Tag Archives: cancel culture

Georgetown University Does Not Have a Speech and Expression Policy

The following is a guest post by John Hasnas. Dr. Hasnas is a Professor of Ethics at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business and Professor of Law (by courtesy) at Georgetown Law Center.

In 2017, to great fanfare, Georgetown University adopted a speech and expression policy that states,

It is Georgetown University’s policy to provide all members of the University community, including faculty, students, and staff, the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn. . . . It is not the proper role of a university to insulate individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive. Deliberation or debate 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 ill conceived.

On January 26, 2021, the incoming Executive Director of Georgetown law’s Center for the Constitution, Ilya Shapiro, expressed his disapproval of President Biden’s decision to consider only African-American women for appointment to the Supreme Court by tweeting: “Objectively best pick for Biden is Sri Srinivasan, who is solid prog & v smart. Even has identity politics benefit of being first Asian (Indian) American. But alas doesn’t fit into latest intersectionality hierarchy so we’ll get lesser black woman.”

On January 27, the dean of Georgetown Law published a campus-wide e-mail in which he called the tweet “appalling” and “at odds with everything we stand for at Georgetown Law.” On January 31, the dean placed the director on “administrative leave, pending an investigation into whether he violated our policies and expectations on professional conduct, non-discrimination, and anti-harassment.” 

On June 2, the dean published a campus wide e-mail in which he stated that Mr. Shapiro’s “tweets could be reasonably understood, and were in fact understood by many, to disparage any Black woman the President might nominate.” He went on to explain that 

In considering how to address the impact of Mr. Shapiro’s tweets, I was guided by two overarching principles. The first is the Law Center’s dedication to speech and expression. Georgetown University’s Speech and Expression Policy provides that the “University is committed to free and open inquiry, deliberation and debate in all matters, and the untrammeled verbal and nonverbal expression of ideas.” The second and equally important principle was our dedication to building a culture of equity and inclusion (emphasis added).

He then pointed out that the speech and expression policy states that “[t]he freedom to debate and discuss the merits of competing ideas does not mean that individuals may say whatever they wish, wherever they wish.” He further noted that speech that violates the University’s Policy Statement on Harassment is prohibited and that the Speech and Expression Policy does not supersede professional conduct policies or HR policies. He omitted the next sentence that states, “But these are narrow exceptions to the general principle of freedom of expression, and it is vitally important that these exceptions not be used in a manner that is inconsistent with the University’s commitment to a free and open discussion of ideas.”

The dean concluded his e-mail by stating,

Georgetown Law is committed to preserving and protecting the right of free and open inquiry, deliberation, and debate. We have an equally compelling obligation to foster a campus community that is free from bias, and in which every member is treated with respect and courtesy. I am committed to continuing to strive toward both of these indispensable goals (emphasis added).

Apparently, Georgetown has equally compelling commitments to “free and open inquiry, deliberation, and debate” and “to foster a campus community that is free from bias, and in which every member is treated with respect and courtesy.” 

Combining these two commitments means that Georgetown’s policy is to provide all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn unless some members of the Georgetown community could reasonably understand what is being expressed as disparaging them or the administration finds the comments at odds with what Georgetown stands for. It means that Georgetown believes that it is not the proper role of a university to insulate individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive unless they offend some members of the Georgetown community. It means that members of the Georgetown community are free to express ideas that others find to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or ill conceived unless students or administrators deem them too offensive, unwise, immoral, or ill conceived to be permitted.

It means that Georgetown University does not have a speech and expression policy.

Editors note: Yesterday, Ilya Shapiro resigned his position at Georgetown, claiming it would be a hostile work environment wherein he was set up to fail.

Adele and the local nature of social norms

The singer Adele stoked controversy this week by appearing in a Carnival outfit, complete with Bantu knots — a style traditionally worn by people of African descent — and a bikini top with the Jamaican flag. Predictably, the Twitter mobs jumped immediately, with many in the media calling the singer out for cultural appropriation and cultural insensitivity.

Interestingly, the response from people of African descent was not uniform. Patterns emerged in the identities of her critics and defenders, with criticisms overwhelmingly coming from black Americans, while black Britons defended her outfit as an appreciation of Jamaican culture as well as a way of celebrating her birth neighborhood of Tottenham, which is home to one of the largest diasporas of African-Caribbean people in the world.

While normally I would just ignore this kind of controversy or put it down to the idiocy of the cancel culture that both the left and right engage in, I’m working through Cristina Bichierri’s The Grammar of Society (CE*) this week with my undergrads and it struck me that something more interesting was going on than first appeared.

Classical liberals can sometimes (myself included) fall into the trap of emphasizing Hayekian local knowledge in terms of economic knowledge, such as scarcity on the ground or crop conditions. But as most of us also know, there are lots of other forms of local knowledge that matter a lot too, which is why I find Bichierri’s discussion helpful. Particularly relevant here is her argument that all norms are local in nature. People use norms as heuristics to help them navigate complex social situations with some predictability, relying on the expectations they have about what others around them are doing and adapting based on reciprocal expectations about what people are or should be doing. But these norms themselves require extremely local knowledge about what people in this particular situation or this particular context are doing or expect others to do.

What’s fascinating about the internet and the cancel culture it seems to engender is that at the same time it brings people together from all over the world, it decontextualizes those people, removing them from their local situations and all the relevant facts, norms, and guideposts they used in the moment to determine what to do. Given the nature of the Internet there’s almost no way to avoid this decontextualization, the loss of local knowledge and local norms. This decontextualization makes it very likely that we will make errors about why someone behaved in a particular way.

But decontextualization is dangerous for an even more foundational reason Bichierri discusses. It doesn’t just lead us to make factually incorrect judgments about what other people are doing. It also makes it more likely that we will make a fundamental attribution error when we judge other people. People are not only calling Adele out for something that appeared to be completely appropriate in the social context in which she lives (and in fact is a sign of solidarity with the people of color in her community), but they are also jumping to conclusions about her essential nature, with anonymous users in more than one location discussing her as a “typical white woman” as though wearing bikinis of the Jamaican flag is just what we expect white women to do. One black American journalist concluded on Twitter, “this marks all of the top white women in pop as problematic”, again signaling that Adele’s behavior was not in fact a nuanced reaction to local norms during a celebration of culture but in fact a function of her essence as a white woman. Bichierri’s discussion asks us to take more seriously the way in which decontextualizing people’s behavior makes us even more likely to make these kinds of fundamental attribution errors, leading to even greater levels of polarization and cultural anger.

None of this means celebrities don’t sometimes (perhaps often!) make very stupid decisions. It also doesn’t mean we can’t praise or blame people, which would seem to be an important function in a free society where we want to avoid state coercion as much as possible. But praise and blame are most likely to be accurate and most likely to be effective when we know the people involved, have existing relationships with them, and understand the norms and general context of the situation they are reacting to. Both Bichierri’s and Hayek’s emphasis on local knowledge ask us to use caution when engaging in shaming of those we do not know, whose motivations and goals remain opaque to us. It is in effect, a call for both humility and humanity, which we could all use more of these days.

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