For the second time in just over a month violence has broken out on a college campus in response to a controversial speaker.
The first happened at U.C. Berkley when riots caused the cancellation of a talk by Milo Yiannopoulos. The second happened about a week ago, when libertarian social scientist Charles Murray was attacked after speaking at Middlebury College in Vermont.
These are not random occurrences. Violence has been bubbling just below the surface in campus controversies for some time now.
Many students have come to believe that offensive speech is a kind of “threat” and that force is an appropriate response. They believe this because they’ve been taught ideas that logically lead to these conclusions. If we want to understand what is going on and to combat it, we would do well to understand those ideas.
To see them in action, let’s start with what students themselves have said. After the incident at Middlebury, a group of students wrote their own account of it on a campus blog.
The facts they recite are similar to those in other accounts (see Murray’s account here and The Boston Globe’s here): Murray’s talk was initially disrupted by protesters who drowned him out with their chanting.
When he and Professor Allison Stanger, who was to comment on his talk, moved to a room where their discussion could be livestreamed, protesters banged on the walls and pulled fire alarms. After the talk, they were met by a throng of protesters who blocked their exit from the building.
As security pushed through the crowd, Professor Stanger’s head was yanked back, injuring her neck. Once the speakers were inside the car, protesters jumped on the hood and rocked the car back and forth; at one point, someone threw a large sign in front of the car. Eventually, they were able to leave the parking lot and go to dinner.
What is interesting is the students’ interpretation of these events.
“[I]t is essential to note,” the students claim, “that protesters did not escalate violence and had no plan of violent physical confrontation.” (Emphasis mine). They then state: “In a shutdown of the lecture, hundreds of Middlebury students stood and turned their backs on Murray . . . reciting speeches and chanting in a peaceful and organized expression of their dissent.”
It’s true that the initial protest of Murray’s talk was not, strictly speaking, “violent.” But that doesn’t make it “peaceful” nor was it a mere “expression of dissent.” It was a physical disruption of an event on school property.
Murray was invited to give the talk by an approved student group. College officials warned protesters that they were not permitted to disrupt the event and that doing so could mean expulsion from the talk and suspension from school. Claiming that protesters did not “escalate violence” and had no plan of “violent physical confrontation” is a dodge.
Clearly, they planned to disrupt the event and that is exactly what they did. This wasn’t an example of free speech in action, but an act of force designed to prevent others — the school, the student group who invited Murray, and Murray himself — from exercising their rights.
That student protesters block speakers on campus frequently today does not change the nature of their actions. As civil rights attorney Harvey A. Silverglate explained to The Boston Globe: “‘I draw a serious line between rioting and other non disruptive showing of disapproval’ he said. ‘One hiss and one boo is free speech. Twenty-five hisses and boos in a row is disruption and is illegal.’”
Note the moral inversion in the student’s attitude: if students physically disrupt an event by making it impossible for a speaker to be heard, that’s a “peaceful protest.” If they are removed by security or prevented from blocking speakers after an event, that is “violence.” It’s heads-I-win-tails-you-lose.
And what’s the justification for these actions, according to the students?
The administration’s support of a platform for white nationalist speech was an intense act of aggression towards the most marginalized members of the Middlebury community. . . . Furthermore, peaceful protest was met with escalating levels of violence by the administration and Public Safety, who continually asserted their support of a dangerous racist over the well-being of students. (Emphasis mine.)
A group of alumni protested Murray’s appearance before the event, making essentially the same claims and calling Murray’s presence at Middlebury “a threat.”
Charles Murray is not a “white nationalist” or a “racist.” But even if he were, that would not make his talk an “intense act of aggression” or a “threat.” Indeed, the act of aggression at this event happened when Murray was prevented from speaking and later when he and Professor Stanger were attacked. Mislabeling one ends up validating the other.
Unfortunately, these students are not the only ones who hold this view. Not long after the riot at Berkeley, its school newspaper, The Daily Californian, published a series of articles under the general heading “Violence as self-defense.”
Like the statement by the Middlebury students, the articles blame police for escalating the violence, and they claim that the riot was a form of self-defense, necessary to protect students from Yiannopoulos.
One student claimed that “asking people to maintain peaceful dialogue with those who legitimately do not think their lives matter is a violent act.”
