My friends and colleagues already know well my position on matters of “civil liberties” and “free speech”: in short, 1) invocations for such things are often red herrings and/or diversions from real discussions about power and inequality, and 2) they are premised on such liberal utopian notions as Oliver Wendell Holmes’s “marketplace of ideas,” which I argue never has existed, and never will in the context of a civil libertarian free market.
As I read the latest round of responses regarding the “fracas” at Middlebury College, the accompanying rebirth of arguments about the “coddling” of students, and new arguments for the alleged “tyranny” of “intersectionality,” I wasn’t sure if there was anything I wanted to do besides shout curses at Twitter. And there have been some very good pieces written in response to the backlash. But I do wonder if there are ways that we can think about this matter that have yet to be entertained by others. ** WARNING: This is probably going to be a random, impressionistic, and incomplete set of thoughts. **
I’ve been tossing around the idea of “epistemic change” a lot lately, suggesting that “resistance” to Trump needs to be paired with a clear and articulate vision and language for alternative social relations. This leads me to the question I wish to entertain here: what existing hegemonic epistemes govern those who put the principles of civil liberties at the forefront of the present discourse about college campuses? And what leads some liberals to invest in such epistemes at the cost of the fight for social justice? In other words, what if we take seriously the proposition that the discussion about civil liberties isn’t just a discussion about process or behavior, but one about ideology and power?
William James tells us that we hold on to truths because they serve us some purpose, and we know this is true on an individual level, but also on that of a social one. So that would suggest that the privileging of a certain kind of notion of a marketplace of ideas is popular among Americans because it speaks to many as a means to both make sense of the world but also as a kind of social tool. So we have to assume that at some level, writers like Frank Bruni have taken the anti-anti-fascist stance on Middlebury because the beliefs that undergird such a stance operate with some utility within their worldview.
And I think it’s safe to say that historically speaking, Bruni et al have been served by both the Enlightenment model of the self and the discursive deployment of civil liberties. As Laura Weinrib reminds in The Taming of Free Speech, civil liberties were a tool by which activists one hundred years ago believed they might usher in a worker’s revolution and a more equitable society. If rights discourse was the “coin of the realm,” as Cary Wolfe puts it, radicals might be able to bridge the gap between radical utopianism and the liberal present by cashing it in. Decades later, civil liberties became the means by which liberals could defend themselves against McCarthyism.
But let’s not confuse the unfolding of historical contingency with universal truth. In hindsight, civil liberties saved the day, but that narrative is only intelligible from the vantage of our historical present. We believe in liberal civil libertarian discourse because the alternative could have been much worse, but history has already told us as much: the threat of McCarthyism itself was that of a demagoguery already painted in bright colors and bold strokes for us by the events of the Holocaust and the darkening of the world behind the Iron Curtain.
Instead of any nightmarish scene, the postwar middle class experienced a meritocratic panorama. It is hopefully a truism to point out that the benefits of liberalism didn’t reach all Americans, and that the “twilight of equality” brought about by neoliberalism (to quote Lisa Duggan) is experienced disproportionately by the poor and people of color. But to people like Bruni, the experience of liberalism, in a Jamesian sense, holds powerful sway. Importantly, not because it is experience per se, but because it is one that validates and is validated by the meta-stories of the postwar era, those aforementioned images that were hegemonic from their inception. Multiple and varied, these meta-stories might have valorized fiscal central planning or fetishized entrepreneurs; they might have celebrated multiculturalism or normalized whiteness; but they always privileged a liberalism with civil liberties at its center.
Liberalism validates itself with rules that propose certain features of liberalism are outside the bounds of politics or debate. But most importantly, the “common sense” of civil liberties even extends beyond its strict definition as protections from the state to operate as a kind of code of conduct, such that the logic of “free speech” (a most nonsensical abbreviation of a concept if you think about it) is unmoored from its origins in order to work as a kind of governmentality. Today, to challenge alleged opponents of “free speech” is no longer to make claims against the state but rather to challenge a ruling logic of conduct, one that has become so normalized that to do so is to welcome the wrath of those decrying a lack of “principles.”
So let’s consider the focus on “principles” and “process” that arises when we don’t hew to liberal lines of conduct. One way we might do this is to look at recent criticisms of Republican principles. When the new health care plan was unveiled, liberals rightly took Republicans to task for making claims that yes, millions will go uninsured, but on the bright side, the government will save money. Such criticisms took aim at the privileging of principles. And yet liberals perform the same act, the elevation of principles over the reality of power, when decrying the alleged lack of civility in conflicts over power and justice.
So if we understand the bounds of liberalism to be constituted and policed by particular ideologically-informed epistemes (if not explicitly by regimes of power), it seems to me that a consideration of those bounds need to enter the conversation over American political norms in a much more intelligible way. In other words, without a reckoning, a calling-out of the ways that liberal norms stem from and validate reactionary models of social relations, the work of epistemic change is that much more difficult, its arguments incomplete and contradicted by the norms of liberalism.