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Dissents: Email exchanges regarding my speech on ‘The Perils of Public Discourse’

I invited dissenting opinions on my November, 2021, speech to the Ethical Humanist Society and here are some excerpts:

Ira P.  — The views you’ve articulated in your writing about Adam Toledo are reasonable to me and others in our position (as well as many others who experience gun violence and crime in their communities), but they are highly offensive to others — not just disagreeable, but highly offensive.

You say that it’s reasonable to reject opportunities for neo-Nazis and others with views outside the mainstream to spread their views, but what about, in the views of some, your views, meaning those who would in any way, shape, or form appear to justify the killing of a child by police? Or justify the use of gun violence risking death of civilians in any policing situation. To them, you are as offensive as a white supremacist.

You and I may disagree with that judgment, but it exists, and I can see that it’s an understandable judgment if you’re viewing the situation as one who values the life of a child above all things….

I’m not suggesting that you sit down and shut up, but I do suggest that maybe it’s time for you to appreciate your privilege, appreciate how offensive your views could be to others … Unlike the blacklist victims of the 1950s and other times, you are not being denied your livelihood or your ability to contribute to society. You are not being censored or ridiculed. You still have your fans (including me). You will be fine.

EZ —  I will be fine, yes, thanks, and I hope no one thinks I’m overplaying the victim card here. I thought my experience at DePaul — outlined in my speech and in Issue No. 4 of the Picayune Sentinel — was illustrative but not piteous.

Ideally police would never use deadly force against anyone, of course, but I do believe at times it’s justifiable — even when hindsight tells us it was unnecessary, as it was in the killing of Adam Toledo.  I don’t think it’s important to re-litigate that for the purposes of this discussion other than to say that while I understand how my words can seem cold, I totally reject the view that my position is highly offensive and tantamount to white supremacy. my rejection of the view that my position is highly offensive and tantamount to white supremacy is total.

I don’t concede that because certain people extrapolate poison from mainstream political positions we should therefore defer to their demands for veto power over speech and defer to their outlandish characterizations. Referring to all those who disagree with your views of certain issues or situations as Nazi-adjacent is nonsense and should be widely rejected and condemned.

Joanie W. — There has been a huge change among intellectuals and educated people of what opinions are acceptable or mainstream. Such changes have caught some people by surprise, and resulted in the claim that “cancel culture” is a new and socially unhealthy phenomenon.

Let me illustrate in regard to an issue that hits close to home for me, a transgender woman. When I was a transgender girl in the late 1950s and 1960s, the condition of being transgender was considered a mental disorder. Society’s refusal to accept transgender people, society’s “othering” of transgender people caused me untold difficulties which I am still dealing with today. It wasn’t until 2012 that the American Psychiatric Association stopped listing the condition of being transgender as a mental disorder.

In your speech you suggest that the opinion that transgender school kids should be precluded from participating in scholastic sports consistent with their gender identity is a view that is mainstream and should not be canceled.

As someone who experienced being “othered” as a kid in elementary school in a way you never were, who understands in a very visceral way the effects of opinions “othering” transgender kids, I view the opinion that transgender kids should be required to participate in scholastic sports or teams that do not match their gender identity as wrong and destructive to a healthy, inclusive, functioning society.

EZ — I wrote about this issue earlier this year and concluded, “creating reasonable, highly specific gender identity guidelines for sports is likely the key to winning the support of those who are sympathetic to trans rights but who are inclined to back the restrictive proposals based on a good faith interest in fairness in girls athletics.” Denying that these arguments are often made in good faith and demanding they not be heard is not a winning strategy in the court of public opinion.

Rick G. — Can you define the boundary between who, where, and when a person should and should not be given a platform to speak? You suggested a person holding a majority opinion or an opinion held by a reasonable person should be given an opportunity to speak at a public forum.

I ask this question with the assumption that you do think that some people in some situations should not be given a platform.

For example, should a self identified white supremacist be given an opportunity to share their views at a university campus? Would you have endorsed an outspoken anti-gay activist in 1980 (their opinion would have been the majority view) to speak at a university?

