Princeton holds 'F%*# Free Speech' event for Constitution Day
This year, Princeton University’s annual Constitution Day Lecture contended that “the academy has never promoted free speech as a central value.”
The lecture, given by Prof. Carolyn Rouse, Chair of the Department of Anthropology and Director of the Program in African Studies, was entitled “F%*# Free Speech: An Anthropologist’s Take on Campus Speech Debates.”
"Culture is what helps us determine the appropriateness of speech."
As Campus Reform previously reported, Rouse is currently overseeing a project called “Trumplandia,” which serves as a partial basis for a course called “Trumpland” that explores the contributions of "white identity politics" and conspiracy theories to President Trump's successful 2016 election campaign.
Rouse began her lecture by asserting that “the way which free speech is being celebrated in the media makes little to no sense anthropologically,” because she does not consider freedom of expression a panacea.
“Language is partial. It relies on context for comprehensibility, and can have implications that go far beyond simply hurting somebody’s feelings. Put simply, speech is costly,” she said. “So, contrary to the ACLU’s statement on their website regarding the role of free speech on college campuses, the academy has never promoted free speech as its central value.”
The professor stated that the goal of the lecture was to “rethink academic freedom and academic values” without renewing academic debate over ideologies such as Nazism, or the potential of policies such as the forced internment of Japanese Americans by the Roosevelt administration during the Second World War.
The central thesis of the lecture was twofold. Firstly, Rouse argued that words and grammatical constructs can have different meanings in different contexts, and that cultural competence requires knowing how to self-censor according to context, in order to avoid being misunderstood.
Thus, different “language ideologies” and styles of rhetoric develop for different contexts; for instance, “there is hate speech, therapy speech, parent-child speech, parent-infant speech, incitement speech, courtroom speech, polite speech, religious speech, academic speech, [and] ‘locker room’ speech.”
Rouse claimed that while Americans embrace free speech as a value, “free-speech absolutism doesn’t exist” genuinely, since everyone willingly self-censors for the sake of appropriateness. Moreover, she claimed that “no political side can claim [inaudible] victimhood,” saying, “the true victims when it comes to speech and suppression are the people you never hear from, because their speech is truly suppressed.”
She argued that “in culture we have ‘ideal types’—ideal kinship structures, ideal economic systems, ideal social relationships” that individuals only “rarely achieve,” and that “we develop discourses and structures that legitimate our belief in these ideals.”
“In the United States, free speech is a moral and ethical ideal we learn from a young age to respect, to cherish, to protect,” she continued, but compared the ideal type of free speech to journalistic objectivity, which is “asymptotic” because journalists “can get close, but never touch the y-axis of omniscient, omnipresent, and objective truth.
“Free speech is also asymptotic with respect to the goal of allowing people to say whatever they want, in any context, with no social, economic, legal, or political repercussions,” she said, adding that “YikYak, the app that allowed students to trash each other anonymously, died for a reason.”
Referencing U.S. Supreme Court Justice Henry B. Brown in the infamous 1896 decision Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld racial segregation under the “separate but equal” principle,Rouse asserted that “legal rights [do] not translate into social rights,” arguing that “Culture is what helps us determine the appropriateness of speech by balancing our rights as enshrined in the Constitution with understandings of context.”
Arriving at the second point of her thesis, Rouse asserted that “free-speech absolutism” has never been treated as a core value of academia. She appeared to use the phrase to refer to the notion that all propositions, arguments, opinions, etc.—however absurd—are deserving of equal consideration, without reference to any peer review process or any system of credentials.
Rouse noted that academic institutions are “semi-autonomous social fields,” in the vocabulary of anthropology, and therefore have their own internal rulemaking capacity, with needs to induce or coerce compliance. They have their own rules for the procuration and use of evidence, and organs to evaluate the legitimacy of that evidence. Other examples of such bodies would include religious, legal, political, medical, and familial institutions.
The anthropologist asserted that beyond academia, no other semi-autonomous social field holds absolute free speech as a value. Rather, each one has its own particular “speech constraints,” such that, for example, “a defendant can’t walk into a courtroom and start monologuing about his innocence,” disregarding the rules and procedures of the court.
“In a secular society, we give semi-autonomous fields leeway to develop the objects of their inquiry: rules of evidence and rules of enforcement,” she said. “We do this because we presume they have expertise and knowledge unavailable to outsiders.”
However, she noted that the same question can be legitimately discussed and debated within different disciplines, such that discussions of the age of the earth, say, might be difficult in the natural sciences if a party rejects certain evidence on theological grounds, yet perfectly legitimate in philosophy or religious studies.
To illustrate the pitfalls of “free-speech absolutism” in academia, Rouse presented the case of the archetypical climate-change skeptic who, though lacking a formal background in climatology, makes “claims about climate change, as if all the science discovered over the last X-number of centuries were irrelevant.”
In that case, she said, we need to ask, “What will take the place of secular authority if all truths are challenged by people who use ‘free speech’ as both a shield and a weapon?”
During the question-and-answer portion, Rouse was asked how educators should treat speech issues in the classroom. She answered that each university has its own unique missions, and that institutions should be up-front about their missions, “own what they’re trying to do,” and not pretend anyone is free of biases.
Rouse proposed that one goal of education ought to be to “educate our students against—I would call it ignorance,” but noted, “That may not happen at Liberty University. And maybe they wouldn’t have the same mission statement, especially with respect to questions about people of different faiths.”
Another question, posed by a fellow of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions (JMP), asked how educators should engage with claims of metaphysical and epistemological truths “not produced” and “not contingent, but existing objectively,” such as the natural rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” outlined in the Declaration of Independence.
“I think in that case that you have to agree to disagree. I don’t think there’s any way that we’re going to convince each other of our views of natural rights,” Rouse responded.
“For me it seems so context-based. Culture is a wonderful thing because it makes us feel free even when we’re not actually free, right? There’s no such thing as uncoerced free will. We learn to desire the things that we’re taught from an early age, that we’re acculturated to,” she continued. “My sense is that we’re always adjusting our interpretation of that based upon our own experiences. So I don’t know, when we talk about natural rights, I’m not sure if they’re natural rights or if they’re just our illusion of natural rights because we’ve grown up believing it—because it’s our ‘common sense.’”
The lecture was hosted by the Program in American Studies and cosponsored by the Program in Law and Public Affairs, the JMP, and the Department of Anthropology, with additional support from the Office of the Provost.
Professor Robert George, founder and director of JMP, told Campus Reform that JMP cosponsors the Constitution Day lecture each year, but does not select the speaker. He also said that JMP “shares the convictions about free speech, robust debate, truth-seeking, and viewpoint diversity that were set forth so eloquently by President [Christopher L.] Eisgruber in his remarks at Opening Exercises” on Sunday.
Towards the beginning of the lecture, Rouse noted that JMP “censored” the lecture title by listing it by a different name on its website—omitting the vulgarity used in other publicity materials. Rouse made a point to “rub it in” that JMP made the edit “to be politically correct,” clarifying that “I use the term ‘politically correct’ deliberately, because ‘politically correct’ simply means ‘appropriate.’”
For JMP, “‘F-percentage-star-hashtag’ was not appropriate, meaning ‘politically correct,’” she said, asking, “Do I need to rub it in any more?”
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