Hamilton Comes To Our Home

Hamilton has colonized my daughter’s fourth grade. To be a subject in the Hamilton Empire, you need to have memorized the musical’s main songs. To be a master, you need to have seen—or be about to see—the play itself. Which means, in Washington, DC, you need to be able to shell out $400/person to enjoy the three-hour experience. It is difficult to grasp how anyone can attach emancipatory politics to such an theatrical commodity whose price puts it beyond the reach of all but the very rich. 

Right now, my daughter is upstairs singing along to the songs that have been playing in a continuous loop since we bought the CD. Without having heard the actual music ever, she knew half the songs by heart. She learned them on the playground where kids sing them everyday, all recess long.

With modified words, it seems. I learned this yesterday when she asked about the seventh word in the first song: whore. We had an interesting conversation about sex work, poverty and misogyny. She then asked about the fourth word: bastard. We talked some more about misogyny and shame. These were conversations I never thought I’d be having.

“What do the teachers say when you sing about whores and bastards?” I finally asked. 

“Oh, no one sings those words,” she replied. “They replace them with others.”

I listened in for a few songs. At one point, I pointed out, “That’s dancehall style they’re singing. Remember listening to Capleton?” 

Like most people, my daughter is allergic to my pedagogical voice. She told me to shut the door so she could listen in peace. 

This morning, as we sat down to French toast, she asked, “What exactly was the American Revolution?”

I asked what she knew about colonists fighting the British Empire, and she told me. 

“That’s what we’re taught, but it’s a simplification of reality.”

“What’s a simplification?”

“It’s when you turn something that is in reality complicated into something simple.”

There I was with that pedagogical voice, “But in any society, there’s lots of struggles going on at any time, right? What were the other struggles going on in the British colonies of north America?” 

They’ve been studying this stuff for a couple years now, and she began to talk. She told me about the struggles of Native American Indian communities against the waves of white settlers. She recalled our infamous ancestor, Captain Isaac Maddeson of the Jamestown Colony, and his genocidal war against the Powhatans. She recalled the time we saw representatives of the Pamunkey and Mattaponi peoples deliver their tribute to the Governor’s House in Richmond, as they do each November, to fulfill the terms of their 1646 Treaty with the Commonwealth of Virginia. She told me about enslaved people (yes, thankfully, this corrective phrasing—and the concept behind it—are taught in her elementary school!) struggling against slaveowners and slaveowner allies. We talked about struggles between rich colonists and poor colonists, landowners and workers. 

She spoke eloquently, yet was frustrated, “But what do they have to do with the American Revolution, Baba?”

“That’s the point. The American Revolution is a simplification, making all these other complicated struggles disappear or appear irrelevant, so that people talk instead about one group of white male settlers who took up arms against their home country. But that’s what war does.”

“What does war do?”

“It gets people to forget all the struggles they know of. Instead, they talk about only one—and it might not be the most important one.” There was an awkward pause. I added, “You’ll see this soon enough.” 

“See all what?”

“See what happens when Trump starts a war. All the people you know who today think Trump is bad. Or the Republicans are corrupt and the NRA is nasty. You watch, as soon as Trump starts the next war. Most of them will say: this is no time for disagreements; now’s the time for unity; we’ve got to stand with the President, even if we didn’t vote for him, even if we oppose him. I’ve seen it happen a few times in my adult life now.”

“How many wars are there?”

“I’ve lost count.”

By now, my daughter was clearing her plates from the breakfast table. “Can I go back to my room, Baba?”


As I started washing the dishes, I could hear the strains of Hamilton coming from her room again.


