Free Speech
Divesting from free speech

Divesting from free speech

How environmentalists shut down debate on campus.

Students campaigning to get universities to divest from fossil fuels are in two minds about free speech. They want it for themselves, but don’t seem keen on free speech for their opponents.

The divestment movement didn’t invent free-speech hypocrisy, but divestment activists offer a range of old and new reasons as to why opposing views should not be tolerated. 

The debate is over

The divestment movement claims to like debate. It is convinced that anyone with an open mind can’t help but agree that divesting is a good thing to do.

‘Colleges would already be divesting if it were just about the arguments, because there are plenty out there’, says full-time campaigner Jess Grady-Benson, leader of an ardent student divestment campaign at Pitzer College in California. Bill McKibben, founder of the activist group 350.org and the international divestment movement, declared at a recent rally: ‘We won the argument. Twenty years ago we lost the fight and that’s because the fight was never about data.’

If, in your own mind, you have won the substantive argument, but your opponent continues to persuade the audience to his side, what can you do? Declare the debate to be over? Yank the microphone away from the moderator? Refuse to share a platform with anyone who so wrongheadedly persists in thinking the debate is not over? These might sound like exaggerated metaphors, but they are actual examples of what divestarians have done in the past. The commandeering of the microphone, for example, took place when a group of divestment activists, calling themselves Mountain Justice, took over a debate on divestment with Swarthmore College’s board of trustees. The rowdy group then went on a 90-minute screed about the need for ‘radical emancipatory action’ and cancelled the question-and-answer section where students and faculty could weigh in. When two students in the audience dared to ask if the meeting could be returned to order, divestment activists clapped them down in unison and told them to leave.

Delaying by debating

The divestment movement is sometimes in favour of debate, but in the same breath it spurns debate as a delaying tactic. Dialogue, it says, is enemy territory occupied by the fossil-fuel industry – debate is the industry’s way to buy time. Naomi Oreskes, a Harvard historian of science, has convinced activists that the fossil-fuel industry has tainted scientific literature, political processes and the media. Anyone who advocates dialogue is immediately suspect.

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Swarthmore activist Kate Aronoff verbalised the movement’s free-speech angst in a post called ‘F*** Your Constructive Dialogue’. She criticised her liberal friends who were mimicking conservatives in ‘deploying identical arguments in defence of tolerant civil discourse’. She found the dialogue suffocating and wanted sheer ‘conflict’.

Declaring debate to be over and deciding that there was no ground for debate in the first place is contradictory, but it all leads to the same conclusion – only the divestarians have a moral claim to free speech. Dissenters are either fools or knaves, and it would be a waste of precious time to give them the opportunity to speak. That time is better spent in preventing them from speaking.

Smear your opponents

McKibben says the divestment movement’s censorious tactics do the whole world a favour by cutting through political posturing and getting back to the facts. Fossil-fuel companies have ‘bought’ the politicians and the media, apparently, and the divestment campaign exposes the soundbite half-truths they are paid to say.

But the divestment movement has itself honed the art of slanting messages and demonising opponents. Indeed, demonisation is its entire purpose.

McKibben says that divestment’s aim is to ‘revoke the social license’ of the fossil-fuel industry and turn companies into ‘pariahs’. Anyone who happens to oppose divestment is up for being labelled a pariah, too. Boards of trustees who vote against divestment learn this immediately – they are accused of climate-change denial, oligarchical behaviour and, in almost every case, money grubbing. Most US colleges promote sustainability and nearly 700 American colleges have taken pledges to go carbon neutral. Nevertheless, if they don’t rush to divest entirely, they still get painted as pawns of the fossil-fuel industry.

Polarising opinion


The divestment movement insists it is taking steps towards political healing. Once corporations quit buying the political system, it says, the people will make the ‘right’ decision about climate change. ‘Left to our own devices, citizens might decide to regulate carbon’, says McKibben, but right now we ‘aren’t left to our own devices’ – you know, because of the Koch brothers, the US Chamber of Commerce and the Republican Party peppering us with propaganda.

Divestment campaigns intentionally make political divides worse. They want to sidestep real debates about energy policy and carbon taxes and boil them into simple ‘yeas’ and ‘nays’ on divestment. Campaigns at Harvard, Middlebury College, Tufts University and more, asked dissenters to get ‘on the right side of history’. According to divestarians, those who disagree with them are not only factually and morally incorrect, but also historically illiterate.

Isolating opposition

This polarisation goes deep. Divestment activists may well open an abbey soon – they don’t mingle with the non-believers. Innumerable activists have refused to speak to myself and others because we oppose divestment. Harvard psychologist James Recht, active in Harvard’s divestment campaign and the nationwide American Faculty/Staff Divestment Network, filled me in on the new speech codes within the divestment movement. ‘We expect our peers to be forthright about their attitudes and their political views. If someone agrees with me, we tend to talk openly about our interests. And if someone disagrees…’ He trailed off. The divestment movement’s motto might well be this: free speech for me, but not for thee.

Of course, none of this would matter if the opposition to the divestment movement was hypothetical – if the debate really was over, or the opponents were merely stooges. But, in fact, the opposition is robust, thoughtful and well-armed with cogent arguments and compelling evidence – a situation that suggests the divestarians’ aversion to debate is based on something other than principle.

Selling off oil stocks in the name of eco-purity does not in fact help the environment. Someone else will simply buy up those divested stocks. What’s more, divestment costs money and those stocks are valuable. And campaigning sucks student time away from studying and channels it into emotionally addictive but pointless activism. It scapegoats an industry, but lets consumers off scot-free.

Divestment, however, is today’s fastest-growing student movement. Beginning at a handful of small colleges in 2011, the drive to persuade colleges to divest is now an organised presence on more than 500 campuses. Thirty-seven universities, including Oxford, Stanford and Georgetown, have acceded to the pressure by divesting or promising to do so in the future.

The breadth of the movement shows that climate demagoguery is a force to be reckoned with. It has done virtually nothing to clean up pollution, but has gone far in scrubbing the free exchange of ideas from the academic environment. 

Rachelle Peterson is a research associate at the National Association of Scholars.

Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism, by Peter Wood and Rachelle Peterson is published by the National Association of Scholars. Download a copy here.

Book your tickets for The First Amendment in the 21st Century: Reinvigorating Old Rights for New Times.

Picture by: James Ennis.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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