Another argued that peaceful efforts to oppose Yiannopoulos’ presence on campus had failed, so violence was the only alternative: “Of all the objections and cancellation requests presented to the administration, local government and local police, the only one that was listened to was the sound of shattering glass.”
Yiannopoulos is obviously no Charles Murray. But his views, while provocative and often idiotic, are still just views. They can be listened to, debated, rebutted, or simply ignored. They are not acts of violence or threats. Speech, no matter how stupid or hateful, is still just speech.
But the view that speech is a form of threat is present in most free speech controversies today. To pick just two examples, when Yale professor Erika Christakis took issue with an email from the administration warning students not to wear “offensive” Halloween costumes, she and her husband were pilloried by students who accused them of “fostering violence” and creating an “unsafe” environment.
When writer Wendy Kaminer used the “N-word” during an academic panel on free speech while arguing that teachers should be willing to speak the word while discussing works such as Huckleberry Finn, she was accused of committing an act of “racial violence.”
Often students respond to speech they find offensive by forcibly preventing others from speaking. At U.C. Irvine, student protesters prevented the Israeli ambassador from speaking.
At Brown University, protesters did the same thing to New York City police commissioner Ray Kelly. During the protests over racist graffiti at the University of Missouri in 2015, protesters demanded that their encampment on school property be treated as a “safe space” from which others could be excluded.
When student journalists tried to take pictures of the protesters, they were physically blocked and pushed away. When one student refused to stop, Professor Melissa Click was famously caught on video asking for “some muscle” to have him removed.
Where do students get this idea?
Unfortunately, the answer is: from many sources. The modern thinker probably most responsible for legitimizing the use of force against the “wrong” ideas is Herbert Marcuse, widely considered the philosopher of the New Left during the 1960s.
In his essay “Repressive Tolerance,” Marcuse argued that modern Western societies are inherently oppressive. The main mechanism of this “oppression” is education and speech, which lulls the populace into accepting a social system that benefits the affluent at the expense of everyone else. The only way to overcome this injustice, in Marcuse’s view, is to allow those who oppose the status quo to speak, while silencing those who defend it.
These ideas have been adopted and repeated by many prominent thinkers over the years. In the mid- 1990s, professor Stanley Fish, then at Duke, challenged the very idea of free speech in his book, There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech and It’s a Good Thing Too.
Echoing postmodernists who attack the validity of reason and objectivity, Fish argued that free speech is a mere “political prize” that is used by those with political power to protect their speech and silence others. Following the same logic, feminists Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin argue that sexist speech and pornography are means by which men oppress women.
In a book called Words That Wound, a group of law professors applied the same basic idea to minorities, arguing that racial epithets and other forms of “hate speech” are tantamount to “a slap in the face.”
Probably very few of the thinkers or scholars who share these views would advocate using force against people like Charles Murray or Milo Yiannopoulos. But if you take their ideas seriously, the actions of the students at Middlebury and Berkeley make sense.
If America really is an inherently oppressive society, if speech is the mechanism of this oppression or is tantamount to a threat or outright force, then fighting back—or at least advocating that government do that for you—is a logical response.
To paraphrase the student writers in The Daily Californian, talking about ideas you oppose is impractical. The only thing that really works is force.
To fight these ideas and the culture they’ve spawned on campus will require more than complaining about college “snowflakes” or political correctness. We need to defend the ideas on which free speech depends, most notably reason and individual rights.
The purpose of the right to free speech is to protect our right to think for ourselves and to communicate with others, which are two of the pillars of a modern, free society. True, people can and often do say absurd and horrible things. But it’s false to equate even hateful speech with use of force.
Force is qualitatively different from speech. No matter how harsh speech is, you are always free to ignore it and walk away. Not so with force. If you doubt this, ask Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Flemming Rose, or the many other individuals currently on jihadist hit lists whether they would prefer to live under the threat of death or the threat of hateful speech.
That’s not to say that speech can never be used in the commission of a crime. It is entirely proper to criminalize actual threats, incitement to violence, and the like. But that’s because what is being threatened is the use of force.
If those who use offensive or hateful speech cross the line into actual threats or incitement, then it is proper to prosecute them. But short of that, they must be free to speak.
Ayn Rand once said that “a gun is not an argument.” The reverse is also true: an argument is not a gun. If we forget the difference, we will end up with guns settling our disputes, rather than arguments.