Jibber Jabber About Silence

September 2019

Recently, academic freedom guru Shannon Dea (University of Waterloo) published a 1270+ word essay titled “Sometimes refraining from speech is good”. Many languages have a proverb expressing the idea that speech is silver but silence is golden: Reden ist Silber, Schweigen ist Gold (German), La parole est d’argent, le silence est d’or (French), Слово - серебро, молчание - золото (Russian), إذا كان الكلام من فضة، فالسكوت من ذهب (Arabic), en boca cerrada no entran moscas (loose lips sink ships, Spanish), 言わぬが花 (not to speak is a flower, Japanese), “diam-diam ubi berisi” (the silent sweet-potato is full of substance; Indonesian). So given that most Canadians and immigrants are probably familiar with one version of this proverb, one has to wonder why Dea would unleash such a flood of words defending it.

I suggest that the jibber jabber about the proverb was merely an excuse for Dea to once again (for earlier examples see Dea 2018a, 2018b) trivialize the concerns of those who believe they have to “self-censor because they are afraid of the possible consequences of some controversial speech” (Dea, 2019). Dea describes several cases where silence indeed would be preferable over speech and attempts to convince readers that in our universities no one has to self-censor. Rather, people need to be quiet at times so they can listen to others: “We are often told that a free exchange of ideas is essential to the university. This exchange is often characterized in terms of speech alone, with no mention of listening. But without listening, speech would be pointless. If no one listens, no ideas are exchanged. And to listen, one must be quiet” (Dea, 2019).

Trivially this is true. But those who feel their voices are frequently excluded or fear expressing their views and do self-censor are unlikely to be ignorant of such trivialities. From the fact that occasionally some excessive chatterboxes should be shushed to allow for productive conversation, it does not follow that all shushing is justified. Even less does it follow that all who remain silent are comfortable. For example, one commenter on Dea 2018a wrote: “… When it comes to a point that students are seeking out psychotherapy (an hour away for fear of academic sanctions if they pursue it closer to home, no less), there is a freedom of expression crisis. Since this time, I have spoken to professors at a few universities about freedom of expression and they agree that less popular perspectives, regardless of how well substantiated by empirical research, can result in marginalization of faculty and students” (Heather / December 18, 2018 at 11:20).

One would expect that any professor concerned about the intellectual wellbeing of all her students would address Heather’s concern. But Dea shows no awareness that any student in her or anyone else’s classes has ever been uncomfortable. Rather than considering the possibility that there could be genuine self-censorship she muses: “… the mere fact that a student or professor has silenced themselves in class doesn’t establish that anyone’s expressive or academic freedom has been compromised. It is often quite the contrary, in fact … And, of course, some people who exercise too little restraint in their speech get shushed and then get mad about it” (Dea, 2019). So, even though Dea not once attempted to define self-censorship, she confidently asserts that only justified shushing occurs, that shushing is an integral part of academic freedom, and that those who feel otherwise ought to “learn to hush, unbidden. This isn’t censorship. It is wisdom” (Dea, 2019).

Anyone unfamiliar with recent free speech debates could be taken aback by the narrow-mindedness of Dea’s musings. Sadly, her views are representative of a rapidly growing group of Free Speech Crisis Deniers (FSCDs). While FSCDs in the past were content to belittle and gaslight those concerned about threats to Free Speech, recently the rhetoric has ratcheted up considerably. One now regularly reads titles like “The ‘campus free speech crisis’ is a myth. Here are the facts.” (Sachs, 2018), “The alt-right and the weaponization of free speech on campus” (Zine, 2018), “Free speech isn’t under threat. It just suits bigots and boors to suggest so” (Gill, 2019), “Everything You Think You Know About ‘Free Speech’ Is a Lie” (Moskowitz, 2019), or subtitles like “The free speech trap” (Dea, 2018b) and “Manufacturing a campus free speech crisis” (Dea, 2018b).

These articles follow a common gaslighting strategy: the same examples of campus protests against a handful of speakers (Milo Yiannopoulos, Charles Murray, Faith Goldy, Jordan Peterson, etc.) are listed and compared to the massive number of unprotested talks (e.g. Dea 2018a, Sachs, 2018). FSCDs conclude that the Free Speech Problem in our universities exists only in some deluded minds. While some might insist that even a single deplatforming is one too many, I would argue that the occasional deplatforming of the Petersons or Goldies is not the real problem. These well-known individuals have access to a wide range of venues for popularizing their views and any interested student can easily access them. However, it is far from clear that individuals with non-conforming views who are not famous (e.g. early career scholars or graduate students) would be invited to give talks or accept such invitations.

A much more serious problem is the stigmatization of Free Speech itself. Recently FSCDs turned their focus on harmful effects of Free Speech. Allegedly, it can be misused to prop up inferior ideas: “You can tack free speech on to any crackpot prejudice you have and suddenly you’re a lone truth-teller standing up to the hordes. It’s a clever rhetorical trick, the free speech defence.” (Gill, 2019). Allegedly, it is a tool of oppression: “Free speech has long been weaponized by the powerful throughout history” (Rangwala, 2019), and allegedly it is used to undermine human rights “Sacrificing human rights on the altar of free speech has become a strategy in the alt-right toolkit of bigotry” (Zine, 2018). Arguments of this kind imply that anyone defending Free Speech on campus is either a crackpot or an alt-right bigot.

In the context of the two pronged FSCD attack on Free Speech, Dea’s jibber jabber about self-imposed silence seem sensible: if defenders of Free Speech were either delusional or evil, then it would indeed be in their best interest to remain silent. However, even if some defenders of Free Speech have questionable motives, it does not follow that all defenders of Free Speech are morally or intellectually corrupt. The gaslighting and fear mongering FSCDs never address the most basic challenge to their views: Free Speech advocates are suggesting that the expression of (virtually) all ideas should be permitted. They do not suggest that all ideas should be accepted.

Fear mongers among the FSCDs insist that some ideas are ‘poison’ and will inevitably harm those who are exposed to them in the same way as poison in the water supply will harm the people who drink it. These FSCDs suggest the same remedy (government regulation) for dealing with both. This suggestion is problematic. While it is possible to remove toxins from water it is unclear how one could remove poison from ideas. One can attempt to outlaw the expression of poisonous ideas. But one cannot outlaw ideas. History has shown time and again that in societies that stifle Free Speech, (allegedly) poisonous ideas get passed on ‘in private’ and take hold in the minds of many. Societies that allow the expression of all ideas usually also invest in critical thinking education that allows students to evaluate ideas and reject those that are poisonous.