lunes, 11 de diciembre de 2017


The Son of the Zero or Eudoxia’s Way:
In Search of Lost Cuban Literature
Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

         “The bathroom mirror is almost always the last memory of a suicide, or a person who dies without knowing it.”

         Mysterious words for a mysterious moment: Death, the end of Life or the beginning of Afterlife. It depends. Death itself depends. Death is always pending upon life. Not Death the leveler, then, but Death the raiser.

         Reflections on death, deaths reflected. The words of Ricardo Fronesis pretend to simply answer a question of Jose Cemí about Eugenio Foción: “Who is Foción, what’s his family like, what happened to him in his life that makes everything seem hidden?” (312).

         Fronesis, Foción and Cemí are not biographical beings. That’s why their respective biographies are so indelible. They are three literary characters who are the protagonists of Paradise,[1] the 1966 novel written over two decades by José María Andrés Fernando Lezama Lima, or just José Lezama Lima, one of the greatest of all Cuban authors.

         Paradise is a book which immediately became the epicenter—epic center?—of the Cuban literary canon, including a very early episode of censorship by the Cuban State, which ultimately led to the ostracizing of Lezama Lima until his death a decade later in Havana, in August 9, 1975.

         About this monumental novel, the Literature Nobel Prize winner Octavio Paz[2] commented: “Paradise has transformed the world of preexisting symbols through an inventory of the past, altering history and even the orthography of Spanish language”[3] (316).

         The critic and professor Juan Pablo Lupi, in the 2011 book Foundational Texts of World Literature,[4] acknowledges that Lezama Lima has been “variously portrayed as paradigmatic representative of the Neobaroque, Catholic bellestrist, mystic, or postmodern and queer theorist avant la letter,” but in any case the Cuban poet, novelist and essayist for Lupi is “widely regarded as one of the greatest Latin American writers of all time,” “one of the major figures of the canon, both within and beyond the intellectual field of Latin American literature,” as well as “one of the most opaque and difficult writer in the Spanish language,” (215) in part because of Lezama Lima’s “highly imaginative mode of engaging with ‘worlds beyond his own place and time’” (225).  

         In his canonical 1994 book The Western Canon. The Books and Schools of the Ages,[5] Harold Bloom included Lezama Lima’s novel Paradise as part of “The Chaotic Age: A Canonical Prophecy” (560). While in his essay “Lezama Lima in the Paradise of Poetry,”[6] Jean Franco inserts this book in “a Latin American tradition that was initiated by modernism and German Romanticism in Europe:” that is, “the tradition that considers poetry to be a privileged genre, where language flees from utilitarian daily discourse” (240).

         Franco believes that “the theme of his novel Paradiso (1966) is the poet’s search for the ‘invisible’ world that is beyond the tangible” (239), in “an ascent toward poetry by way of the material world,” from the very “family placenta” to the “opening of an exterior world, the time of friendship,” and then to the final ascension “through an oneiric and symbolic landscape toward his encounter with poetic destiny” (241).

         Foción, Fronesis and Cemí are friends. Three imaginary young men in some time period impossible to define precisely, but certainly during the historic period called The Republic in Cuba, maybe not long before the communist Revolution of Fidel Castro, whose Rebel Army overtook power on January 1, 1959, only to remain in power for life.

         As with most classics, Paradise opened and closed a door. A secret door. Technically, a concealed one. An entry/exit made of mysterious words that Lezama Lima assembled as if it were literally—more than literarily—a hidden passage: Eudoxia’s way.

         For our purposes, it is of little use, for example, to google “Eudoxia’s way.” In fact, most web search engines will take us to modern vampires’ chronicles and related best-sellers of The New York Times, as well as to references to a Roman empress from the fifth century. Not a single hint or hit about any Eudoxia in a Cuban novel called pretentiously or perhaps pertinently Paradise. In this respect, the question of Jose Cemí that Ricardo Fronesis tries to answer could also be asked about “who is Eudoxia, what’s Eudoxia’s way, what happened to life that makes everything seem hidden?”

         Maybe not even Lezama Lima was fully aware of his own Eudoxia’s way when he was writing it down in a few paragraphs of Paradise. We can now envision his vision as an encrypted message that the author was perhaps unconsciously leaving for us. A miraculous bottle that Lezama Lima tossed into the sea of his future’s readers—i.e., today’s readers—with some symbolic keys inside impossible to decode as much as to deconstruct.

         At the turn of the 1970s in Cuba, more than censored and ostracized, Lezama Lima was being spied on and harassed by the Cuban government. They were listening to his conversations and at least once they interrogated him, humiliating the novelist by making obvious that they had complete access to his private life. They took private documents from his own apartment, the emblematic home at Trocadero #162, in Centro Habana. And a file with Lezama Lima’s supposedly disaffected opinions and disloyal actions even managed to reach the archives of the Federal Commissioner for the Records of the State Security Service in the German Democratic Republic: the much-feared Stasi which, like every Soviet-like intelligence organization, was in practice the bedrock of all socialist societies[7].

        Lezama Lima can be read as the most prolific perpetrator of permutations in Cuban literature. His author’s alchemy can be compared with a labyrinthine game of beheadings. Consequently, we cannot expect Eudoxia to be Eudoxia from the beginning. In fact, she was simply Celita, a very common Cuban name for quite a common Cuban woman from early-20th-century Cuba: Celita, the tender diminutive nickname of Celia, who almost without knowing how ended up sexually involved with two men who happened to be brothers.

         Celita’s―not yet Eudoxia’s―men were Juliano Foción, the younger, and Nicolás Foción, her own husband. In Paradise,1 both brothers had been silently in love with Celita since her family moved next to their home, in Centro Habana, where “the two of them lived in Industria, almost at the corner of Neptuno. Their house, on one side, faced a street with a lot of movement from morning on; on the other corner, a neighborhood of a strange silence” (313).

         The home of the Foción family was soon to become the vortex of the founding event of Paradise that we are trying to reimagine or reinvent with our peculiar approach to this novel. As expected, such a literary house had to be located by its author only a few blocks away from Lezama Lima’s real address, for the continuous connection between life and language is intimately indistinguishable both in his fiction and his poetry. Perhaps the literary critic Jean Franco6 is somehow referring to this quality when he detects in Lezama Lima’s Paradise the “intention to hypostasize poetry” (244).

         Juliano and Nicolás Foción were supposed to be the uncle and the father, respectively, of the still unborn Foción about whom Fronesis and Cemí will talk many years later, in Chapter 10, in the middle of some highly sexualized chapters that immediately turned Paradise into a scandal for Fidel Castro’s quasi-Calvinist regime at that time, whose cultural authorities predictably accused the novel of being pornographic.

         In different moments of his life, Lezama Lima replied to such arguments in his private correspondence with his sister in exile[8]: “Some with insolence have affirmed that in my works there are pornographic elements, but not only this is unfair but it can also be vileness, since precisely if some author is characterized by the gravity of his works, that’s me. My work could be censored for flaws of style, but never for ethical reasons, as in its roots is essentially a sacramental act (21). And also to the Spanish intellectual Juan Goytisolo[9]: “The only pornographic books I have read are the Bible (Genesis) and Plato…” (783, 784).

         Sexuality always tends to be tragic in Paradise. Probably sex is meant to be tragic in all true-to-life paradise, where everyone lives at risk of being expelled at any time. The Cuban Utopia had thus its own share of dystopic para-paradise, particularly when it came to pleasure, maybe because of the competition for uniformed bodies in the Ministry of the Interior and Ministry of the Armed Forces, which kept three armies running on the Island and exported thousands of troops to Africa, Asia and Latin America, in a sort of humanitarian imperialism officially called proletarian internationalism.

         The exception as always was Fidel Castro, who promiscuously violated his own dictum against literary sensuality, to the point of publishing two extensive interviews with the American magazine Playboy,[10] forbidden in Cuba for being American in general, for being specifically Playboy, and perhaps for being a magazine as such: a printed compendium of images and texts well outside the control of the P.C.C., the only political party which—according to the Constitution—is legal in Cuba until today.[11]

         “Smiling, with that semi-demoniacal malice that pleasure bestows,” only once Celita made love in Paradise1 to the younger brother Juliano of her husband Nicolás. That first time was also to be the last, for “they had both incorporated themselves as happiness in eternity.” Literally, in eternity: as “Celita was closing her eyes” and “ascended through ecstasy to sleep,” “moments later Juliano was opening his in death” and “descended to the cold grottoes of Persephone.” Just “after seeing her face,” “the face with red flowers in its hair,” “now he had to die” and, in fact, Juliano was definitely dead in Celita’s “serpent’s embrace,” probably while he was still inside her after their first and last fruitful orgasm: “the two sweats, the two salivas, the two essential dampnesses drowned in their complementarities” (316).

         This is a magical and intense instant of epiphany. It’s also the complicity of conception between two minor characters of Paradise, whose names and sagas seem unworthy of remembrance for most Cuban cultural experts, both locally and worldwide. A genital Genesis, a fertile fornication, a critical creation beyond Good and Evil, yet eluding none of either. And it is also the cruelest coda conceivable for love—and life—: a sort of Apocubalypse according to Lezama Lima, who tells us about this adulterous rapture that happened one instant before the fecundation of Foción, through the dialogue between Fronesis and Cemí many years later.

         It is implicit in this sensational scene of Paradise1 that we are witnessing the conception of the fetus of Foción:[12] “in the center of her tree Celita received the weight of imposing distances, agglomerations of ants, gloomy distributions of Mongolic emigrations, howling voices among snow animals, whispers turned into pounding tides,” while her lover “from the twilight’s swell he sprang like a titanic carpet that enveloped the moans and all those fragments of the moon as it splintered” (316).

         This brutal beauty crystalizes in its purest state as infinite wonder and infinite pity, in a reminiscence of Jorge Luis Borges’s short-story The Aleph,[13] where this Argentinian writer confesses that “I arrive now at the ineffable core of my story. And here begins my despair as a writer. All language is a set of symbols whose use among its speakers assumes a shared past.”

         In fact, in his unique enumeration of memories and objects that recombine past, present and future, Borges resembles Lezama Lima in naming “tides,” “all the ants on the planet,” “snow,” “multitudes,” a number of animals (“horses,” “tigers,” “bison”), “a ring of baked mud in a sidewalk, where before there had been a tree,” “daybreak and nightfall,” “the coupling of love and the modification of death,” and “unending eyes watching themselves in me as in a mirror:” indeed “all the mirrors on earth and none of them reflected me.”

         And, again, Borges’ enumeration in his aleph could then be read as a mirroring reminiscence, in return, of Lezama Lima’s paradise. At this point one is tempted to believe—without the vulgarity of further evidence—that both narrative passages were being written simultaneously by Jorge Luis Borges and José Lezama Lima, two procreators of alephs and paradises who never met each other in life but did so many times, unexpectedly, in their respective literatures.

         The lover triptych of Paradise1—Juliano/Celita/Nicolás—seems to move from delight to death to delirium, when we realize that “a third figure was lacking in that tragic composition: madness.” It all happened because the older brother, Doctor Nicolás Foción, arrived back home all of a sudden, from a medical trip to Mayabeque in order to consult a patient who coincidentally died that same day. Unavoidably, the doctor in his family house of Centro Havana was shocked to insanity as he opened the door of Juliano’s room, only to see two familiar bodies lying naked, in an almost posthumous peace. Instinct or premonition? In any case, there were two domestic bodies divinely asleep. But, given his proficiency in the medical profession, “the doctor interpreted his brother’s paleness correctly.” Nicolás knew before Celita did that Juliano had died while making love to her. A truth twice terrible for a doctor, so that “at the end of that labyrinth he would find the hammer blow that would destroy his life as a reasoning animal” (315, 316). He was suddenly out of his mind, from one of Paradise’s lines to the next.

