Scientist Steven Benner was one of the student signatories to Yale University’s 1975 Woodward Report, which articulated the university’s commitment to free expression. Amid recent controversies over free speech on the Ivy League campus, that report is being revisited. Earlier this month, Benner addressed what the Woodward Report means for today’s Yale students in a Yale Daily News op-ed.
“Censorship is the exercise of power by the empowered,” he wrote. “Free speech is how the disempowered become empowered.”
When I talked to Benner on a recent morning, he expounded on the ideas in his Daily News op-ed, discussed his reliance on free speech as a scientist, and provided FIRE with his take on a troubling cultural shift underway at Yale.
Steven Benner is a research scientist credited with pioneering entire scientific fields.
Dynamic combinatorial chemistry? He invented it. Synthetic biology? His lab, The Benner Group, was among the first to work in that field. Paleomolecular biology? Evolutionary bioinformatics? Both Steven Benner productions.
He spends his days running a nonprofit research foundation and several biotech companies. He’s got his hand in quite a few beakers. Molecular diagnostics—particularly detecting infectious agents—is what pays the bills. His work is being used in diagnostic tools that detect bacteria and pathogens as diverse as HIV and Ebola. And when the confines of Earth prove too limiting for Benner, he’s also making advances in astrobiology, discovering the origins of life in the solar system. His laboratory is working to define how life would look on Mars.
Benner credits for his many innovations a rather surprising phenomenon: a culture that values freedom of speech.
Without it, he said, we might never hear the kinds of controversial ideas that advance society.
“Free speech is one of these things that’s not a universal value,” he said. “But it is deep in the American culture.”
That culture is threatened by recent events at Yale University, one of the world’s premier institutions of higher education, at which students demanding “safe spaces” for their emotions have called for censorship to secure them. In some cases, these students have gone so far as to characterize ideas that subjectively offend them as literal acts of violence.
The result is what Benner characterizes as the demotion of free speech from the core cultural value that leads to the pursuit of truth, to somewhere subordinate to concerns about offending others.
“At Yale, we have gotten in the situation where the culture is such that everybody says it’s important to prevent offense and to give ‘safe spaces,’” Benner said. “What you’re saying, then, is the culture is no longer capable of generating intellectual, scientific, or cultural advances.”
“Some sort of civil society”
Benner worries aloud about being “a relativist” when he compares today’s campus climate to his time as a Yale undergrad, studying molecular biophysics and biochemistry. When he was there in 1974, students were shouting down speakers on campus. The most famous of these “disinvitations” targeted a debate featuring Nobel Prize-winning physicist William Shockley, who drew ire from students for his ideas about the intellectual inferiority of certain racial groups.
Benner jokes that Shockley “demonstrated the principle that all Nobel Prize winners should have their tongues cut out.”
The first of two Shockley-headlined debates was cancelled in February of that year. The second was disrupted by students. As recounted by Yale Alumni Magazine, national criticism of the shout-down prompted Yale’s then-president Kingman Brewster, Jr. to form a committee to address freedom of expression. The committee was led by American historian C. Vann Woodward, and Yale’s student government selected Benner as one of two undergraduates to serve on the committee.
Benner said that while he was the stereotypical science student, holed up in a lab trying “to get laboratory experiments to work,” he was pretty active on campus. “I had been on the Yale Debate Team and I had been in the Yale Political Union,” he said. “[That] got me out of the lab and into some sort of civil society.”
But Benner said it was “the Woodward thing that got me really motivated. After that I became speaker of the Yale Political Union.”
Social justice writ small
In Benner’s view, the climate at Yale today, where students protested over Halloween costumes, is “surreal.”
“In the 1970s, there was the Vietnam War that was just winding down that killed 55,000 Americans; the Black Panthers had come to New Haven and spoken on Yale’s campus, urging students to go out and kill policemen,” he said. “There had been all sorts of discussions, but these were of course at the level of big politics. Peace, racial justice writ large, civil violence and unrest. What goes on in New Haven today doesn’t seem to be about an issue of the same magnitude.”
Social justice writ small. No bigger than a microaggression.
Benner has followed reports about the current situation at Yale. We’ve covered it extensively here on The Torch: Earlier this semester, students demanded the resignation of the husband-and-wife masters of Yale’s Silliman College dormitory after the wife, lecturer Erika Christakis, wrote an email questioning whether Yale’s request that students not wear potentially offensive Halloween costumes was respectful of students’ autonomy and free speech rights.
As FIRE’s Haley Hudler wrote for The Torch in early November:
The response to Christakis’ email was explosive. More than 740 Yale undergraduates, graduate students, alumni, faculty, and even students from other universities signed on to an open letter telling Christakis that her “offensive” email invalidates the voices of minority students on campus.
The next week, students surrounded the husband, Yale professor Nicholas Christakis, in Silliman’s courtyard and screamed at him when he urged open discussion on the matter. The students made it clear that any discussion that expressed disagreement with their views—or even questioned them—was itself an “act of violence.” Video shot by FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff, who was on campus (coincidentally) to give a long-planned talk on free speech, went viral.
