Gallagher: Censor only affirmatively

The news cycle has moved on from Yale’s recent decision to remove all images of Muhammad from Jytte Klaussen’s upcoming book on the 2005 Danish cartoon crisis, and the University should be pleased to be out of the critical limelight. But the real question raised by the affair remains: What limits can a university rightly place on expression? That is, given our school’s prominence and prestige in this nation and abroad, a question of whether Yale ought to play the role of a referee on the battlefield of ideas.

In the case of Klaussen’s book, Yale’s actions may be difficult to defend. Of course the University was able to duly produce John Negroponte ’60, Fareed Zakaria ’86 and other credentialed persons in defense of its decision, and the worldwide furor in 2005 should have taught us all about the need for sensitivity when dealing with representations of Islam’s prophet. But when the academy cracks down on an ingenuously academic work, it can hardly avoid appearing hypocritical, and pusillanimous when it cracks down in response only to an imagined threat.

So it’s not hard to sympathize with those critics who lost no time in decrying the University for failing to live up to its own ideals. After all, as we can read on page 10 of the Undergraduate Regulations, Yale’s official opinion is that “the history of intellectual growth and discovery clearly demonstrates the need for unfettered freedom, the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable.”

Mother Yale has high expectations of her children, indeed, if she depends on them to do the impossible. But grammatical quibbles aside, such was the common refrain raised by critics of the University’s censorship decision: academic freedom demands a commitment to the free exploration of ideas, unbound by fears of political repercussions or ideological inquisitions. And we hear those critics readily. They’re part of a great tradition in this country, wrapping themselves in the banner of the First Amendment and rushing to enter the lists on behalf of freedom and knowledge.

But before jumping on the freedom-of-speech bandwagon, we’d do well to listen to Alexis de Tocqueville. When he pronounced that “there is no freedom of mind in America,” he was fully aware of the equality of persons and lack of political oppression that Americans enjoy then and now. Nor did he mean it as an unmixed complaint; he admired the fact that — at that time at least — atheism and scurrilous sexuality could find no foothold in the American public sphere.

Tocqueville meant his critique as a warning that, like economic markets, the “marketplace of ideas” must be regulated if people are to flourish, and that Americans’ love of free speech — or, rather, of the term “free speech” — can lead to a dangerous state of intellectual laissez-faire, in which sensationalism and modishness take the place of good sense and sobriety. (His uncharacteristically unrealistic suggestion was that the authority of the Church might fill the regulatory gap.) Tocqueville knew that a neutral realm of discourse could not exist, that we choose between the overt influence of censorship and the invisible influence of the half-unconscious attitudes of a culture.

We at Yale serve as proof of Tocqueville’s thesis. While most of us would defend the free-speech rights of “birthers” or Klansmen or fraternity misogynists, we defend those rights in a manner that makes clear we don’t want to see those rights exercised in violation of our sensibilities and beliefs. Some ideas are not welcome at Yale, nor should they be. Yale College Dean Mary Miller’s column in Monday’s issue of the News demonstrated this, inveighing against the circulators of an obscene e-mail even as she argued in principle for the right to write it. In as frivolous a case as a smutty e-mail, that’s the appropriate response: offensive though the e-mail was, it posed more of a threat to good manners than to anyone’s safety.

But there are ideas more dangerous than rankings of freshman girls, and intellectual crimes far worse than offending sensibilities. If we would learn real lessons from “the history of intellectual growth and discovery,” we should keep in mind that none of the great crimes that turned the 20th century into mankind’s bloodiest yet could have seen the light of day without a long intellectual gestation.

For those of us Americans who — as in Tocqueville’s time — have been spared the worst of history’s turmoil and the most evil of history’s ideologies, it’s easy to talk about the importance of the unfettered exchange of ideas, and of the triumph of the best ideas in free competition. But if ideas have consequences, the subject of intellectual hygiene deserves more than a pious nod in the direction of the First Amendment, and a knee-jerk rejection of all censorship is an abdication of the University’s responsibility to promote harmonious intellectual life.

And who knows? Censorship that raised the stakes of taking a position on an issue might well raise the quality of our intellectual life; at the very least, it would acknowledge that thinking is more than a game, and would hold scholars responsible for the consequences of their beliefs. Of course, something as opposed to the Yale’s ideals and America’s as official censorship is unlikely ever to occur. But I would be prouder to belong to a university whose officials censored a book because of what they believed in, and not because of what they feared.

Kevin Gallagher is a junior in Pierson College.