Free Speech Under Fire

Free speech is suffering collateral damage during America’s culture wars. Of late, theatre has been drug onto that battlefield, taking artillery fire from the far left of the political landscape.

The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, an anti-Israel group, tried to pressure Lincoln Center in New York to cancel the play To the End of the Land. Adapted from David Grossman’s 2010 novel of the same name, the play is about the tragic entanglement between private lives, war, and history in Israel between 1967 and 2000. I read the novel during a 2012 visit to Israel and must agree with novelist Colm Tóibín, who wrote “To say this is an antiwar book is to put it too mildly. . . There is a novelist’s notice taken of the sheer complexity not only of the characters but of the legacy of pain and conflict written into the gnarled and beautiful landscape. . . This is one of those few novels that feel as though they have made a difference in the world.”

Those calling for the play’s cancellation said they were not opposed to the content of the play but to its sponsorship by the Israeli government. The Dramatists Legal Defense Fund, in support of Lincoln Center’s decision to proceed with hosting the play, commented, “cultural boycott campaigns like this are a blunt instrument that exacts a high price: sacrificing the free exchange of ideas.”

Michael Weller wrote a new play, Buyer Beware, that was scheduled to run at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. earlier this month. Weller’s play explores what might happen if a white student were to perform a Lenny Bruce-style comedy routine (including racially offensive slurs culled from Bruce’s transgressive performances) on the Brandeis campus today. The play is a critique of recent events where college students have demanded the silencing of controversial or unpopular points of view. Ironically, Brandeis’s students protested the planned production of Buyer Beware just as the play suggested they would. The university caved and cancelled the production. The Dramatists Legal Defense Fund criticized the university: “Brandeis has not only failed to meet its obligations to its students and alumni (including Weller himself), but to the legacy of Lenny Bruce, whose archives were entrusted to the school in 2014. Bruce’s career served as a landmark in the advancement of free speech in this country and the University’s cancellation of the play is a violation of that trust.”

The suppression of free speech has become a disturbing trend on many college campuses. Disinvited speakers and forced cancellations have included former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and Condoleezza Rice, former Harvard University President Larry Summers, actor Alec Baldwin, human-rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, DNA co-discoverer James Watson, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, filmmaker Michael Moore, conservative Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist George Will, liberal Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Anna Quindlen, and sociologist Charles Murray.

A recent survey by the Brookings Institution has documented this disturbing trend. A significant percentage of today’s college students believe that hate speech is not protected by the First Amendment. (Wrong!) A surprisingly large fraction of students believes it is acceptable to act—including resorting to violence—to shut down expression they consider offensive. Furthermore, a majority of students wants an environment that shields them from being exposed to views they might find offensive. (Somehow they didn’t get the memo that college is supposed to poke your beliefs and make you uncomfortable, thereby stimulating intellectual, ethical and spiritual growth. A kite flies higher against a headwind.)

What is going on here? I point my finger at four culprits. Excessive coddling of children has been one problem. My childhood demonstrated to me in no uncertain terms that life is chock-full of adversity (“shit” in the vernacular) and one needs strength and resilience – not avoidance – to survive, let alone to ever get ahead. I was raised by a single mother with seven kids and had she been so inclined, which she wasn’t, coddling would have been out of the question. Who had time or money for that? Today’s youth have not been served well by over-protection.

Internet-enabled social media is another problem. It fosters an attitude of victimization and becomes an echo chamber for our worst fears. Closely related is media that panders and sensationalizes instead of informs, in order to keep its audience fixated so that advertisers will keep on paying (yes Fox TV I am talking about you). Last November, fully 40% of Trump voters named Fox News as their chief source of news. Polarization in our society has now metastasized to where we are no longer willing to even listen to views we might disagree with. Fox TV and conservative talk radio have fueled this trend. A decline in respect for what used to be known as “a liberal education” also comes in for blame. The fractious intellectual history of Western civilization is now too easily dismissed as musings of “dead white European males.” Sorry Aristotle.

In the process of creating art, informed constructive criticism serves to improve the artist’s craft and strengthen the results. Would artists prefer that their creations be considered perfect and therefore impervious to criticism? Sure. But let’s then hand out the binkies. Just how puerile is that? Our political views are no different from art in that they benefit from debate and criticism. In an effort to broaden my own input, earlier this year I subscribed to the conservative magazine Commentary and have found it intellectually invigorating despite much I disagree with. It has caused me to examine my own assumptions more closely. (I rely on magazines and newspapers for my news, and avoid TV news because images appeal to the emotions more than the intellect and, due to time constraints, television news is often shallow compared to responsible print journalism.)

Conservative columnist Bret Stephens recently advocated, “Read deeply, listen carefully, watch closely. You need to grant your adversary moral respect; give him intellectual benefit of doubt; have sympathy for his motives and participate empathically with his line of reason. And you need to allow for the possibility that you might yet be persuaded of what he has to say.”

Disagreeing with others is hardly reason to silence them. We are better citizens when we keep an open mind toward those with whom we disagree. We should lower our barriers to those different from us. The survival of liberal democracy may well hang in the balance.

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