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Harvard Students Should Know Freedom Of Speech Is Not Freedom From Consequences

We cannot silence those whose views appall us. We can, however, say to ourselves that these are people with whom we do not wish to associate.

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In the spring of 1986, I took a History of Christianity course at Cal. In his introductory lecture, Professor Bouwsma acknowledged that many students might come from Christian backgrounds. We might have deeply held beliefs, he said, but we should expect to be challenged and discomfited. He invited the believers in the class to think of their faith like a warm jacket.

“When you’re out and about in the chill, you need to wear your coat,” Bouwsma said. “When you come in here, I ask you to take off the coat of your faith and hang it on the back of your chair. You can put it right back on when you leave, but while you’re here, you don’t need it.”   

The young woman next to me said, under her breath, with a mixture of pain and wonder that I can vividly remember almost forty years later, “But it’s not a coat. It’s my skin.”

I didn’t say anything. I remember I felt sorry for her.  Raised an agnostic in a culture that valued skepticism and rationality not just as servants but as masters, college-aged Hugo pitied deeply religious people. Imagine walking through the world “blinded by your priors!” Imagine taking your faith so seriously you couldn’t let go of it for a sixty-minute lecture! No wonder the world is a mess — even here at Berkeley, fanatics and fundies abound! I bet she doesn’t believe in sex before marriage either!

It would take me years before I realized that my own upbringing as the son of two atheist philosophers (who met in grad school at Berkeley) was a coat I wore without knowing. I never took it off because I didn’t realize I had it on. In the circles in which I traveled, everyone I admired wore the same coat, and none of them knew it either.

It would take me years to consider that Professor Bouwsma’s request, as elegantly and politely couched as it was, was a monumental overask. It would take me years to understand that the ability to take one’s core beliefs on and off like a jacket is not, in fact, an unmistakable marker of high intelligence and sophistication.

Conservatives For Cancel Culture

I would grow, in time, to envy the people I’d once pitied.

I often think of that young woman in that class. I thought of her again this week as I read story after story about the backlash against various college students and celebrities who have issued statements in support of what Hamas did in Israel last Saturday. 

The first story came when the Arab American porn star Mia Khalifa was fired by Playboy. Even as the massacres were still happening last weekend, Khalifa — who is of Lebanese descent — used her Twitter account to cheer Hamas on. On Monday, Playboy announced:

Over the past few days, Mia has made disgusting and reprehensible comments celebrating Hamas’ attacks on Israel and the murder of innocent men, women, and children. At Playboy, we encourage free expression and constructive political debate, but we have a zero tolerance policy for hate speech. We expect Mia to understand that her words and actions have consequences.

(This ain’t your father’s Playboy! Old folks like me might remember that Playboy founder Hugh Hefner once published a nuanced and lengthy interview with the American Nazi leader, George Lincoln Rockwell. There was huge outrage at the time, but Hefner — who did not think much of the slippery distinction between free expression and “hate speech” — stuck to his proverbial guns.)

Not to be outdone by the likes of Playboy, the billionaire hedge fund manager Bill Ackman said on Tuesday that he was starting a campaign to name and shame Ivy League students who had signed letters of support for Hamas. Several CEOs joined the campaign. At least one student had a job offer withdrawn. Some students howled in protest, others hastily retracted (or tried to retract) their signatures on the pro-Hamas letters. 

Noting that students at Harvard and other Ivy League campuses have been some of the most effective wielders of “cancel culture” in recent years, some thought this was “just desserts.” Many of my conservative friends have remarked that while they are against cancel culture in general and dislike the idea of people losing job opportunities for their political views, they are prepared to make an exception for those who celebrate burning babies to death.

I have been a free speech zealot for as long as I can remember. As a boy, I joined the ACLU after reading about their successful defense of the right of Nazis to march through the streets of Skokie, Illinois. The first time I wrote a letter to a politician was to protest the work of Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center. My adolescent hero was Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler. While I confess I did like his magazine, what I really admired was that Flynt had lost the use of his legs after being shot by a religious zealot. 

That free speech zealotry wasn’t just because I liked porn. It certainly wasn’t because I was sympathetic to Nazis. I was keenly aware of my father’s family’s Jewish history. It was because I believed that the bedrock of a good society was freedom of expression, and that the hallmark of maturity and sophistication was to be unoffended by ideas, images, or words. I believed we should police actions, of course, but not language or beliefs. 

My family encouraged this stance, at least in part. I like to tell my conservative friends the story of the time I brought a copy of the aforementioned Hustler magazine to the family ranch. I generally hid it in my duffel bag, but one day, left it out on the bedside table. That afternoon, a grave-faced aunt pulled me aside.

“Darling,” she said, “You really must tuck all your unmentionables away each morning. Please do be more careful.” In other words, there was nothing wrong with a thirteen-year-old boy looking at Hustler. There was something wrong with forcing others to confront the fact that one looked at Hustler. As I’ve written before, in families like mine, the primary moral binary wasn’t clean/unclean or good/bad, it was public/private. All things were permitted in the latter. 