Do you support the news media giving time/ space to climate-change deniers an opportunity to be heard? Again assuming that you recognize that some portion of the audience will be attracted to their opinion.

If you answered, no, I would not allow that person to speak in that situation, then perhaps you see the shortcomings of your argument. Namely, being in the majority or believing that your opinion is reasonable or failing to recognize that time/ attention-spans are limited is simplistic and may be counterproductive.

So, while I agree that more thoughtful public discourse is useful and I do not want to see anyone shouted down, politely limiting access to public discourse may be an effective form of societal persuasion.

Further, you said that “the lower-profile people who see the vicious treatment given those who express contrarian views simply decide to keep their mouths shut and their opinions to themselves.” This is a straw man argument; not much (no) evidence exists of such people. While this argument – fear leads people to withhold their opinions – sounds sensible at first, it collapses at closer inspection. Most people, unlike yourself, never offer public opinions. They do voice their opinions to family and friends, and I think that you might agree that after hearing about a speaker such as yourself being asked to not speak (cancelled, if you will), they are likely to engage in more, not less, conversation about the controversial subject with their family and friends.
So, perhaps you were referring to those few among us that do contribute to public discourse, that these public intellectuals/ speakers/ writers would shut their mouths. But if I understood your comments, you acknowledged that this group of commentators and contributors to public discourse have not and do not keep their mouths shut and their opinions to themselves. They have, in fact, become more boisterous in response to cancel-culture.
So I submit that a casual observer using the eye-test or sniff-test can see or smell that cancel-culture has increased public discourse.

EZ — I don’t think a university has to platform anyone who wants to say anything at all, but I also don’t think  groups with vehement opinions on divisive social, political and even scientific issues ought to have hecklers’ vetoes. And I would err on the side of letting controversial speakers address willing audiences and countering them with more and better speech at other forums.  

 I find your second argument — that no one in our schools, in our newsrooms or our corporations feels intimidated from expressing  views even slightly outside the current orthodoxy —  beyond preposterous.   
Just look at that AMA story I told during the speech — two people had to resign from the organization because a podcast host said he thought that poorer health outcomes for African Americans are “more of a socio-economic phenomenon” than evidence of structural racism in society.  And you think that didn’t reverberate through the organization?
  You think that didn’t stifle any further inquiry or discussion into that topic, perhaps an expression of a nuanced or compromise position? Come on! The AMA all but said “be publicly on board with this or you’ll lose your job.” 
And do you seriously think that faculty and students at UChicago and MIT who aren’t totally behind the DEI agenda and who have qualms about affirmative action weren’t intimidated by what happened to Dorian Abbott? 
I’m sure there are many communities and companies outside the liberal mainstream where people are intimidated into public silence as well for fear of losing their jobs or even being unsafe.    
People who are only able to voice their opinions to simpatico family and friends are not “straw men.” They are victims of a culture of suffocation and ideological orthodoxy in which mobs presume to control the terms of debate. I don’t think it’s healthy and I don’t think it’s the route to positive change.
Anti-gay activists weren’t hooted into submission and defeat.  They were beaten with better arguments and examples. 
Rick G. — Deplatforming or cancel-culture are forms of protest. I had not explicitly stated this point because I assumed that you understood and acknowledged it, but on reflection and in reading your reply I think it better to state it clearly. Deplatforming is a form of protest. If you disagree or are unsure of what I mean by this statement, I can elaborate. Please let me know.

Presuming that you acknowledge this statement – deplatforming is protest, then an additional criticism of your speech is that you are not adequately acknowledging this point and thereby may not think that protest is a valuable part of societal change. I am arguing that protest is an indispensable part of societal change. Again, If this statement is not one that you ascribe to, I can provide arguments and examples ad nauseam to highlight this position.

 Deplatforming is acceptable behavior in some situations. This statement was the original disagreement that I had emailed to you. I had asked, “Can you define the boundary between who, where, and when a person should and should not be given a platform to speak?

