The Marquette Situation

A word about Marquette's attempt to fire John McAdams.  One thing (among many) that bothers me is that Dean Holz's letter reveals a double standard.  In the second paragraph he charges McAdams with trying to "silence the less-powerful" but nowhere in the letter does he voice any concern at all about the undergraduate--who is the less powerful person in the instructor-student relationship.  Here are two excerpts from the transcript--

Being against gay marriage is having an opinion that's "not appropriate" and "harmful" Abbate says here.  The student can either keep his opinions to himself or drop the class. There are no two ways about it--she (the more powerful of the two) is silencing the student (the less powerful).  Despite the letter's concerns about McAdams allegedly silencing Abbate, the dean voices no concern at all about Abbate silencing the student.

Now you might say--some opinions are beyond the pale.  You do have to stop students from engaging in hate speech--which some will do, if given a chance (I know from experience).  But in the relevant context, can opposing gay marriage be put in that category? The student has enrolled at a Catholic University, and as we all know, the Catholic church opposes gay marriage. Furthermore, this is a time when gay marriage is being debated in the courts.  Several members of the Supreme Court are going to oppose it in hearings later this year.  It can't be right to lump opposition to gay marriage with forbidden, hateful speech.

So the student was quite right to be incensed.  But right to record the conversation? That's another matter.  And right to go to McAdams with his complaint? Again, another matter.  And was McAdams within his rights to blog about the affair?  Did he know he was going to bring an angry mob to her door? Did he continue stirring the pot even after she had come under attack?  All to be investigated carefully.  I haven't done enough homework to have a firm opinion.

But if you don't like the alleged silencing of a grad student by a more powerful faculty member, you shouldn't like to see a grad student silence an undergrad either.  I've read various defenses of Abbate's stance, and none of them really wash.  The next class period, she voiced her thoughts about gay marriage, explaining why the topic didn't fit into her lesson plan.  But what she says in that class (with the student now gone) doesn't change much.  She doesn't say that students against gay marriage would be welcome to speak out in the right context.

Holz says the student didn't actually drop the class because of the issue about his right to speak out.  But that doesn't alter the fact that Abbate did tell him to drop the class if he didn't like her policy on prohibiting homophobia--which (she implies) pertains to the student's desire to express opposition to gay marriage.

Another defense I've read is that there are provisions in Marquette's code of conduct designed to protect students from being exposed to hateful speech, and Abbate was merely abiding by those.  I can't believe anyone really thinks that was her actual motivation, and it would be scandalous if philosophers acquiesced in an interpretation of campus codes of conduct that would deligitimize considerable chunks of the standard content of ethics classes.

In all the discussion of this situation I've read, I've run into vast amounts of consternation about the silencing of powerless graduate students by tenured faculty, and no consternation about the silencing of powerless undergraduates.  I respect the fact that McAdams was concerned about the undergrad, though I realize his concern was mixed with right wing motives of various kinds.  McAdams doesn't stand up for feminists who feel silenced, or gay students who feel silenced, or animal rights advocates who feel silenced.  So he doesn't have a principled, universal concern about the speech rights of students.  But wait. Neither do the many supporters of Abbate.  I suspect they are on her side, against Adams and the undergrad, because she's the friend of gay rights in the trio.

We need consistent, content-neutral support for free speech, and not just for the speech we agree with.  It pleases me to see some liberals supporting McAdams, and pending my doing more homework on just how much he knew his blogging on behalf of the undergrad would incite an angry mob against Abbate, I'm inclined to be one of them.


Anonymous said...

I'm curious about this apparent inference:

"The student has enrolled at a Catholic University, and as we all know, the Catholic church opposes gay marriage. Furthermore, this is a time when gay marriage is being debated in the courts. Several members of the Supreme Court are going to oppose it in hearings later this year. It can't be right to lump opposition to gay marriage with forbidden, hateful speech."

I don't see how this follows. In the 1940s in America there were plenty of religious figures and jurists insisting that blacks ought not have fully equal legal standing to whites. Does that fact imply that a 1940s opponent of school integration was not engaged in hateful speech?

Jean Kazez said...

I said that badly. The issue is really not which forms of speech are "hateful" but which can be forbidden. I think that really does depend on context--time, place, and even institution. In different times, places, and settings, different things are out of bounds. For example, right now you can't express the opinion that blacks are inferior people who ought to be enslaved, but 200 year ago you couldn't have run a debate about slavery without letting one side say such things.

s. wallerstein said...

Hateful speech should not be forbidden unless it actively or directly promotes or foments physical or psychologial violence, which does not seem to be the case when someone opposes gay marriage (I'm in favor).

There are other rules about classroom decorum (be polite, don't interrupt, let others speak, etc.), but they apply to hateful and non-hateful speech.

The first reason why hateful speech should not be forbidden is that the classroom is a good place where hateful ideas can be countered by reasoned arguments.

Generally, you cannot convince the purveyor of hateful ideas, but there are usually "swing voters" who can be convinced by reasoned arguments.

Ideas which are banned do not disappear, but go underground and surface in internet. It is better to face them and to argue against them.

Two, the wheel of history turns and what is considered politically acceptable might well be considered "hateful" tomorrow in another political situation.

For example, in the future strong criticism against Wall Street (Occupy Wall Street) could be seen as hate directed against financial institutions and be banned. Strong criticism against the Pentagon and CIA could be seen as hate directed against "our men and women in uniform" and be banned. Strong criticism against junk food could be seen as hate directed against the wonderful folks from Coca Cola and McDonalds and be banned, etc.

If you live long enough, you'll be surprised to see which ideas are deemed acceptable and which ones are not as one or another group is in power.

So it is dangerous to set a precedent that hateful ideas can be banned.

Wayne said...

I have a lot of mixed feelings about defending free speech in the ways that we generally do. On one level, I think that freedom of speech is important to intellectual curiosity and philosophical investigation.

But I think where the line needs to be drawn is derogatory speech. It's okay to express opposing views like gay marriage is wrong, but its another to express that idea in a derogatory manner. It becomes bullying, and bullying shouldn't be protected by free speech.

I'm not familiar with this case in particular, so I can't say whether this is a case of derogatory speech being suppressed or if its just a view point being suppressed for the sake of suppression. But I hope it would be the former, and not the latter.