         When Celita finally woke up, between the dead brother Juliano and the mad brother Nicolás, she was no longer Celita, of course, but already Eudoxia, even if she still ignored her transfiguration. The abrupt madness of Nicolás Foción rebaptized her as Eudoxia, while he still held “his brother’s pulse in his hand, shaking his head, facing up to the crisis with an incomprehensible scientific seriousness.” Nicolás just said to her: “Eudoxia—that was the name of his nurse—this patient has died in the office, he had a bad heart, take care of the patients who are waiting, tell them that I am indisposed, and then we’ll notify his family” (316, 317).

         Doctor Foción, as swift as his brother’s death, had simply “lost his mind.” “This time the bull wouldn’t sink its horns into the man’s groin, as if seeking out and enshrouding the secrets of his sperm, but it would proclaim that its horns were carrying off the trophy of his reason, which was kept in his horns from supporting the balance of the stellar collections.” It was a kind of kind madness—maybe Horace’s amabilis insania?—that in the surviving doctor “took the form of receiving non-existent patients in his office in the morning,” always accompanied by Celita, who “had to play her role as the nurse Eudoxia to perfection” (315, 317).

         From then on, every single day, during two whole decades, “shut up in his office at ten in the morning,” the doctor unfailingly “would talk to Celita, transformed now forever into Eudoxia the nurse, and tell her: ‘Bring in the first patient.’” And then he would carry out a detailed clinical questioning, evaluation, and finally a precise diagnosis of the virtual disease affecting each and every one of his imaginary patients during each day (317).

         Over and over, concise and touching: “Bring in the next patient.” And Eudoxia would obey out of mercy, maybe also out of love. In any case, she “had to follow all the details of that madness with tersest sanity.” “In that way he had ten consultations in the morning and another ten in the afternoon,” so that “every day twenty people who didn’t exist would file through; he spoke to the air.” At the end of his office hours, “at seven or eight at night, depending on how much time he had given each of the patients,” then Doctor Foción “would get his reason back” for the rest of the evening, and only during those hours his wife “became Celita again,” relieved from her daytime incarnation in the nurse Eudoxia (317).

         The doctor “was that way for twenty years, seeing patients created by his madman’s imagination, changing Celita into nurse Eudoxia from ten in the morning until eight in the evening and the nurse into his wife for the remainder of the day, changing the starched cap for the flowers in Celita’s damp hair.” In Lezama Lima’s Paradise, Dr. Foción even personalizes each of his twenty daily patients, shaking “hands with space” while talking to them with absolute normality, charging them nothing for his specialized services. For example: “I find you improved, your blood pressure is near normal, keep talking the pills, most of all, don’t use any salt on your food, come back at the end of the week” (317, 318), as if he meant come back at the end of the century. Or at the end of life.

         Only “after twenty years in that office of shadows,” the doctor “reached retirement.” And, “since he no longer had to see patients, his madness and his reason were the same.” Reality had been restored. And the doctor dedicated himself peacefully to practicing “chess,” to read devotedly the “Alexandrine Gnostics,” and to taking care of his son’s education “with extreme zeal,” although Foción Jr. was never sent to school. His father “himself took charge of teaching him, from the history of zero to the variations of functions in trigonometry, passing through an extensive cultural, metaphysical, and theological landscape, as he fit in those variations between zero and infinity” (318).

         Father Foción used to say to his son Foción during all those years of truncated lucidity intertwined with terminal lunacy: “Between the zero, which I am, and infinity, which, according to the Greeks, I don’t want you to be, without exhausting all the knowledge of the possible finite” (318).

         His growing son, Eugenio Foción, as he “was opening his eyes” surrounded by an interminable exercise of phantoms,” “hearing his mother sometimes called Eudoxia and other times Celita,” precisely for being so innocently “surrounded by madness,” then “grew up without original sin.” And what happened was that “the nurse’s cap and the flowers in the hair came to be like a clock to him which warned of dementia and recovery, silence and chattering, minute reason put to the service of madness and madness working with great care, with a slow zeal, as if in the fullness of reason attained by the Greek.” So that Eugenio Foción, the son of the zero Nicolás Foción, had but zero choice in this respect: “his senses didn’t segregate concupiscent material, but data of knowledge that advanced or retreated toward the image, floating like the peduncles of a Gorgon that never learned to decipher the river’s clay” (318).

         The conclusion of Foción’s two friends, Fronesis and Cemí, is that Foción had an “abstract development of his childhood and adolescence.” They imagine that fatally for Foción all “those phantoms incubated a crystal homunculus who lives inside Newton’s binomial or Pascal’s triangle and who breathes quicksilver.” Until, of course, one day, when “suddenly the homunculus launches a clandestine harangue into his subterranean palace and temptations begin to arise. The larvae throw themselves onto a skeleton in the desert, leaving a calcinated track where a cactaceous plant begins to bloom.” And thus “the homunculus begins to play with the cactus, a rain of sand falls” (318, 319).

         For them this would explain why Foción from very early on “suffered from the complex of the toothed vagina.” That is, “he saw a woman’s vulva as an immense mouth that devoured the phallus.” For the son of the zero, “the edges of the feminine cistern were converted into an infernal lagoon where a froth boiled up that gave off monstrous little horns, now the tails of Neapolitan sirens, now centaurs with prepotent members erect to the requirements of the god Pan” (319). There was no paradise possible for Foción, according to his two friends in Paradise.

         Thus, Fronesis and Cemí assume that their mutual friend Foción is doomed: despite being “in the bloom of adolescence,” he was “ending up in a noble cynicism,” as when “he fell into homosexuality, led by the hand of that old connoisseur of sexual relations between man and man.” The son of the zero, “without knowing the penetrating energy, was an object penetrated by someone else’s barb,” in part “because nature had given him a chaos but didn’t give him enough strength to fight against it. He feels destroyed, but he has no destructive force” (320).

         This is why that, when later in his “abnormal marital situation,” Eugenio Foción finally managed to beget a son with his wife, despite his persistent practice of “interfemoral copulation, as the Romans of the decadence said,” Fronesis and Cemí again agree that this new Foción III, the grandson of the zero, will “be a new homunculus, in the midst of mirrors, quicksilver, and sexual terrors” (320). It’s called faith in fate, an abyss from which we cannot escape no matter which role we are bound to play in the novel of our lives: reader, character, author.

         Beyond the applicability or not of Eric Berne’s sentence that “it takes three generations to make one neurotic,” let’s imagine the environment of the Foción family for a moment in Lezama Lima’s Paradise. Let’s stop for a while rereading Cuban literature and let’s start once and for all rewriting the whole of it:

         Twenty patients a day, during five working days, as it was usual in Cuba during the capitalist period (after 1959, the Revolution was to force “volunteer works” during most weekends). A hundred patients a week, during a whole year of incessant illnesses in Havana arrived from anywhere on the Island (all of them dwelling exclusively in the demented mind of Doctor Nicolás Foción, the zero). Over fifty hundred patients a year, during two disproportionate decades, a whole chaotic age during which other medical colleagues warned Celita/Eudoxia “to be very careful in the distribution of the ideal consultations given,” because “one mistake, the penetration of light into that errant mentality,” could clinically cause a catastrophe: an “explosive attack,” an “ax blow,” the “interrogation of a scalpel on her rosy flesh” (317).

         In total, over a hundred thousand patients, generously created and graciously cured by the zero man. A deathless universe, myriads of unexplored biographies. An allegorical aleph, a hermetic history with no hermeneutics. Error, Eros. Awe, horror, awerror.

         When one realizes the poetic and political power of such a generator—and such a formidable reserve— of characters for the Cuban literary canon that never was, other literatures seem to faint in frustration, and not only in the Caribbean and Latin American, where the most Cuban novel of Lezama Lima hardly belongs, for its true tradition―like the 100,000 patients lost in our Paradise―is made of air.

         These are the thousand-and-one nights in which Cubans haven’t yet recreated a Cubanness that was not, that is not ever to be, that is only becoming. Such is also the innumerable number of doors and the undecidability of all exits and returns to the Island: a panoply of plots to perform. A wasted territory so far, forgotten out of fear of not knowing what to do with such a fundamental freedom, such a plea to explode from within this novel condemned to constitute a complete cosmology in itself.

         Maybe this is connected in a paradoxical way, to what Raymond D. Souza[14] has seen as Lezama Lima’s anxiousness to build Paradise in “a denial or randomness and time” (21), combining “metaphoric and metonymic processes in his creation of poetic figures” (36). Others authors[15] have ascribed to Lezama Lima the term “aposiopesis (the interruption of discourse, reticence, ellipsis)” (129) in order to signify his “letting others do the political talk,” as a “rhetorical figure of the unrepresentable” or “the poetic mark of that which cannot be presented” (131). Still others[16] assume that Paradise is but “the fixation of an intangible otherness, authentic and truthful in itself” (134) but, “above all, an allegory of the poetic recovery” of an “absolute and immobile Presence” as well as a “logos independent from the universe, but which is at the same time its creator and its reason for being” (137). And, of course, some[17] also claim that “the elaborate hermeneutics needed to explicate some of Lezama’s dense imagery and quirky metaphysics help reinforce the idea that to read Lezama well one must choose to enter a Delphic circle which one may not choose to leave” (44).

         In any case, José Lezama Lima at least must have known one thing from the beginning, even unbeknownst to himself: the pristine perfection of his Paradise will be reached only when its readers start to turn Eudoxia’s way into a cosmopolitan cathedral built upon a magnificent zero. Not before, not after.

         To imagine and to incarnate, both in text and in the flesh, where might be wandering around all those inconceivable Cuban characters is more urgent that, for example, to describe the destiny of our nation after the death of Fidel Castro and the concomitant disappearance of the Revolution. Politics as a footnote of fiction: the dreams of reason may produce monsters, yes, but a monster of dreams―like the author of Paradise still is―can only produce reason.

[1] Lezama Lima, José. Paradise. Translated by Gregory Rabassa. Normal, IL: Delkey Archive Press, 2000.

[2] Paz, Octavio. In: José Lezama Lima, valoración múltiple. Casa de las Américas. La Habana, 1970.

[3] Paradiso ha transformado el mundo de los símbolos preexistentes inventariando el pasado, alterando la historia y hasta la ortografía de la lengua española.”

[4] Lupi, J. P. “(Mis)readings as Engagement: Some Thoughts on World Literature and José Lezama Lima.” Foundational Texts of World Literature. Edited by Dominique Jullien. New York, Washington D.C., Baltimore, Bern, Frankfurt, Berlin, Brussels, Vienna and Oxford: Peter Land, 2011. 215-228.

[5] Bloom, H. The Western Canon. The Books and Schools of the Ages. New York, San Diego and London: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1994.  

[6] Franco, J. “Lezama Lima in the Paradise of Poetry.” Critical Passions. Selected Essays. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1999. 239-258.

[7] Documents about José Lezama Lima in the Stasi archives (Documentación sobre José Lezama Lima en los archivos de la Stasi). Uploaded by DIARIODECUBA. SCRIBD. 2 Jun 2014.

