Issue 2, Volume 18
Imagine a person is invited to speak on campus whose opinions you find detestable. So detestable in fact that you organise a protest one afternoon on South Lawn, excoriating the university for allowing this reprobate character to come speak. A cross-section of students and staff from various faculties attend. To your delight, the protest is a hit: the university disinvites the figure. He will not be allowed to speak on campus.
Can barring this person from speaking on campus be described as “silencing”? In other words, have you and your friends, in stopping a particular voice from being heard on campus, performed an act of “silencing” against that person? If not, why not?
This question matters because it is constitutive to the most common argument used against de-platforming speakers, the argument that “divergent opinions must not be silenced on university campuses”. There are two uncertain terms here – “divergent opinions” (does that include heinous, harmful opinion?) and “silenced”. While the first term attracts much scrutiny, the second term doesn’t. And yet, a complete reply to the above argument seems to require it should.
So let’s consider the question.
The everyday understanding of “silencing” is to make silent, to shut-up, to zip a mouth closed. Basically, "silencing" stops someone from speaking who would otherwise like to. Let's call this everyday understanding of “silencing” the can’t-speak test.
Since the person can’t speak on campus, and yet would like to, the can’t-speak test would hold the figure has been “silenced” (at least within the domain of the university). It would appear, as Sky News later reports, that you and your friends have engaged in an act of “silencing”.
Given your low opinion of the person, “who cares!” you say. Alternatively, you may be glad the person can’t speak on campus and yet, simultaneously, not think barring him from speaking amounted to an act of “silencing”. Surely, you say, "silencing" describes something different, something a little more pernicious than preventing a white supremacist from spreading hate on campus. In short, you claim the term “silencing” has been incorrectly applied to the circumstances and, thus, that the can’t-speak test is wrong.
If so, then you have a friend in Jason Stanley, a Professor of Philosophy at Yale. Stanley also rejects the everyday understanding of "silencing". To see whether allying yourself with your illustrious new friend is appropriate, let’s consider Stanley’s argument.
In conversation with the ABC, Stanley argued that a person is “silenced” when they are “robbed of equal standing”. If a speaker frames a minority group as fundamentally untrustworthy or not deserving of respect, then the credibility of that group is diminished. They are not to be taken seriously regardless of the content of their ideas. As such, they are denied the same level of standing as others to be heard.
What’s not “silencing”, according to Stanley, is students demanding someone not be allowed to speak on campus. Such demands do not undercut anyone's "equality as equal speakers”. Such demands are just a reflection of a certain principle, namely, that “limited campus funds should not be given to people who undermine our equality.” Just like deciding not to spend your money on seeing a particular film isn’t “silencing”, neither is, Stanley reasons, refusing to let the university allocate your SSAF fee towards a speaker you find objectionable.
Stanley seems to be making two points here — one positive, one negative. The positive point defines what is sufficient to amount to an act of silencing — denying someone equal standing — while the negative point describes what is not an act of silencing — students electing to spend their limited campus resources how they wish (i.e. to preserve equality). Let’s call the first point the equal standing test and the second point the limited resources test.
What do we think of Stanley’s two tests? Are they enough to outweigh the can’t-speak test that says you performed an act of “silencing”? Let's consider his two tests one at a time. We'll start with the limited resources test.
1. The limited resources test
The limited resources test says the question of who should be allowed to speak on campus is really just an ordinary financial question of what to spend one’s limited money on. It’s ridiculous to say, therefore, that responding to such a question can produce "silencing". All that occurs is a particular distribution of resources (i.e. money ending up at film-A over film-B; or campus resources ending up with one speaker not another).
But two problems arise when the question is framed this way.
First, it’s inaccurate. Refusing to spend one's savings on film-A that night is not the same as students refusing to allocate their limited campus finances towards a certain speaker. The stakes are drastically different. Film-A will still play that night if I don't buy a ticket; but the speaker can’t appear on campus if we refuse to provide him a lecture hall.
The bigger problem, though, is that “silencing” can occur even if the decision is just a matter of deciding which resources go where. Resources can be allocated in a way that prevents certain people from speaking on campus who would like to speak (triggering the can’t-speak test), or in a way that enables persons to speak who undercut the equal standing of others (triggering the equal standing test). That a decision has a financial element to it doesn’t mean it can't produce bad outcomes.
