Free speech is often used as cover to justify defending debates on those who are marginalized. Stop it.
One of my pet peeves with some folks on the left is the finger wagging when marginalized folks refuse to sit back while their humanity is debated and questioned. In an article for Cosmopolitan with the headline “Let the Hatemongers Speak” Jill Filipovic argues:
“The impulse to push back against racism, sexism, and bigotry in all of its forms is an important one. But so is protecting free speech — even when that speech is ugly, hateful, and unacceptable. And at no point in recent history has it been so crucial to live out those norms.”
Now if you’ve been paying attention to recent arguments concerning supposed free speech you’re probably aware that free speech protections aren’t for letting folks give paid speeches at universities. And Filipovic seems to understand this as well.
Free speech doesn’t mean that everyone deserves a platform to speak — the fact that Middlebury has never invited me for a speaking gig does not violate my free speech rights. Nor does it entitle you to an audience — if no one attends a neo-Nazi’s speech, his rights have not been violated. And free speech also doesn’t mean that people have the right to speak without protest or consequence”
But this does not stop her from making the argument that people like Charles Murray and Milo Yiannopoulos need to be allowed to speak. As a Black person in America who has spoken at numerous colleges I disagree with this wholeheartedly. Why is it that marginalized folks have to sit and accept that people who actively work to strip us of our humanity get to spew these horrendous ideas as if they are reasonable? These aren’t simply a difference of opinion on how string theory works. These are attacks on the very essence of who we are. Also? Let’s not forget to point out that most of the violence that occurred wasn’t done by the students and protesters who opposed the speeches. It was done by anarchists who by their very nature aren’t going to listen to op-eds in Cosmopolitan.
The students who shout down speakers like Murray, and the many people who support them, will argue that certain views are simply bad enough to necessitate firm and unequivocal silencing. Anyone who questions the full humanity of marginalized groups, the argument goes, is doing something akin to violence, and their presence on campus sends a message to members of marginalized groups that they aren’t as valued in their own communities.
Wait for it.
These are serious concerns. But the role of an academic institution is also to teach students that the presence of an idea does not equal the endorsement of an idea — that assigning Mein Kampf or The Communist Manifesto for class does mean that the professor agrees with the contents of those texts.
While I won’t speak for every possible person who has ever dealt with academia, I will say that I don’t believe most people think everything that is taught by a professor is an endorsement. Learning about slavery is not an endorsement of one of America’s greatest atrocities. But it would be a very different story inviting someone to speak on campus who actively argues that slavery wasn’t bad and that Black folks deserved what they got for not fighting back more.
But no matter how terrible someone is, you don’t compromise your own most deeply held values to shut them down. You ignore them, you speak out against them, you protest them, but you don’t set things on fire or threaten their safety or prevent them from speaking. You model a better way.
Maybe this is my issue. My own deeply held values says that if you actively promote ideologies that strip the most vulnerable of their humanity I don’t think you need or deserve to be heard. These ideas and belief systems aren’t new or unique. These ideas these folks are pushing don’t need more platforms and spaces to be debated. They’ve been heard. They’ve been preached numerous times in the past on myriad platforms.
At what point are we allowed to say “I’ve heard your regurgitated bullshit and enough is enough”?