[8] Lezama Lima, Eloísa. “Mi hermano”. José Lezama Lima, cartas (1939-1976). Colección Tratados de Testimonio. Editorial Orígenes. Madrid, 1979. 11-40. “Algunos insolentes han afirmado que en mi obra hay elementos pornográficos, pero no solamente es una injusticia sino que hasta puede ser una canallada, porque precisamente si algún autor se ha caracterizado por la gravedad de su obra he sido yo. Mi obra podrá ser censurada por defectos de estilo, pero jamás por motivos éticos, puesto que su raíz es esencialmente la de un auto sacramental.”

[9] Goytisolo, Juan. “La metáfora erótica: Góngora, Joaquín Belda y Lezama Lima.” Desidencias. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1977. “Los únicos libros pornográficos que he leído son la Biblia (Génesis) y Platón…”

[10] The Playboy Interview. “A Candid Conversation with the Bellicose Dictator of Communist Cuba.” Playboy, Jan 1967.
  Jeffrey M. Elliot and Mervyn M. Dymally. “Fidel Castro, On Reagan and Revolution.” Playboy, Aug 1985.

[11] P.C.C.: in Spanish, Partido Comunista de Cuba. The Constitution of the Republic of Cuba in its Article 5 establishes that: “The Communist Party of Cuba, Martian and of Marxist-Leninist, the organized vanguard of the Cuban nation, is the superior leading force of the society and the State, organizing and guiding the common efforts aimed at the highest goals of the construction of socialism and advancement toward the communist society.”

[12] The author José Lezama Lima at some point hesitates on what his own novel Paradise makes obvious about the paternity of Eugenio Foción, the friend of Fronesis and Cemí: “When Celita turned out to be pregnant, it was impossible to tell which of the brothers had been the archer” (318).

[13] Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Aleph.” Translation by Norman Thomas Di Giovanni. 1945.

[14] Souza, R. D. The Poetic Fiction of José Lezama Lima. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1983.

[15] Matos, J R. José Lezama Lima and the End of Time. New York, Fordham University Press, 2017.

[16] Ríos-Arila, R. R. A Theology of Absence: The Poetic System of José Lezama Lima. 1983 Ph.D. Thesis, Cornell University. University Microfilms International, Dissertation Information Service, 1989.

[17] O’Connor, P. Latin American Fiction and the Narratives of the Perverse. Paper Dolls and Spider Women. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004.

domingo, 10 de diciembre de 2017


Is Freedom of Speech Free on American Campus Today?
Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

         In a welcoming e-mail message sent by Washington University in Saint Louis to new gra-duate students, I knew about the 2016 Statement of Principle Regarding Freedom of Expression, endorsed by members of the Faculty Senate Council and ex-officio members of the Subcommittee on Free Speech of said university.[i]

         Coming from a country like Cuba, where according to the Constitution during decades the only legal political organizations are communist,[ii] I was especially aware of how this Statement of Principlei recognized the need of academic spaces in America for “the open exchange of ideas and information” to “confront difficult and controversial questions,” given that “the university must vigilantly encourage and facilitate freedom of expression around contentious topics,” as well as “It should both protect and promote actions that ensure the open expression of a full range of viewpoints.”

         It is not only that “the university should respect the expression of ideas, even those that are offensive or unpopular,” or that “the university community should continue to make resources available to its members to promote robust, wide-ranging debate and discussion.” It is also that, “in allocating such resources the university should focus on a principle of inclusivity, fostering as broad a range of ideas as possible from as many different constituencies of the university community as possible.”

         Furthermore, the Statement made also clear that “the university should avoid all forms of punitive action in response to the expression of ideas, and it should likewise ensure that no one misuses the authority conferred by the university to restrict such expression,” since academic development in principle depends on dealing with all viewpoints “not by interdiction but by encouraging further discussion and opportunities for education about contentious issues.”

         Otherwise, the Statement concludes, “our institution would no longer truly function as a university if it failed to provide the grounds for robust debate and deliberation,” for “free and open discourse requires, in the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, ‘not [only] free thought for those who agree with us, but freedom for the thought that we hate.”

         The exception to this commitment to freedom of expression on campus, according to the Statement, is only “unacceptably injurious or dangerous speech (meaning speech that harasses, defames, threatens, or unjustifiably intrudes on the privacy of specific persons),” for it “makes no positive contribution to the free exchange of ideas and can in fact discourage free discussion.”

         Consequently ―without addressing the complex question of who can define when a speech “harasses, defames, threatens”―, in such cases the Statement agrees that only then “the university is justified in taking reasonable, unbiased actions to facilitate orderly discussion in certain settings, especially non-public ones.” Actions that, in my post-communist style of reading as an outsider in the United States of America, would most likely include the implementation of security measures or, in more serious cases, the exercise of censorship by Washington University.

         Soon enough I was to deal with academic discussions in classes that automatically led from debates among colleagues to administrative denunciations against a colleague: in this case, the collective consensus against a specific point of view. For me, this was a very worrying symptom challenging the healthy evolution of a concept that many consider in crisis in the world today: academic freedom in open democratic societies. In Castro’s Cuba, unfortunately, academic freedom is not even an issue of concern given its absolute lack by decree.

         Why and how this historical achievement of humankind apparently failed in a country like the United States? Were the intolerant tendencies of thought and other totalitarian temptations gaining power in American universities? And, first of all, what was understood as “academic freedom” in the country where I was now living, precisely after being censored and exiled for practicing freedom of speech as an intellectual in my homeland, Cuba?

         In their 1998 book The Shadow University, Alan Kors and Harvey Silvergate start from the notion that “the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has provided the most authoritative and widely accepted definition of the contours of academic freedom in the United States”[iii] (50).

         In fact, in 1915, the AAUP released the document General Report of the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure,[iv] from where it can be inferred “that truth was not a fixed absolute, but, rather, a goal continually pursued in an open and contentious intellectual marketplace”iii (50). The metaphor of a marketplace immediately implies the idea of trade, deals, competition, exchange, and perhaps also a common currency to facilitate the more or less free movement of goods, knowledge, and even people.

         The role of the academy was thus “to promote inquiry and advance the sum of human knowledge,” unhindered by the professoriate in general, given the recognition that it was not realistic to expect one and only one “universal agreement among all sincere and earnest men” (50). As the very “first condition of progress,” it was essential then to protect the “complete and unlimited freedom to pursue inquiry and publish its results” (50-51). Ultimately, this was meant to turn the university into “a refuge from all tyrannies over men’s minds―those of the state, university trustees and administrators, and public opinion” (51). Therefore, such an “intellectual marketplace” was to be “open” and “contentious” not only to accelerate economic benefits but for ethical considerations as well.

         However, in order to avoid the “coercive shaping” of the student’s mind, the AAUP report insisted that the teacher should avoid “taking unfair advantage of the student’s immaturity by indoctrinating him with the teacher’s own opinion before the student has had an opportunity fairly to examine other opinions upon the matters in question, and before he has sufficient knowledge and ripeness of judgment to be entitled to form any definitive opinion of his own” (51). Following common sense and the understanding of the fallible nature of human beings and their beliefs, restriction of opinions was thus meant to avoid any further bias resulting in an overall restriction of opinions. This entails a vision of the future as a time-space that should not be fixed from the present or the past, except in the self-evident truth that no opinion should be silenced if the system of ideas is to remain open.

         Universities, contrary to “‘proprietary’ institutions ‘designed for the propagation of specific doctrines,’ such as church-supported, religious, and denominational institutions,” were supposed to owe devotion mainly to the notion of “public trust” (51). The public sphere and the private space are certainly in tense interaction, but both environments seem to be required for a functional social balance, and neither should be sacrificed for the exclusive privilege of the other.

         In 1916 there was a very important early addition to the AAUP report, a concept which decades later was named by Walter Metzger as “mutual dissociation” in his article The 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure.[v] This concept implied “that the professor does not speak for the institution, nor the institution for the professor.”iii Furthermore, the 1940 updated AAUP report made explicit that in order to secure a privileged degree of liberty on American campuses, not only “the rights of the teacher in teaching” but also the rights “of the student to freedom in learning” were considered of public benefit in the advancement of human knowledge (51). From this moment until now, the struggle to foster and protect freedom of speech on campus in the U.S. has taken more and more into consideration not only the elite of professors and professionals but also the mass of students, regardless of how inexperienced or expert they are in each stage of their undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral education.

         More recently, with the 1967 AAUP Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students,[vi] it was established the inseparability of the “freedom to teach and freedom to learn”iii (51). Professors were expected to “encourage free discussion, inquiry, and expression” in the classroom, without exclusions or omissions to their best knowledge. And all students were considered “free to take reasoned exception to the data or views offered in any course of study and to reserve judgment about matters of opinion.” This included the commitment that “the student press should be free of censorship” (51, 52). Inserted in the climate of the civil rights and anti-war movement in the U.S., this meant, if not full power to the students as it was being claimed back then ―by not-always-peaceful protests on campuses―, much empowerment for them in the face of the academic and administrative authorities.

         It was also then when the AAUP acknowledged the significance of “due process hearings” for students, with all the necessary guarantees for a fair evaluation and resolution of each particular case, based solely upon the evidences presented in favor and against the student (52). This was conceived to minimize in part the vulnerability of the accused students, as well as to guarantee a fair defense for them, in an attempt to prevent retaliation and other personalized misconducts along the process.

         In the late eighties, the book The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom[vii] caused a major impact on all these issues, not only in universities but in the whole of American intellectual and cultural life. In his Foreword, the Nobel Prize winner for literature Saul Bellow agrees that he has “never viewed the university as a sanctuary or shelter from ‘the outer world’” (17) but he still approves “the heart of Professor Bloom’s argument,” which for him is that “the university, in a society ruled by public opinion, was to have been an island of intellectual freedom where all views were investigated without restriction.” In his vision, it was a fact that only “liberal democracy in its generosity made this possible” (18).

         According to Bellow, “by consenting to play an active or ‘positive,’ a participatory role in society, the university has become inundated and saturated with the backflow of society’s ‘problems.’” That is, for Bellow, “the university has become society’s conceptual warehouse of often harmful influences,” given that, “increasingly, the people ‘inside’ are identical in their appetites and motives with the people ‘outside’ the university” (18). Thus, for Bellow, in my opinion, the privileged status of universities is to be preserved in order for these institutions to fulfill better their enlightening mission in society.

         Moreover, even in 1987, Bellow admitted that “the heat of the dispute between Left and Right has grown so fierce in the last decade that the habits of civilized discourse have suffered a scorching” because “antagonists seem to no longer listen to one another” (18). Obviously, it was not necessary to wait for the pervasive and sometimes perverse invasion of today’s polarized social media on the internet and its widespread use by students and citizens in general: thirty years ago this was already an upsetting reality for a number of influential authors, and not only within the United States.

         Bloom starts from the conviction that nowadays “almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.” From the very “Introduction: Our Virtue,” Bloom considers that, for most American students, such “allegiance to equality,” as well as their shared sense about “the relativity of truth,” is “not a theoretical insight but a moral postulate:” the “condition of a free society, or so they see it.” And then Bloom complains that “this framework” has become “the modern replacement for the inalienable natural rights that used to be the traditional American grounds for a free society” (25).

         From here Bloom concludes, not without irony, that following said rational, “the study of history and of culture teaches that all the world was mad in the past; men always thought they were right, and that led to wars, persecutions, slavery, xenophobia, racism, and chauvinism.” Nowadays the point is no longer “to correct the mistakes and really be right; rather it is not to think you are right at all” (26).