The limited resources test is crafty because in one sense it’s true: the decision to bar a speaker does involve a question of the proper allocation of resources. But, it’s not the whole truth. The protesting students are clearly doing more than just spending money. They're deciding which voices should be part of the university space and which should not. They’re judging what language is morally permissible and what isn't, what is socially desirable and what’s not. Their decision is one of ethics and politics, not finance. And so, in what sense, then, is it useful to rely on the terms of finance to describe it?
2. The equal standing test
In proposing the equal standing test, Stanley doesn't justify why preventing a person from speaking on campus avoids denying that speaker equal standing. Stanley seems to limit the applicability of the test to only those situations where one person's speech acts to undercut another's credibility. But it’s not apparent why equal standing should be limited in this way. If I prevent you from speaking, then I've determined, in advance, that your speech shouldn't be taken seriously. I've concluded, before you've even spoken on campus, that you shouldn't be listened to, that you’re not a credible authority. (Christopher Hitchens puts this point well here). While others have standing within the university space to say their opinions, you don't. That seems a faster way to deny someone equal standing than to frame them illegitimately. So, if the equal standing test is valid, then contrary to Stanley’s intention, it would seem to trigger in our scenario.
In response, Stanley might wish to amend the equal standing test by introducing a consequentialist element: barring a person from speaking, and so denying them equal standing within the university, amounts to “silencing” only if doing so doesn’t preserve the standing of others to a larger degree. In other words, some persons' equal standing can be denied, provided more equal standing is preserved in total. If a white supremacist plans to denigrate a minority group, and thereby undermine that group's credibility in the eyes of others, preventing the white supremacist from speaking might deny him equal standing on campus, but it would protect a larger number of their own. Hence, the equal standing test would not trigger and your prohibitive action would not amount to "silencing".
One can accept this amendment but query whether it means “silencing” hasn't occurred. If you do A to prevent others from doing A, that less of A will occur than if you hadn't done A, surely doesn't mean you didn't do A. If the U.S. launches a pre-emptive strike on Iran to dissuade them from launching a larger strike on their Arab frenemies, it doesn’t mean the U.S. hasn't launched a strike. And it doesn't mean the U.S. hasn't killed thousands in doing so. Similarly, if you bar a person from speaking so as to prevent the barring of other speakers, it doesn't mean you haven’t performed an act of "silencing": the person’s voice has still been quashed on campus even while others’ are protected.
Perhaps the solution here is not to focus on the quantity or “silencing” avoided, but the kinds of “silencing” avoided. Barring a Nazi from speaking on campus is clearly different in some important respect to that Nazi diminishing a minority group. Your form of "silencing", we might say, is emancipatory: its intended to free up discourse from hostile aggressors trying to tear down others. The Nazi's form of "silencing" is wholly negative: it's destructive not constructive, illiberal not liberal.
We might be inclined, then, to call your form of "silencing" a sort of "benevolent silencing". Or, simply, we might say that some "silencing" in society is necessary for a diversity of voices to be heard, in the same way not tolerating some opinions is required for tolerance to flourish. This might be described as "silencing by necessity". On either understanding, the point is your action cannot be lumped together with a Nazi's. There are different kinds of "silencing".
So, to respond to the question we began with – have you engaged in an act of “silencing” in preventing another from speaking on campus? – the answer is perhaps “yes”, but it’s a particular kind of “silencing”: a “benevolent silencing” or a “silencing by necessity”. The can’t-speak test is therefore incomplete, since it makes no distinctions between different kinds of “silencing”. It’s also too simple, because, as the equal standing test shows, “silencing” is sometimes not merely a matter of not being able to speak – it’s also about not being heard. But, in the same way the can’t-speak test is a half-truth, so too is the equal-standing test: alongside the limited resources test, it fails to show why denying a voice on campus isn’t a very real form of “silencing”.
To my eyes, then, Stanley’s argument is dissatisfactory. And as such, attaining a fuller criterion of the term “silencing” will require further inquiry. Until then, we can expect confusion to continue around what is and isn’t an act of “silencing”.
Max Stella is a first year JD student.