Uncivil Rights

Why Milo must be allowed to speak if the rest of us want to live in peace.

Posted Feb 28, 2017

"The University is not engaged in making ideas safe for students. It is engaged in making students safe for ideas." 
Clark Kerr, President of UC Berkeley (March 20, 1961)

For the better part of my adult life, I have focused on promoting kindness. So recently people have asked how I could possibly defend notorious internet troll Milo Yiannopoulos’s right to speak on college campuses—as if defending his right to speak is an endorsement of his views. This idea seems strange to me. If we want the people we call “intolerant” to respect the rights of those they think are immoral or disgusting, it seems fairly obvious that we, who are “tolerant,” have to be willing to do the same. Yet in what some call pleas for tolerance, students across the country are demanding that Yiannopoulos and his "Dangerous Faggot Tour" be banned from their campuses.

As the Chancellor of UC Berkeley noted, public colleges and universities like Berkeley are bound by the First Amendment, and are therefore prevented from dictating what words and ideas are allowed on campus (within the boundaries of legally protected speech). Nonetheless, in a series of op-eds, Berkeley students and alumni called for the administration to enact an unconstitutional policy that would allow only certain speakers on campus. Many even defended the (illegal) violence that resulted in property damage and injuries to real people.

volkovslava/iStock Photo
Source: volkovslava/iStock Photo

One alumna, who tweeted that her op-ed “lambasted privileged liberals for trying to force nonviolence in the face of threats to marginalized communities,” wrote that what Yiannopoulos was predicted to say at Berkeley, “is violence,” that his words are “violent actions,” and his appearances have a “violent impact.” But she was not referring to impact of the actual violence that ensued. She argued, “asking people to maintain peaceful dialogue with those who legitimately do not think their lives matter is a violent act,” and reasoned that the violence was, therefore, a kind of preemptive self-defense. In another op-ed, a student protester explained, “I put my safety and my freedom on the line because letting Yiannopoulos speak was more terrifying to me than potential injury or arrest.”

The sad irony of the violence at Berkeley is that in an attempt to keep students “safe” from speech, students’ actual safety was put at risk. Yiannopoulos, who was banned from Twitter for violating its conduct policy, has said unkind and ugly things—things I wish people wouldn’t say. He is a performance artist of sorts who intends to be provocative, and as Bill Maher recently lamented, liberals need to stop taking the bait. When people “freak out” about what Yiannopoulos says, it only serves to justify his claim that, “The Left is absolutely terrified of free speech and will do literally anything to shut it down.” 

The violent group that calls itself "BAMN" (By Any Means Necessary) is making his point. Defenders of the Berkeley violence believe that not only must a person be an intolerant, hateful, right-winger to defend the right of someone like Yiannopoulos to speak on a public college campus, but that no decent person could find the violent protest in any way problematic. One protester framed it this way, “If you condemn the actions that shut down Yiannopoulos’ literal hate speech, you condone his presence, his actions and his ideas; you care more about broken windows than broken bodies.”

What provides Yiannopoulos with a following among college students is this kind of bizarre twisting of logic, and the unwritten rule—and in some cases actual speech codes—that restrict acceptable ideas and conversation to a narrow range of what is comfortable for liberal thinkers. And this is the bigger problem.

If, instead, academic culture fostered real critical thinking, civil dialogue, and true debate, college students would likely not experience the level of anxiety and indignation they currently do over speech they find offensive. By focusing on facts instead of feelings, they would be able to peacefully and convincingly protest odious ideas, or effectively engage the opposition in debate—without resorting to ad hominem attacks or shutting down the conversation altogether.

Revering freedom of speech has incorrectly been identified as a conservative idea. Many liberals agree that silencing others is not the way to counteract the speech we hate. (Watch liberal activist, Van Jones, defend free speech here, and law professor, Geoffrey Stone, here.) Perhaps the reason conservatives seem more comfortable with freedom of speech is that they have spent years cultivating the ability to listen and speak about even what was once, to them, the unspeakable. When they are unable to tolerate ideas that run counter to their views, our laws allow them to say what they like as long as they remain nonviolent and do not violate others’ rights. But beginning in the 1980s and even as recently as 2015, when pro-life advocates used violence to attempt to prevent women from having abortions, these types of attacks were treated as acts of domestic terrorism, and in many cases the criminals were convicted. Despite the very strong feelings pro-life advocates have about ending abortion—a practice many regard as murder—the vast majority correctly identify abortion clinic bombings as reprehensible and indefensible. So how is it that so many on the left are unable to condemn the violence that prevents people like Yiannopoulos from merely speaking?

