By Darkhan Omirbek
Americans have been discussing the boundaries of free speech for centuries, divided into two camps – those who believe that it should not have limits and those who think it should. However, recently, the dispute became a local one when a member of the alt-right Milo Yiannopoulos, who is known for his hatred against feminism, Islam and political correctness, came to the UCD campus as a speaker. This provoked a huge backlash from people who cherish liberal ideologies, resulting in prevention of his speech. However, David Greenwald, the publisher of Davis Vanguard, is skeptical of these protests, even though he does not share Yiannopoulos’ beliefs. In his article “Shutting Down Those You Disagree With Is Not the Answer” he writes that figures like Yiannopoulos should not be banned because we need to allow alternative opinions on campus and not suppress them (The Davis Vanguard, December 11, 2016). While Greenwald may be correct that we must tolerate different ideas, I cannot accept his definition of free speech or his advice on how to react to offensive speech.
David Greenwald argues that we should not restrict the expression of bad ideas because first, we have to be consistent in our support of free speech, and second, tactically, such limitations do not give the results we want. Greenwald writes that attempts to squelch Mr. Yiannopoulos’ speech only make his voice stronger, and even if we manage to suppress him on campus, his ideas will not disappear. They might turn up on the Internet, where they might blossom, or very likely, he will go elsewhere to speak. The author suggests that we should ignore people like Milo Yiannopoulos, or if we wish, attack their ideas, but not their right to speech. He also agrees with Yiannopoulos that people today are too sensitive to alternative viewpoints and blames social media for exacerbating the problem.
We cannot take comfort in the notion that there is somehow an inverse correlation between freedom of expression and hatred on the Internet. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor of business psychology at University College London, writes that the main drivers of online inflammatory comments, ortrolling, are anonymity and temporary identity loss. When we can hide our identity, we may feel that all restrictions are lifted and we may then show our worst hateful selves (The Guardian, Sept 18, 2014). Therefore, allowing people to express offensive speech publicly may even increase online trolling, as public speakers spread hate without any consequences. Meanwhile, the contamination of the Internet with excessive bigoted comments shows what might happen in our public discourse if we lift political correctness offline.
Furthermore, Greenwald asserts that the purpose of defamers is to attract attention and that to ignore them makes them lose their power. I would retort that sometimes ignoring actually empowers the perpetrator. In fact, we have seen in recent history how this response has led to an increase in totalitarian movements. In “The Most Intolerant Wins: The Dictatorship of Small Minority” Nassim Taleb insists that a persistent intolerant minority may impose their ideals and beliefs on a tolerant majority, which ultimately brings us to another kind of tyranny (Medium, Aug 14, 2016). This is exactly what happened in Germany and Russia when fascists and communists came to power. Hitler was spreading hatred against Jewish people and those who ignored him ultimately paid a very high price. Because of this, Julia Serano, an American writer and activist, insists that tolerating intolerance is equal to supporting it and therefore it is right to not endure intolerance (Medium, Feb 6, 2017).
In addition, Greenwald advises to respond and to confront the speakers who seem to be offensive. This might work if you are a full member of a majority group where you can easily generate immense support, but as long as you are a minority and assailable that does not work. As Julia Serano puts it, harassing and intimidating speech is usually used to oppress vulnerable people, depriving them their right to speech – speech that paradoxically is protected by the First Amendment. When you are the only Muslim among hundreds of white people and one of them criticizes you and your religion, you cannot always reply сonfidently. Rather, you just try to defend yourself, desperately disproving the accusations; ironically, when you justify yourself it partly makes you seem guilty. In order to attack someone’s ideas, you have to have enough voice and community support.
Advocates of absolute free speech say that if we censor speech we will slide down the slippery slope toward tyranny. But the reality is that we have slippery slope on both sides and we can also fall to tyranny down the other side, if we do not identify proper limits to the First Amendment. Therefore, it is important to remonstrate against Milo Yiannopoulos and others like him who would promote hate speech on campus.
Darkhan Omirbek is a Presidential Bolashak Scholar from Kazakhstan