Campus Free Speech, or: the Pundits' Dumping Ground

Sometimes history repeats itself, first as news, then as opinion. Last year, liberal and rightwing media reported chilling incidents of how free speech was under attack on university campuses. UC Berkeley students ‘rioted’ in February to prevent Milo Yiannopoulous from speaking. In March, Middlebury College students expressed their opposition to Charles Murray’s invitation in the most ‘uncivil’ terms. In September UC Berkeley administrators spent $600,000 to protect the free speech rights of Ben Shapiro. In that same month, my university invited Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions to give a talk in which he employed all authority of his office to denounce campus illiberalism. (See my discussion of that here).

Months passed. After Charlottesville, the news spotlight turned from campuses. Occasionally a campus-related incident occurred, but its significance was usually inconclusive. Case in point: Christina Hoff Sommers spoke on 5 March at Lewis and Clark Law School. Students shouted at her. She delivered her talk.  

While no longer a mainstay of news reporting, such events have now become editorial rocket fuel. Last year, New York Times editorial and opinion page gnawed this bone many times over. In recent weeks, they’ve picked it up again as if it were fresh.

So here they are again, condemning the supposed illiberalism of campuses again. For all their practice, they’re no wiser than they were a year ago. They seem to relish nothing more than the hypocrisy they believe to have discovered. J’accuse, they cry: If liberal arts colleges are so liberal, why are they so illiberal when it comes to views they oppose?

The same gotcha. The only thing that has changed is that a strange alliance has now congealed into a giant scab of centrists, liberals, and putatively 'thoughtful' conservatives, claiming that campus free speech rightly belongs to them. 

These events are taking place at universities and so it is understandable that many observers would dissect the merits and constraints of free speech as an issue of higher education. But still, the focus on the campus comes at the expense of many things, including an honest appraisal of public speech, rights and power in this country. By limiting the discussion of free speech to the university, our pundits are willfully drawing attention away from the broader field on which these debates and struggles are being played out. Imagining that free speech is a ‘campus problem’ is like watching only the football plays that happen between the 10-yard line and the end zone. Those might be some of the most exciting moments of a particular game, but they won’t tell you much about the sport.

Many Institutions of Public Speech

Universities sponsor a lot of public talks. But compared to the actual spectrum of public talks held at public and private institutions? Campuses are at most a sideshow.

Where I live (Washington, D.C.), there are dozens of foundations, funds, institutes, thinktanks and organizations that host public lectures every day and every week. There are public lecture series at the World Bank, the International Monetary FundThe Brookings InstitutionThe Wilson CenterThe Washington Institute for Near East PolicyThe American Enterprise InstituteThe Cato Institute to name just a few. 

Similarly, various kinds of corporations—such as RandGoldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley—commonly host speakers and organize lectures. Similarly, military and intelligence agencies—like the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, and the NSA—host public speaking events all the time. Government agencies—such as NASA and the Department of the Interior—do as well. (Seriously—look at any of these links to see how much public speaking is going on in these venues. All of it exempted from the norms governing campus speech.)

Then there are the weekly and bi-weekly sermons and talks at churches, temples and mosques. Public readings and forums at museums, bookstores, cafes and libraries. In this alone, there are hundreds of full-time booking agents and planners, hundreds of venues, and large audiences that attend public talks on any given day.

The kind of public speaking takes place at centers of financial and political power may not then be free speech in the way it is defined at universities. But then again, it usually far more consequential. Its authority—in the form of word power directly informing policy and shaping deed—is often more palpable than the kinds of campus form of free speech. More importantly, it is so powerful that its status as public speech is wholly exempted from debates about free public speech. Quite a trick. Well played. The football metaphor again: if controlling the midfield is core to the game, doing it invisibly is pure genius. 

Why the University?

Given this reality, why is the campus the focus of so much concern? The answer seems to derive, in part, from a deeply-held though unexamined conviction. People expect universities to act not just differently, but contrarily to almost all other institutions in American society. People expect universities to serve as disinterested hosts for a liberal—that is, an extremely broad and diverse—range of speakers, positions and topics. We expect that because we believe that the education process must involve experiences of hearing opinions that are different from one’s one, that these experiences stretch our thinking.