It is obvious that if we care about kindness, we find it unacceptable to publicly single out transgender students by name, show their photos in order to embarrass them, and humiliate them by referring to them as men trying to get into women's bathrooms. If we care about kindness, we encourage people not to call someone a “thick-as-pig-(expletive) media Jew,” or address someone as “a cowardly piece of (expletive),”* Adults, however, have the legal right to say whatever mean-spirited thing they like; it is only when they are children that we are able to constrain the things they say. What we have clearly failed to do on a societal level is convince children to choose civil discourse over name-calling, mocking, and taunting people into stooping to their level. Once children grow up and behave this way as adults, the key question is: how do we, ourselves, react?

One Berkeley alumnus compared students' reactions today to how students in his day reacted to speakers whose ideas they found appalling. He described how he and his classmates used the “attend-listen-embarrass” model when a neo-nazi spoke on the Berkeley campus in the 1960s. They listened politely, and then during the Q & A,

“…students were asking pointed questions, often involving logic or history, and they seemed to confound the speaker. It was almost a student competition: who could ask the most devastating question! The speaker was confused; he almost seemed to stutter; he was embarrassed. He had no good answers. Each succeeding student seemed to be able to ask even better questions that left the neo-Nazi helpless. He came across as an ignorant and utter fool."

He continued, "I walked out absolutely delighted. I had seen free speech in action! It worked. Possibly everyone in the audience came away feeling as I did. Even supporters of the neo-Nazi must have been appalled at his ineptitude."

The typical campus reaction to Yiannopoulos reflects our cultural tendency to revere childhood to such an extent that we psychologically extend it long past the age at which it is appropriate. The protections of childhood are helpful to young children, but not to college age adults, who are—well, adults. A refusal to even ignore things that upset us, let alone engage or debate, and instead, react with outrage, indignation, and even violence is damaging to our ability to grapple with the real world. What Yiannopoulos knows is that if students used the 1960s “attend-listen-embarrass” model with him—provided they understood his arguments and had a thoughtful counterargument to make—he would be a nobody. The tendency to elevate righteousness above effectiveness, and react emotionally rather than using the critical thinking skills that are supposed to be taught in college provides Yiannopoulos with exactly the reaction he intends to provoke. It creates the impression that “the other side, the progressive, social justice left, is incapable of debate; incapable of rational response to opinions with which it disagrees,” and that when they don’t like someone’s ideas, “their response to them is violence.” A former Stanford University Provost recently noted that colleges have to work harder to teach students not to “succumb to the all-purpose ad hominem," which students (and faculty) too often use “because it is easier and more comforting than rational argument.”

“You don’t just inherit the First Amendment,” Yiannopoulos says, “you have to fight for it every generation. You have to reaffirm and relearn its importance. And that has been forgotten on American college campuses. And it takes people as preposterous and ridiculous as me to thrust that back into the public consciousness.”

Yiannopoulos knows better than anyone that the widespread panic about even what he might say has propelled him to a level of celebrity he was unlikely to otherwise achieve. He has protestors to thank for his book rocketing to number one at Amazon.com in pre-sales before its intended release date.** 

As someone once said, “Never wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.”

AlxeyPnferov/iStock Photo
Source: AlxeyPnferov/iStock Photo

If you're looking for nonviolent ways to react to speech you don't like, this article by Theresa Glinski of FIRE has five great ideas.

* This is quoted from an email the transgender student sent to the Chancellor of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee after Yiannopulos belittled the student by name, showed the student’s photo during his talk, and spoke of the student as a man trying to get into women's bathrooms.

** Simon & Schuster recently canceled the book after a video surfaced in which Yiannopoulos appeared to condone sex between men and boys.