What would Hugh Hefner have made of the modern university?
His views have certainly influenced the id and ideology of campus life. An unrepentant champion of the “American Dream,” Hefner published a series of editorials in Playboy between 1962 and 1963 outlining the magazine’s doctrine. “Personal freedom, political freedom, economic freedom,” he later enumerated. “That was the political philosophy I grew up with.”
And despite a few Gramscian grumblings to the contrary, students at elite colleges have largely accepted this credenda. They embrace sexual liberty in their bedrooms and economic liberty in their Goldman interviews. They decry bigotry in all its forms and oppose dictatorship and demagoguery — at least north of the Florida Straight. Hefner once claimed that “self-sacrifice and self-denial” were intrinsically wrong unless motivated by “some greater individual good.” In so many areas of life, from finance to fornication, today’s coeds imbibe individualism and vomit up narcissism — sanitized, of course, by a rousing chorus of “You Do You.”
But there is another side to Hefner’s legacy that has proven less popular with the Ivory Tower: his fierce and at times fetid devotion to free speech.
Playboy’s ascent into mainstream American culture both reinforced and depended on a permissive reading of the first amendment, one rooted in skeptical worries about society’s ability to define and disallow obscenity. Those misgivings snowballed during the 1960s when students at the University of California, Berkley rioted in support of free speech and academic freedom. That Hefner encouraged such uprisings is unsurprising given his métier — the more modes of expression were considered legitimate, the easier it would be for him to portray smut as sensibility.
Today’s students, by contrast, take their first-amendment cues from Catherine MacKinnon, the radical anti-porn feminist who spent her entire life working to undo Hefner’s legacy. For MacKinnon, the mere existence of pornography subordinated women to an oppressive patriarchy, such that any woman exposed to sexually explicit material should have the right to sue for damages. She did not merely claim that pornography causes violence; in her view, pornography was violence, and thus an appropriate object of censorship.
Though MacKinnon’s arguments never gained much legal ground, the suggestion that some speech acts are intrinsically violent has proven enormously influential. Controversial speakers are now accused of “harming” students, a charge that has been used to justify all manner of misbehavior on the part of frenzied activists. Following MacKinnon, these radicals go beyond claiming that offensive speech conditions oppression; they argue that offense, be it premeditated or accidental, does actual violence to the offended.
Pundits have understandably dismissed such rhetoric as opportunistic make-believe, a ploy to start a fuss or cancel midterms. Yet they’ve also overlooked an important point: To say speech is violence implies that hearing views you dislike lowers your welfare — that it harms you — which in turn implies that faring well requires something other than money, food or sex, something fundamentally non-material.
And whether they admit it or not, speech-fearing Jacobins have inherited a theory of well-being that is not so far removed from Hefner’s.
It’s a philosophy that equates flourishing with choice and freedom with metaphysical fiat, “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe and of the mystery of human life.” It conceives of goodness as “whatever floats your boat” and society as a social safety net — a safe space, if you will — for individuals to pursue self-discovery and self-creation. Like Hefner, the modern radical thinks he is entitled to decide not just how to live but also what living means, protected in a deep and permanent way from the troubling sorties of reality.
If that is your operative notion of well-being, the belief that speech can constitute violence makes a perverse sort of sense. Words, after all, are a powerful solvent for solipsism. They remind us that our truths are not The Truth, that there exists a world outside one’s head which cannot be wished away into non-being. The speech-violence equation does not rest on a definitional mistake so much as a promiscuous individualism, one that locates eudemonia in private fantasy, injury in social reality.
Were this in fact the case — were it true that safety and security were inextricable from subjectivity — “violent speech” would be a platitude, a coherent and thoroughly unremarkable notion. That it’s not speaks volumes about the Playboy philosophy and the absurdity of its devotees.
The genealogy I have been sketching is no doubt vague and highly speculative, and I’m sure MacKinnon’s disciples will reject it as an exercise in ideological projection. In any event, I suspect Hefner would have regarded the contemporary campus with a mix of admiration and horror. Admiration because we live and breathe the Playboy ethic. Horror because that ethic is systematically levelling the cultural protections which made Playboy possible.
Aaron Sibarium is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .