Heretics Wanted

(Pablo Unzueta/SAConScene) Protesters and students argue about the allegations against Chester Brown Thurs., April 23 in front of building 61.

(Pablo Unzueta/SAConScene) Protesters and students argue about the allegations against Chester Brown Thurs., April 23 in front of building 61.

A specter is haunting many colleges here in America, on the very grounds where critical thought is intended to be constantly brewing behind the faces in attendance. A trend of speech suppression and reluctance for fear of being too controversial, sprinkled with a good dose of obnoxious word-policing is its true definition. The essence of it comes to us as a great exemplar of an anti-remedy to some perceived problems.

This has in the least provided voices of reason from all over the political spectrum to balance worry, highbrow laughter, and a good amount of confusion. If you pay even the slightest attention to the news, you’ll have surely witnessed protests of all sorts take place at even the most prestigious universities, much of the time due to invited speakers that the protestors find unfavorable.

Media outlets across the board- your lefties, righties, or claimed inbetweenies- recognize the right to protest peacefully of course, but as the TV screen shows, many have moved quite beyond that and into the images of anarchic vandalism and flames as high as school buildings.

One of this year’s most intense examples includes the chaos that took place the very start of February at University of California Berkeley, where protests  against invited speaker and Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos took the form of some Clockwork Orange-type playtime.

People holding doves to symbolize peaceful protest were soon overshadowed after sundown by black-clad agitators who swung their clubs into glass windows, and lit fires by hurling Molotov cocktails from behind shields. What was this, some makeshift Call of Duty free-for-all? And all of this mania took place at the university which was uniquely founded on the idea that everyone has the right to be heard, even when what’s being heard may be deemed ignorant, hateful, and widely condemned.

Berkeley after all is prohibited, as a public institution, from banning expression based on even potentially hateful content, which the school’s Chancellor rightfully reminded to those who were requesting ‘disinvitation’ before the violence.

This wasn’t Yiannopoulos’ first blockage to academic grounds, and he’s definitely not alone in the boat of having his offered speaking time revoked. Conservative speaker and writer Gavin McInnes had his speech immediately drowned out at New York University by the same types of actors the very next day, except he was pepper sprayed.

“After making my way through the crowd and washing my eyeballs for 20 minutes in the bathroom, I was able to go upstairs to the pavilion where they were hosting the talk,” McInnes wrote in his Takimag column days later. “I could immediately see that well over half the audience was there to make sure I wasn’t able to talk.”

A good amount of response to these instances and others like them describe the thugs and their ‘black bloc’ tactics as assailants that are most likely from out of town, and completely unrelated to the college communities. Phewww– is my delayed reaction after realizing that I hadn’t imagined the wannabe rebels being our future physicists anyhow.

With this insert comes rushing in restored faith in the maturity of young people who are preparing for the big-bad real world on a prominent campus.

For this point let us go ahead and accept that this necessary identification of those fighting speech with violence is completely true- that they’re largely nothing but unhinged outsiders, and the person who assaulted McInnes with mace probably stole it from his own sister’s purse before leaving his parent’s house, far away from NYU. We can still raise the important question- what about the university faculty and students who signed letters of protest beforehand, urging administrations to cancel invitations?

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) calls this ‘disinvitation season,’ the term they coined for “when students and faculty members get together to demand that an invited guest speaker—usually a commencement speaker—be disinvited because they disagree with something that speaker did, said, or believes.”

FIRE addresses this while noting the fact that these demands are swelling over time, followed of course by speakers submitting in the face of protest. Online research by FIRE covers these events spanning the last 15 years, including both disinvitation efforts and ‘successes’- or those that at least succeed in revoking the targeted speech.

Thanks to the aforementioned realities of chaos regarding certain talk on academic grounds, campus disinvitations set a new record last year.

The frenzy of attempts by student, faculty, or anyone else to prevent those with whom they disagreed from speaking has 2016 as a golden standard- where 42 separate incidents of speakers facing some outcry to their presence marked the highest tally ever. This doubles the 21 incidents from 2015 and shows a 24 percent increase from 2013. The director of FIRE’s individual rights defense program, Ari Cohn, called this a “disturbing development” when reviewing the year in December, also addressing the increased unwillingness and how it “poses a grave risk to student’s intellectual development.”

She added, “Rather than seeking to banish controversial or offensive ideas from campus, students would be far better off if they confronted, grappled with, and rigorously debated the views they find disagreeable.”

What an embarrassing specter she speaks against indeed, and to witness it seeping into colleges at an exponential increase should spark attention.

A much more satisfying and meaningful phewww- is my response to the FIRE director’s position, along with a great amount of confidence to find others agreeing that not only is this a reasonable paradigm to approach communities of higher education with, but a necessary one.

One famous writer unleashed an elegant speech tearing down this very issue a few years before his untimely death.

