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Promoting Liberty or Provoking the Left?

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Liberty, Libertarianism Here are a few thoughts for college libertarians who are able to invite speakers to campus and how they might do so in the most productive ways. Let me start by saying that the sort of interruptions we’ve seen this week with Yaron Brook and Christina Hoff Sommers are utterly unacceptable. Those who disrupt planned presentations with official permission to use space and students expecting a talk should be forcibly removed from the room and subject to the relevant disciplinary consequences. There should be no negotiating with anti-intellectual terrorists. They should feel free to ask questions when the time comes or protest outside the building in ways that do not prevent

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Liberty, Libertarianism

Here are a few thoughts for college libertarians who are able to invite speakers to campus and how they might do so in the most productive ways.

Let me start by saying that the sort of interruptions we’ve seen this week with Yaron Brook and Christina Hoff Sommers are utterly unacceptable. Those who disrupt planned presentations with official permission to use space and students expecting a talk should be forcibly removed from the room and subject to the relevant disciplinary consequences. There should be no negotiating with anti-intellectual terrorists. They should feel free to ask questions when the time comes or protest outside the building in ways that do not prevent those who wish to attend from attending. No excuses.

Also, none of this advice is meant as specific criticisms of the groups who invited Sommers and Brook. Consider it prompted by those events, but it’s something that’s been brewing in me for awhile (and also noted by David Boaz and others recently). I’ve been running a guest speaker series for almost a decade and have been an invited speaker on dozens of college campuses in that time. I’ve never dealt with anything worse than an obnoxious question from an individual student. No protests. No interruptions. And my students and colleagues have been appreciative of the opportunities for dialogue these talks have created. Remember: most of the students attending these talks really do want to listen, regardless of their views. Most of the protesting is coming from a small minority.

Of course, the reality is that universities will continue to capitulate to protestors, so what should libertarian student groups do? Here’s some suggestions. None of these are foolproof, but I do think that they increase the odds of productive dialogue and decrease the odds of having the talk protested and disrupted.

  1. Decide what your purpose for having guest speakers is. If you want to poke the campus left with a sharp stick, fine. Then you have no right to complain when they organize and protest. If, instead, you want to promote actual intellectual dialogue and try to get the campus left (or right!) to have a better understanding and perhaps appreciation of libertarian ideas, then stop inviting the Milos and the Ben Shapiros [several folks have persuaded me this it’s unfair to Shapiro to lump him with Milo – the reason not to invite Shapiro is that he’s just not a libertarian – SH] and other entertainers and shit-stirrers. Decide whether you love promoting liberty more than you love provoking the left.
  1. Invite academics and intellectuals with significant histories of substantive contributions. Professors are the obvious choice, but folks from nationally recognized think tanks and media outlets are also really good. When you invite people who like to stir up shit and make media splashes, that’s precisely what you’re going to get. And when potential protesters look up your speakers online, what exactly do you want them to find? Lots of attempts to piss off the left, or books and articles in high-quality outlets and a record of being able to civilly engage people who disagree with them?
  1. If you want to do a debate, that’s fine. But do not do the “family squabble” model unless all you care about is entertaining yourselves. Intra-libertarian fights might be fun, but if the goal is to change campus intellectual culture, they are worthless. Plus the folks likely to do this are ones who will have a track record that is more likely to attract protestors. Instead, why not find a good high-quality libertarian(ish) speaker and match that person with a faculty member on campus who is willing to debate/discuss an issue of mutual interest? Who’s a great left-leaning teacher on campus who would give your libertarian speaker a real challenge? Be sure to be clear with the faculty member that you’re not setting them up and that you thought of them because you like them and think they can be an effective critic of libertarian ideas. This model will actually have a much better chance of creating meaningful dialogue and nudging campus intellectual culture in a better direction.
  1. Debates work best when they are not set up to pick a winner. Think “discussion” not “debate.” Have questions you want them to address. Give them a chance to make opening statements and serial responses. Let the audience ask questions. I’ve done this format with my friend Gerry Friedman from Mass-Amherst for years. It works. Or look at the Political Theory Project at Brown for a model. Even if you don’t have their money for big-name speakers, you can emulate the model.
  2. Be smart about the topics you pick, whether it’s a single speaker or a debate. The more likely the topic is to be controversial, the smarter it might be to do a discussion format so it’s clear that multiple competing perspectives will be raised. With a single speaker, find topics where the presentation opens up a discussion rather than closes it by presenting the final word or the truth or whatever. Those of us who do lots of these sorts of talks often have them recorded and put on YouTube or elsewhere on the web. Before you extend an invitation, do some homework and see if the speaker you’re inviting really lives up to the goals and values of your group as indicated in my first point above. Think about topics where libertarians have demonstrated clear concern with an issue that the left cares about but have proposed different solutions. There’s plenty of topics like this one (incarceration for example, or how the state oppresses marginalized groups, or poverty/inequality issues among others). These are topics that are more likely lead to real engagement rather than shouting matches. No guarantees of course.
  1. No matter the speaker or format, work early with the relevant offices on campus, including your security people, to discuss who is coming and what’s going to be talked about, if for no other reason than to have all of your bases covered and so that they know they probably won’t need to call out an army (if you’ve done this right). The worst thing you can do is surprise people in power.

Final thoughts: In the long run this is about ideas. If we want to see a more libertarian world, we will have to convince more people that libertarian ideas are the better ones. If we want a more hospitable environment for libertarianism on college campuses, we will have to present our ideas as civil, serious, reasonable, and backed by solid theory and evidence. And, frankly, we will have to pitch those presentations to the campus left if we want that change to take place sooner rather than later.

If this is about ideas, libertarian student groups inviting speakers have to think long and hard about not just who they invite and what topics they want addressed, but where their funding is coming from. There’s plenty of more conservative groups out there who will pay for big name speakers, but most likely ones they will approve for you. If you go that way, the piper is going to call the tune and you are perhaps less likely to get serious folks (for example, avoid TurningPointUSA at all costs).

From Rand to Mises to Hayek to Friedman to many others, libertarian thinkers have understood that changing the world first requires changing people’s ideas. Doing that requires sustained and serious dialogue initiated by libertarians who have knowledge, rhetorical skills, and, perhaps above all, empathy with those who see the world differently. Bomb throwers and topics designed to piss off the campus left will only set back that effort.

Promote or provoke? Choose your speakers and topics wisely my young friends. The future is in your hands and the stakes are high.

Steve Horwitz
Steven "Steve" Horwitz (born 7 February 1964) is an American economist of the Austrian School. Horwitz was born in Detroit, Michigan to Ronald and Carol Horwitz. He was raised in Oak Park, Michigan and graduated from Berkley High School in Berkley, Michigan in 1981. He graduated cum laude with an A.B. in Economics and Philosophy from the University of Michigan in 1985, where he was also active with several libertarian student groups and where he wrote and performed with the Sunday Funnies/Comedy Company sketch comedy group.

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