In contrast, most other institutions that sponsor public speech are maintained precisely in order to promote specific partisan, policy, commercial and ideological goals. This is true even of those institutions dedicated to promoting the public good. It would be ridiculous to expect such institutions to diversify the pool of speakers they sponsor, let alone act as disinterested hosts.

But to ask a naïve question: why is this so? The current public arguments around free speech suggest that we define free speech as speech that is not always already in the service of a predesignated end or programmatic agenda. We thus expect to find free speech only where the value of disinterest reigns. Hence the focus on the university.

The University as Dumping Ground

This point underscores an odd choice implicit in the free-speech position currently being advocated by centrists and liberals—for whom legal and moral rights and freedoms exist without reference to the power structures—financial, institutional, governmental—undergirding them.

What is odd about that choice is that, as a society, we maintain hundreds of public and private institutions that routinely sponsor public speech. At the same time, many accept the notion that only one of these—the university—should be charged with upholding disinterestedness.

Here, then, is the oddity: while accepting as normal that interest-driven institutions would host only speakers that further their interests, many also expect, as normal, the university to host varying, diverse, and often conflicting perspectives, no matter the cost.

Have we delegated this special task to the university because we believe it is so sacred, or because we believe it is so worthless? I admit I am tempted to jump to conclusions, given the ever-shrinking sources of financial support for higher education in this country and given the decades-long attack on the intellectual autonomy of the university by many of the other institutions listed above.

In other words, many seem to have decided that interest-driven institutions should be free to sponsor their own kinds of speech (and not required to include a diversity of viewpoints and arguments). And, in contrast, they have decided that the university should be required to serve as a free space for diverse viewpoints, regardless of the nature of their intellectual content or social value. The point is that in doing so, we are asking of the university something we would never ask of other institutions, even those that claim to serve the public good: to serve, like the internet, as a general dumping ground for public discourse.

Two Very Different Kinds of Free Speech

Historically, the notion of free speech on campus is rooted in an attachment to disinterest as a positive value. The university doesn’t just promote disinterested speech in teaching and research, it also—especially in the form of speakers invited from outside—promotes interested speech that takes place in a neutral forum. Such speech is valued, not necessarily with regard to its content, but rather as an ends in itself. Its value isn’t in the orientation or argument of a particular speech, but rather in the possibility that such talk occurs at all.

So what makes that free speech? Nothing but the fact that these constraints are self-imposed and the fact a university community would make this choice for the principle behind it, regardless of loss or gain. It is a very Kantian sense of freedom, one that is foreign to most Americans.

But isn’t the kind of speech that takes place at interest-driven venues also a kind of free speech? When thinktanks, corporations and government agencies promote speech, foster public forums and protect voices, they do so also on the grounds of exercising a right to free speech. However, in this case, it is not the principle of free speech in the abstract that motivates, but rather the preference for a particular kind of speech. A line of thinking that might augment profits. An analysis that supports or critiques an already existing or proposed policy. In such institutions, diversity is a positive value only when it helps to support stated goals.

For Americans, it is easier to see how this second kind of speech is free. It is the freedom to speak as one likes, and to encourage speech that one likes. The only constraints to this sense of free speech are those of will and resources.

So, if “campus free speech” is based in a notion of freedom constrained by obligation and responsibility to a collective good that transcends interest; this other kind of free speech—interested free speech—is based in a notion of freedom as unconstrained, as bound up with the pursuit of power or advantage.

We thus have two very different kinds of free speech existing in our world of public forums. On the one hand, 'normal' free speech, which is a kind of interested speech designed to further the goals of its sponsoring institution. And on the other, 'campus' free speech, which happens without respect, and perhaps contrary to, the interests of its host institution. On the one hand, free speech as metaphor for the libertarian individual—unfettered by obligation. On the other, free speech as metaphor for the social collective—bound by obligation, even when it runs counter to immediate interests.