I didn’t feel guilty about looking at Hustler or pleasuring myself to what I saw. I did feel very guilty that I had not better concealed the evidence. That’s the WASP moral code, and it explains why I felt perfectly at home with Professor Bouwsma’s suggestion that faith was like a coat that one could and should take off in certain settings.

Right to Free Speech and the Right to Be Offended

It also explains why I’ve always had this reflexive distaste for cancel culture. What should it matter what your colleague believes, as long as they do a good job? Even if they happen to be a Nazi in their free time, if they can restrain their Nazism long enough to be a genial coworker, shouldn’t we tolerate that? We should police conduct, of course — but holding people accountable for their beliefs as well as their behavior is a bridge too far. If the anti-Semite can wear her antisemitism like a coat, and take it off when she comes to work, who am I to judge what she tweets on her own time? 

You might retort that her antisemitism is more likely to be her skin than her coat. You might be right.

The reality is that most of us don’t want to live our lives in compartments. Most of us don’t want to feel as if our most deeply held beliefs can only be expressed in private, and we must discard them whenever we enter the public square. Most of us seem to feel that our most deeply held beliefs will invariably bleed over into our behavior. A great many of you seem to feel that it is too much to ask a Jew to work alongside a Nazi — even if that Nazi is scrupulously polite and professional while in the office.  You aren’t buying the idea that the highest form of virtue is separating your public conduct from your private convictions, pastimes, and reveries.

What was done to Mia Khalifa and the Hamas-endorsing Harvard students is a reminder that while free speech is a precious right, so too is freedom of association. You have the right to say what you like without fear of arrest or assault. But you do not have the right to insist that I not be offended. You do not have the right to ask me to look past your pronouncements. You get to say, “I hate Israel and I’m glad Hamas did what it did,” and I get to say, “I hear you, and I take you at your word, and while I don’t think you should go to jail, I also don’t want you working in my office.” 

As the left has been saying for at least the last decade, freedom of speech is not the same as protection from the consequences of that speech. We can mock cancel culture all we like, and I sometimes do. At the same time, the fundamental insight of cancel culture is the same as the one my classmate had all those years ago: our beliefs are not coats. They’re skin. Not everyone can change their convictions as easily as they change their clothes. Someone who makes an antisemitic tweet is likely to express antisemitic ideas in other contexts. That may or may not always be true, but it is not unreasonable to think so.

The rigid public/private binary, so treasured by classical liberals, various college professors, and my family, turns out not to accurately represent how most people think about human nature!

One more thing, from personal experience. Sometimes, when the world turns on you because of your words or your conduct, you double down. You become defensive and intransigent. Other times, though, when you experience enough loss as a consequence of what you’ve said or done, you reconsider. You begin to wonder if maybe, just maybe, you are not a victim of a bigoted and intolerant culture. You begin to think it possible that you are the architect of your own adversity. Having burned a bridge, you start building another one, perhaps in a different place — and with a great deal more humility. 

It has been a devastating week. Nerves are raw. Many of us shift from outrage to fear to grief and back to outrage several times a day.  We may not all agree on the Middle East, but most of us agree that all of that emotion feels more like “skin” than “coat.” We cannot all easily divest ourselves of our convictions and sit —cheerful, polite, and unflappable— in the presence of someone who holds radically different views about what happened in Israel on Oct. 7.

We cannot use the force of the law to silence those whose views appall us. We can, however, say to ourselves that these are people with whom we do not wish to associate. We know ourselves, and we know basic psychology.  As a result, we are not wrong to assume that what repels the conscience is “skin,” not “coat.”

The Architect of Your Own Adversity

One more thing, from personal experience. Sometimes, when the world turns on you because of your words or your conduct, you double down. You become defensive and intransigent. Other times, though, when you experience enough loss as a consequence of what you’ve said or done, you reconsider. You begin to wonder if maybe, just maybe, you are not a victim of a bigoted and intolerant culture. You begin to think it possible that you are the architect of your own adversity. Having burned a bridge, you start building another one, perhaps in a different place — and with a great deal more humility.

It has been a devastating week.  Nerves are raw. Many of us shift from outrage to fear to grief and back to outrage several times a day.  We may not all agree on the Middle East, but most of us agree that all of that emotion feels more like “skin” than “coat.” We cannot all easily divest ourselves of our convictions and sit —cheerful, polite, and unflappable— in the presence of someone who holds radically different views about what happened in Israel on October 7.

We cannot use the force of the law to silence those whose views appall us.  We can, however, say to ourselves that these are people with whom we do not wish to associate.  We know ourselves, and we know basic psychology.  As a result, we are not wrong to assume that what repels the conscience is “skin,” not “coat.”

This article was originally published on the author’s Substack.


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