Five Questions for Erik Bleich

Categories: Faculty, Five Questions

This week we talk with Erik Bleich, Professor of Political Science. For the record, we do not have any moles…just squirrels.

1. You recently published The Freedom to Be Racist? How the United States and Europe Struggle to Preserve Freedom and Combat Racism (Oxford University Press, 2011). Your book “starts from the premise that liberal democratic citizens love freedom and hate racism, but have a difficult time deciding what to do when those values collide.” In fewer than 224 pages, can you summarize how societies can preserve freedom while combating racism?

One main point of the book is that we have to view both protecting freedom and fighting racism as truly important values—neither trumps the other in all circumstances. Almost all of us reject the “free speech absolutist” position that anyone should be allowed to say anything racist at any time, and nobody wants to live in a country that forbids all racist statements. In fact, there are some instances where we view fighting racism as crucial (we don’t allow aggressive racist speech among members of the Middlebury College community), and others where we have decided that protecting freedom is more important than curbing harmful racism (such as when the Supreme Court permitted neo-Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois, in a famous 1978 case). It helps to start by recognizing that we are engaged in a delicate balancing act between two vitally important values, and that working out the best way to balance them takes some thought and effort.

2. Where do you think the line between free speech and racist speech lies?

This is the $64,000 question. I think we have to look closely at the harm that racist speech can cause. Unlike some, I am not a fan of banning racist speech because it is offensive. Feeling offended is real, but it is subjective. If you’re going to call the police and ask the courts to punish someone, the harm has to be greater than that. It might involve a measurable trauma for the individual victim, such as a physiological response to harassment or threat. This type of harm is, in fact, punished in all liberal democracies. It might also involve a likelihood that the public statement drives a wedge between groups and stirs up hatred against one particular group. Most countries outside of the United States also have workable laws against these kinds of harms. We do not. Why are Americans so attached to protecting harmful racist speech?

3. Racism can be a difficult and uncomfortable issue to discuss in class. How do you create an environment in which students are willing to talk about it?

This can be a real challenge, but I think it is incredibly helpful to make sure the students get to know each other as quickly as possible. The better you know the person you disagree with (at least in a classroom), the easier it is to see him as “Tom” as opposed to “that racist guy.” In most cases, Tom is not actually a racist, but has had some experiences that have to be understood for everyone else to grasp his perspective—and his perspective is usually really valuable. Students will definitely have disagreements when discussing race and racism, but if they know each other, they can disagree with each others’ ideas without becoming personal or acrimonious.

4. If you could live under any political system (besides democracy), what would you choose?

Ha! Now I know you have a mole, since this is a question I ask my students in Introduction to Comparative Politics! Of course, I also ask them to develop an ad campaign to convince their fellow students to come over to their non-democratic regime. I’m glad you’re not holding me to the same standard. My own preference would be for a benevolent dictatorship run by a wise philosopher-king. Spearsistan?

5. If you had one free hour every day to do whatever you want, what would you do?

Last year, a couple of young people wandering the streets of Middlebury pulled me aside as I was running somewhere in town. They put a microphone in my face and pointed a camera in my direction and said: What do you love more than anything else in the world? I panicked and had one of those life-flashes-before-your-eyes moments where all the good things I’ve ever experienced practically overwhelmed me. Then it hit me. Playing with my kids. And I’m really lucky, because I get to do that for at least an hour every single day.

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