The failing of liberal commentators lies not in their inability to recognize these different kinds of freedom. But in the asymmetry of their demands and expectations. They ask nothing—indeed, expect nothing—from the institutions of interested free speech. Meanwhile, they ask everything—indeed, expect it as natural—from the institutions of disinterested free speech.

Silence, Freedom and Power

Disinterested free speech is an extraordinary phenomenon in any era. It is not naturally occurring, especially when the pursuit of gain is held up as the highest virtue. In an era where unregulated competition favors the strong and powerful, disinterest is not just abnormal, it is also always fragile, always in peril. Without protection, it cannot be expected to survive the onslaught of rival interests.

Yet, what contemporary critics of campus illiberalism advocate is just the opposite. They seek to remove all walls that separate the campus from the "free market of ideas." But, what exactly is that "free market"? It is simply the world of interest-driven private and public institutions where they tend to work. Are those institutions run as free markets? Hardly. If anything, they resemble intellectual monopolies. 

The arbitrariness of the assault suggests that is not motivated by a concern about free, unfettered speech, but by an abhorrence toward the notion that an institution would pursue disinterest (no matter how imperfectly) rather than interested forms of knowledge. Indeed, contemporary liberal hot-takes on free speech display not just a misunderstanding of disinterest, but a disbelief that such a thing might be worth pursuing in the first place. So then, if you don't understand the principle of disinterest, why speak about campus free speech?

Because they are not in actuality concerned with the topic at all. If they sincerely desired free speech on campuses, they would speak up for it always, and not only when it aligned with their own positions. The would speak up on behalf of all campus speakers who have been attacked for the content of their speech, and not just those promoting eugenics and White supremacy. 

They would have denounced the vicious and false attacks of Campus Watch, Jihad Watch, and the David Project over the last 18 years. They would use their columns to condemn Canary Mission's slanderous black-lists that target hundreds of undergraduates—most of them people of color. They would stand up against current pro-Israel lobby efforts to write anti-BDS legislation into educational policy.

They would have defended Prof. Steven Salaita, a Native American Studies academic whose professional career was ended by a network of right-wing ideologues. They would have spoken out on behalf of Prof. George Ciccariello-Maher, the dynamic and well-regarded scholar of Latin American politics who was driven to resign from Drexel University by outside pressure and a lack of support from campus administration. They would stand now with the noted Stanford scholar, Prof. David Palumbo-Liu, as he is subjected to a McCarthyite campaign for speaking out about the danger of fascism on campus. They would shout foul every time Prof. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor of Princeton University receives a death threat. These are real cases of attacks on the free speech, reputation, and safety of campus communities. They have caused measurable—not merely potential or symbolic—injury to actual people. 

And in every case I've just listed, those liberal and conservative pundits who speak loudest about campus free speech have been consistently silent. The glaring exception to this rule is Bari Weiss, who far from being silent, once worked with lobby organizations to assault free speech at Columbia University. She has since falsely tried to claim otherwise. That conservative and liberal colleagues—such as Bret Stephens and Shadi Hamid—enthusiastically rallied around her only underscores the bankruptcy of their entire argument.

No, this debate is not about free speech. It never was. As Noah Berlatsky has argued, it’s about a group of pundits working together to promote themselves as a class. They may differ from one another on many points. Indeed, the issue of campus free speech is sometimes the only thing that binds them together.

For the time being, the university campus will remain a useful strawman for them. Punching hippy profs and snowflake students is a whole lot easier than taking on the actual behemoths of institutional public speech in our society—the thinktanks, funds, corporations and agencies. These are the biggest and loudest platforms of speech in our society, and they are anything but free. 

Don't expect our nation's pundits to criticize those kinds of institutions for their flagrant lack of diverse viewpoints: that would involve examination of their own workplace.  

