Saturday, March 27, 2004
Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?
The incident involved one of my peers, a Teaching Assistant here at the university. On the day of the referendum he arrived at his classroom to find that the walls were covered with a dozen or so bright orange 'Keep the Chief' flyers. Finding the flyers to be distracting he went around the room taking them down and deposited them in a neat pile on his desk. When a student asked if this was something he ought to be doing, the TA explained that he found the bright orange color of the flyers to be a distraction.
It seems to me that those flyers are a form of political speech and that, as such, the bar for removing them ought to be fairly high. That said, I'm not sure whether the TA acted inappropriately by removing them. I didn't see the flyers and don't know how distracting they really were. And it may be, for all I know, that University policy expressly forbids the posting of such flyers. Perhaps most importantly, the pro-Chief side doesn't have any problem getting their message across to the campus community.
But even with these caveats, I think we do well to recognize that the removal of the flyers is the suppression of speech. Even if the suppression is a justified one, our justification should include an acknowledgement that suppressing speech is what we have done.
The public justification the TA gave doesn't include such an acknowledgement. This may be no problem at all. We aren't required to give a full justification for all of our actions, or even to know what a full justification would include. Taken in the context of a full semester, this incident might well turn out to be insignificant.
Still, it worries me. Freedom of speech is a core democratic value and restrictions of speech carry remarkable symbolic power. Conservatives seem to believe that universities are liberal strongholds where left-leaning academics silence rival views and seek to indoctrinate students. Irregardless of the accuracy of this view, it's prevalence is a contributing cause of the unwillingness to fund higher education in the United States. The suppression of speech, even if justified, will resonate with those who are already inclined to believe that lefty professors offer little more than state sanctioned brainwashing.
When I expressed these reservations to the TA, he refused to acknowledge that his actions had amounted to a suppression of speech. He claimed that since he had only intended to remove a garish distraction, that's all he had done. Moreover, he insisted that my worries arose only because I insisted on seeing everything in political terms.
This is a bad argument by any standard, and maybe when he sobers up my colleague will reconsider (these are the sorts of incidents, after all, that tend to be discussed at a bar). But maybe not. The ad hominem stands in for a predilection to limit the range of activities on which its appropriate to focus a political lens.
I'm not sure how to go about arguing for a broader view. What I've done here is look fairly closely at an incident and seen political implications. Do I have to justify the use of a political lens to make those implications salient? It seems to me that the fact that the use of the lens is fruitful ought to be enough.
This point can be put in the vocabulary of John Dewey. We observe and interpret the world according to certain habits of thought. These habits, in turn, place a limit on the beliefs we can hold and the actions we can take. The justification for these habits, and for the limitations which come with them, lies in the contribution these habits make to our successful negotiation of the world. It follows, then, that a change of habit can be motivated by showing that the proposed habit is useful to us.
(Yes Virginia, the TA in question is a bit of a Dewey scholar)
One of McChesney's points was that the corporate media has adopted a lens for looking at politics that limits its view to a small circle of actors and restricted catalog of events. I'm not sure that I agree with McChesney that the adoption of this lens is caused by corporate influence. But McChesney's other point, that we have good reasons to broaden the focus of our view, seems right to me. I think the incident above shows that broadening our view can be fruitful.
On a related (but not obviously) note, it looks to me like Matthew Yglesias misses Chomsky's point.
From Chomsky's innovative blog (that's short for weblog):
About half the population doesn't bother to vote. The voters are heavily skewed towards the wealthy and privileged, who tend to vote for the more reactionary of the two factions of the business party. That's of course not enough for the Republicans to obtain the statistical tie they achieved in 2000. They did get a considerable majority of the male white working class vote, women too, but the reasons are important. Turns out the main issues on which they voted were "religiosity" and gun control -- not their primary concerns, by far, but the primary concerns don't come up because on those -- e.g., international economic arrangements -- elite opinion and popular opinion are generally opposed, so the issue has to be kept off the electoral agenda. In fact, "issue awareness" -- knowing where candidates stand on issues -- hit a historic low in 2000. That's not by accident; rather, design. Candidates are trained to keep away from issues and focus on "values" or personality. For good reasons. And the population is aware of that too.
True, there's no mainstream critique of the whole electoral process. That would be next to inconceivable. Rather, there are enormous propaganda campaigns to try to induce people to vote and trying to make the elections look very serious. We're right in the middle of them now. They have some success, but it's limited.
Yglesias focused on the final paragraph and remarked that:
Now it's true that you don't see a ton of coverage devoted to questioning the wisdom of the US electoral process but that's mainly because (a) the ins-and-outs of alternatives are very boring and technical, and (b) the prospects for altering the system are relatively dim. Whenever it seems timely, though, the media practically explodes with people calling for an end to the electoral college or the institution of single-transferable votes or some such thing.
The problem is, Chomsky's critique of the electoral process isn't about things like single-transferable votes. Rather, he's saying that the electoral process is flawed because the structures of political power are constructed in such a way that the most relevant issues are excluded from the debate. Once you acknowledge this, it may be that a wonky discussion of technical fixes is appropriate. But the timely explosions Yglasias mentions don't amount to an acknowledgement of Chomsky's point, and so aren't a 'critique of the whole electoral process' in the sense Chomsky means.