Conservative Dissidents: A Case Study in What the Left Can Learn About the Right’s Views on Free Speech

The campus of Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Recently, news broke that Indiana University professor of business economics and public policy Eric Rasmusen used social media accounts to denigrate women, people of color, and gay men. Among other positions, he believes that women do not belong in the workplace, particularly academia; that gay men should not be permitted in academia either, because he believes they are promiscuous and unable to avoid abusing students; and that he believes Black students are generally unqualified to attend elite institutions, and are generally inferior academically to white students.

Nobody approves of Rasmusen’s actions, but IU Provost Lauren Robel says that, though his views are abhorrent, Rasmusen will not be fired due to First Amendment protection as he has shown no evidence that his beliefs have influenced his conduct in the classroom. Instead, other actions will be taken to ensure students will be protected, including requiring double blind grading and not requiring any student to take a course taught by the professor.

Now I bring up this case because it’s a pretty interesting case study in how right wing propaganda spreads quickly through the internet. Rasmusen already posted an essay on his personal web site asserting the university is overreacting and that he is being persecuted as a “dissident professor.” I could go through and refute his points one by one, but they’re much of the same old prejudiced views repeated uncited, without any evidence.

But the reaction to Rasmusen does highlight cracks in the current conservative Free Speech debate some liberals have embraced. Let’s look at just a few of them:

The idea that beliefs can be separated from behaviors, attitudes, and actions. Robel asserts, and Rasmusen agrees, that a person’s beliefs can be separated from their actions. So, a person can hold a belief that Black people aren’t intelligent enough for university or that gay men are predators by nature but not let that affect how people are treated as students or colleagues.

The problem is that our beliefs do not live in isolation. What we believe to be true is part of a system of thinking that, even if we don’t act consciously on it, shapes our attitudes. Can a university professor who believes Black people aren’t intelligent really look at a Black student in their class and grade them fairly when, a priori, they have judged the student to be inferior to the white students?

So, either, deep down, Rasmusen doesn’t really believe his bigoted beliefs and he is actually treating his students fairly, or else no one except for cisgender straight white men are truly safe in his class.

The idea that holding bigoted beliefs makes one a dissident. There’s a desire to be a hero behind this one. We all like the underdog who “sticks it to the man,” challenging the status quo and fighting the system. Conservatives use this trick all the time, painting themselves as fighters for freedom, battling forces that want to silence their voices.

This line of argument is ironic coming from a professor in rural southern Indiana, only an hour or so from Mike Pence’s hometown, where the number of people who hold such racist, sexist, and homophobic beliefs are in the majority. Diverse people from all over the world come to IU because it is a world-class university with a reputation for excellence in education and diversity in the classroom, but it is still located in the heart of a state that has only gone to a Democrat in a presidential election once since Lyndon B. Johnson.

So, for Rasmusen to claim to be a dissident is to claim to be fighting against an unjust system. It’s hard to be a dissident, though, when one’s beliefs are the status quo where one lives. I grew up in southern Indiana and saw such beliefs parroted throughout my life. Rasmusen isn’t fighting for his right to speak; his actions are an attempt to ensure continued dominance of a set of beliefs that has limited certain people, namely women, Black people, and gay men, from breaking into the system in the first place.

Times are changing, and that means Rasmusen’s ideas are falling out of vogue with much of American thought. And that, to paraphrase journalist P.E. Moskowitz, pisses off those who preferred the previous story, the previous set of beliefs, that was told, even if it was bigoted. It doesn’t matter how wrong the story you are telling is; if you can paint yourself as a dissident, a free speech warrior, you are given credibility in many circles and free reign to speak.

I suppose Rasmusen would argue that he is a dissident in the university system, not the system at large, but even this is dishonest. The provost has made is clear she is not going to fire him no matter how problematic his beliefs are, and it’s hard to argue in good faith that the actions she is taking are suppressing his free speech. What Rasmusen is doing isn’t dissident activity, opposing official policy or action; it’s voicing old, tired cliches and prejudiced beliefs while hiding from criticism behind the veil of free speech.

This brings me to the next point.

Criticism of speech is tantamount to suppression of speech. This is a trick that aims to show that, by criticizing unpopular views, a person is actually suppressing or censoring those beliefs. Rasmusen does it here not directly, but indirectly by implying that the provost is overreacting and painting his critics as attacking him.

In fact, Rasmusen doesn’t refute a single word his critics say, but, by painting them as attempting to limit his free speech, he calls their moral character into question and distracts from an actual debate of his ideas. Yes, it’s a logical fallacy, an ad hominem, but it’s one that works surprisingly well as people fall for it all the time. Just think of all the people who are convinced not to look at criticism of our current president because of his attacks on the integrity and credibility of journalists!

This is a favorite tactic in the current free speech debate: if you can get your audience talking about free speech suppression by painting reasonable criticism as censorship, you have already won, at least in your supporters’ eyes. You will also be able to bring liberals to your defense who see free speech as absolute and convince them to do a lot of the heavy lifting for you as they divide the left with fake fights. You don’t need to cite facts when your side of the argument is busy distracting from what the point was in the first place.

I could go on, but I will touch on one more point in this article.

Hiding behind the concept of free speech. All my other points have really been dancing around this one: that free speech demands unrestricted access from all views, that we must respect all manners of hateful and bigoted speech, no matter how vile and oppressive. The idea here is that Rasmusen deserves to air his views not because we like them, but because we can’t ban any views for fear of a slippery slope that would also suppress legitimate views.

The problem is that free speech is never an absolute. I doubt that, in the halls of Indiana University, or most other colleges for that matter, you will find biology professors teaching intelligent design; geography or geological professors who believe the earth is flat; professors of medicine who are anti-vaxers; or history professors who deny the Holocaust. Universities have made conscious decisions that these views are not only wrong, but can be actively harmful to a student’s learning, not because they are suppressing free speech, but because the current accept evidence tells us so.

So, when I say that Rasmusen is racist, sexist, and homophobic, I am not suppressing his right to free speech, but I am passing a value judgment on his beliefs based both on my personal experience and the mountains of evidence that contradict his views.

Free speech means that you have the right, without government interference, to express your views. It does not mean you have the right to have your views affirmed as legitimate, nor that you are free from the consequences of holding views that actively promote harm towards traditionally marginalized people.

I could go on and on, but this really shows how the IU/Rasmusen controversy really highlights the intent behind the right’s vigorous defense of free speech: not to value all points of view but to ensure their own problematic and, in many cases, unpopular views do not disappear from the public eye. It puts pressure on leftists and liberals to give platforms to even the most heinous views or risk being called hypocrites and authoritarians.

What an analysis really shows, though, is that Rasmusen and other conservatives are really concerned about appearing to be persecuted dissidents in order to maintain hegemony. It’s all about power: dominant culture is slowly losing it and, as marginalized people enter more and more spaces traditionally inhabited by cisgender straight white men, propagating views on the inferiority of those people limits the amount of power they are able to wield.

Robel may be right that the current court system and interpretation of the First Amendment may prevent Rasmusen from being fired, but freedom of speech does not protect his views from being questioned, nor does it protect vulnerable students and faculty members from abuses they may suffer. Kudos to Robel for swift action, but I fear it may not be enough, especially for those who may already have suffered harm from Rasmusen’s beliefs.

What is needed isn’t an affirmation of absolute free speech; it’s a debate on the limits of free speech and a recognition that, anytime we allow one belief in, we are excluding another. When Rasmusen says he thinks Black people are less intelligent, he is making a value judgment that excludes Black students at IU. He is not a dissident or a martyr for this belief; he is a bigot.

If our belief is that the First Amendment was intended to protect beliefs like those of Rasmusen, then we must also conclude that it was designed to exclude anyone who falls outside the dominant class in our system. If, however, we believe that marginalized folks deserve liberation and that our system should be smashed if it can’t provide that, then we must be ready to assert that Rasmusen is no hero or martyr, but, rather, upholding an old system of dominance and supremacy that is ready to crumble.

Unitarian Universalist minister, public theologian, radical leftist thinker, unapologetic geek, and beagle mommy. 🌹 🏳️‍🌈 they/them

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