         For Bloom, it is simply undeniable that “every educational system has a moral goal that it tries to attain and that informs its curriculum,” as much as “it wants to produce a certain kind of human being.” In the case of America, the “democratic education, whether it admits it or not, wants and needs to produce men and women who have the tastes, knowledge, and character supportive of a democratic regime” (26). Renouncing to such a “moral goal” for him would be almost suicidal in cultural terms for any social system or nation.

         Besides, Bloom judges that “this education has evolved in the last half-century from the education of democratic man to the education of the democratic personality,” where the “palpable difference between these two can easily be found in the changed understanding of what it means to be an American.” That is, in the “old view,” Bloom affirms that by “recognizing and accepting man’s natural rights,” there was a “fundamental basis of unity and sameness,” because “class, race, religion, national origin or culture all disappear or become dim when bathed in the light of natural rights, which give men common interests and make them truly brothers” (27).

         In sharp contrast, however, for Bloom the “recent education of openness has rejected all that,” as “it pays no attention to natural rights or the historical origins or our regime, which are now thought to have been essentially flawed and regressive.” Therefore, given that “it is open to all kinds of men, all kinds of life-styles, all ideologies,” then it follows that “there is no enemy other than the man who is not open to everything.” For Bloom, this leads to a very important question: “When there are no shared goals or vision of the public good, is the social contract any longer possible?” (27).

         Bloom’s concerns are understood by him as a sort of “liberalism without natural rights,” a worldview that “taught us that the only danger confronting us is being closed to the emergent, the new, the manifestations of progress,” so that “no attention had to be paid to the fundamental principles or the moral virtues that inclined men to live according to them” (29).

         Bloom takes his reasoning to the next logical point by concluding that “actually openness results in American conformism.” For, if we assume that “out there in the rest of the world is a drab diversity that teaches only that values are relative, whereas here we can create all the life-styles we want,” then “our openness means we do not need others.” And “thus what is advertised as a great opening is a great closing” (34).

         This paradox is highlighted by Bloom in relation to his generalizing assertion that “only in the Western nations, i.e., those influenced by Greek philosophy, is there some willingness to doubt the identification of the good with one’s own way” (36). For him, any “cultural relativism” basically “succeeds in destroying the West’s universal or intellectually imperialistic claims, leaving it to be just another culture.” If “culture, hence closedness, reigns supreme,” within a spirit of “equality in the republic of cultures,” then Bloom is convinced that “openness to closedness is what we teach” as part of the new educational paradigm (39).

         Against such “openness of indifference,” mainly “promoted with the twin purposes of humbling our intellectual pride and letting us be whatever we want to be, just as long as we don’t want to be knowers,” Bloom proposes another “openness that invites us to the quest of knowledge and certitude,” encouraging “the desire that animates and makes interesting every serious student―‘I want to know what is good for me, what will make me happy’” (41).

         Bloom’s goal is to question any educational methodology where contemporary students learn “to doubt beliefs even before they believed in anything” (42), for he endorses the notion that “one has to have the experience of really believing before one can have the thrill of liberation,” even if those beliefs are later abandoned by the student. For Bloom, “the mind that has no prejudices at the outset is empty” (43). And, to fill this gap, Bloom thinks that it is better the enthusiastic exploration of a presumed mistake than never defending unambiguous positions, just for the fear of not being enough “open to everything.”

         Two years after The Closing of the American Mind, in the 1989 book Essays on The Closing of the American Mind,[viii] edited by Robert Stone, many of the incisive ideas of Allan Bloom were dissected in detail by dozens of intellectuals, including Allan Bloom. Besides “a million purchases,” Stone acknowledges in his Introduction to this anthology that “praise and blame come from Left and Right alike” upon Bloom’s “simple and straightforward”―and quite controversial in my opinion― arguments: namely, that “people usually think and act as they have been taught,” that “what Americans are taught today is influenced primarily by what goes on in the elite universities,” that “the lessons taught in the elite universities are simply dreadful: truth, God, justice, and beauty are mere historical myths; therefore all morality is relative and arbitrary,” and that “when higher education abdicates its role to teach what citizens need to make them both virtuous and competent, it has failed democracy as well as impoverished the souls of today’s students” (xiii, xiv).

         In the interview with Allan Bloom included by Stone in his compilation of essays, reviews, op-eds, letters to the editor, etc., Bloom reflects upon certain key concepts of his 1987 best-seller.viii Bloom again criticizes all “radical individualism,” “radical egalitarianism” and “cultural relativism” as they “encourage the separation of individuals” and, ultimately, for him this leads to “broken homes” and to “such a quest for roots, for settling down and finding trust―there is such insecurity―that opening students’ minds to free inquiry about the nature of things is barely possible.” On the contrary, for students usually “free inquiry is too dangerous, too unsettling” (192), so that open knowledge is considered at least suspicious of causing personal harm or reproducing social damages.

         Going beyond his viewpoints on feminism, for example, Bloom explains his convictions about paying certain consequences after any change to the American way of life: “there should be no illusion that liberated choices have no price. There are damages.” Indeed, Bloom envisions a crowd of “social solitaries,” with “no really profound connection with the world and with one another” (192), as a result of the continuing crisis of the so-called nuclear family. The outcome is, according to Bloom in the interview that he gave in 1988 to New Perspectives Quarterly, that in America many “individuals place the highest priority on the right to ‘feel good about myself.’ That kind of ‘rights morality’ easily becomes a cover for self-indulgence and neglect of one’s duties” (193).

        In 2017, the sociologist Frank Furedi published a study on the dramatic transformation of the university in democratic societies, with focus on the Anglo-American world on both sides of the Atlantic. From the title, Furedi’s book is somehow related to some of Bloom’s remarks mentioned before, regarding the irresponsibility of younger generations in a free capitalist society and their school-trained attitude combining moral childishness and intellectual intolerance: What’s Happened to the University? A Sociological Exploration of its Infantilisation.[ix]

         As in Robert Stone’s commentaries on Allan Bloom’s best-selling book, we could praise Furedi’s approach as an effort to be as “simple and straightforward” as possible, and we could then add that this is true to the point of risking either exaggeration or oversimplification of some of his arguments. To begin with, Furedi is convinced that, “over the past 40 years, universities have become a target for linguistic policing.” That is, “the words people use in higher education are constantly evaluated from the standpoint of what the political philosopher Vanessa Pupavac has characterised as linguistic governance, which turns the spoken and written word into a legitimate object of formal regulation.” This governance nowadays “has become so internalised,” according to Furedi, “that its enforcement need not be relegated to appointed censors,” since “the practice of ‘watching your words’ is actively encouraged by contemporary campus culture.” And this is not only aimed “to prohibit certain taboo words” or “to ensure that language is policed to enforce campus harmony” (i.e., an “inclusive and respectful communication ecology”), but “it also serves as a medium for the alteration and management of behaviour,” since universities are opting for avoiding “the unpredictable consequences of genuine controversy and serious debate.” In fact, Furedi believes that even “the term ‘controversial’ is often used with a negative connotation, to describe topics and issues that have the potential for creating offence” (89).

         The intellectual infantilization of the U.S. university would then come from a campus culture where the routine exercise of denunciations―including the rather Orwellian anonymous ones, which can be done with a click on most university webpages―has taken the place of challenging debates: the rational being somehow I denounce, therefore I am. For Furedi, this automatically implies “a lack of confidence about the capacity of humans to react to controversial issues in a reasonable and mature manner.” Given the current “climate of concern about the risks surrounding the response to speech,” said risks are “often seen to outweigh the benefits of open debate,” which leads to academic managerial practices where linguistic governance becomes rather “indifferent to the content of speech,” since “its concern is with the risks of tolerating it” (90).

         In his book, Furedi explores a number of categories which nowadays are massively implemented by universities and that, in his opinion, are turning students “into infantilized supplicants demanding protection.” This is why he thinks that “the socialisation of young people through a medicalised narrative that, in a one-sided manner, stresses their fragility and vulnerability, needs to be challenged” in order to “educate them for a life of freedom and independence”  (15, 16). Furedi criticizes, throughout the chapters of his book, among others, these significative issues:

         1) There is a “shift towards the politicisation of cultural identity” and its current “psychological turn” (54), where a “failure to affirm is habitually interpreted as a slight or an injury to a particular group’s identity,” just as an “act of miscommunication or a form of behaviour that is experienced as nonaffirming is likely to provoke a hostile reaction and denounced as an insult or an act of disrespect.” Thus, “the synthesis of the narrative of vulnerability with the demand for respecting cultural identity”, which “is often communicated through a language that dwells on past injustices,” has but “encouraged individuals to perceive themselves as victims of history” (55). Furedi warns about the fatalism in the use of any “deterministic narrative about the never-ending influence of the past on the present,” as well as about the “circulation of genetically based arguments about the intergenerational transmission of trauma” (58). For this author, as “the modern university is founded upon liberal ideals that promote a vision of universalism,” then the values of any “cultural politics”―based on “identity,” “lifestyle affiliations,” “ethnic origins,” etc.―in principle will “directly contradict those of the university,” because, first, “scholars in the pursuit of truth have no idea where this quest will take them” and, second, it should be their “accomplishments as a scholar or a student” what matters over all “culturally bond values” (68).

         2) The spread of a “microaggression theory” that “both universalises the consciousness of victimisation and contributes to the legitimation of the claims of damaged identity,” in practice contributes only to “encourage and validate a disposition to be outraged,” while it “fuels a sense of hypervigilance towards potential acts of bias” and it “provides a narrative that helps interpret the ontological insecurity faced by an individual” by “offering a wide-reaching account of prejudice.” According to Furedi, “those accused of committing an act of microaggression are not simply condemned for their words but also for the hidden meaning and intent that might lurk beneath their remarks” (107). This author considers that the notion of microaggression is being implemented by universities as a “powerful tool for the policing of academics,” where usually “the charge of microaggression conveys the presumption of guilt” (117). Moreover, Furedi concludes that the successful “influence of the concept of microaggression” derives from the “growing conviction that people’s inner life is a legitimate terrain for intervention by policy makers and experts,” which in turn would imply accepting the external existence of a “moral authority to make pronouncements about how people should think and, if necessary, reeducate them about the assumption they hold” (122).

         3) “Safe spaces” on campuses, originally “portrayed as a human right for vulnerable groups,” are nowadays increasingly becoming a “quarantine against judgment” (70), where more and more “university students identify a safe learning environment with a teacher who is nonjudgmental” (74). For Furedi, the “exercise of judgment by academics and students alike,” as well as “the testing of ideas, the questioning of colleagues’ views, and the pursuit of intellectual clarity,” is the “precondition for the flourishing of the modern university” (77). Thus, the “cost of safe space policies cannot be measured simply in terms of their conformist influence on young people,” since the “downgrading of the role of judgment” also “immunises students from being exposed to the intellectual pressures and criticisms that are necessary for acquiring the capacity for independent thought and judgment” (79). Even more concerning for this author is the common “acceptance of the view that debate and controversy are a source of psychological harm,” so that the “alleged risks of such harm constitute an argument for spatial segregation” on campuses (85). Consequently, for Furedi “is the job of academics to ensure that debate and argument is conducted in a manner that what is judged are the ideas that are raised and not the person who raised them” (77).

         Furedi wonders how it did happen here that the “university, which is historically devoted to academic freedom and relative openness to new ideas, should have adopted such a prescriptive and censorious orientation towards interpersonal and public communication.” For him, the prevailing rationale is “based on the premise that members of the academy cannot be trusted to make up their own minds about how to act and speak in line with their own inclination,” a “censorious imperative” which “is driven by a paternalistic and pessimistic view of people’s capacity to discriminate between right and wrong.” That is, literally, that “they often do not understand the implications of what they are saying.” Again, much like little children (92).

