I’m way too busy to write this, though I feel I must.
I’ve written before of the tendency among so-called liberals to want to silence speech deemed offensive to progressive principles. There are plenty of instances, in fact, in which the speech isn’t even registered as offensive, merely adverse. Unfunny enough, you see this a lot on college campuses, a phenomenom described astutely by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in the Atlantic‘s September 2015 cover story, “The Coddling of the American Mind.” (The article came with an even more incisive subtitle: “How Trigger Warnings are Disastrous for Education and Mental Health.”) In the piece, Lukianoff and Haidt — one the president of a non-profit advocating intellectual freedom in institutions of learning, the other a social psychologist — make the centuries-old case of why it’s not only important, but necessary, to allow people to speak their minds, and why it’s especially crucial that future generations of citizens develop an appreciation for this principle. “There are important differences between what’s happening now and what happened in the 1980s and ’90s,” the two write:
That movement sought to restrict speech (specifically hate speech aimed at marginalized groups), but it also challenged the literary, philosophical, and historical canon, seeking to widen it by including more-diverse perspectives. The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. More than the last, it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into ‘safe spaces’ where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. And more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally. You might call this impulse vindictive protectiveness. It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.
Most of Gozamos’s Chicago readership is by now aware of how upset many of their fellow denizens are in hearing that Donald Trump, the billionaire Republican presidential candidate relying on racist vitriol to keep himself well ahead of his GOP opponents, will be speaking at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s 9,500-seat Pavilion on Friday. As DNAinfo correspondent Stephanie Lulay reported on Tuesday, a protest rally appeared on Facebook that has since secured over 9,000 RSVPs. A petition on MoveOn.org calling on UIC to cancel Trump’s event has been sign by 49,343 as of Thursday morning (tantalizingly shy of its 50,000-signature goal). Congress Luis Gutiérrez and a handful of Latino aldermen have said they will join Friday’s protest as well. More than 300 UIC faculty and staff members have also signed an open letter to the school’s chancellor, Michael Amiridis, which reads in part:
We are deeply distressed that this event threatens to create a hostile and physically dangerous environment to the students, staff, faculty and alumni who come out to express their opposition. We base this claim on what happened recently at another public higher education institution, Valdosta State in Georgia, where university security ejected a group of peaceful protestors, all of whom were students enrolled at the university, who were seeking to attend the rally being held in a campus venue. We are also concerned for the safety of the diverse staff and team of student employees who work at the UIC Pavilion, as well as of those in our community who have no choice but to traverse parts of the campus around the Pavilion going to and from work and class from the time the event doors open around three through and immediately after the full closure of the building.
In addition to the deeply troubling events other educational venues that have rented space to the Trump Campaign, we are also expressly concerned by consistent reports that Trump supporters across the country have used racial slurs and attacked individuals who are members of groups that are represented, valued, and guaranteed respect and safety on our campus, invoking Trump and his candidacy for President as they did so. Donald Trump has done nothing to condemn or distance himself from these hateful speech acts or acts of violence, or hate groups who perpetuate them. …
UIC is a model for diversity and the cause of social justice. All eyes are now on us locally and nationally. Please assure us in no uncertain terms that the constitutional rights and physical safety of our students, staff, alumni, faculty and community supporters will be protected.
Here is where a more punctilious writer would provide a rundown of the nasty statements excreted from Trump’s mouth, as well as a summary of how protesters have been mauled at Trump rallies by bridled lynch mobs, but, as I said at the beginning, I don’t have the time — nor the stomach, if I’m honest. Plus the media has kept everyone well abreast of the ugly details of Trump’s campaign.
And yet, notwithstanding Trump’s use of the combined impulses of hate and fear to win an election, and despite the violence rendered by some of his more frothing supporters, Trump does have the right to speak wherever he is invited to do so. And there is no more appropriate venue for such a contentious presidential frontrunner to speak than on the campus of a public university, where future citizens are (supposedly) learning to grapple with challenging issues and ideas.
