Have you heard the one about Milo Yiannopoulos’ “Free Speech Week” at UC Berkeley?
Maybe you’ve heard the story from the liberal point of view: far-right provocateur Milo got what he deserved when his much-touted celebration of controversy fizzled out rather than causing chaos.
Or maybe you’ve heard the conservative version: college students proved once again that the left is not so tolerant by pushing to cancel the speaker series.
I can’t help but feel that between these two takes, our national discussion of freedom of expression has lost sight of the point that really matters: the purpose of speaking out in the first place.
Over the past few years, the topic of free speech on college campuses has surged to the forefront of our public consciousness, as conservative speakers have been repeatedly prevented from speaking by student protesters — sometimes through violence.
Allow me to clear something up before I go on: denying others the right to speak, especially through use of force, is morally wrong and toxic to political debate — even if the views at issue are repulsive.
But all the outrage over the question of what speech we should allow has obscured the fundamental question of what speech we should be elevating in the first place.
Many of the speaker clashes over the past year have centered around speakers, such as Ann Coulter and Yiannopoulos, who specialize more in conspiracy-peddling and deliberately outrageous statements than in serious political or social analysis. In the latest such incident, Columbia University College Republicans invited Mike Cernovich — noted far-right conspiracy theorist and proponent of the idea (among many others) that “diversity is code for white genocide” — to speak on campus this fall.
Such speakers’ repugnant views should not be used to deny them the opportunity to speak once they have been invited. But the fact that ostensibly mainstream, legitimate associations like College Republicans would even consider providing these characters with a megaphone ought to raise eyebrows — and in the clamor over free speech, it seems to have been taken for granted.
Why are student groups inviting these speakers, who could be categorized as ridiculous at best and downright vile at worst, to take the stage and propagate their views? Are the Cernoviches and Yiannopouloses of the world truly the best representatives of modern American conservatism?
Why are student groups inviting these speakers, who could be categorized as ridiculous at best and downright vile at worst, to take the stage and propagate their views? Are the Cernoviches and Yiannopouloses of the world truly the best representatives of modern American conservatism? No, they should not be forcibly prevented from speaking. But why are we inviting them to speak, as if they aren’t clowns with sensationalist, bigoted views, in the first place?
That’s not to say that liberals are blameless in these crises. On college campuses and in Palo Alto alike, it is all too easy for us to believe that justice comes from drowning conservatives out, rather than persuading them to see things our way.
But we can’t afford to confuse mainstream conservative voices — those we ought to listen to, challenge and debate — with those who should never be debated in the first place. Some ideas deserve to be relegated to the shadows, not given a platform.
To debate, for example, whether women should have the right to vote (à la Coulter) is to legitimize the idea that they shouldn’t. To draw the vilest fringes of our political spectrum into the spotlight, even under the guise of free speech, is to position them as the new normal, to accept their views as a healthy part of our political dialogue.
To draw the vilest fringes of our political spectrum into the spotlight, even under the guise of free speech, is to position them as the new normal, to accept their views as a healthy part of our political dialogue.
Perhaps equally frightening, it allows them to claim the mantle of a once-reasonable political party — to become the new, radical face of the GOP, at a moment when we desperately need cool heads and rationality on that side of the aisle.
Please, conservatives, give us a rigorous debate. But let that debate come from those who are reasonable and well-meaning, not from those who thrive off of 1930s-brand hatred. And keep in mind that those to whom you provide a platform will eventually come to represent you, whether you agree with them or not. v