On taking criticism: a professor’s reflection

Late afternoon on a busy Wednesday I got a message from the producer of the Tucker Carlson show on Fox News.  She wanted me on with Tucker Carlson in a few hours, live, to talk about the free speech controversy at Berkeley, where a planned talk by conservative provocateur Ann Coulter was canceled due to security concerns. 

When I heard from the producer, I was reading in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, glancing at the clock and hoping to get back to campus in time for Arts@CLAS that evening.  By the time I got back there was no time to eat—or shave—but enough to catch a few student poets and fiction writers reading from their senior projects.  I gave myself over to their stellar work, and tried not to think about whether I was right to accept the producer’s invitation.   

The best way I know to describe the Tucker Carlson show is as the most hostile interview experience in the business.  I knew that going in, having read Kelefa Sanneh’s lengthy profile of Carlson in this month’s issue of The New Yorker.  Sanneh describes Carlson’s interviews as “frequently and sometimes obnoxiously disputatious.”  “It’s hard to get people to come on,” Carlson laments in the profile, alluding to the fact that politicians avoid his show because of his aggressive interviewing style.  Sanneh lays out the theatrical formula by which Carlson thrives, the very formula he applied to me without deviation:

Some cable shows rely on the drama of putting people in the same place, but Carlson’s thrives on remote interviews, which allow his producers to “box” his face, keeping it onscreen so that viewers can watch him react…Carlson grows incredulous and furrows his brow; he grows more incredulous and unfurrows it, letting his features melt into a disbelieving smile, which sometimes gives way to a high-pitched chuckle of outrage. One of his favorite tactics is to insist that his guest answer a question that is essentially unanswerable, as when he pressed Bill Nye to tell him what percentage of climate change was caused by human activity, then berated him for evading the question.

With whatever equanimity I could muster, I attempted to hit the main points of my complex and in some ways fraught argument for the importance of weighing the quality and educational value of campus speakers in relation to the educational mission of college.  I parried a series of intentionally disingenuous readings of my position—this I expected—and allowed myself to stumble over words at times (instead of blurting out a thing—any silly thing—that such interview tactics are designed to force out of guests under duress).  From the moment it was over, the social media notifications, voicemails, and emails flooded in. 

In part because of what I said—but mostly regardless of what I said—thousands of people who didn’t agree with me (or some fantastical version of me) shared things like the following, all ostensibly in defense of free speech:

Because of my speech, I should be deported to North Korea.

Because of my speech, my hoar [sic] mother should’ve had an abortion.

Because of my speech, I should be attacked by an illegal [sic] immigrant and left to bleed out in the street, dying slowly and alone.

Because of my speech, I should be raped by the Taliban while American patriots watch.

Because of my speech, I should be fired from my job at Colby.

No matter how you handle it—no matter how circumspect your approach—this type of thing gets to you.  If you’re reading this and thinking about someday putting your ideas out there for a large public audience, you need read very carefully now: liberal or conservative, gay or straight, regardless of your race, gender, or creed, you are loved and valued in this world.  Please do not forget that.  No matter what anyone says, they can never take that away from you.  But you best believe they’ll try.  So you need to have courage, but don’t confuse courage with bravado.  And you need to have humility, but don’t confuse humility with self-doubt.

The irony of these free speech disputes is that sometimes the people who claim to value free speech the most are the ones guiltiest of debasing the free exchange of ideas, opting to attack, ridicule, and degrade instead of seeking to clarify, challenge, and understand.  Freedom of speech is sacred, not reflexively or arbitrarily, but because, as James Wilson emphasized in Philadelphia in 1787, the sovereign is the people, and our voices must be heard.  We accomplish neither justice nor greatness by sniping at each other on Twitter or shouting down the person at the podium.  Valuing free speech in the abstract is not enough.  If we want to elevate ourselves we need to elevate our speech.

Nevertheless, I don’t have the answer to the complex question of how we maintain freedom of speech on campus—as we must—and also foster a culture in which we strive to elevate our discourse, regardless of political persuasion.  Thanks to my critics who have engaged with me in good faith—rather than wishing me misery and death—my views on campus free speech issues are evolving still as I grapple with critiques and reexamine myself (in particular, you should read Nile Dixon’s ’20 response to me in the Civil Discourse; I don’t think Nile has it 100 percent right, but he’s provided the most careful and skillful critical reading of my argument yet, and that includes responses from professional journalists and academics).

It’s a misconception, I think, that we only argue to change other people’s minds.  We also argue to change our own minds, to test the limits of ideas, and thus to push ourselves beyond simple frameworks like “is free speech good?”  At the moment I’m paying the price for doing the very thing that freedom of speech enables, trying to move a discussion forward into territory that makes a lot of people uncomfortable, myself very much included.  An intellectual doesn’t turn away from critique or counter evidence, or stop examining their position, to nurse an ego or to “own” someone on the internet.  In these moments—and trust me, you’ve had them, even if not so publicly—you have to remember that the rewards of intellectual risk are worth the possibility of being wrong.    

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