         In any case, “purifying language” as a “moral enterprise,” by means of “cleansing society’s vocabulary of toxic words, stigmatizing them, and rendering them taboo” (93, 94), has forced the university system, according to Furedi, “to constrain free and spontaneous verbal communication” under the binary notion of “appropriate and inappropriate,” as a “reminder that very few words can be assumed to be beyond contestation” (95). This is particularly unfortunate for it usually leads to “the prevalence of a climate of intolerance and mistrust” (97).

         Furedi mentions some emblematic documents that have attempted to become a sort of academic canon of “censorship as semantic therapy,” like the original 1996 brochure Watch Your Language: Guidelines for Non-Discriminatory Language, published by the University of Melbourne, and maybe one of the first “self-consciously promoted” examples of this “shift from targeting taboo words to modifying linguistic behaviour” (97).

         The referred brochure[x] assumes that discrimination is more widespread in the world today than ever before, and it hopes to be an intellectual effort that “facilitates an understanding of how we discriminate through assuming the normality and neutrality of our own identity group, or of another more dominant group.” The brochure starts from the conviction that “among the things that language perpetuates are the prejudices of the society in which it evolves” and that “discrimination is understood to be enacted in and through language” when it is “used to exclude or alienate” (iii).

         Given the historical reality that society takes longer periods of time and not always peaceful efforts to be changed, for their approach language seems like a triggering device which can be put to use in order to impact and ultimately transform society, even if the price is, according to Furedi’s book,ix the medicalization of the alleged “linguistic harm” in such a way that “offensive words are represented as vehicles of a psychological disease.” Therefore, “according to the paradigm that informs university guidelines on speech,” Furedi concludes, “offensive language does not merely insult but also constitutes a risk to the well-being of the people:” thus, “the regulation of language becomes essential for the maintenance of public health” (99).

         That is, without entering into the territory of paranoid speculations about academic conspiracies, “once people are judged too vulnerable to be able to handle the power of words, it is only a matter of time before human communication itself becomes a target of mistrust” (104, 105). Furedi is worried that as “mental enslavement trumps the capacity for autonomy,” then “citizens cannot exercise independent judgment” and “they require someone else to do it for them.” And he quotes the 1996 book Freedom’s Law: The Moral Reading of the American Constitution, written by the philosopher Ronald Dworkin, to illustrate this point: “We retain our dignity, as individual, only by insisting that no one―no official and no majority―has the right to withhold an opinion from us on the ground that we are not fit to hear and consider it” (104).

         Almost twenty years ago, during the 1998 UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education,[xi] held in Paris, and focused in the topic of “Thematic Debate: Autonomy, Social Responsibility and Academic Freedom,” it was already recognized that “academic freedom was not simply a fundamental value” but “also a means by which higher education fulfilled its mission,” so that “freedom was both a right and also a duty.” This official report also acknowledged that the performance of higher education was being “subject to increasing scrutiny in the name of the public,” and the UNESCO warned back then that “the danger is very real that the specificity of the university’s moral and civic missions become weakened,” in regards to its “commitment to the preservation of enduring values and tasks―to excellence, to examining and commenting the long term ethical implications which come from social change and to the abiding task of enabling students to become active citizens in an era of often unpredictable change.” According to UNESCO, in a sort of feedback cycle of freedoms, only “if society is aware of the benefits it derives from higher education, it will be prepared to extend further the principle of academic freedom” (9).

         The report goes further to establish the notion that although knowledge “is NOT finite,” in any case “progress is shaped by the ability to question, criticize and to enquire.” By ratifying the vision that “ensuring progress is one of the responsibilities of academia,” the UNESCO claims that the “academic freedom is a condition of that progress.” Even more, “to the extent that progress itself is a Human Right, to that extent academic freedom IS indeed linked with a more general right” (13).

         Frank Furedi comments the UNESCO turn-of-the-century report in the concluding remarks of his 2017 book.ix He refers to the historical observation that “when society’s freedom has been under threat, universities have played an important role in resisting it. Much to the annoyance of authoritarian politicians and governments, throughout the twentieth century, universities often served as centers of dissident and revolt” (171). But he omits to mention that this has been the case mainly in non-totalitarian open societies, for under well-established communist and fascists regimes there are no longer institutional centers of dissent and revolt in such closed societies. For example, the radical conservatism of the apparently so much liberal Cuban Revolution could constitute a case-study to further explore.

         According to Furedi, “the threats to academic freedom from within the university are more insidious than external ones because they make members of this community directly complicit in the devaluation of the liberties that they enjoyed in the past.” For Furedi, to this contributes the fact that “contemporary academia takes academic freedom for granted and does not treat it as a foundational value. Some even represent it as a redundant privilege,” given the reality that “attacks on it are rarely formulated in explicit and self-conscious terms.” While, on the other hand, “many members in the university community have chosen to ignore them, and have accommodated to the introduction of paternalistic and illiberal initiatives,” which in turn provokes “a toxic effect on the quality of academic life in all of its dimensions. They undermine not only freedom of expression but also the vitally important informal relations amongst academics and between academics and students” (171).

         In the United States, even the relevance on campuses of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution regarding freedom of speech, is being revised too. In a number of statements from leading American universities, it is usually ratified, as in the case of Pennsylvania State University at the beginning of the 2014-2015 course,[xii] for example, that “the First Amendment guarantees our right to speak as we wish,” but always in a context where “the administration, faculty, staff and students, are unanimous in deploring the erosion of civility associated with our discourse.” The key word, as common sense seems to indicate, is “respect” as a “core value”: “reasonable people disagree, but we can disagree without sacrificing respect” in order to “strengthen our community” and “without degrading others.”

         However, how “respect” is to be implemented is not an obvious question. In my own experience, a respectfully expressed opinion in academic spaces can be easily taken―maybe out of bad faith―as the worst disrespectful attack against particular persons present in said spaces or, in general, against more abstract people in the outside world.

         Washington University in Saint Louis is by no means exempt to this invisible avalanche of suspicions that, when less expected, can turn the polemic into the problematic, and a debate into a denounce, sometimes unfairly using consensus to legitimize complaints against unwelcome people and their viewpoints, and, besides, abusing the most sensitive vocabulary of political correctness to attain the penalization of dissent when it comes to theoretical notions about race, gender, etc.

         In his 2017 book,ix Furedi mentions analogous situations in reference to how the critics of “academic freedom are careful not to go so far as to call for its abolition.” And he determines that the reason is that, “although they are happy to deny its application to their opponents, they fervently uphold their own right to academic freedom.” Thus, the “liberal shibboleth” of academic freedom can be handled both as a stigma and as a “sacred principle” (180). In such a deteriorating panorama as the one depicted by Furedi, it is unavoidable to start recalling terms like “doublethink” and “newspeak,” neologisms developed by George Orwell in his influential 1949 novel Nineteen-Eighty-Four.[xiii]

         In the Appendix to his novel, Orwell explains some notions of his dystopic universe. For instance, the purpose of Newspeak was literally to “make all other modes of thought impossible,” so that any “heretical” thoughts diverging from the official principles of the society “should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words.” Even the choice of a “vocabulary” in Newspeak was to be “constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning” that the officials “could properly wish to express,” while at the same time “excluding all other meanings and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods,” whether friends or foes or the ideology imposed by the State (377).

         In the case of Doublethink, Orwell’s novel explicitly proclaims that “whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting,” in a sort of “unending series of victories over your own memory” to achieve full “Reality control.” A process that implies, of course, “to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again: and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself. […] Even to understand the word ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink” (44, 45). So that Doublethink meant the “power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them” (270).

         Directly or indirectly, a number of authors quoted by Furedi in his 2017 bookix have dealt with this “opportunistic use of academic freedom,” a freedom that “has in practice become a second-order value,” according to Furedi (179). Robin Marie,[xiv] for example, openly commented two years ago about the issue that “academic institutions, moreover, are spaces that are morally policed.” Although Marie does grant that the “cultural clout of appealing to freedom of speech and evoking the ideal of the fearlessly critical space of higher education provides powerful tools to those hoping to advance dissenting views,” and also that the “liberal university is, indeed, a space of political struggle where, historically, the voices of the oppressed have often been able to make their demands heard.”

         However, in Furedi’s perspectives,ix Marie still demonstrates very “little enthusiasm for academic freedom as such,” precisely because his approach turns out to be quite “instrumental” and “only useful insofar as it promotes the author’s cause of social justice.” In fact, Mariexiv does claim to have somehow detected “liberalism’s ultimate, underlying contradiction,” which is that, “in promoting a moral vision, it denies it is moralistic; and as it exercises its ideological power, it denies it is an ideology.” That is, Marie disagrees with the conception that “the university is not about advancing one cause over another,” as “liberals insist,” but that it should be about “creating a neutral and safe space for open debate.”

         For Marie, accepting such a conception of neutrality and openness would necessarily implicate that, for example, “as academics and activists attempt to support those fighting racism and occupation, they are compelled to speak a language that adopts an agnostic position towards both these injustices, making it more difficult to demand that we no longer commit the ethical absurdity of classing systematic occupation and oppression in the sanitized category of ‘the controversial.’” This author seems to favor a more belligerent position where social injustices would be like a limit for academic freedoms.

         In this respect, it is illustrating the rather extreme position adopted in 2014 by the Harvard student Sandra Y. L. Korn.[xv] In an op-ed published by the Harvard newspaper, she supports disruptive activism on campus to censor opinions which are “deemed racist and classist” by some. For this author, to “infringe” on academic freedom is “not the most important question to ask,” because both “student and faculty obsession with the doctrine of ‘academic freedom’ often seems to bump against something I think much more important: academic justice.”

         Korn in principle still agrees with the “oft-cited Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure,” where “the American Association of University Professors declares that ‘Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results,’” since “this policy seems sound: It would not do for academics to have their research restricted by the political whims of the moment.” Yet, for this author “the liberal obsession with ‘academic freedom’ seems a bit misplaced to me.” And, as such, instead she “would like to propose a more rigorous standard: one of ‘academic justice.’”

         For Korn, this “power to enforce academic justice comes from students, faculty, and workers organizing together to make our universities look as we want them to do.” The justification for this seems to be that, beyond “the ‘freedom’ game” of “economic freedom” and “academic freedom,” for this author “only those who care about justice can take the moral upper hand.” Her conclusion is that, although “it is tempting to decry frustrating restrictions on academic research as violations of academic freedom,” both “student and worker organizers” should “instead use a framework of justice,” so that after “we give up our obsessive reliance on the doctrine of academic freedom, we can consider more thoughtfully what is just.”

         Put in these terms, the concept of academic freedom is somehow equaled to the immoral pragmatism of profits, much like an accomplice of all social and historical injustices, past, present and perhaps also future. This supposed perpetuation of oppression can be exercised either consciously or inadvertently, according to the threshold of sensitivity of the oppressed, with the result that students and scholars nowadays can never be fully sure if their speech will be deemed as welcome or unwelcome, and, consequently, if they will face a number of time-consuming complaints and prestige-consuming administrative procedures just for defending the results of their own research.

