I was recently reading an article by Ulrich Baer, in the New York Times, entitled “What Snowflakes Get Right About Free Speech.” The author defended the actions of students who disrupted recent appearances by controversial speakers like Charles Murray, Milo Yiannopoulos and Jordan Peterson, by drowning out their voices with loud chanting, megaphones and noisemakers and, in some cases, physically assaulting the speakers or their hosts (one faculty member, who had organized an event featuring one of the speakers, was even hospitalized by a student mob — even though she personally opposed the views of the guest they objected to. The article argues that certain viewpoints should not be aired on campus, certain topics should not be discussed and certain speakers should not be permitted to be heard. This authoritarianism is couched in obfuscatory academese and sprinkled with references to theorists and philosophers in an attempt to obscure the central message, which is this: we should police what people are permitted to talk about.
I am extremely uncomfortable with this for a number of reasons. I disagree with some of Murray’s views, I think Milo is a narcissistic, empty-headed self-publicist and I regard Jordan Peterson as a religious zealot. But what I object to is the principle, for several reasons.
First: you cannot control what happens inside someone’s head. You cannot stop them from thinking a thought. All you can do is make them too afraid to speak that thought aloud. You can find proof of this in the fact that, in a recent survey, under the cover of anonymity, 12% of Saudis declared themselves to be atheists and in the fact that the Arabic version of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion has been downloaded 10 million times. Even in the world’s most repressive country, in which unbelief is punishable by death and people are not free to utter the mildest skepticism aloud, in their minds, some of them are free. Fear and threats are poor persuaders. Arguments must be refuted with arguments; speech can only, in the long run, be effectively countered with speech. The words of an elderly don have proved more powerful than the guillotine and the scaffold.
When you take away someone’s right to speak, you also infringe on the rights of others to hear them. You prevent those students from learning how to confront, challenge, sift, weigh and evaluate the ideas of others. These are vital skills. I learned far more discussing things with my fellow students than I ever did in lectures. We must learn to counter speech with speech, to have the tools to respond with arguments, rather than violence. And we must also understand that being mistaken in a theory or wrongheaded about an idea is not, in itself, proof of iniquity. I strongly disagree with Peterson on a number of issues, but I feel able to refute his arguments because I have read his work and heard him speak. Watching students harass and threaten him and hearing about the death threats and kidnapping threats he and his wife and children have received, on the other hand, makes me feel pity for him as a person. Ideas should be critiqued, but human beings deserve our respect and protection.
When we make decisions about who to allow to speak and who to silence, we often make very poor decisions. Even in the West. That’s why reformer Ayaan Hirsi Ali met with death threats from some members of the Muslim community in Australia where she wanted to speak out against practices like child marriage and FGM, while the group’s imam gives talks on such subjects as why and how a good Muslim should beat his wife with impunity.
When we don’t allow ideas to be fully discussed, when we don’t encourage people to read and listen to the actual work of scholars and writers before passing judgement upon them, we get quote mining, witch hunts, careers and reputations ruined and families faced with death threats — often on the basis of partial, twisted or even completely fictional misrepresentations of their ideas. In all fairness, we must always allow controversial figures to put their own case. We must retain a principle of innocent until proven guilty.
I often hear the argument that if speakers are allowed to make certain bigoted generalisations about specific minority groups or utter racist, sexist or homophobic slurs, this will create a hostile atmosphere which will effectively silence members of minorities. While I believe we should all strive to be as polite, kind and considerate of people’s feelings as possible, I don’t think we should allow specific words to become taboo, as it gives those terms a disproportionate power over us and can even increase prejudice since it may seem that the thing itself is so horrific that we shy away from even naming it. Queer was the Voldemort word of my own generation. Usually uttered in a sotto voce hiss, it was an accusation which could make the victim’s blood run cold. Now, it is one of the most politically correct of terms and its power to hurt has been completely neutralised. Likewise, we cannot base our morality on our fear of confronting the possibility of certain ideas. Our psyches must become resilient enough to not be cowed by a collection of syllables. And our ethical instincts must be robust enough to explore, investigate, face up to truth and still be able to decide on a course of action which will maximise human happiness.
We should also bear in mind, when talking about power relations in this context, that power is not merely a question of immutable characteristics. It is always situation dependent. A black disabled trans woman may hold authority over a white cis heterosexual man, if she is his boss and he her employee; an immigrant who faces racism and marginalisation in the wider society may terrorize his wife and children at home; a student whose professor has the authority to award him a passing or failing grade may have power if he gathers with a mob of others to shout down or physically intimidate his teacher. We must always protect the right of vulnerable individuals, no matter which groups they belong to — and every individual is potentially vulnerable when voicing unpopular ideas.
This doesn’t mean bad ideas should go unchallenged. On the contrary, we can only effectively challenge bad ideas if we actually know what they are. So I want to know what someone like Richard Spencer is telling his followers. I don’t want it shrouded in mystery. I don’t want him made into some kind of a martyr. I don’t think punching him convinced anyone to oppose him. I want to know what he is saying because I want his racist, white supremacist ideology exposed, derided, ridiculed and debunked. Give him the rope. Let him hang himself.
The New York Times article falls into one further fallacy which is the result of a deep blindness to the author’s own privilege. I call this the Pastor Niemoeller Fallacy. The writer believes that he will always be one of those in charge of deciding who is allowed to speak and who must be silenced and that his own free speech rights will therefore always remain protected, even as those of others are infringed. This is selfish. But also, I think, naive.
And not just because, on a worldwide scale, those silenced are overwhelmingly atheists, liberals, dissidents and freethinkers. We are living in the age of Trump. It’s surely not that far-fetched to imagine an America under right-wing rule where you are forbidden to teach evolution, where sex education is a taboo topic, where your career could end if you didn’t pay lip service to Christianity. There are already plenty of pockets of repressive anti free-speech authoritarianism on the right, too. Just look at Liberty University, where staff have to agree to teach their students the ludicrous fiction that the world is only 6,000 years old.
We have to make a clear distinction between speech and violence. When we use hyperbolic language, such as claiming that not using someone’s preferred pronouns is an act of assault or that criticizing Black Lives Matter is an erasure of African-Americans, we are equating speech and violence. That’s something we should never do: even when we find the speech in question despicable, disgusting, deeply offensive or vile. Because if just saying something is considered an act of violence, that means it’s OK to counter it with actual violence. That will convince no one. And simply perpetuate a cycle of hate.
We also should never assume that the fact that people are outraged by something someone has said or allegedly said means that the speaker deserves to be punished. They placed Galileo under house arrest; they burnt Giordano Bruno at the stake; they terrorized Salman Rushdie. And, most recently, a mob of hundreds of his fellow students beat promising young intellectual Mashal Khan to death, on campus, in broad daylight.
Don’t silence anyone. Answer speech with speech. Always.