Estrich: Pink slips not way to encourage honest dialogue

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Susan Estrich is a professor of law and political science at the University of Southern California and a Creators Syndicate columnist. Reach her at info@creators.com.

The thing about free speech is how often it’s just plain wrong — wrongheaded, factually wrong, deceitful, even. That’s always been true.

And there have always been two schools of thought about what you do about it. One is that you pronounce yourself, or like-minded others, to be the ruler of the universe, and you only allow people to say, write and broadcast what you agree with.

Those who don’t are vilified and punished; they lose their jobs and their reputations.

When this happens in other countries, we call it totalitarianism. Dictatorship. Censorship.

Lately, when it happens here, we call it Tuesday. That’s how often, how routine it’s become — at universities, at private companies, big and small. No need to name names.

With classes starting soon, professors are being warned that our lectures might be recorded and, if we say something “impolitic,” released to the world.

I remember all those years teaching criminal-law classes: Whenever I first introduced the topic of rape, I would vigorously take the side of the rapist to ensure all sides were presented. What would happen to me today? Would I be punished for not giving trigger warnings before I told my own story? Or for taking the “wrong” side in the debate? How lucky that I’m on leave.

Of course, our Founding Fathers had a different idea. They knew the danger of punishing speech because you disagree with it. They understood that the answer to speech that is wrong, wrongheaded, hateful or unpatriotic (not to mention unscientific) is not less speech but more speech; not censorship but an open market of ideas; not dictatorship but democracy.

I am not talking about speech that incites violence, speech that preaches hatred and killing, speech that poses a clear and present danger.

I’m talking about speech that raises questions that we only talk about in private for fear that someone’s head will be chopped off.

Silencing the conversation

When Harvard President Lawrence Summers — a great mind, love him or hate him — wondered whether there might be some biological explanation for the underrepresentation of women in math and science, he was, very soon thereafter, no longer president of Harvard.

But guess what? The problem did not disappear. Firing Larry Summers did not open up the floodgates for women. It just shut down the debate.

A whole lot of good that did.

Worse than no good. If you want to trigger backlash, if you want to leave people thinking precisely what you don’t want them to think, shut down the debate. Tell them they have no right to think that. Meet their argument not with a counter-argument but with a delete key and a pink slip.

As if that will further understanding. As if that will make things better. As if that will encourage open and honest dialogue.

Not that I blame the supervisors who quake when they see such posts. Leave them unanswered and, whoosh, you’re vulnerable to accusations that you’ve tolerated, if not created, a hostile environment for women, or for men, or for someone.

Maybe the reason that there aren’t more women in those engineering jobs is because women have more important, if less lucrative, things to do. But we’ll never know if we can’t even talk about it.