“It’s not just the right of the person who speaks to be heard, but it is also the right for everyone to hear. Every time you silence somebody, you make yourself a prisoner of your own action, because you deny yourself the right to hear something,” echoes the underlying point made by journalist Christopher Hitchens over a decade ago to the University of Toronto (a great location choice relative to Canada’s lack of prior restraint laws on speech).

Hitchens was invited to take part in a debate which held the motion ‘Freedom of speech means freedom to hate,’ where his oratory took off from the mention of three classical texts regarding free speech that he wittingly points out as being common university study:  John Milton’s Areopagitica, Thomas Paine’s introduction to the Age of Reason, and John Stuart Mill’s essay On Liberty. His daring summary of these texts was eager to expose their common value: “Your own right to hear and be exposed is as much involved in all these cases as is the right of the other to voice his or her view.”

Hitchens even goes as far as to reference holocaust denial, and how a position so divorced from our orthodox understanding of an unforgettably historical tragedy is still warranted. He cites J.S. Mill’s enduring words on the matter: “If all in society were agreed on the truth and beauty and value of one proposition, all except one person, it would be most important — in fact, it would become even more important — that that one heretic be heard, because we would still benefit from his perhaps outrageous or appalling view.”

The classical texts that Hitchens brought with him to the podium are vital to this issue, though less important still than much more recent laws which fall in perfect harmony with the free speech mantra. In 1969 it was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case Brandenburg v. Ohio that even hateful and inflammatory words are protected speech, unless that speech is “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action.”

In other words, I won’t be encouraging any of my fellow co-workers to start smashing the windows of neighboring restaurants. What I will be encouraging, though, is for students everywhere to deny legitimizing this horrid specter, which has already seeped up the nose and into the brain of some (even quite senior) people on campuses.

Recognize it for what it is: one trendy and hollow delusion that considers it a goal to “progress” climates of idea exchange both on and off campus. Be suspicious of those who claim to know which rhetoric is ‘beyond-the-pale,’ and crave good reasons from those who say that ‘safe-spaces’ within your critical thought institution would work towards your benefit.

Smirk naturally at the meaningless interjections by professors who label multiple benign phrases as “problematic,” it’s okay. This was a true anecdotal case of mine- when a pretty charismatic professor that everyone enjoyed would occasionally snap a soft-toned indictment on some common phrasing, “Oh you see that sort of talk is a little problematic because…” – cue the tense vibe of confused looks and sheepish heads nodding at him.

Even the cool ones can buy into some bullshit.

I maintain faith that the real progressives recognize regression when it is haunting.

Those who agree, college students or staff, certainly will then not be proud of some 192 incidents of disinvitation since 2000, 82 of which were successful: 53 due to the revocation of the speaker’s invitation, 17 withdrawing in the face of protest, and 12 due to heckler’s vetoes or cases of being shouted down or chased off stage – like those red-faced, thumb-sucking millennials who shouted amid the NYU chaos to maced speaker Gavin McInnes, “Whose campus? Our campus!” over and over again.

Those doing so at NYU actually have somewhat of a point on that, seeing as the attendance their parents are covering costs on average ten times the amount of the Cal States, yet is still not obligated to serve their private community with full extent of the First Amendment, as opposed to their public counterparts.

Of these 192 disinvitation efforts, over 114 have been since 2009.

Those who have collaborated in these incidents have gained solidarity (if even for only a moment) with those who forced Socrates to swallow hemlock because they were offended at his ideas, or the church elite that locked Galileo up in his own home because of his offensive ideas.

I can picture the past men of the cloth now.

“Damn Galileo, how dare you discover moons anywhere else besides on earth. Don’t you see why that’s problematic for the church?”

The bullies of Charles Darwin and his revelations on life science will approve of the collaborators and their sensitivity- they shared the same complaint.

The general solutions that I’d like propose to my fellow peers on combatting this war on ideas would be to solely recognize that there is nothing liberal about it. The speakers included in the history of being denied are not all white-supremacist Nazis, nor are they Dracula’s cabinet. They are not out to get you if you’re a woman, or frown at you if you’re a minority. You’re not a victim.

You do not need to be protected from the potential of offensive speech the same way you do not have to attend or agree with some speech that may have been invited. In fact if you are, you’re almost surely getting screwed. Just like the child that’s sheltered completely from sweets will end up getting screwed later on when they binge out of their work snack stash.

Taking refuge in consensus is a fake and smoky delusion. No, there is no job available to anyone here bearing the description, “Decider of what speech is harmful and who is the harmful speaker.”

This is why the anti-speech college students and faculty are not your friends.

The time to deny them and their creepy desires to act as one of your guardians is now as important as ever, and the regressive specter that they help to keep alive will die as surely as the genial Karl Marx’s specter died in 1989 in Berlin – him nor his boils would ever live to see his creative remedies result in a different kind of shit show.

A quote from a notable follower of his aids my desired point perfectly, “Freedom of speech is meaningless unless it means the freedom of the person who thinks differently.”