I had given you examples of situations where you might accept deplatforming. These examples were only provided to allow you to find a place, any place, that you could acknowledge deplatforming as acceptable behavior. Your tangential reply attempted to dispute each of the immaterial examples. My point was nevertheless tacitly accepted in your reply; You opened, “I don’t think a university has to platform anyone…” In your reply, I acknowledge and heard you continue to argue your main thesis – deplatforming is never the better form of protest.

On this point, I disagree with you. Deplatforming is the better form of protest when the alternative is no protest. People without power can feel that they are not being heard. Regardless of the veracity of their feelings they can earnestly feel that way. This disempowerment is a criticism hurled at you repeatedly and one that you tend to insufficiently acknowledge.

As a white male decades long public intellectual writing in a major newspaper you are especially open to this criticism and in a particularly weak position to dismiss this concern of disempowerment. You may not be able to overcome this criticism due to your circumstances, but you could do a better job of trying.

  Your definition of what, who, or when deplatforming is acceptable is poorly defined and possibly incorrect. My disagreement with your speech is contingent on accepting the above point  that  deplatforming is acceptable behavior in some situations.  

You drew the boundary of what cannot be deplatformed at “majority opinion” or “an opinion that a reasonable person might think.” I could write at length about the shortcomings of this blurry line. But briefly, you implicitly suggest that minority position holders cannot use deplatforming and that a “white male decades long public intellectual writing in a major newspaper” defines reasonable.

Again I might say, “You may not be able to overcome this criticism due to your circumstances, but you could do a better job of trying.” If you wanted to try to define the circumstances of when someone can call for deplatforming, you might start by acknowledging that anyone in the USA can protest. Deplatforming is protest.

While the call for your deplatforming at Depaul was an attempt at protest from two undergraduate students. You were the unintended victim of their protest. You did acknowledge that the Depaul event was not about you when you stepped aside. But you seemed to miss that their protest was also not about you. Their protest was about minority insensitivity and BLM in general. Their actions and your actions did create an opportunity for more public discussion, not less, on the topic of their concern. Which leads into my final disagreement with your speech.

 You erroneously suggest that deplatforming has decreased the quantity of public discourse and overstated its stifling of sharing opinions. To suggest that the quantity of public discourse is declining is laughable. The very events that triggered your speech have greatly increased public discourse!

You theorized about the stifling of opinion sharing. I suggested that this is a straw man argument. I am open to actual facts on the topic. My experience has been that people will not stop talking about it. In fact, Democrats would do well to stop talking about SJW issues, but seem unable to do so. My friends at both the AMA and U of C tell me that these situations have stimulated discussion. Who in specific are you talking about?

If deplatforming has decreased insensitive comments about latino families’ tragedies which you would be in a good position to report on, then I agree that that speech has been stifled. But wasn’t that the point of the protest?

A final caveat or acknowledgement on this fourth point of disagreement or the price of deplatforming: while we all love non-violent protest, in fact most protests have victims, unintended consequences, or worse. The unintended consequences and victims (read: Eric Zorn) in this minor Depaul case must be acceptable if we want society to improve.

EZ —  I’m not sure where you got the idea that I’m opposed to protesting. My belief in freedom of speech and expression is robust. I am opposed to efforts to prevent speakers from addressing willing audiences — to attempt to silence, drown out or cause to be fired those who express controversial, unpopular or heterodox opinions. Particularly in cases where it is the person and not the speech being muzzled.

I give you, from my speech to the ETHS, the example of Prof. Dorian Abbott, the UChicago professor who was supposed to speak on his work regarding climate issues at MIT but had his invitation rescinded when activists raised a fuss over his Newsweek op-ed challenging some fundamental precepts of affirmative action.

You either stand with this action or you don’t. No gauzy appeals to the value of protest or references to people without power using the only means they have to be heard. Supporters of DEI initiatives are not only being heard on campuses, they are in the majority and are controlling the narrative.

Meanwhile, the topic itself remains a topic of searching debate in society at large: How do our institutions best and more fairly overcome the pernicious effect of generations — centuries — of racial discrimination while still meeting the other imperatives of their mission?

