Abstract rights are in the air. They have recently become the subject of endless obsequious commentary around so-called free speech on university campuses. Many conservatives are using it as a convenient foil to promote reactionary, bigoted pseudo-science, which is bought and paid for by the corporate elite. At the same time, countless liberals are indulging in their moral superiority as the unrivaled passive subjects of history, who are content to be tolerant of anything as long as they do not actually have to do something. Even supposed leftists are defending the institutional promotion of white supremacist, anti-poor, misogynist hacks in the name of purportedly avoiding future censorship of the left (which, of course, already exists).
This consensual abstract rights discourse has so-called progressives belittling those who have taken a committed stance and engaged in direct action against institutions of higher learning that willingly function as echo chambers for fascism, racism, misogyny and economic oppression. It is as if activists dedicated to developing concrete political strategies to fight against the institutional propagation of reactionary ideas and practices were supposed to simply stand in silent awe before the moralist intoning of the patronizing, self-appointed judges of action, who themselves passively condone the institutional organization of fascism and top-down class warfare.
Scientific racism and the innate inferiority of major sectors of the world population—women, the indigenous, the poor, subalterns, and many others—were once widely taught at the university and considered credible discourses. If this has changed over time, at least in part, it is not due to tolerance. And it is certainly not because scientific racism and other violent ideologies were sanctioned and promoted by institutions of higher learning in the name of a supposed right to free speech. It was through the direct action of people who recognized that universities are power brokers in the struggle to define legitimate discourse, and who actively defended the position that racist ideology—like other non-scientific forms of structural oppression or ingrained cultural bigotry—does not qualify. If anyone, then, is fighting for the concrete defense of equality and rights that actually mean something, it is precisely the activists who refuse to have institutions of knowledge production legitimize and disseminate discourses rooted in the idea of the inherent inferiority of certain people.
Nevertheless, the consensual discourse on abstract rights persists in defending so-called free speech independently of context, as if rights somehow floated in a pure moral ether above and beyond the soiled political struggles of the here-and-now. It does not recognize, for instance, the crucially important fact that the constitutional right to express one’s views is not the right to have a university approve of them and provide a megaphone for them. In other words, the right to have institutions of higher learning endorse and market your speech is most definitively not a constitutional right.
One of the reasons for this widespread confusion is the faulty conception of institutions inherent in the tradition of political liberalism. The latter incorrectly assumes that institutions like universities are neutral spaces for individuals to freely express their thoughts in an open “marketplace of ideas.” However, everyone familiar with the inner workings, sordid histories and economic functions of educational institutions knows that they are factories for capitalist modes of social reproduction largely structured by industry interests and guided by corporate investments.
Their power to format the social world—for better or worse—is one of the reasons why the struggle over their ability to define rigorous, legitimate and meaningful discourse is so important and should be taken seriously, instead of passively accepting the promotion of any political agenda whatsoever under the thoughtless banner of “free speech.” As we should know from the history of movements like Nazism, if the institutions of knowledge production put their stamp of approval on discourses such as scientific racism, this has an enormous impact on the broader cultural and political world.
The reactionaries, for all of their faults, are at least well aware of this, and it is precisely for this reason that they have invested in having their toadies speak at universities. Although they are more than happy to use the smoke screen of free speech in order to do this, everyone basically knows that they do not really care about it as a principle. They have not been stalwartly defending, for instance, the right of the revolutionary anti-capitalist left to have a prominent university platform for defending egalitarian, ecological and anti-colonial politics. On the contrary, they only invoke free speech as it pertains to a tactical struggle to market their reactionary ideas while keeping liberals on their heels. If it did not work as well as it does, immediately compelling the liberal intelligentsia to hypnotically kneel down and pray to their false god of tolerance, it is imaginable that they would simply discard it as an unnecessary foil for their not-so-hidden agenda.
The liberals, however, have had a longstanding love affair with abstract rights. Their hallowed claims to the freedom and equality of all men (sic) have served as the sacred ideological supplement to worldwide capitalist expansion, as Domenico Losurdo has demonstrated perhaps better than anyone in Liberalism: A Counter-History. By encouraging the masses to gaze up into the sky of abstract ideas and rights, they sought to distract them from the rapacious project of indigenous genocide, chattel and wage slavery, colonization and patriarchal oppression.
