Penn Dean to Law Prof: We Favor Free Speech, but Not Yours

Aug 15, 2017 |  Peter Wood

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Penn Dean to Law Prof: We Favor Free Speech, but Not Yours

Aug 15, 2017 | 

Peter Wood

Amy Wax is a member of the board of directors of the National Association of Scholars and someone who combines keen intellectual judgment with a fierce determination to speak the truth.  These are attributes that put her on a collision course with our era’s preening self-regard, pretend vulnerability, and pop-up protest.  Amy, who is a physician as well as a named professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania, is quite capable of handling her own battles.  But she’s now come under attack on a matter that is close to NAS. 

Last week Amy, along with Larry Alexander of the University of San Diego School of Law, published an op-ed in which they extolled mid-twentieth century America for upholding the value of marriage, hard work, obeying the law, patriotism, neighborliness, civic-mindedness, charity, clean language, steering clear of addictive substances, and respect for authority. 

These are, of course retrograde virtues in the eyes of many today.  We have moved on to more relaxed views of sexual relations, self-discovery, personal choice, and expressiveness.  We also have moved on to a considerably less relaxed view of anything that gets in the way of the dictates of social justice.  So it gets a bit confusing.  Marriage is a stultifying institution, except for gay marriage, which is liberating.  Civic-mindedness is a bourgeois privilege, except for community organizing, which is progressive social action. Attempts to keep public language clean are outrageous infringements on free speech, but attempts to punish those who say hurtful things are valiant. 

In their op-ed, Wax and Alexander didn’t call out these contradictions, but they did voice a straight-forward judgment: American culture of the 1950s was better than American culture now. They instance the huge increase in single-parent families, the waning work ethic, lack of patriotism, casual vulgarity, addiction, and disrespect for authority. And they say Americans ought to adopt those older bourgeois habits—and abandon the “multicultural grievance polemics and the preening pretense of defending the downtrodden” that encourage our modern dysfunctional, anti-bourgeois culture.

Wax and Alexander added caveats.  They don’t want a return to mid-century modern discrimination on grounds of race and sex.  But too late:  the PC patrol had spotted them and had released the Dogs of Outrage.  Not so long ago, Wax and Alexander’s views would have been so anodyne as to occasion no remark.  But these days we have a campus regime that tirelessly hunts down those who fail to affirm the wholesomeness of the cultural slough we inhabit.  It is an outrage, for example, to point out the overwhelming advantages in health, wellness, and prosperity that accrue on average to children of intact two-parent families. 

I use the word “outrage” on good authority.  That’s the word GET-UP used in response to the article.  A group of unionizing graduate students, Graduate Employees Together—University of Pennsylvania (GET-UP), said that “We are outraged that a representative of our community upholds, and published, these hateful and regressive views.” Wax was immediately condemned by students and faculty at the University of Pennsylvania. Ted Ruger, Dean of the Penn Law School, wrote to disavow Wax, implicitly to characterize her argument as “divisive, even noxious,” and to “state my own personal view that as a scholar and educator I reject emphatically any claim that a single cultural tradition is better than all others.” Ruger also smeared Wax by implying that her views had something in common with those of the neo-Nazi murderer in Charlottesville: “Although uncoordinated and substantively distinct, the contemporaneous occurrence of these two events has generated widespread discussion both internally and externally about our core values as a university and a nation.”

This is a childish insult, especially coming from the dean of a major law school. In rhetoric it is called praeteritio:  planting an idea by denying that you are planting it.  I will not call Dean Ruger a scoundrel.  No one could possibly think he is pandering to the PC bullies. 

At a better moment, Dean Ruger wrote that “It is up to each of us to determine where and how we engage, challenge and rebut views with which we strongly disagree.” It is also up to the leaders of academic institutions to encourage students and faculty members to deal with opposing views on their merits, rather than launching ad hominem attacks.  The leaders of academic institutions have the sometimes uncomfortable obligation to support the right of dissenters from academic orthodoxy to voice their views.  Disavowing them or imputing bad faith ultimately undermines both academic freedom and the basis of civil exchange. 

To Wax and Alexander’s list of ways in which mid-twentieth century American culture was better than what we have today, we might add that the academy itself was sturdier in its principles. To be sure, it was far from perfect, but it was more open, more tolerant, and better able to listen to common sense.

Photo: Courtesy of Amy Wax. 

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