I am of the belief, first of all, that Abbott’s views are not so beyond the pale that they forfeit his right to speak on any topic at an American university, and, second of all, that universities ought to be places of fearless inquiry and debate such that it would be desirable, not unthinkable, to have Abbott speak on this very topic, perhaps in a debate format.

Are we in agreement on that?

You seem to want to play straw man with me by inviting me to approve of deplatforming in some situations — vile extremists, say. As I noted, I don’t think universities are under obligation to invite and provide lecture-hall space to any dingbat or hater or nutcase who wants to hold forth. A university is not Bughouse Square. Such invitations should be reviewed and vetted based on their potential educational merit and service to the mission of the school. Fidelity to prevailing campus orthodoxies should not be a requirement.

But allow me to play straw-man with you. Are there no limits to your belief that a small, vehement group of protesters should be allowed to block or otherwise shut down speakers with whom they disagree? Is the prerogative to tell certain speakers to sit down and shut up and to hound them and their employers limited in your mind to people you agree with? Afforded only to those who can plausibly claim to having no other way of being heard? Is it OK with you to deplatform someone who supports, say, lowering tax rates on the rich based on the view that this economic policy harms low income people? What about someone who supports the death penalty, which has a racial bias? What about someone who thinks we should dramatically crack down on people illegally crossing our borders?

You accuse me of drawing blurry lines, but where would you draw them? My blurry line is well on the side of wide open civil debate. Correct my impression that yours is well on the side of ideological conformity.

You write that the objections of the student editors at DePaul was not about me, but about “minority insensitivity and BLM in general.” But recall, Rick, that they accused me of racism and hate speech for writing against a rush to judgment after the Adam Toledo tragedy. I detect in this assessment as well as your aside that their attempt “decreased insensitive comments about latino families’ tragedies” a whiff of agreement with the idea that theirs was a fair assessment of my column and so it was reasonable for them to call for me to be deplatformed. If you want to make that case, then please don’t beat around the bush about it or simply invoke coded insults (“Latino families tragedies…”). You think it was right of them to brand my column as hate speech and say I shouldn’t have been allowed to speak on any topic at DePaul? You think this was more effective than trying to open up a dialogue on some of these issues?  

Again, I am not claiming victimhood here. My livelihood does not depend on speaking (for free!) at DePaul, though my guess is if I tried to get hired as an adjunct at DePaul, Northwestern or probably even Loyola at this point, student pressure groups would mobilize to discourage the hiring and countervailing views would not get a fair and impartial hearing. 

 So what of your contention that, no, such examples don’t discourage dialogue and debate, they stimulate it! You are free to imagine that affirmative action skeptics have been more vocal at UChicago and that defenders of my column came out of the woodwork at DePaul and those who challenge the new orthodoxy that even alluding to racial slurs is a form of violence are speaking out, but my strong suspicion is that this is a fantasy. A “laughable” fantasy, to use your dismissive term.

But you said you are “open to actual facts on the topic” so here are some findings from a Center for American Political Studies at Harvard University and The Harris Poll survey of more than 1,700 voters taken in February: 64% percent of respondents said that there is “a growing cancel culture that is a threat to our freedoms; — 66% of Hispanic respondents , 58% of Black respondents and 48% of Democratic respondents. To the question “Are you concerned that if you were to express your true viewpoints on Twitter that you might be banned or fired from your job ?” more than 1 in 3 (39%) of respondents said yes (40% of Hispanics, 36% of Blacks and 35% of Democrats).

You think society improves when people are intimidated into silence? You think this feeling increases public dialogue?

I don’t.

I think most of these efforts at cancellation should be met with invitations to debate, dialogue and inquiry in which all sides are heard, not with cowering and banishment. Because I think that is how society improves.