         A number of important American universities, however, have recently released statements which appear to be diametrically divergent to such views of “justice” as opposed to “freedom” on campuses. For example, the 2015 Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression from the University of Chicago[xvi]―better known as the Chicago Statement, signed by Distinguished Professors of Law, Economics, Science, Language and Psychology―made clear the “University’s commitment to protect and promote free expression,” stating that, “although members of the University community are free to criticize and contest the views expressed on campus, and to criticize and contest speakers who are invited to express their views on campus, they may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe.” For “the University has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.” Otherwise, concludes the 2015 Chicago Statement, “as Robert M. Hutchins observed, without a vibrant commitment to free and open inquiry, a university ceases to be a university.”

         In fact, evoking the classic title by the American political scientist Samuel P. Huntington,[xvii] what seems to be at stake here is not a clash of civilizations, of course, but at least certainly the remaking of a world order, starting with permitted or prohibited rhetorics at Western university today, and then immediately aiming at more universal concepts like the tense concomitancy between repression and emancipation in an open society.

         Two years later, although many universities―including Washington University in Saint Louis―have released analogous statements on freedom of speech somehow inspired in the mentioned Chicago Statement, some original claims of said document could now be read as almost in contradiction with many of the prevalent practices of political correctness on university campuses in Europe and the United States. For example: 1) “It is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive;” 2) “Debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed;” 3) “Concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community;” 4) “It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose” because “fostering the ability of members of the University community to engage in such debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner is an essential part of the University’s educational mission;” and 5) “The University is committed to free and open inquiry in all matters, it guarantees all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn.”

         On the verge of 2018, with the increasingly polarized political climate throughout the United States after the 2016 presidential election, it could be likely that American universities will favor the “frameworks of justice” over the “academic freedoms,” in principle with the rationale to protect the more vulnerable subjects and strata of society. As the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is being more and more invoked to protect the rights mainly of problematic lecturers and performers on campus, other thinkers are making clear that said amendment has simply never applied within universities, given that in text and spirit it intends exclusively to limit the laws that the government may pass or not: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

         An article by the Yale University Professor of Law Robert C. Post, recently published in VOX,[xviii] argues that it is significative that nowadays “we are witnessing an escalating chorus of complaints that modern universities are trampling on the First Amendment.” According to him, such “controversy about free speech in American universities bespeaks fear that the next generation of Americans will not have been educated to engage in public debate, which necessarily entails encounter with alien and frequently outrageous perspectives.”

        Post acknowledges that “especially as our politics grows more diverse and more polarized […], universities do have a great responsibility to educate students for citizenship in a country violently split along lines of ideology and identity.” But this author then explains why “the language and structure of First Amendment rights, however, is a misguided way to conceptualize the complex and subtle processes that make such education possible,” since “First Amendment rights were developed and defined in order to protect the political life of the nation. But life within universities is not a mirror of that life.”

         According to Post, beyond the notion of “the noted legal scholar Alexander Meiklejohn,” who “once said that the First Amendment created an ‘equality of status in the field of ideas,’” and the fact that “it prevents the state from excluding persons from public discourse on the basis of what they have to say,” all this applies only as long as long as “we are talking about public discourse: the free flow of ideas in newspapers, in public squares, on debate stages, on theatrical stages, in art galleries and concert halls.” For Post, it is obvious that “outside of the sphere of public discourse, equality is not so obviously desirable” and “there are in fact many areas of our social life where we expect persons to act with competence, and where the law properly defers to accepted bodies of knowledge.” It would be to “abuse the First Amendment by misapplying it to such areas.” And for this author, university education would be one those areas beyond the scope and usefulness of the First Amendment.

         Post declares that “universities exist to serve the twin missions of education and the creation of knowledge” and so they need to “hire and tenure faculty based on the quality of their ideas,” much as they “grade and evaluate students based on the quality of their ideas,” given that the very “purpose of universities is to teach students how to discriminate between better and worse ideas, as well as to determine what we know on the basis of our best possible ideas.” Therefore, for this author “no university, public or private, could perform its mission were it not permitted to evaluate the merit of ideas,” so that “universities can and must engage in content discrimination all the time.”

         In summary, for Post “this is not to say that members of the university community do not enjoy special freedoms. They have the right to academic freedom, not First Amendment freedom of speech.” According to him, in contrast to the rest of the citizens, “students are, however, under the tutelage of the university, which is an arena of education, not of political self-governance.” And, “to the extent that the educational mission of higher education includes the inculcation of critical thinking, it requires universities to instill in students the capacity to face and evaluate ideas, however threatening or dangerous they may seem,” only that, to attain this in practice, “universities must thus distinguish between offensive ideas and personal incivility,” and again “the First Amendment makes no such distinction” between these two poles.

         However, in the same edition of VOX it is included a contrasting opinion by Erwin Chemerinsky,[xix] a professor at the University of California Berkeley School of Law who believes that “current college students are often ambivalent, or even hostile, to the idea of free speech on campus,” mainly because they “are driven by a desire to protect their classmates from hate speech.”

         Similar to the opinions in the Foreword by Saul Bellow to Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind―regarding universities becoming a conceptual warehouse of harmful influences from society today― Chemerinsky distinguishes that “disputes over free speech on campus have long occurred”, but “usually in the past, it was students who wanted to speak out and campus administrators who tried to stop demonstrations,” while “now it often is about outside speakers and outside disruptors” to whom “the campus is just the place for their battle.” The paradox is then that “it is now often students and faculty calling for preventing the speakers while campus officials are steadfastly protecting freedom of expression.”

         Chemerinsky remember that “a 2015 survey by the Pew Research Institute said that four in 10 college students believe the government should be able to prevent people from publicly making statements that are offensive to minority groups.” He agrees “that the students’ desire to restrict hurtful speech came from laudable instincts,” but then he claims that “I worry, too, that students do not realize the degree to which free speech has been essential for the advancement of rights and equality.” And he is also worried about “how little our students knew about the history of free speech, including the outbreak of McCarthyism, when faculty and students suffered greatly from the lack of legal protection for expression and academic freedom.”

         Chemerinsky’s conclusions seem to contradict the viewpoints of his colleague Robert C. Post in the same issue of VOX published in October 2017: for Chemerinsky, “the law of the First Amendment and the principles of academic freedom are clear and long established,” and “the Supreme Court repeatedly has said that the First Amendment means public institutions cannot punish speech, or exclude speakers, on the grounds that it is hateful or deeply offensive. This includes public colleges and universities,” where “every effort by the government to regulate hate speech has been declared unconstitutional.” And to sustain his standpoint, Chemerinsky mentions that, despite the fact that “over 25 years ago, more than 350 colleges and universities adopted hate speech codes […], every court to consider such a hate speech code declared it to be unconstitutional,” given that “the codes inevitably were far too vague in terms of what speech was permitted and what was prohibited.”

         Of course, Chemerinsky understands well that “the First Amendment applies only to the government,” but for him, and according to his legal experience, this include “public universities,” and he claims that “private universities should follow these same principles” as well, for “they are essential to academic freedom, which is at the very core of a university’s mission”. That is, the law “does not allow a public university to exclude a speaker by claiming that the viewpoint expressed would be so offensive to students that it would interfere with their education,” for “the assumption of freedom of speech, and of academic freedom, is that education is enhanced when there is more speech, not when government officials have the power to censor and punish speech they don’t like.”

         For Chemerinsky, “under current First Amendment law, a public university clearly would be acting unconstitutionally if it excluded a speaker from campus based on his or her viewpoint.” Nevertheless, “although speakers have a right to express hateful messages on campus, that does not mean that campus officials should silently tolerate such speech. It is important that campus officials denounce hate when it occurs and explain why it is inconsistent with the type of community we desire.”

         Many of these ideas and a large number of examples have been compiled by Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gillman in their 2017 book Free Speech on Campus.[xx] In the first chapter of their book, these authors discuss about what they have called “the new censorship.” They explain how the internet “has dramatically changed the nature of freedom of speech, and thus perceptions about it on college campuses,” in a way that “today’s students cannot imagine that free expression could be lost, but they also realize that the omnipresence of these media in their lives makes it impossible to shut oneself off from hateful or offensive speech” (14).

         Chemerinsky and Gillman consider that “many students associate free speech with bullying and shaming,” and again this is derived in part from the ubiquity of social media, which makes many “students think immediately of the harms, not the benefits, of speech.” But, more concerning for these authors, is that “some students extend the language of ‘harm’ and ‘threat’ to apply not only to traditional examples of so-called hate speech, but also to the expression of any idea they see as contrary to their strongly held views of social justice.” That is, nowadays many “expect that a supportive campus environment is one in which their views are not challenged,” and indeed they are “then demanding protection from the threat of having to listen to such views” (14, 15).

        In principle, the position of Chemerinsky and Gillman would be to “hope for a middle ground,” without being “limited to choosing between the absence of free thinking and a completely unregulated marketplace of ideas.” But in practice they both “believe there is no middle ground,” so that “either there is complete protection for the expression of all ideas and views, or there is an orthodoxy of belief.” In other words, “institutions of higher education can either protect an orthodoxy against challenge or be willing to permit all ideas; they can either treat students as disciples or help them become disciplined independent thinkers” (62, 63).

         For these authors, “history demonstrates that there is no way to define an unacceptable, punishment-worthy idea without putting genuinely important new thinking and societal critique at risk.” What is more, according to them, “when people ask the censor to suppress bad ideas in higher education, many important and positive ideas never have the chance to flourish, and many dangerous or evil ideas are allowed to thrive because they are not subjected to evaluation, critique, and rebuttal.” They categorically affirm that “in our view, no belief should be treated as sacrosanct,” and therefore they subscribe the thesis that “Nullius in verba remains vital: we must be willing to subject all ideas to the test” (62, 63).

         Chemerinsky and Gillman quote in this respect the commencement address delivered by the U.S. President Barack Obama to the 2016 graduates of Rutgers State University: “If somebody has got a bad or offensive idea, prove it wrong. Engage it. Debate it. Stand up for what you believe in. Don’t be scared to take somebody on. Don’t feel like you got to shut your ears off because you’re too fragile and somebody might offend your sensibilities. Go at them if they are not making any sense. Use your logic and reason and words. And by doing so, you’ll strengthen your own position, and you’ll hone your arguments. And maybe you’ll learn something and realize you don’t know everything. And you may have a new understanding not only about what your opponents believe but maybe what you believe. Either way, you win. And more importantly, our democracy wins” (74).

         One of the solutions proposed by Chemerinsky and Gillman is that “we should think of campuses as having two different zones of free expression: a professional zone, which protects the expression of ideas but imposes an obligation of responsible discourse and responsible conduct in formal educational and scholarly settings; and a larger free speech zone, which exists outside scholarly and administrative settings and where the only restrictions are those of society at large” (77).

         One of the most critical points for the authors who have theorized about freedom of speech in general is the question of hate speech. In their 2017 book, Chemerinsky and Gillman dedicate a full chapter to discuss it. They acknowledge from the beginning that “many prominent scholars have argued that hate speech conveys nothing useful to the marketplace of ideas, and by silencing its victims, it limits the exchange of ideas and undermines a university’s obligation to provide all students with an environment conducive to learning.” This is why, according to their analysis, “in the 1990s, persuaded by the powerful arguments for its regulation, over 350 colleges and universities adopted codes restricting hate speech.” But, as mentioned above in his article published in VOX, “every code to consider such a code declared it unconstitutional” (82).