FIRE’s coverage referenced the Woodward Report:
Recall that Yale is the source of one of the most glowing statements in support of free expression in higher education. The statement, based on the university’s 1975 Woodward Report, demonstrates the need to be free to “think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable.” It even goes so far as to inform Yale students that “when you agree to matriculate, you join a community where ‘the provocative, the disturbing, and the unorthodox’ must be tolerated. When you encounter people who think differently than you do, you will be expected to honor their free expression, even when what they have to say seems wrong or offensive to you.”
FIRE has made it clear that students are well within their rights, and encouraged, to call attention to the issues they care most about. However, when student activists begin to demand censoring or punishing those who hold opposing viewpoints on campus, the free speech rights of others are threatened.
Benner said the current zeitgeist at Yale is most troubling because it reflects a cultural shift that prizes protection from offense as the ultimate cultural value. It’s a development, Benner argued, that transports today’s best and brightest students back 500 years, to a time that pre-dates the Enlightenment.
“Every idea that can be expressed will be offensive to someone”
Benner reminded me that the intellectual revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries already “figured this out,” that free speech was the path to truth.
“Columbus had discovered America, and there was all of the sudden new continents, and new animals. [People] realized Noah’s Ark could not have possibly fit all the new animals they were discovering in the Americas and around the world onto an ark whose dimensions had been specified by the Bible.”
The fallout from those who challenged these generally accepted ideas led to the Reformation, the Thirty Years’ War, and the Treaty of Westphalia.
“It was this whole mess as people discovered what they thought they knew, they did not actually know. And so the question was raised: How do you go about deciding when the experts are wrong? And the answer to that was, you have it out,” Benner said. “And you would get pushback, but the Enlightenment said, ‘Never mind, we’re going to insist that the discussion take place in free and open discourse without having any threats coming from political power or retribution if you spoke out.’”
“The result is that the Enlightenment hopes that by having this free exchange of ideas, you end up having truth coming out.”
Benner said the key principle—one he has seen tested numerous times as a scientist—is that society’s experts may be wrong. Only challenging those experts leads to uncovering the truth.
“Every idea that can be expressed will be offensive to someone. And the more different it is from established cultural orthodoxy, the more offensive it will likely be,” he said. “If you say, ‘Speech that is offensive should be suppressed,’ you are going to suppress everything that is likely to jar cultural orthodoxy.”
Benner has “lots and lots of examples of this” process having lead to societal advancements. From Copernicus and Galileo, who disagreed with experts who said the sun revolved around the Earth, to a more modern example: peptic ulcers.
“25 years ago people knew ulcers were caused by spicy foods and stress. But they’re not. They’re caused by a bacterial infection in your stomach. But 97 percent of the people who were in gastroenterology [at the time] accepted the notion that spicy foods and stress caused ulcer.”
Only through the principle of “liberal science”—an idea described by author and FIRE friend Jonathan Rauch in his 1993 book Kindly Inquisitors— allowing all ideas to be expressed and checked, can we most accurately understand reality.
“We don’t know when offensive ideas are expressed, which ones of them contain the kernel or gem or potential for future productive revolution. And you can make the argument that probably, most of them do not,” he said. “But the facts are that you cannot distinguish beforehand which offensive ideas are going to lead to major scientific or sociological advances. And if you let people suppress ideas they find offensive, then you will deprive yourself and the society of the discourse that is the only way that we know of to get those advances.”
Censorship: bringing “civilizational advance to a halt”
That, as Benner said, is perhaps the most frustrating thing about the request to censor speech: even the censors suffer.
“Once you have the power structure to suppress something that’s offensive, that power structure will be used to eventually bring all civilizational advance to a halt,” because someone will always be offended. “This, therefore, requires that deep in the culture be the understanding that you don’t suppress anybody for saying anything.”
He also scoffed at the idea “that somehow, the act of suppression [is] doing something good for somebody.”
“That’s why this is surreal. I’ve heard this argument made many times. That is, that censorship and the power of the people who are good of heart and clear of mind will do good. And that’s just not historically valid. It’s not even logically valid,” he said. “Yet here you are where you have people arguing at Yale that if you just keep censoring the co-masters of Silliman College, something good will happen.”
Benner proposed a recommitment to two ideals articulated 40 years ago in the Woodward report:
First, he said, “[t]he Enlightenment culture, and the Woodward Report’s expression of it, starts with the idea that it’s important to know what the truth is. And that’s more important than avoiding offense. The second thing it requires is an understanding of how truth emerges, and that it does not emerge by letting people in power censor ideas that are, for any reason, found to be offensive.”
He said that message needs to come from Yale’s president.
“I haven’t seen anything coming out of the Yale administration which makes that statement, as an educational point, clear to the students who clearly need to have instruction about what liberal education is and how ideas are created and how free discourse leads to those. That’s a disappointment.”
Benner argued that the message that “censorship is bad because it doesn’t help the censors, along with the rest of society … should not be coming from the co-masters of Silliman. If it has to come from the co-masters of Silliman, the university is not taking an active role in educating the students about the importance of discourse in the discovery of knowledge.”
Students at Yale may have signed up for a liberal education, Benner said, but at this point, that’s not what they’re getting.
“It’s not just a lot of facts and figures about history and cultures,” he said. Instead, a liberal education “is that you understand how ideas develop. That you understand that ideas that are important always start off as offensive.”