Rick G —  I believe that American society has made tremendous progress on racial issues but more needs to be done. Neither federal government interference in voting laws nor affirmative action are consistent with Western Liberal Philosophy (think John Locke and the Enlightenment), but I do not agree with the Supreme Court that we no longer need voting rights protection nor that we can advance further toward a free and equal society without affirmative action. I don’t see us getting to MLK’s promised land without crossing back on some western liberal philosophy. One step back, two steps forward.

Similarly, deplatforming runs counter to open discourse, but at this point in time we still need to raise awareness about the inequities in society. Deplatforming is protest. Deplatforming raises awareness highlighting areas of concern, but it is messy. The UChicago Professor was unfairly treated and so were you. If we cannot use deplatforming because it fails the purity test for commitment to open dialogue, then you limit a tool of forcing dialogue that we need.
If we accept deplatforming as a tool to raise awareness where inadequate attention would otherwise be paid, then it is a price we pay to reach open civil debate. When we reach the promised land, when we are all judged by the content of our character, not the color of our skin, then we will not need and should not abide by deplatforming. But that’s not where we are.
So, when you write  “I am of the belief, first of all, that Abbott’s views are not so beyond the pale that they forfeit his right to speak on any topic at an American university, and, second of all, that universities ought to be places of fearless inquiry and debate such that it would be desirable, not unthinkable, to have Abbott speak on this very topic, perhaps in a debate format. Are we in agreement on that?
I answer: Yes, we are in agreement that it would be desirable. If we were in the promised land but we are not. We live in a time after great progress, but we still have a long way to go. At this time, we need to raise further awareness of the complexities that prevent us from living in a free and equal society. We have to be willing to employ all tools, even ones that violate our desirable goal.
At this point, I am avoiding the term straw man because I don’t think we even agree on what straw man means. Instead, I will directly address the related issues.
In our desired world, I do not want anyone to be deplatformed or use deplatforming. In our messy world, I cannot realistically control who uses this tool, so I draw no line about who can use deplatforming.
I think that we agree that deplatforming does not persuade anyone of anything. You’ve made this very  point; deplatforming is not the way to change minds. Therefore deplatforming is not useful in creating ideological conformity.  But do we agree that deplatforming raises awareness/ increases attention on issues, often issues that are not the ones the speaker was even going to address (i.e. you and Professor Abbott)?
I am sorry that the DePaul students slandered you. I do not agree with their statements. I found their apology to be inadequate. It was not fair. I don’t think anyone should have to suffer through that. I doubt they read hardly any of your work, nor had much idea of who you are. I think you were a victim of deplatforming, be it an unintended one.  Which is why I said that it was not about you. I apologize for my insensitivity because of course it is also about you. However, the whiff you smell is of me as well. I don’t know if we can know what it is like to be a minority.
And finally, measuring the price of deplatforming, the issue we seem furthest apart on. First, I would like to claim that you initiated the dismissive language calling my assessment of the price of deplatforming, which I put at very low, “beyond preposterous”. I am open to the evidence you provided and any additional evidence.  You have convinced me to increase my price from very low to low, not by your examples of fear of cancel-culture, but by concern for personal harm caused by deplatforming.
I admit that I have not looked at the Harvard Harris poll but I am not very moved or surprised by those numbers. Cancel culture is unpopular, so when asked if cancel culture causes problems, people said yes. That response is not the same as a measure of decreased civil debate.
And for the use of Twitter, I again wonder what we are measuring.  Twitter is popular with people with fringe positions. So, a third of twitter users being concerned that their positions would offend people at work seems about right. And are we to understand that these surveyed people are on Twitter sharing their opinions but not their true viewpoints?
The larger evidence is overwhelming. Every imaginable opinion is out there right now being voiced in the USA. Have you and Professor Abbot not been heard?  Is there a shortage of available information or opinions?
Yes, I acknowledge that there are examples of people not speaking up but the overall quantity of debate is on the rise. Some of your the-sky-is-falling rhetoric sounds the alarm of the coming totalitarian takeover.
Do you think that we are practically in Putin’s Russia or Luckashenko’s Belarus?  The First Amendment is firmly ingrained in US culture. The internet has increased our outlets exponentially. I do not believe freedom of speech or open debate are under serious threat from deplatforming or cancel-culture. Deplatforning and cancel-culture unpopularity prognosticate their eventual demise, likely simply becoming irrelevant by the plethora of safe platforms.