Onomatopoeic Words That Imitate the Sounds of People in their Speech and Various States of Being

Al-Qahqaha echoes the qah-qah cackle of the laugher. Al-Ṣahṣaha mimics the loud, scolding ṣah-ṣah of a man hushing a crowd.

Al-Da‘da‘a sounds like what is said to someone who stumbles and falls — da‘-da‘, i.e, “Get back on your feet!”

Al-Bakhbakha imitates the bakh-bakh exclamation of a man excited by something he finds to be excellent. Al-Ta’khīkh mimics the akh-akh sound a man makes when he is moved by something he considers fine.

Al-Zahzaha copies the zah-zah interjection of the contented man. Al-Naḥnaḥa (and al-tanaḥnuḥ) imitates the slight coughing sound — naḥ-naḥ — of a man asking to be excused and the like. Al-‘Aṭ‘aṭa resembles the ‘īṭ-‘īṭ yowling of the shameless buffoon when he’s drunk or spouting nonsense.

Al-Tamaṭṭuq resembles the sound that a man, savoring his food, makes with his tongue against his soft palate. Al-Ṭa‘ṭa‘a imitates the smacking sounds made by the finger-licker when pressing his tongue to his hard palate and enjoying something tasty he has eaten.

Al-Waḥwaḥa resembles a voice with hoarseness in it.

Al-Hazhaza and al-barbara mimic the shrieking of a legion of camels in battle.

Al-Kahkaha mimics the sound that a cold person makes while blowing on their frostbitten hands.

Al-Jahjaha imitates of the cry of lions or camels. Al-Harhara resembles the bleating of flocks. Al-Basbasa mimics the cry of cats.

Al-Walwala parrots the words of a woman saying, “Wa-waylāh!" (O Woe to him!)

Al-Nabnaba mimics the yelping of the delirious man during intercourse.

—Fiqh al-lugha wa-asrār al-‘arabīya, ed. Yāsīn al-Ayūbī (Saydā’: al-Maktaba al-‘Usrīya, 2008), 240.

Concerning Onomatopoeic Words That Mimic the Sounds of the Distressed, Exhausted and Sick

Al-Aḥīḥ and al-uḥāḥ are the shriek brought out by pain or affliction. Al-Naḥīṭ is the heavy huffing noise that gives rest to the fuller as he beats clothing on rocks. Al-Hamhama is a sound that emanates from the moan of worry or sadness that quivers in the breast. Al-Zaḥīr is the groan  emitted during labor or hardship. Al-Tazaḥḥur and al-ṭaḥīr mean the same thing. Al-Nahīm is similar to al-naḥīm, which resembles the wail that gives comfort to the exhausted laborer who makes it, as in the line from the poem: What’s wrong? Why don’t you sigh, O Evening? / Don’t you know that the sigh is comfort to the cupbearer?

— Fiqh al-lugha wa-asrār al-‘arabīya, ed. Yāsīn al-Ayūbī (Saydā’: al-Maktaba al-‘Usrīya, 2008), 241.



al-Tha‘alabi: Types of Loud Noises

Types of Loud Noises

Any forceful voice is al-ṣiyāḥ (to shout, cry). Al-Ṣurākh (and al-ṣarkha) is the sharp cry that comes from fright or calamity. Close to it in meaning is al-za‘qa (shriek) and al-ṣalqa (grating cry, especially during battle). Al-Ṣakhb is the noise made during argument and quarrel.

Al-‘Ajj is the raising of the voice when one says the ritual phrase, “Here I am to serve you!” or when one invokes the name of God during slaughter. Al-Tahlīl is to raise one’s voice in saying, “There is no god but God and Muhammad is the Prophet of God.” Al-Istihlāl is the first cry of the newborn child.

Al-Zajal is to raise the voice when one is moved by music. Al-Naq‘ is the loud scream. Al-Hay‘a is the cry of fright, as in the Prophetic tradition: “The best of men is the one who holds fast the reins of his steed and the one who, when he hears the shriek of fear, flies toward it.” Al-Wā‘īya is the crying lament over the dead. Al-Na‘īr is the shouting of the victor over the vanquished.

