implement).
In the end, Norden isn’t making an intellectual case for general societal disapproval of a particular position. He’s expressing a primal frustration with the fact that his arguments aren’t winning. And thus he wants to change the rules of the game, leaving Mill behind in favor of Marcuse.