Richard Cohen had a Voltairean moment the other day. Or rather a pseudo-Voltairean movement, since the well-known saying: “I don’t agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” seems not to have been said by the French sage after all. He is one of those people, like Lincoln and Mark Twain, who seem to attract credit for witty or pithy sayings the way the remotest corner under the bed attracts dust-bunnies. From his own remote corner of the op-ed page of the Washington Post, Cohen noted the following undisputed facts:
(1) that Hamilton College in upstate New York had invited as a speaker someone who described the victims of the September 11 terror attacks as “little Eichmanns” who deserved what they got;
(2) that there had been a predictable outcry of protest at the invitation from many both inside Hamilton College and outside it, notably including Bill O’Reilly of the Fox News Channel whom Cohen describes as having, “in effect, organized an Internet lynch mob, a collection of cyber- goons — one of whom threatened to bring a gun” and
(3) that, after hanging tough for a while, Hamilton College had caved and rescinded the invitation.
Cohen’s point was that the college should not have done so. Not, of course, that he agrees with that description of those who died. On the contrary, he describes this person, whose name is Ward Churchill, as an “idiot” and his words making the comparison mentioned above, which he quotes at length, “repellent, idiotic” — not surprising, I guess, coming from an idiot — “and badly written.” But still he should have been allowed to have his say, thinks R. Cohen. Here’s his argument, such as it is:
Hamilton should not have invited Churchill in the first place. His ideas are trash, clichés to boot, and the school could have…changed its mind once it found out more about him. But once he had accepted, and once Hamilton had insisted by all that is holy that it would stick to its guns, it could not then collapse because those ideas, as loathsome as they are, might have real consequences. Hire some guards. Frisk the audience. But don’t cave to the mob.
The mob? Was it only a mob because Bill O’Reilly was leading it? Is any large group of people protesting at the granting of a forum to some “idiot” spouting offensive nonsense then a mob? And is it then only necessary for such a person to have acquired such a forum under false pretenses or the cover of his hosts’ ignorance for him to be granted a privilege that many people who might have interesting or profitable things to say are denied?
Yet the popularity of the pseudo-Voltairean quotation suggests that some such idea of what true liberalism involves enjoys a perverse popularity. Carried to its logical conclusion, it could only encourage those who hold stupid and offensive views to make them still more stupid and offensive — enough at least to get the liberals on their side in defending their right to a forum. And the freedom to be stupid and offensive, though an undoubted corollary of liberal principles, carries with it no right to a hearing from those who resent stupidity and offensiveness. There is a limit to what any of us can attend to in a short lifetime, and true liberalism must also afford us the freedom so to organize our lives as to limit the amount of stupid and offensive things we are forced to listen to. God knows enough of them get through in any case, no matter how good our screening system.
Even if no one at Hamilton College would have been forced to listen to Mr. Churchill’s words, the College itself has a responsibility in its putative role as an upholder of civilized discourse not to offer such an incentive to speakers to be even more stupid and offensive than they already are. Responsible scholarship depends on the upholding of intellectual standards, and the abdication of such responsibility in the name of freedom of speech is a bit of sophistry of which I doubt even Voltaire would approve.
And anyway, it’s not as if poor Mr. Churchill, who is a self-described “Indian activist” and a tenured professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has no forum without the Hamilton College gig. In fact, according to a report in the Post of a couple of days later, back in Boulder he was able to deploy his own rent-a-mob shock troops to shout down a disciplinary hearing of which he was the subject. If the forces of liberalism ever allow those deliberations to resume, and they reach the illiberal conclusion that Mr. Churchill should no longer be allowed to impose his stupid and offensive views upon the students of the University of Colorado, he will always have the Internet to fall back on. Out there, you can be as stupid and offensive as you like and somebody will be listening.