The Critic and the Clown

The marketplace of ideas, like all markets, is a highly structured one, privileging some ideas over others.

Harry R. Wellman Hall on the University of California Berkeley campus. Onasill ~ Bill Badzo / Flickr

We seem to have reached a new high, or low, in the academy’s free speech wars. Berkeley’s anthropology department has been compelled to reschedule a talk by Anna Tsing, a well-known and highly regarded anthropologist at UC Santa Cruz, in order to make space — a safe space, as it turns out — for Milo Yiannopoulos to speak there on the same day.

Aside from getting us — rightly — infuriated, I hope this incident reminds us that the marketplace of ideas, like all markets, is a highly organized and structured market, privileging some ideas over others. Ideas don’t simply enter and exit a power-less space; speech doesn’t just happen. In any institution, there are gatekeepers who give a pass to some speech but not others, and who insist that the price of entry for some speakers is higher than others.

Speech is a material practice: it requires resources (paying a speaker, setting up sound systems, reserving rooms, paying for security, and so on), and resources need to be distributed. In a system of scarcity, which is what an institution is (even in the academy, time and space are finite, as this Berkeley episode reveals), distribution will involve considerations of equity: some interests will be heeded, some will not; some voices will get heard, some will not. While we tend to think of speech as simply additive — I speak, you speak, we all speak — it can be a zero-sum game.

This incident simply makes concrete, albeit in a fairly dramatic way, what all of us see all the time in the academy. Just to give you the easiest sense of that: most speakers in these fancy, and well-paying, circuits of exchange never come to Brooklyn College. We simply don’t have the money to pay them. Harvard, Chicago, Stanford, and Berkeley do. Free speech ain’t free.

But this incident has an additional element of farce: the Berkeley administration has essentially decided that “the free exchange of ideas” requires a critic to make space for a clown. Clowns can sometimes be critics, but that isn’t the case here. Yiannopoulos is a fabulist and a fool.

What we’re seeing here is a university administration deploying the rhetoric of high-minded academic ideals — free speech, deliberation, listening and giving answers to one’s critics — in the service of a hustle. Yiannopoulos’s hustle: pretending he has something to say that is of value. And the administration’s hustle: pretending that they are engaging in anything other than pathetic PR for an institution that is terrified of its critics.

Just to be clear: though I make exceptions for someone like John Yoo, I tend to be extremely dubious of the no-platforming position, for reasons I don’t want to get into here. Nothing in this post should be construed as support for that position. But many of the flat-earth arguments in favor of free speech, particularly in contexts like these, tend to be fatuous in the extreme and deny the most elemental facts of what is going on.