The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error. John Stuart Mill, On Liberty
“Racist, sexist, anti-gay, Charles Murray go away!” chant protesters at Middlebury College, as Dr Murray stands at the podium waiting to speak. A video of the March 2, 2017, event shows protesters clearly relishing the heady experience of “resistance.” As Dr Murray later explained, protests were nothing new to him, but this was the first time protesters sought to prevent him from speaking at all.
(Full disclosure: I am a fan of Charles Murray. He is a profound and creative thinker and even if you disagree with him, you will learn something if you listen to him. If you want to understand the current condition of America, read his book Coming Apart.)
Earlier, over five hundred Middlebury College alumni had delivered a letter asking Middlebury College to stop Dr Murray from speaking to students. Their demand, they said, “is not an issue of free speech.” Rather, “Dr Murray’s views are not worth engaging” since he is part of “the genocidal white supremacist ideologies that are enjoying a popular resurgence under the new presidential administration.” The alumni were not falling for “hollow appeals to tolerance and the power of ‘dialogue.’” The letter called on everyone at Middlebury to “dissent” and ended with the ominous “and we hope you make that dissent known howsoever you see fit.”
As it became clear he was not going to be allowed to speak, Dr Murray moved to a nearby room where he was interviewed (despite protesters banging on the walls and setting off fire alarms) on remote video by Middlebury professor Allison Stanger. The protesters, though, were not finished. As Dr Murray and Dr Stanger left the building, protesters surrounded them, pushing and grabbing – Dr Stanger ended up in the hospital – and Murray and Stanger made it to their car without further injury only with the help of two security guards.
It would be a mistake to consider Middlebury merely a protest that got out of hand. While it may have been a new experience to Dr Murray to encounter protesters determined to stop speech altogether, he was, in fact, the latest target of a growing “anti-speech” movement. Like the Middlebury alumni, the movement quite simply believes that some (usually conservatives) should be prevented, as much as possible, from expressing their ideas. The movement uses protests, marches, disruptions, boycotts, intimidation, and, apparently, violence, to “shut down” those with whom they disagree.
Some recent targets:
Erika Christakis, lecturer at Yale University, was targeted in October 2016 after she wrote an email in which she criticized Yale University for issuing guidelines for students’ Halloween costumes, her innocuous point being that Yale students could probably handle the sight of almost any Halloween costume. The email became the occasion for expressions of outrage at her “racism” and “insensitivity” to the anguish caused by the “cultural appropriation” in some Halloween costumes, prompting Yale University President Peter Salovey and other Yale administrators to issue cringing apologies for Yale’s “failure” toward minority students. There were strident calls to fire Ms Christakis and her husband, Nicholas Christakis, and eventually she and her husband left Yale.
Former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice became a target in 2014 after she was invited to speak at Rutgers University’s commencement ceremony. She withdrew after vociferous protests by Rutgers students and faculty over her “human rights” violations in Iraq.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, author of Infidel and an internationally known advocate for women’s right, was targeted after Brandeis University invited her to give the school’s 2014 commencement address. Her invitation was withdrawn by the university following protests over her criticism of Islam.
Gavin McInnes, an English-Canadian “conservative comedian,” was invited by New York University College Republicans to speak at NYU, but his February 3, 2017, speech was cut short by protesters. Eleven protesters were arrested.
Ben Shapiro, conservative commentator, managed to finish his February 25, 2016, speech to the Young America’s Foundation student organization at California State University, Los Angeles, despite hundreds of students and professors protesting and blocking people from attending. Protesters called for the resignation of the University’s president for allowing Shapiro to speak.
These efforts to quell opposing views, or at least their expression, are often successful. As professor Christakis described her experience at Yale after the Halloween email: “Numerous professors, including those at Yale’s top-rate law school, contacted us personally to say that it was too risky to speak their minds . . . . Many students met with us confidentially to describe intimidation.” And she notes that many students over the years reported “avoiding controversial subjects . . . for fear of uttering ‘unacceptable’ language or otherwise stepping out of line.”
The anti-speech protesters often argue that they support free speech. What they want to shut down, they say, is “hate speech,” which is more than speech, they assert, and amounts to a form of violence. Actually there is no “hate speech” exception to the right of free speech. But leaving aside the legal aspect of the issue, this argument is the key to understanding what happened at Middlebury. It is this line of thinking that essentially ends discussion on almost any controversial issue.
Hate speech is essentially being defined by the anti-speech movement as “views we disagree with.” Express an opinion that deviates from a particular narrative on almost any subject — poverty, schools, crime, police shootings, immigration, incarceration rates, income inequality, welfare, wages — and you engage in hate speech. To oppose abortion is to engage in war-on-women hate speech. To oppose race-based affirmative action is to engage in racist hate speech. To oppose raising the minimum wage is to engage in class-warfare hate speech. To express support for Israel is to engage in anti-Palestinian, anti-Muslim hate speech. And since it is hate speech, and so not really speech, it can be “shut down.”
By holding (1) that hate speech is not protected speech, and then (2) defining virtually any disagreement as a form of hate speech, the anti-speech movement grants itself license to shut down all opposition.
That is why Middlebury, and these other examples, are so troubling. The anti-speech movement is growing. If the movement achieves critical mass – if enough people join it, or quietly watch it with a smug grin — it will mean a significant loss of freedom, dramatic as that sounds. To remain free, a country needs most people to agree to a certain amount of live-and-let-live. Even those who believe “conservative speech” and “hate speech” are virtually synonymous need to stand up for free speech
Do we really want to silence each other? To change from a free society, where the right to speak is respected, to a brute society where each side tries to beat up and quell the opposition? Let’s agree not to let that happen. For many reasons (see John Stuart Mill above for a few of them), it is better to let people speak freely, even if you disagree with them. Freedom of speech is too valuable to lose.