Al-Na‘īq is the sound of the shepherd calling his flock. Al-Hadīd (and al-hadda) is the fierce noise you hear when part of a building or mountain collapses. Al-Fadīd is the farmer's throaty call to oxen or donkeys while working in the field. As mentioned in the Prophetic tradition, “Brusqueness and harshness are traits of the loud-voiced men in the field.”

Al-Ṣadīd (to laugh out loud, to raise a clamor) is another loud noise, as is al-ḍajīj (to raise a tumult), and appears in the Qur’an: When Mary’s son was given as an example, your people howled with laughter (Surat al-Zukhruf: 57), which is to say: they raised a clamor, a tumult, a ruckus. Al-Jarāhīya is the sound of people when their words are spoken publicly and openly rather than in secret and, according to Abu Zayd, is similar to al-hayḍala (the hue and cry of battle).

Fiqh al-lugha wa-asrār al-‘arabīya, ed. Yāsīn al-Ayūbī (Saydā’: al-Maktaba al-‘Usrīya, 2008), 238-9

Al-Tha‘alabi: Concerning the Sounds of Movements

Concerning the Sounds of Movements

Al-Hams is the sound of a person stirring and is mentioned in the Qur’an: All voices shall fade for the Most Merciful, and you shall hear nothing but a faint stirring (Surat Taha: 108). Similar to this is al-jars (the muted pecking of birds, the buzz of sipping bees, or the hum of a distant crowd) and al-khashfa (the rustle of creeping serpents or slinking hyenas). As the Prophet said to Bilal: Whenever I see myself entering Paradise, I hear a faint rustle, and there you are.

Very close to this in meaning are al-hamsha (susurration, said of locusts devouring provisions) and al-waqsha (a faint fluttering, like the stirring of a child in the belly). As for al-nāmma, this refers to how a person might be betrayed by their footsteps. Al-Hashasa (to rustle, susurrate) applies in general to anything with a barely perceptible sound, such as the soft treading of camels as they walk. Al-Hamīs is the sound made by the pads of camels. As in the line of poetry: They walk among us with the softest of treads.

— al-Tha‘alabi, Fiqh al-lugha wa-asrār al-‘arabīya, ed. Yāsīn al-Ayūbī (Saydā’: al-Maktaba al-‘Usrīya, 2008), 237-8.

al-Tha‘alabi: Types of Barely Perceptible Sounds

Happy "Friday Word List" from al-Tha‘alabi's Fiqh al-lugha wa-asrār al-‘arabīya (Fundamentals of Language and the Secrets of Arabic). 

Types of Barely Perceptible Sounds

Among the almost imperceptible sounds are al-rizz (a sharp rumbling of the belly), then al-rikz (a slight, far-off cry, such as the voice of hunter calling his dogs), which is mentioned in the Qur’an: And how many generations before them have We destroyed! Can you (Muhammad) see any one of them? Can you hear from them the slightest of sounds? (Surat Maryam: 98).

Then there is al-hatmala (to murmur to oneself) which is softer than the tones made when whispering into someone's ear. Then there is al-haynama (to mumble-read), which is like reading aloud, only unclearly so. As the poet Al-Kumayt ibn Zayd al-Asadi put it: Whenever I’ve witnessed foolish speech, it was spoken by men who murmured and mumbled.

Then there is al-dandana, which is when a person speaks and you can discern its prosody but understand nothing of the words because that person is hiding them from you. This appears in the hadīth: As for your mumblings and those of Mu‘ādh, we understand them not.

Then, al-naghm, which is the ringing of speech and the beauty of its sound. Then there is al-nab’a, which is a soft sound. Finally, there is al-na’ma (to sigh or moan), which is a very slight sound.

Fiqh al-lugha wa-asrār al-‘arabīya, ed. Yāsīn al-Ayūbī (Saydā’: al-Maktaba al-‘Usrīya, 2008), p. 237.

al-Tha‘alabi: Types of Intoxication

The prolific anthologist ‘Abd al-Mansūr ‘Abd al-Malik ibn Muammad al-Tha‘alabi (961-1038) was the author of the encyclopedic lexicon, Fiqh al-lugha wa-asrār al-‘arabīya (Fundamentals of Language and the Secrets of Arabic). In this original work, al-Tha‘alabi organizes vocabulary according to remarkably subtle distinctions. To honor the drinking you may do in the coming days, let's us turn to his lexicon of drunkenness:

Types of Intoxication

When a person drinks, he becomes nashwān (giddy, elated). If drink overcomes the person, then he becomes thamil (buzzed). If it reaches the point where punishment is merited, then he is sakrān (inebriated). If he goes on drinking his fill, then he is sakran ṭāfiḥ (completely drunk). If he is unable to control himself or keep himself together, he is multakhkh (shit-faced). If he is unaware of his surroundings and unable to move his tongue, he is sakrān bāt, which is to say, an inarticulate drunk.

— Fiqh al-lugha wa-asrār al-‘arabīya, ed. Yāsīn al-Ayūbī (Saydā’: al-Maktaba al-‘Usrīya, 2008), p. 298.


al-Tha‘alabi: Types of Sleep

The prolific anthologist ‘Abd al-Mansūr ‘Abd al-Malik ibn Muhammad al-Tha‘alabi (961-1038) was the author of the encyclopedic lexicon, Fiqh al-lugha wa-asrār al-‘arabīya (Fundamentals of Language and the Secrets of Arabic). In this original work, al-Tha‘alabi organizes vocabulary according to remarkably subtle distinctions. 

To honor the long nights of the present season, let us begin with sleep.

Types of Sleep

The first stage of sleep is al-nu‘ās (drowsiness), which is when a person needs to sleep. Then comes al-wasan (nodding off), which is when the drowsiness becomes heavy. Then comes al-tarnīq (dimming), which is when the drowsiness makes the eyes begin to shut. Then come al-kurā and al-ghumḍ, which is when a person is between sleeping and waking. Then comes al-taghfīq, which is the kind of sleep when you hear people talking (this by way of al-Aṣma‘ī). Then comes al-ighfā’, which is light rest. Then comes al-tahwīn, al-ghirār and al-tahjā‘, which is a short kind of sleep. Then al-ruqād, which is a long sleep. Then al-hujūd, al-hujū‘, and al-hubū‘, which are forms of deep slumber. Finally there is al-tasbīkh, the soundest form of slumber.

Fiqh al-lugha wa-asrār al-‘arabīya, ed. Yāsīn al-Ayūbī (Saydā’: al-Maktaba al-‘Usrīya, 2008), p. 205.

Hint: It's Not Really About Free Speech.

Here we go again, shouting at each other about free speech and the university. For all our yelling about speech, and our insistence on rights and principles, it means little unless we’re also willing to reckon with institution and symmetry. Otherwise, we might as well just hold our breath.

Take yesterday, for example. Georgetown University (where I teach) invited Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions to lecture us on free speech. Sessions championed the noble idea that opinion and expression should not be censored. Insisting that a strong and healthy society is one that does not restrain unpopular speech, Sessions claimed, “Freedom of thought and speech on American campus are under attack. The American university was once the center of academic freedom, a place of robust debate, a forum for the competition of ideas. But it is transforming into an echo chamber of political correctness and homogeneous thought, a shelter for fragile egos.”

Conservative commentators applauded Sessions as he stuck it to the (liberal establishment) Man. No surprise, for decades they have been claiming that free speech is under attack, particularly at universities. As someone who grew up in a conservative community, I understand this language and see how it resonates. But as someone who now works in higher education, I have to say that this view is based in a very poor understanding of what universities are.

Because ideas and deliberation are so central to the institutional mission of universities, they have historically made it a priority to host a very wide range of people who might fairly be called "experts." This includes scholars and scientists, of course, but also practitioners, officials, leaders, writers, athletes, entrepreneurs, poets, and artists. Is there any other contemporary institution so willing to acknowledge and promote such a range of knowledge? I doubt it. 

At the same time, universities are more than soapboxes. Unlike Hyde Park, we engage in scientific research and teaching and here the value of scholarly debate—and evidence—reigns supreme. Whether or not universities always live up these ideals, they form the ethical core of the place. And because of that, the university is usually (but not always) poor soil for ideas which fail to pass scientific and scholarly review. It has little to do with popularity. White supremacist explanations of the world used to be quite popular at universities. Same with male chauvinism, homophobia, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Now, these explanations melt like snowflakes in a warm classroom. Why? Years of informed counter-arguments produced by new generations of researchers. Note: this doesn’t mean racism and sexism have disappeared from campuses, only that their old intellectual foundations are now broadly and routinely questioned.  

Somehow, all this is lost not just on conservatives but also on some liberals who, looking for balance, have a hard time seeing the demands of right-wing free-speech warriors for what they are. While excoriating Sessions this week, Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan bent over backwards to concede that the right-wing is right on one point. “It’s wrong,” she wrote, “When far-right pundits are prevented from speaking on campuses because of liberal protests run amok — as has happened at universities in California, Vermont and elsewhere.”

Sullivan went on to highlight Sessions’ hypocrisy on the subject and the fact that Sessions’ talk took place in a safe space purged of protesters. Nonetheless, Sullivan demanded that universities play a particular role in American society and play it in particular way.

This is the moment where we need to inject the notion of symmetry into the debate. Or rather asymmetry. Why are we acting like universities are the only kind of institution where public speech takes place? I live in Washington, D.C. which is home to many very talky institutions besides universities. Just try to count the number of foundations, funds, institutes, think-tanks and organizations that host public lectures every day. Similarly, corporations routinely host speakers and mount lectures as so do military and intelligence agencies. Add to this all the sermons and talks at churches, temples and mosques. That’s a lot of events and booking agents, but who in this town is worried about empty lecterns? There are enough think-hatcheries and consulting firms to keep the streams of public speech stocked forever.

Which brings me to my point: if we were to count the number of public lectures­ that take place in the District during any given week, we would find that universities are certainly not the leading institutional site of public talks. So let's apply our principles to the entire spectrum of talky institutions. For instance, let's ask the Washington Institute for Near East Policy to host a talk by Iraq Veterans Against War.  Let's demand that the American Petroleum Institute convene a panel of Lakota Nation leaders to talk about tribal sovereignty. Let's make HUD invite public housing activists to give a briefing on the community effects of privatization. 

 All of this underscores the great assymetry in our conversation. Why are we talking only about universities? Why aren’t we insisting that Citicorp, for instance, invite Naomi Klein to speak at its next corporate retreat? Is it because we think boards of directors deserve more safe space than teenage students? And why are we so hung up on liberal universities? Why aren't we asking Liberty University why it has blackballed Noam Chomsky from speaking? Or is it that, unlike liberal universities, Christian colleges and corporations are immune to the dangers of echo chamber life?

We know the answer to these questions: this conversation is not really about free speech at the university. Instead, it is about the frustration the far right feels that its ideas are not taken seriously by mainstream research communities. For their part, liberal allies who talk about balance need to apply that same sense of balance to all the other institutions of public speech. 

Free-speech absolutists are welcome to continue their targeting of universities, but they should realize that the primary purpose of a university is not speech for its own sake, but rather speech that is knowledgeable, testable and informed. If free-speech activists want to be taken seriously on campuses, they should do what people do at universities: study and conduct research. Everything else is just talk—and has no intrinsic right to university platforms.