The liberal Left harms its own cause by ceding to its opponents what has historically been its most fundamental principle.
Someone is invited to address an audience at a university, but backs out due to threats of violence.
Historically, it would likely be a conservative response to a progressive proposition; women’s suffrage was met with violence, as was the LGBT movement, certainly the civil rights movement, and indeed the pattern extends even as far back as the enlightenment. These were all dangerous ideas in their time (and continue to be so in many parts of the world), which had to be snuffed out lest the very fabric of society be pulled apart. If violence was the means by which this could most effectively be done, then so be it.
Today, the safer assumption to make would be that those historic roles are reversed.
Ann Coulter, America’s perhaps-only-slightly-less-vile answer to Katie Hopkins, cancelled a planned speech at the University of California, Berkeley last month after being invited by a student group at the university. The appearance had received threats of violent protests similar to those that shut down former Breitbart troll Milo Yiannopoulous on the same campus only months earlier, in which protesters clashed with police, threw Molotov cocktails, fired flares, pulled down barricades, and smashed windows.
Berkeley, as well as the student groups that had invited her, pulled their invitation for her original date fearing the violent outbreaks that could ensue.
In a poignant irony, Berkeley is the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement, in which students protested in the 1960s to lift the ban on political speech on campus and allow for free expression and academic freedom. For as long as the liberal tradition has existed, it’s been understood that stopping speech you disagree with – which has long been an authoritarian tool - sets the precedent by which ideas you hold dear can be stopped in the future.
Now, in a paradoxical combination of absolute certainty and passion in their position, as well as an absolute refusal to argue that position from first principles, increasingly it is the left that shuts down speech anathema to its worldview. By doing so, Leftists have inadvertently let the right assume the mantle of the champions of free expression in the West.
Coulter was offered an alternative date for her speech during a time when fewer students would be on campus (and therefore a lesser chance of violence), but turned it down. She could have still spoken, albeit to a smaller audience, but her refusal – however cynical in its intention - puts her, like many other right-wingers of late, in a position to play martyr; a conservative hero of a liberal principle. Being shut down was a far better outcome for her than if she had delivered remarks which would quickly have been forgotten, under different circumstances.
“Free speech” has become a dirty phrase to much of the modern left; a dog whistle, an empty platitude, a Trojan horse mechanism by which bigots can spread their bile whilst comfortably cloaked in liberal rhetoric. Its invocation, even by those not on the right, is met with visceral suspicion. How can you defend someone’s right to hate-monger without tacitly endorsing their message? How can you allow their message a platform without taking their side against those who they marginalise?
Given the rise of nationalism and neo-fascism across the West, it is understandable that people lose faith in discourse. If the far-right doesn’t understand racism by now, then why should we assume they will through discussion? This is the line of thinking shared by loose networks of militant far-left groups such as Antifa ( Anti-Fascist Action), who reject dialogue and in many cases favour physical confrontation with the aim of silencing right-wing speakers and violently counter-protesting far-right demonstrations.
A month before the Coulter incident at Berkeley, a similar incident took place at Middlebury College in Vermont, when Charles Murray, best known for his highly controversial book, The Bell Curve, was set to give a speech. He promptly found himself drowned out of the auditorium by a group of around 400 chanting protesters, mostly students.
He and Professor Allison Stanger, a Democrat who was asked by her students to moderate the event, were forced to leave to stage and proceed to another location where their exchange could be resumed via live-stream, which was itself interrupted by multiple fire alarms being pulled (illegally) and students banging on the windows.
After they left the live-stream, they were again met by the angry crowd and physically attacked, resulting in Stanger - a respected member of faculty- having to go to the hospital with a concussion and whiplash after being shoved and having her hair pulled by the mob.
Murray’s talk was transcribed and sent to 70 professors of different ranks and universities, omitting his name. When asked to rate the tone of the speech on a scale of 1 to 9 (1 being very conservative, 9 being very liberal), the average scoring was 5.5; Middle of the road.
In an interview on a New York Times podcast, Elizabeth Dunn, one of the students who took part in the original protest in the auditorium, paints a revealing portrait of how the free speech issues surrounding the incident are seen:
“I think one of the issues is that free speech is sort of this arbitrary switch that any administration in power can turn on and off when it coincides with their personal political values. So Charles Murray wasn’t silenced, because he was saying something that - regardless what other administrators or faculty or staff may have said - was validated by the institution, and that’s why he was allowed to speak. So I think that Charles Murray is doing just fine and I don’t think that his free speech was violated in the same way that people with less power are experiencing the situation.”
A few things are notable here. Firstly, the notion that free speech is an “arbitrary switch” betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the issue; the whole point is that it transcends who is in power. Secondly, the idea that a university can’t invite someone to speak without implicitly “validating” their views or giving them their institutional imprimatur undercuts the entire enterprise of filtering good ideas from bad ones.
When asked if she believes America is losing its common understanding of free speech, Dunn responds:
“I actually don’t believe that there ever was a common understanding of free speech. I think that one group that was in power put forward a definition, and other groups didn’t have the ability to debate that, and I think that now we’re actually reaching the point where enough people have got enough of a voice to start to push back against dominant ideas of what free speech is and what free speech should be, and I think that’s why there’s a lot of this tension right now. It’s not because all of a sudden there are a lot of disagreements or people are feeling way more sensitive, it’s just because for the first time in history people are actually able to speak. That’s just kind of why there’s finally disagreement, because people have been saying this all along, they just haven’t actually had the ability to make it heard.”
This is what most gets to the heart of the disagreement over the nature of free speech. Some see it through the prism of fundamental civil liberties, while others see it through the prism of power dynamics. It is not altogether wrong to see it as a power dynamics issue, as it is meant to be an equaliser; no matter who you are, or what you believe, or what rank you possess on the social hierarchy, no one should be able to stop you from expressing your opinion.
This is not how Dunn and many progressive activists see it, though. For them, free speech is a zero-sum proposition, a sliding scale. The more you have, the less I have, and the only way I can increase my access to free expression is to reduce yours. In their mind, protections on being able to speak your mind are structures designed to allow those in power to oppress, rather than allow those without power to enter the fray.
It is true that majority voices often enjoy more attention than minority voices do, but it is incorrect to conflate people’s propensity to pay attention to a message (however deserving) with the messenger’s ability to speak freely.
Progressive activists’ waning regard for the marketplace of ideas is destructive not only to discourse but to the progressive movement itself. The consequences of refusing to even engage with distasteful propositions are not difficult to see in the rising nationalist trend around the world; in the absence of dialogue, demagogy is seen as courageous truth telling, especially when the demagogues position themselves as victims.
The fact that today, the banners supporting free speech are more likely to be held by the xenophobes and white supremacists than by the liberals is not confirmation that the concept itself is rotten, but rather an indication that the left has slowly been abandoning a fundamental principle, and it is only to their detriment that they let racists fill the void.