         Chemerinsky and Gillman seem to subscribe the definition of “hate speech” given by Jeremy Waldron in his 2012 book The Harm of Hate Speech: “the use of words which are deliberately abusive and/or insulting and/or threatening and/or demeaning directed at members of vulnerable minorities, calculated to stir up hatred against them” (83). From this definition, it becomes clear that hate speech in practice tends to be asymmetrically understood seldom as a violent reaction against those in position of power, but when it is verbalized as an aggression against the powerless sectors in society. A similar notion―released the same day of the VOX dossier on freedom of speech on campus―was explained in more popular terms by a staff editorial of Student Life,[xxi] the students’ independent newspaper of Washington University in Saint Louis:

         “Punching up is when a person with an identity that has been historically persecuted makes a joke at the expense of someone with an identity associated with power. Punching down is when a person with an identity of power makes a joke at the expense of someone with a persecuted identity. To put it more concretely, punching up is the victim taking a shot at the bully, twice their size. Punching down is the bully picking on someone smaller than them. We commend the first because it shows bravery and toughness, despite a bad situation, and condemn the second because it’s unfair and cruel. So remember: Punching up is OK, punching down is not.”

         In their 2017 book,xx Chemerinsky and Gillman give due credit to the good faith of those who believe that hate speech, “especially in colleges and universities,” constitutes “an affront to the dignity” causing “psychological and even physical harm to those who are subjected to it” (84). These two authors also understand the concerns of those who claim that “hate speech is a form of discrimination and should not be allowed any more than any other discrimination” (85) because “hate speech is an assault that the law can and should prevent and punish” (86).

         Yet, Chemerinsky and Gillman also recall the long constitutionalist tradition in America where courts have always ruled in the sense that “expression of hate is protected speech, and the government may not outlaw symbols of hate” or “suppress a speaker because of an anticipated audience reaction” (90). In part, this has been so because “when it comes to the regulation of so-called fighting words,” what has being happening is that “a law punishing fighting words in general will be struck down as too broad and vague (that is, it covers too much), but a narrower law, focusing just on certain kinds of fighting words, will be struck down as an illegitimate content-based distinction (that is, it covers too little)” (95). The main political preoccupation of these authors is that “allowing speech to be censored or punished because it causes an immediate emotional reaction gives the government an unlimited power to restrict expression” (92), not only in universities and institutions but in society as a whole.

         Regarding the advantages and disadvantages of the implementation of speech codes in American academies since 1990, Chemerinsky and Gillman conclude that ultimately the codes have been used not only “against the kinds of purely hateful slurs,” but “against people who expressed opinions that others objected to” (99). Besides, they are convinced that “censorship of words leads inevitably to the censorship of ideas” (109). And although they do admit that “the motivations behind the desire to punish hateful speech are laudable,” they both take for granted that “so far, however, the legal and definitional challenges of translating these motivations into workable codes have proven impossible to overcome” (103). Therefore, the challenge for universities is precisely how “to create a conducive learning environment for all students,” after acknowledging that to really remain as liberal institutions, “universities can’t and shouldn’t try to ban hate speech” (110). 

         In summary, for Chemerinsky and Gillman today “protecting hate speech is necessary because the alternative―granting governments the power to punish speakers they don’t like―creates even more harm. The argument in favor of hate speech laws is essentially an argument for granting people in authority the power to censor or punish individuals who insult, stigmatize, or demean others, and it is inevitable that such vague and broad authority will be abused or used in ways that were not contemplated by censorship advocates” (108).

         Regarding this very sensitive issue of hate speech, Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic published in 1997 a book titled Must We Defend Nazis? Hate Speech, Pornography, and the New First Amendment,[xxii] where they define as “free speech absolutists” all persons and institutions―“such as the ACLU[1]”―which are “invoking such doctrines” as that “speech is different than action,” that “more speech is the cure for bad speech” (149), and that this is granted by what these two authors call an “unfettered First Amendment” (41).

         Delgado and Stefancic explain that “hate speech lies at the periphery of the First Amendment” because, given that “it implicates the interest of another group, minorities, in not being defamed, reviled, stereotyped, insulted, badgered, and harassed,” then “permitting a society to portray a relatively powerless group in this fashion helps construct a stigma-picture or stereotype” and, unavoidably, “this stereotype guides action” and “it also diminishes the credibility of minority speakers, inhibiting their ability to have their points of view taken seriously, in politics or anywhere else―surely a result that is at odds with the First Amendment and the marketplace of ideas” (158, 159). Thus, Delgado and Stefancic are convinced that “nothing in the Constitution (at least in the emerging realist view) requires that hate speech receive protection.” On the contrary, they believe that the First Amendment is being used nowadays by the “ruling elites” of “propertied white males” in such a way as “to postpone macroadjustments and power-sharing between that group and others: it is, in short, an instrument of majoritarian identity politics” (161).

         Regarding universities, Delgado and Stefancic seem to be opposed to those who support “the ideal of the university as a bastion of free thought” by “describing the campus as ‘the locus of the freest expression to be found anywhere,’ where the unpopular truth may be ‘pursued―and imparted with impunity,’” and where all “anti-harassment policies, even those aimed only at face-to-face insults, might chill academic exchange or teaching” (54, 55). In this sense, these authors are reminiscent of the views of Robin Marie on how universities should advance the cause of social justice first, over any academic purism that might be masking sources of social injustice.

         Delgado and Stefancic also deny, one by one, all of the traditional arguments against the regulation of hate speech. That is, that “mobilizing against hate speech is a waste of precious time and resources” (111); that “hate-speech regulation” as an “effort is doomed or quixotic” or “misguided” (113); that “hate speech should not be driven underground, but rather allowed to remain out in the open” (114); that “prohibitions against verbal abuse are unwise because they encourage minorities to see themselves as victims” (115); that “the effort to limit hate speech through enactment of campus rules is classist” because “the rules will end up punishing only what naive or blue-collar students do and say” (117); and, finally, “the ‘two wrongs’ argument, which holds that hate speech may be wrong but prohibition is not the way to deal with it,” because this implies an “impoverishment of the national discourse on free speech” (118).

         In conclusion, Delgado and Stefancic explain that “liberty, including free speech, and community exist in a reciprocally dependent tension. Each presupposes the other. […] Dialogue is fruitless without something approaching equality among speakers. […] Free speech is an important instrument for achieving social justice―equality presupposes liberty. Either value may be used rhetorically, or in the real world, to suppress the other. The demand for community may lead to conformity, censorship, and group-think. Speech, if misused, can be used concertedly to oppress minority groups. Thus, neither value seems logically prior; each is necessary for the full expression of the other. Interpretive communities are necessary for speech; speech is a necessary tool to restore, adjust, and refine community. Societies struggle to reach that balance in light of their own needs, histories, and ethnic compositions. Perhaps the most valuable lesson […] is that there are no simple answers” (131).

         From a quite different perspective in terms of the American constitution, David E. Bernstein in his 2003 book You Can’t Say That! The Growing Threat to Civil Liberties from Antidiscrimination Laws,[xxiii] argues that, “public universities, like all government entities, must comply with the First Amendment,” and he regrets that “many public universities have established speech codes to censor expression potentially offensive to women, African Americans, or other groups protected by civil rights laws” in order to “prevent the creation of an illegal ‘hostile environment’ on campus.” (59)

         Of course, Bernstein is aware that “under the fighting words doctrine, the First Amendment does not protect speech likely to incite the listener to imminent violence” (60), and, after quoting a number of historical cases in court, he insists on how “many public universities retain speech codes despite the lurking First Amendment issues,” pointing that “some codes are so broad that, when taken literally, they are absurd” (61). This author believes that, in general, “regardless of whether their universities have formal speech codes, public university officials frequently restrict ‘offensive’ student speech on an ad hoc basis” (63). And as early as in 2003 he already thought that this scenario was very troubling for the near future of democracy in America. That is, for today.

         On the other hand, Bernstein concedes that “private universities are not government actors and therefore are immune from the dictates of the First Amendment. The Constitution does not stop them from enacting speech codes” (64). Yet, he reminds us that precisely “the First Amendment prohibits the government from requiring private universities to administer speech codes”. And Bernstein then shares some examples of how the U.S. government has nonetheless “threatened to strip private universities of federal funding if they don’t enforce speech restrictions to ensure that their students are not exposed to a ‘hostile environment.’” For him, “there is no practical difference between the blatantly unconstitutional act of the government’s directly censoring speech at private universities and what the government actually does, which is to enforce laws that create legal liability for private universities that fail to proactively censor speech. The latter course may be less obviously Orwellian than the former, but its effects, that is, government censorship, are the same” (65).

         Bernstein explicitly declares that he believes that “the danger to academic dialogue caused by restrictions on purportedly offensive speech outweighs the potential benefit of reducing offense to students. Indeed, sometimes the only way to get students to genuinely confront and engage in controversial issues is to risk offending them. The appropriate policy is one that fully protects professors’ classroom speech, as long as the speech has a reasonable relationship to the topic at hand […], and as long as the offending speech does not constitute harassment behavior clearly directed at particular students” (66). In this aspect, he somehow anticipates the solution proposed in 2017 by Chemerinsky and Gillmanxx of a restricted “professional” and an inclusive “free speech” zone on campuses.

         Bernstein’sxxiii central concern is to avoid by all means any excessive speech regulation that “undermines the university’s claimed commitment to academic freedom” (67). For him, the problem of freedom of speech is beyond ideological tendencies. Both Left and Right have their share in restricting expression in American universities and both have alternatively “shifted the censorship dynamic” (71). He stresses that “with freedom of expression, as with much else in life, what goes around comes around,” much as in the 1939 quote by the American libertarian writer and editor Albert Jay Nock, included by Bernstein in the conclusion of one of his chapters: “Whatever power you give the State to do things for you carries with it the equivalent power to do things to you” (72).

         In the same year of Bernstein’s book, one event had significative impact for the evolution of academic freedom in the United States: on October 21, 2003, the well-known conservative writer David Horowitz’s “Academic Bill of Rights”[2] was “introduced as legislation in Congress” and “proposed in many states legislatures,” according to the recount of John K. Wilson in his 2008 book Patriotic Correctness. Academic Freedom and its Enemies[xxiv] (61).

         Wilson affirms that “Horowitz’s manifesto is part of a carefully planned assault on academia,” and, as early as in the same year 2003 “the American Association of University Professors[3] called it ‘a grave threat to fundamental principles of academic freedom’” (61). Wilson accuses Horowitz of having drafted a document very dangerous for freedom of speech on campus, both for professors and students, since “a vague document could allow virtually any kind of faculty expression to be punished, and no due process mechanisms are specified to address these controversies” (69).

         However, Wilson himself quotes a number of very concrete, not vague at all, statements of Horowitz’s “Academic Bill of Rights,” as he criticizes them from many different perspectives. This case was a climatic example of the hyper-ideological battleground around the meaning and practices of academic freedom in the United States. Paradoxically, the document of David Horowitz seems to strive for a radical depoliticization of all university education in the American academy. Yet, it provoked the immediate hyperpolitical reaction of Horowitz’s critics, to the point that the National Coalition Against Censorship called it “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”[4]

         In such important issues, it tends to be extremely difficult to position any text in the territory of neutrality. The paranoid-style mentality around these topics is largely present even in serious analysis. In his book,xxiv Wilson, for example, cannot avoid the tendentiousness of certain assertions: “During the McCarthy era, the enemies of academic freedom were often explicit about their attack on academic integrity. Today, the enemies of academic freedom like David Horowitz are cloaking their assault on liberal professors in the guise of student academic freedom” (97). One could argue that a conspiracy is always at hand in order to demerit the arguments of the opponent and paint them as aggressors, whether from Left or Right.