When those who rejected this form of cloud gazing—Black Elk, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth and so many others—pointed out how these supposed rights were actually anchored in a vast system of structural oppression, such that only an infinitesimally small minority of the population benefitted from them (primarily white, male, property-owning deists of European descent), the liberals retorted with their infamous progress narrative: although our system of abstract rights was historically and materially founded upon your exclusion, if you work hard enough and follow our rules, at some point we might include you, at least formally. Bloodstained bison fields slowly became fenced in gambling dens, plantations morphed into prisons, colonies were transformed into neo-colonies, multicultural tokenism made the corporatocracy more colorful, and there was certainly progress… of cloud gazing.
Unlike abstract rights, anchored rights are ones that have meaning and substance precisely because they are embodied in specific material relations. They are rights that actually exist in this world, like the right to free speech enshrined by, and originally for, the white, male, property-owning, colonial settlers in America. Rights are therefore about power, and who has the force to establish, define and defend them. It is precisely liberalism’s refusal to overtly recognize this that has perpetuated the false veneer of neutrality that actually allows liberal institutions like the university to obscure or cover over racism, patriarchy, and the ensanguined spread of imperialist oppression.
With all of this in mind, anytime individuals or institutions claim they are defenders of free speech on campus, we should translate this abstract assertion into an anchored reality by examining what this means concretely. For instance, I was recently involved with coordinating a direct action campaign at Villanova University against the institutional promotion of the hack bigotry of neo-eugenicist Charles Murray. Although many conservatives and liberals appealed to “free speech” to defend his supposed right to have the university broadcast his invectives against equality, I sincerely doubt that the same amount of corporate funding, military-police enforcement and campus fanfare would have gone into defending Tim Miller’s right to free speech. I will likely never know this, however, because Villanova’s invitation to this radical queer activist and artist was rescinded. Although each institutional decision is surely the result of a unique configuration of forces, this juxtaposition requires that we ask the following concrete question: is “free speech” only defended on Villanova’s campus for misogynist, racist, classist pseudo-academics bankrolled by the corporate elite?
It is imperative to recognize the tactical uses of free speech discourse as a mechanism to empower or disempower voices on campus. Universities, far from being neutral, are in the daily business of defining the difference between scientific and unscientific claims, between worthy and unworthy discourses. We must therefore critically interrogate their choices and actively participate in the struggle over ideas.
This means recognizing that the way we think—and train people to think—has real political implications in the world, and that this is precisely why reactionaries want to spread their debunked ideas throughout institutions of higher learning. The slippery slope of the misguided “free speech” argument plays into their hands and will lead nowhere other than into the thoughtless, relativist abyss of justifying university podiums for Nazi and colonial Holocaust deniers, individuals who think people of color are apes, pedophilia advocates, astronomers who believe the world is flat, and doctors who imagine that diseases are spread by evil spirits.
The question we should be asking, then, is not the abstract one of whether or not an individual or institution is “for” or “against” free speech in general, and then confusedly extending this to the university context. The real question is: what are the institutional forces that are empowering certain ideas and—by necessity—excluding or sidelining others? This requires examining the power structures that produce the very field of possibility for thought and organize the purportedly “open debate” in terms of viable intellectual positions. It also means analyzing how the intellectual and moral torpor of a “one-size-fits-all” principle of “free speech” directly contributes to distracting us from actually holding institutional power brokers accountable for the types of ideas they are endorsing and disseminating.
Abstract rights are in the air, then. They are floating above the material struggles over ideas and confusing people about the real issues. It is time to ground them. This means recognizing that there are only anchored rights, and that the right to be a bigot is not the right to have a university promote your bigotry. It also requires acknowledging that institutions of knowledge production are important sites of struggle with real-world implications, as we should all know from the history of scientific racism and other debunked forms of oppression that have sought university approval and propagation. The agents operative within institutions of higher learning need be take responsibility for the power of the ideas that they promote, rather than hiding behind false beliefs in neutrality or clouded misconceptions of free speech. If history has taught us anything, it is that some ideas are worth fighting for.