Political philosophers from Milton to Locke to Paine to Mill have all hammered this nail before: When society rescinds a person’s right to speak or write, it not so inadvertently denies every other person the right to listen or read what that person has to say. People have a right to offend as well as a right to be offended, and the dissemination of truth across a society can never be achieved without the full and widespread exercise of both those rights. Knowledge without debate is dogma. Lofty principles that are never challenged soon devolve into orthodoxy. (Hence, why some revolutionaries, once their ideas become the supreme law, oftentimes degrade into reactionaries.) Though Trump’s maligning of all Mexicans as “rapists” and all Muslims as “terrorists” is not in keeping with the kind of society coveted by most Americans (or at least progressives), Trump and his supporters must be afforded the right to oppose such a multicultural vision. In fact, if the anti-Trump crowd is as liberal as it claims to be, then it must protect Trump’s right to speak. Being a liberal isn’t all coffeehouses and Che t-shirts. Liberal and liberty, after all, are derived from the same Latin word liber, which the Romans endowed with twin meanings: “free” and “unrestricted.” Liberals must either stand for the unrestricted right to free speech and free thought, or adopt different label for themselves.
I might also hint at the fact that silencing opponents is exactly the sort of tactic Trump and his supporters endorse. The Trump gang has an extremely narrow viewpoint, and it seem eager to make its viewpoint the only acceptable one, not merely in the United States, but around the world. A Trump society would undoubtedly ban, say, a Jewish atheist presidential candidate advocating the overthrow of American capitalism from speaking at its public universities, falling on the very same reasons currently echoed by many liberals: a bunch of nonsense about it being “offensive,” “dangerous,” or “not in keeping with America’s values.” At that point, liberals would be beaten down by a rod of their own making.
As for the potential for violence at a Trump event, I’m not aware of a single instance in which Trump has directly conducted his supporters to harm other citizens. (He does, however, support the killing of people in other countries, but so does nearly every office seeker in the United States. They couldn’t get elected otherwise.) If I’m wrong about that, I’m sure at least one diligent reader will let me know it. In the meantime, we cannot keep Trump from speaking simply out of fear of what the audience might do. This is in line with the 1969 Supreme Court case, Brandenburg v. Ohio, in which the court overturned the conviction of a KKK leader who regularly stirred up crowds about the need to exact revenge on “niggers” and “Jews.” The Warren Court, which included Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first black person to sit on the bench, found that “the constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action” (emphasis mine). Thus, when Malcolm X told his audience, “Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery,” he was well within his right to speak freely. Still, I wonder if a similar admonition would be welcome at the Pavilion.
Today’s liberals appear to be so unversed in their professed principles, and therefore so afraid to have those principles challenged in public. For them, the freedom of speech means merely their right to say whatever the hell they please. They also betray their general contempt for their fellow citizens, displaying a paternalistic desire to ensure no one does or says anything that isn’t kosher. And speaking of religious law, there’s something quite clergylike in the way in which many liberals have assumed the mantle of truth-keepers, deciding on their won what is acceptable and appropriate for everyone. “No, I won’t be spoken to in that tone,” as the late Christopher Hitchens used to say whenever he was confronted by self-appointed censors attempting to prescribe what he could think, write or utter. I’m a grown-ass man, and I expect to be treated as such. I alone will decide what I can say, write, read or hear. If anyone feels they can’t decide that for themselves, what can I say? Anything I want, actually.
Let Trump speak. Let the American people get real acquainted with what’s on offer from the Republican Party these days. If, after hearing everything he has to say, a majority of voters still put him in the White House, it will speak volumes more about us than about him. I don’t think that’ll happen, though, because bad ideas simply can’t compete with good ideas. They stink too much, and embarrass anyone who holds them. Which is why they’re eventually dropped. Besides, if to defeat Trump, liberals must resort to making sure as little people as possible hear what he has to say, liberals will have destroyed all hope for a future America that is more free, diverse and democratic — which is, I believe, precisely Trump’s plan.
Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr