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Open for Debate

On Silencing Conservatives on Campus: Some Possibilities

25 March 2019

There has been a lot of talk lately about silencing.  In particular, some claim that conservative voices are silenced on university campuses, the very place where a diversity of thought ought to be fostered and valued.  If this is true, it is a bad thing.  I will not attempt to settle this (thorny) issue here.  Rather, I will say a bit about what silencing is, distinguish between some types of silencing, and flesh out what it could mean for conservative voices to be silenced on college campuses.  As we’ll see, there are several possibilities.

In the most general terms, silencing is systematic communicative interference.  If a person has been silenced, then that person has had her communicative capacities interfered with in some important way.   Moreover, silencing, at least as most analytic philosophers have understood it, is a systematic phenomenon.  This means that, if I am misunderstood on some particular occasion for purely idiosyncratic reasons, this may well be unfortunate for me, but it would fail to be an instance of silencing.  A communicative mishap is silencing only when systematic features of one’s environment bring it about.  If, by contrast, all women – or all women who look like me – would have been misunderstood in the same way, then the miscommunication in question is (or might be) an instance of silencing.

There are many different kinds of silencing and it is useful to distinguish between them.  First, there are instances of silencing where a person attempts to communicate but some sort of recognition failure in the audience interferes with the success of that communication.  Suppose, for example, a conservative student argues in support of a potential justification for death penalties in the abstract but her classmates take her to be supporting the current practices in the U.S. and so they take her to be committed to the view that non-white lives matter less than white lives.  In this case, the position supported by the student is misunderstood and if it is misunderstood for (even locally) systematic reasons, then this miscommunication might be an instance of silencing.  After all, if there are features of the environment that systematically prevent others from understanding what it is that you mean to get across, then your communicative capacities have been stunted and this is silencing.

Here is another sort of example.  Suppose that a conservative student chimes into class discussion and she is taken as offering a (bad) objection, rather than the supporting consideration she intended to offer.  In this case, the content of what she said (or what she meant by what she said) was understood perfectly well, but the intended argumentative force of it was not.  If this sort of mistake happens for systematic reasons, then the speaker’s communicative capacities have been (systematically) impaired.  Although this is a different kind of recognition failure, it is (systematic) communicative interference all the same and thus a potential case of silencing.

Second, there are instances of silencing that occur after successful communication has taken place.  One way that this can happen involves a speaker being given less credibility than she ought to be given.  Suppose, for example, that a conservative student offers some factual information in a class discussion but her classmates are extremely sceptical of what she says and this happens because they believe that conservatives tend to rely on fake news and echo chambers.  As a result of this, the conservative student’s claims are given little to no evidential weight.   In this case, the conservative student manages to communicate (that is, she manages get her claim across) but her claims are given less credibility than they ought to be given and this happens exactly because she is recognized as a conservative.  This counts as a kind of silencing because her communicative capacities are (systematically) impaired in so far as they are prevented from having appropriate epistemic impact.  Thus, although she manages to successfully communicate her claims, those claims are prevented from having the standard and appropriate effects and she is thus silenced.  This is sometimes called testimonial quieting (Dotson).  It is also called testimonial injustice (Fricker).

Third and finally, a person can be silenced before she even tries to speak.  Although this may seem baffling, really it’s not.  In fact, there are many ways – even very familiar ways – that this can happen.  A person might, for example, be silenced in this way because she is gagged or ordered to remain silent.  Especially interesting to me, however, are cases in which a speaker decides against speaking and she does so because of warranted beliefs about the harmful effects her utterance will have (and these harmful effects result from mistakes that would be made by her audience).  Suppose, for example, that there are negative false stereotypes about conservatives that are widely believed on some campus.  Suppose, for example, that conservatives are thought to be ignorant of social justice issues, selfish, racist, and cold-hearted.  If a conservative student decides against speaking (say in support of a potential justification for the death penalty in the abstract) because she believes that these stereotypes will affect how her speech is taken up and it will do so in ways that merely reinforce those very stereotypes, then she is silenced.  She is silenced because she is systematically prevented from communicating for reasons that are themselves unjust.  Dotson calls this testimonial smothering.   Discussion of this phenomenon has a long history in Black Feminist scholarship.

As is typical of philosophers, I have merely identified possibilities and carved out conceptual options without really taking a stand on the empirical issues.  I’m prepared to do that now.  I think these things happen on our college campuses and it’s a very bad thing.  It is definitely troubling when certain viewpoints are systematically squelched and it is even more troubling when that happens (as it does) in a space where the free exchange of ideas is supposed to flourish.  Pause now to consider just how problematic this is.

Now, pause to consider how much worse it is for members of other groups.  After all, conservatives are not the only group silenced on campuses in these ways.  If you don’t believe me, just ask a non-cis (or non-binary, or non-heterosexual, or non-white, or First Gen, or non-wealthy, or alternatively-abled, or non-male) person.  Moreover, members of these groups are also silenced elsewhere and they are likely silenced in many of the contexts in which they find themselves.  In addition to that, members of these groups are also systematically socially disadvantaged in a myriad of other ways too.  So, Yes, conservatives are sometimes silenced on college campuses and that should definitely not happen but – to be blunt- other groups face that too and a whole lot more besides. 

Picture: Don’t Mess by Miguel Ugalde