In December, the latest episode in the Star Wars franchise, “The Last Jedi,” dropped out of hyperspace trailing spectacular effects, sassy droids, spunky rebels, and young heroes tempted by the dark side, etc.
It’s an ongoing trope, this seduction of the innocents. “If only you knew the dark side of the Force,” Darth Vader rumbles ominously to a young Luke Skywalker. Chancellor Palpatine has almost the same conversation with Anakin, the whiny teenage Jedi. “Learn to know the dark side of the Force,” Palpatine urges.
Now it’s Supreme Leader Snoke who dangles shadowed omnipotence in front of Rey, who reliably says no thanks, and Kylo Ren, who keeps backsliding out of evil, then back-backsliding into it again. You almost wish dark side recruiters were always so naked in their appeals; young people might avoid the kind of error that sustains coercive entities like The Empire, The First Order, or university staff determined to preserve a chilly peace on campus by prohibiting speech they don’t care for.
This all-too-common academic opinion turned up again in December, in remarks by Judith Butler, a gender theorist and professor in the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of California-Berkeley.
Arguing for the need to muzzle conservative speakers on campus to avoid triggering those who might disagree with them, Butler said, “If free speech does take precedence over every other constitutional principle and every other community principle, then perhaps we should no longer claim to be weighing or balancing competing principles or values.”
No, we should still do that. It’s just that free speech needs a first-among-equals status that the professor would deny it, because it is the very tool we use to do that balancing. It’s kind of meta.
By almost any understanding of our American experiment, the idea of free speech must surely be at the very top of the list of animating principles. It’s not the First Amendment alphabetically, after all.
Yes, the country has sometimes honored the ideal more in the breach than in the observance. There were the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798 and the World War I Espionage Act, renewed and extended to include sedition in 1918. Among other things, the act prohibited “any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about the U.S. government.
As it happens, the Founders’-era version of the controversial sedition prohibitions probably cost Federalists the election of 1800, and was allowed to quickly expire. The sedition portion of the 1918 legislation was repealed at the end of 1920. In short, they were controversial and short-lived, designed to cope with short-term emergencies and unpopular even at the time.
It’s worth noting that the professor and others endorsing speech rules on campus seem to have something more banal and more permanent in mind. She contends the right to free speech should be essentially co-equal with the right to make judgments about the likely result of that speech, just another ideal to be weighed with other aspirations, like refusing to “have our community sundered, racial and sexual minorities demeaned, the dignity of trans people denied (and) our commitments to dignity, equality, and non-violence” rendered secondary.
Nowhere is it evident that free discussion does these things at all. In fact, at this moment, the danger of expressing disapproved opinions or practicing divergent lifestyles is most obvious in tightly controlled Iran, where the theocratic regime has reacted to thousands demonstrating in the streets by unleashing security services—at least 20 protesters have been killed—and limiting speech by restricting access to social media and the internet. Their goal is also for re-establishing a quiet (call it campus-like) peace on Iranian streets.
It’s not unusual to find contrarians arguing that the Empire in the Star Wars galaxy was actually a positive or at least useful force, imposing a sort of pax galactica on the fractious inhabitants of that faraway star system. These are exercises in fantasy, though, based on a reality that we know only through the sometimes quirky eye of George Lucas. That’s the guy, it should be said, who gave us Ewoks, Jar Jar Binks, and midi-chlorians. In these cases a dignified silence is probably for the best.
But silence has no place here, where mullahs order the shooting of protesters and on-campus leaders demand a politically correct pax academia that has already been enforced on several campuses with the use—ironically—of violence. It’s a little too close to the dark side for comfort.