EZ — I of course agree with you on voting rights and, in general, on the need for affirmative action and other diversity initiatives.  But I don’t agree with what I take to be the thrust of your argument that the frequent injustices of “cancellation” when visited upon individuals are OK because they serve the broader goal of raising  “awareness (and) highlighting areas of concern” by “forcing dialogue that we need.”
You say this is “a price we pay to reach open civil debate,” which is probably easy to say when   “we” are paying the sacrificial price and not “you.”
Easy to say yet still not true. The dialogue that gets forced by heavy-handed attempts at censorship is less “civil debate” about the issues than it is conversation about the insufferable close-mindedness of those who can’t abide opinions that differ from their own and consider them a form of violence that makes them feel unsafe.
So I don’t agree that “deplatforming raises awareness/ increases attention on issues, often issues that are not the ones the speaker was even going to address,” at least not in a useful way.   The only “awareness” raised by the deplatforming of Dorian Abbott was the awareness that if you don’t have the orthodox liberal position on affirmative action, you’d better shut up and have a seat.
Even if I agreed that this advances the long-term cause of support for affirmative action –which I don’t — I would still consider it a form of injustice as well as an insult to the ideals of open inquiry.  Countenancing injustice against individuals in the name of some overarching view of social justice is the thin end of a very bad wedge.
About the Harvard/Harris Poll, I took their question about Twitter to be a stand-in for all forms of social media and public pronouncement  (given that only 23% of the public uses Twitter  and 100% of poll respondents answered the question) , and I considered the result to be a reflection of the fact that a significant percentage of the population feels intimidated about expressing their viewpoints openly for fear of reprisals.  I offered this as evidence in  response to your assertion that “not much (no) evidence exists of such people.”  
This can’t be a surprise.  It seems manifestly obvious to me, indeed, that the whole point of trying to silence speakers and brand opposing viewpoints as insensitive hate speech is to silence still more speakers.  Surely you don’t believe that what the editors of the DePaulia wanted was a balanced campus forum on media coverage of police-involved tragedies? How could this be when they plainly consider any viewpoint other than their own as a threat to students of color? You write, “In our messy world, I cannot realistically control who uses this tool, so I draw no line about who can use deplatforming.”
This position in effect shrugs at every anecdote, every story of someone not only denied a chance to speak but fired for expressing any view. It is, in fact, agnostic about how NFL owners fairly clearly conspired to “cancel” Colin Kaepernick for kneeling during the National Anthem to protest police violence against Black people. 
No, you can’t “realistically control” this form of protest. But can try to recognize when advocates cross the line between fair and unfair, just and unjust, and urge them, in the popular admonition among the truly enlightened these days, to “do better.”

Rick G — I readily acknowledge that de-platforming and cancel-culture are rude and uncivil. I have never engaged in deplatforming or vocally cancelling. Its low approval ratings are likely because most people think it is rude and uncivil.
Yet, people continue to engage in this behavior because they see a trade-off. I earnestly outlined the appeal and limited danger of it. I have less ability, as I have no personal experience, to be the voice of a person who cancels. I am the devil’s advocate when speaking on behalf of the de-platformers and micro-aggrieved.
Similarly, I am not surprised that you did not entice (m)any people to email disagreement with your moral position despite the fact that some are engaged in such activities. It’s like asking the military to stop bombing because civilians died. It persuades no one.
Allow me one more point of disagreement with your speech, perhaps in tactic rather than fact.Your argument might be more persuasive if you further acknowledged your victimhood. 
I am not agnostic on any of these issues nor are most people.  You are more sympathetic to the aggrieved when you share your own similar experience. You did briefly mention it in your speech, and it was an engaging moment, but you quickly backed away from it. Of course, this only works if it is true.
EZ– Thanks, Rick, for a bracing and  clarifying exchange