         When it comes to high politics, analysts from many civil liberties organizations have strongly criticized, as a threat to freedom of speech, a number of policies that the Office for Civil Rights from the Department of Education has been recently enforcing in American universities. Samantha Harries and Greg Lukianoff, in the 2016 book Liberty’s Nemesis. The Unchecked Expansion of the State,[xxv] edited by Dean Reuter and John Yoo, specifically condemn “OCR’s unprecedented intrusion into campus life” (174) regarding the 2011 “unprecedented Dear Colleague letter on the subject of school’s obligation, under Title IX, to respond to claims of sexual harassment and sexual violence.”

         Harries and Lukianoff enumerate the organizations that since then have “pushed back” for considering that the new measures “posed a substantial threat to student and faculty speech” (175). These organizations include the Foundation for Individual Rights and Education (FIRE), the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, the Goldwater Institute, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Student Press Law Center. These authors consider that “the consequences of this federal overreach have been disastrous” because both “student and faculty expression is governed by campus harassment policies fashioned in response to OCR directives that impose vague, subjective restrictions on speech protected by the First Amendment,” and because now students and faculties “face a chilling effect on their own expression both inside and outside of the classroom and fear a formal complaint filed by offended, hypersensitive students” (179).

         Harries and Lukianoff also explain how presumed victims in universities are being “funneled into campus judicial systems overseen by administrators whose primary loyalty lies with their employer, not justice.” Consequently, “accused students are routinely subjected to unfair proceedings that afford them few, if any, due process protections.” That is, for these two authors, “claiming ever-expanding, extralegal powers out of thin air, OCR is forcing universities to perform an impossible task, stripping college students of core civil liberties.” Therefore, they propose that, as “fortunately, OCR is not above the law,” only “litigation under the First Amendment and the Administrative Procedure Act can and should correct the agency’s overreach,” given that “only the criminal justice system provides those accused […] the necessary procedural protections to ensure a fair verdict in which all parties may trust” (180).

         In the origin of all these debates is the notion of political correctness, PC, a term which the political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset[xxvi] says it “refers to the efforts by campus advocates of left-liberal politics to control the content of speech, courses, and appointments, and to impose their views with respect to multiculturalism, minority rights, and feminism” (71). Although this author also admits that in America “such behavior is not unique to academe or to leftists, feminists, or environmentalists,” as, for example, “social conservatives in this country are much more aggressive outside the academy in efforts to impose their morality on the body politic.” (89)

         Only that, paradoxically, “the left intelligentsia, who once argued that economic power frustrated their access to the media and undermined academic freedom, currently seek to deny these to those who challenge their beliefs with respect to ethnic, racial, and gender issues, and sexual behavior and preferences” (90). For him, “universities must be free places […] open to talent, to critical ideas, to the possibility of revisionism from many sources,” so that “repression from the left, even though drawing its legitimacy from populist values, must suffer the same fate as repression from the right once did” (91).

        Martin Lipset associates PC with the founding sources of moralism―“as American as apple pie” (71)―; with “repressive aspects of American culture” related to the “utopian ideological context of the American Creed, which defines the country in ways that nations characterized by a common history, not an ideology, lack;” with the “predominance in the United States of Protestant sectarianism, a minority elsewhere in Christendom” (89); and, more recently, with the “politicization” and the “ideological splits within the academic organizations” (77).

         In specific, Martin Lipset mentions that the concept of “repressive tolerance” of Herbert Marcuse was fundamental “during the 1960s and early 1970s” as part of his “opposition to free speech” and his “critique of the free circulation of ideas as suffocating revolutionary approaches, which had considerable support among New Left students” (86). And Martin Lipset then contrasts these views with the “only policy possible in a university worthy of the name,” as “enunciated in 1975 by the Committee on Freedom of Expression at Yale, chaired by C. Vann Woodward: […] If the university’s overriding commitment to free expression is to be sustained, secondary social and ethical responsibilities must be left to the informal processes of suasion, example, and argument” (91). That is, in the binary terminology of Sandra Y. L. Korn, he would be rather an advocate of “academic freedom” over “academic justice.”

         The amount of general information and particular anecdotes generated about the guarantees for freedom of speech, or, alternatively, the attacks against it on American campuses is becoming monumental. To engage with each theoretical argument and each practical case is beyond the scope of the present approach. Still some additional books are worth mentioning for future reference, if only because of their usually bombastic titles: Free Speech on Campus (2000[xxvii] and 2017[xxviii]), Campus Speech in Crisis,[xxix] Restoring Free Speech and Liberty on Campus,[xxx] Illiberal Education,[xxxi] What Price Utopia?,[xxxii] Lessons in Censorship,[xxxiii] Unlearning Liberty,[xxxiv] and The Boundaries of Freedom of Expression and Order in American Democracy.[xxxv]

         This field is complex and saturated of contextual references and ongoing political agendas―more or less visible―that escape my recent perspectives as a Cuban immigrant to the U.S. Coming from a country where only one political party, one official opinion, and one public press is permitted, I find myself entangled and trying to engage with the amazing mesh of multiplicities of American culture and society. This is particularly exciting because all these events, tendencies and phenomena are now being interpreted by me from within the U.S. academy, at Washington University in Saint Louis. It’s a fascinating climate to which one is tempted to contribute with his or her best input. And, nonetheless, it is dangerous as an anonymous denounce, whether in a classroom at Havana University or in the heart of the heart of a country called the United States of America.

         In most of the sources consulted there emerges a sort of consensus, which links the need of freedom to speak with a needed form of speech. As the notion of “form” itself implies the presence of certain order and, of course, the guardians of said order, it wouldn’t be superfluous to end my initial approximation to the state of freedom of expression in American academy today by recalling that, in his Comments on the Latest Prussian Censorship Instruction,[xxxvi] Karl Marx wrote this radical defense of individual initiative: “Isn’t the first duty of the person in search of truth that he proceed to it directly without glancing left or right? Don’t I forget the substance if I must never forget to state it in a prescribed form?” (70).  


[1] American Civil Liberties Union.

[3] “Academic Bill of Rights.” AAUP.

[4] “‘Academic Bill Of Rights’–A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing.” NCAC.

[i] Statement of Principle Regarding Freedom of Expression. Washington University in Saint Louis. September 6, 2016.

[ii] Constitution of the Republic of Cuba, 2002. Article 5: “The Communist Party of Cuba, Martian [inspired by the Cuban National Hero José Martí, N. of A.] and of Marxist-Leninist, the organized vanguard of the Cuban nation, is the superior leading force of the society and the State, organizing and guiding the common efforts aimed at the highest goals of the construction of socialism and advancement toward the communist society.” Article 6: “The Union of Young Communists, an advance organization of the Cuban youth, has the recognition and encouragement of the State in its preeminent function of promoting the active participation of the young masses in the tasks of socialist construction, and of suitably training the youth as conscious citizens, capable of assuming greater responsibilities each day for the benefit of our society.”

[iii] Kors, A. Ch. and Silvergate, H. A. “What is Academic Freedom?” The Shadow University. The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses. New York: The Free Press, 1998. 50-66.

[iv] “General Report of the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure.” Freedom and Tenure in the Academy. Van Alstyne, W. W. (editor). Durham: Duke University Press, 1993. 393-406.

[v] Metzger, W. P. “The 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure.” Freedom and Tenure in the Academy. Van Alstyne, W. W. (editor). Durham: Duke University Press, 1993. 3-77.

[vi] “Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students.” Freedom and Tenure in the Academy. Van Alstyne, W. W. (editor). Durham: Duke University Press, 1993. 411-418.

[vii] Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987.

[viii] Essays on The Closing of the American Mind. Edited by Robert L. Stone. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 1989.

[ix] Furedi, Frank. What’s Happened to the University? A Sociological Exploration of its Infantilisation. London and New York: Routledge, 2017.

[x] Watch Your Language: Guidelines for Non-Discriminatory Language. (2005 version)

[xi] “Autonomy, Social Responsibility and Academic Freedom.” World Conference on Higher Education. Higher Education in the Twenty-first Century Vision and Action. UNESCO, VOLUME IV. ED.99/HEP/WCHE/Vol. IV-12. Paris, 5-9 October 1998.

[xii] “A message from the leadership at Penn State.” Penn State News. 5 Sept 2014.

[xiii] Orwell, G. Nineteen-Eighty-Four. Planet Books.

[xiv] Marie, Robin. “Thinking Critically About Academic Freedom: The Case of Salaita.” USIH Blog, Society for US Intellectual History. 4 Jun 2015.

[xv] Korn, S. Y. L. “The Doctrine of Academic Freedom. Let’s give up on academic freedom in favor of justice.” The Harvard Crimson. 18 Feb 2014

[xvi] Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression. University of Chicago. 2015.

[xvii] Huntington, S.P. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

[xviii] Post, R. C. “There is no 1st Amendment right to speak on a college campus.” VOX. 25 Oct 2017.

[xix] Chemerinsky, E. “Hate speech is protected free speech, even on college campuses.” VOX. 25 Oct 2017.

[xx] Chemerinsky, E. and Howard Gillman. Free Speech on Campus. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2017.

[xxi] Editorial. “Should you wear that problematic costume?” Student Life. 25 Oct 2017.

[xxii] Delgado, R. and Jean Stefancic. Must We Defend Nazis? Hate Speech, Pornography, and the New First Amendment. New York and London: New York University Press, 1997.

[xxiii] Bernstein, D. E. You Can’t Say That! The Growing Threat to Civil Liberties from Antidiscrimination Laws. Washington, D.C.: CATO Institute, 2003.

[xxiv] Wilson, J. K. Patriotic Correctness. Academic Freedom and its Enemies. Boulder and London: Paradigm Publishers, 2008.

[xxv] Harries, S. and Greg Lukianoff. “Threats to Due Process and Free Speech on Campus.” Liberty’s Nemesis. The Unchecked Expansion of the State. Edited by Dean Reuter and John Yoo. New York and London: Encounter Books, 2016. 169-180.

[xxvi] Martin Lipset, S. “The Sources of Political Correctness on American Campuses.” The Imperiled Academy. Edited by Howard Dickman. New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers, 1993. 71-95.

[xxvii] Golding, M. P. Free Speech on Campus. Lanham, Boulder, New York and Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000.

[xxviii] Ben-Porath, S. R. Free Speech on Campus. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017.

[xxix] Campus Speech in Crisis. What the Yale Experience Can Teach America. New York and London: Encounter Books, 2016.

[xxx] Downs, D. A. Restoring Free Speech and Liberty on Campus. Oakland (CA), Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid and cape Town: The Independent Institute & Cambridge University Press, 2005.

[xxxi] D’Souza, D. Illiberal Education. The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.

[xxxii] Patai, D. What Price Utopia? Essays on Ideological Policing, Feminism, and Academic Affairs. Lanham, Boulder, New York, Toronto and Plymouth (UK): Rowman & Little Field Publishers: 2008.

[xxxiii] Ross, C. J. Lessons in Censorship. How Schools and Courts Subvert Students’s First Amendment Rights. Cambridge (MA) and London: Harvard University Press, 2015.

[xxxiv] Lukianoff, G. Unlearning Liberty. Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate. New York and London: Encounter Books, 2012.

[xxxv] The Boundaries of Freedom of Expression and Order in American Democracy. Edited by Thomas R. Hensley. Kent (OH) and London: The Kent State University Press, 2001.

[xxxvi] Marx, K. “Comments on the Latest Prussian Censorship Instruction.” Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society. Edited and translated by Loyd D. Easton and Kurt H. Guddat. Garden City (NY): Doubleday, Anchor, 1967.