Around six months ago, I attended a conference in Philadelphia regarding free speech rights on college campuses. By a stroke of luck, I happened to run into an NYU New York student who studied in Shanghai for a year. I asked her how the Shanghai and New York campuses compared with regards to free expression, and her response was interesting, to say the least. Her blog post on the subject offers the most detailed account of her views, but in short, she noted that Shanghai seemed more open to diverse viewpoints while the New York campus had gotten into a habit of sometimes stifling speech. The fact that NYU’s campus in the United States, a country with some of the most robust free speech protections in the world, is more hostile to differing viewpoints than in Shanghai, situated in a country where censorship is the status quo, is a sad reality. NYU Shanghai is, to be fair, a somewhat unique institution within China, but the irony is nevertheless jarring. Little did I know then that Trump’s election would bring forth even more, examples of this new reality on American college campuses.
The Trump era has seen plenty of protests and some, like the Women’s March and those at airports following the travel ban, were completely peaceful. The same cannot be said for what happened at U.C. Berkley earlier this month. Milo Yiannopoulos, the controversial Breitbart News contributor and darling of America’s ‘alternative-right’ or ‘alt-right,’ was set to speak at the university until a group of protesters turned violent, to the point the U.C. Berkley Police had to shut the event down. More recently, another right-wing commentator named Gavin McInnes was pepper sprayed and continuously interrupted by protesters as he tried to speak at an event hosted by the NYU College Republicans. To be clear, I will make no attempts to defend Yiannopoulos and McInnes for their various controversial political views; however, the tactics of some protesters are equally indefensible.
An effective protest draws attention to the actual issue at hand, not the protest itself. When all was said, or more appropriately not said, and done at U.C. Berkeley and NYU, most headlines barely discussed the views of the respective speakers, but rather focused on the violent opposition. Such behavior only plays into the hands of people like McInnes and Yiannopoulous who feed off any opportunity to look like a victim and gain sympathy for their extremist views. Even as someone who leans to the right politically, I have always found the commentary of people like Yiannopoulos to be immature, lacking in substance, and unnecessarily mean-spirited just to grab attention. Neither, however, advocate for physical violence against those they disagree with, the only real exception to free speech. Consequently, I will defend their right to say what they want.
In an age of ‘post-truth’ politics and ‘alternative’ facts, defending the right to speak out and spread the truth could not be more important. Free speech may aid in the dissemination of false information, but it is also the best weapon to counter it. Over the next few years, as western nations overcome populist insurgencies and the rise of extremist groups, we need more people speaking up, not fewer. To those who cry ‘hate speech!’ or contend that some people are just too controversial to be heard, I would like to point out the right to silence others also gives them the right to silence you. Don’t think it can happen? Brexit was not supposed to happen. The election of Donald Trump was not supposed to happen. The arc of history may bend towards progress, but in the short-term two steps forward is often accompanied with one step back. With so many injustices in the world worth protesting over, it seems like such a waste to protest over the very right of someone to speak freely.
These next few years will be a battle for hearts and minds. Progressives must criticize bad ideas, but also engage in self-criticism and talk with people who believe differently from them. It’s easy to shout and make a scene. It takes courage and effort to engage and debate. The world is not a safe space and college does not exist to reinforce one’s existing opinions. Stand up and fight for what you believe in, but always remember to let others do the same.
This article was written by Ben Haller. Please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch.
Illustration Credit: Maya Wang