A few days ago, an outspoken media personality who also happens to be an attention-starved right-wing extremist was invited to speak at Cal-Berkeley, one of the most liberal institutions of higher learning in the United States.
Milo Yiannopoulos, an admitted protagonist-agitator, who’s best known for spiking the witch’s brew of noxious deceit oozing out of the sewer pipe called Breitbart.com, was to appear at the university on Wednesday. Given his toxic background as a provocateur personified by divisive opinions on gays, race, gender, and religion, protests were expected.
However, no one foresaw that a two-day riot would erupt, forcing university officials to capitulate to the angry mob which was comprised almost entirely of students and faculty. Accordingly, the invitation sent to Yiannopoulos was withdrawn, citing “safety concerns.” A swarm of media attention ensued to cover the controversy. Hence, someone who had previously been unknown to most Americans catapulted overnight to near the top of every social media platform. Largely anonymous aside from a few basement-dwelling gamers and conspiracy kooks, Yiannopoulos couldn’t have asked for more grandiose introduction to national prominence, unless his name popped up in lights on the marquis of “A Star is Born.”
Call this abomination what is was — not a victory for the left, but a counterproductive embarrassment and humiliating defeat for all progressives.
This is the latest sad chapter of a much longer and more troubling trend happening on many college campuses, which is the threat to free speech. Since the 1960’s, an era of innumerable Vietnam War protests, American colleges and universities have become increasingly liberalized — particularly in the social sciences. There are valid reasons for various departments to lean left. While conservatives tend to gravitate to business school, or study law, or medicine, liberals are drawn naturally to the arts and sciences (with exceptions, of course). I’d even go so far to argue that inquiry is, by design, an inherently liberal pursuit because it invariably calls the status quo and many of our conventional belief systems into question. And so, leftist activism has fertile traditions deeply rooted in academia. By extension, it’s easy to understand why youthful idealism would ignite on campuses like Berkeley with a combustible passion for many progressive causes.
Yet somewhere along the way, a long time after liberals won the right to protest and even spout off radical ideas, some of us devolved into what we’d once feared the most. Now, intimidation doesn’t come from authority figures, such as campus police or university administrators nor the surrounding communities. Bullying comes from within our own ranks. Fact is, free speech has been hijacked in recent years and the problem appears to be getting worse. Liberals in many areas, once arm-to-arm on the front lines of the free-speech and free-thought movement, now demand that dissenting voices be silenced, which is precisely what we’ve witnessed at Berkeley. By doing this, we are undermining the very foundation on which liberal free thought is based.
Let’s be clear. Colleges and universities should not be cradles. Instead, academic institutions should be mental minefields ready to blow up bad ideas in a moment’s notice. Bad ideas are best exposed by scrutinizing them and exposing them as such, not by heavy-handed censorship. Indeed, knowledge, skills, and perseverance must be put to the test. “College in an earlier time was supposed to be an uncomfortable, experience because growth is always a challenge,” Dr. Tom Nichols, professor at the U.S. Naval War College wrote recently. “Now, attending college involves “the pampering of students like customers.”
Education demands that we constantly push ourselves to new heights. It’s vital that we place odd people with seemingly strange ideas in front of the classroom and under the microscope so that we can bear witness and potentially learn. This is especially true for those with whom we disagree. It’s even more vital to subject ourselves to thoughts we might at first consider to be absurd, objectionable, and even obscene. All great ideas start out as blasphemy. Assuming we believe that facts will come out and truth prevails, the very worst thing that can happen to a bad idea or a flawed argument is intense scrutiny. Hence, assuming we’re convinced Yiannopoulos is something of a crackpot, his ideas should have been given the chance to be voiced If those ideas don’t stand up to the heat lamp of truth, they melt down.
This is even more profoundly important at a state university, in other words, a school that’s publicly funded. One might argue that private schools (and particularly religious-based institutions) have every right to limit free speech, if they so wish. They might even limit speakers and guests to those who conform strictly to the university’s codes and ideals. Public schools like Cal-Berkeley, however, are obligated to expose students to the widest possible spectrum of people and ideas. Sure, protesting such an event is fine. Silencing a speaker is not.
Years ago, my outlook on life changed when I attended a university lecture by writer Raymond Bonner, the famed New York Times foreign correspondent who broke many of the news stories which exposed the dark and dirty things happening in Latin America at the time, largely engineered by the Reagan Administration (illegally, we’d later discover). I went into that lecture thinking one way about the issues, and came out afterward as a changed person with very different attitudes about the world. Such is the power of inviting guest speakers and openly exchanging ideas. This is the purpose of higher education.
Some will argue, at times there are justifiable reasons to limit free speech, even on college campuses. The hate speech” victim card gets wrongly played. But these objections ring hollow and make the protesters seem petty. British author David Irving has written prolifically on World War II, yet is also infamously known as the world’s leading Holocaust denier. To many, he’d certainly qualify as a proponent of hate speech. Years ago, Irving toured the United States and spoke to students on several college campuses. It took some time, but eventually, his “research” was exposed as fallacious and he was openly discredited in a very public trial that took place in London. Had Irving not been given a university platform, he might have remained hidden on the outer fringes and made quite a nice living at the expense of those who suffered unspeakable horrors. Hence, subjecting Irving’s words and ideas to scrutiny became truth’s most powerful weapon.
From what I’ve seen of Milo Yiannopoulos, he can easily be dismissed as just another punk. There’s nothing remotely credible about any of his ideas, particularly on politics and society. He’s engaged in crude look-at-me tactics. He written and said outrageous things, purely to gain notoriety. Yet for all his pernicious pestilence, Yiannopoulos should have just as much right to speak and be heard at a public university as anyone else. Free speech means exactly what it says — the right to speak freely. That means without interruption nor intimidation.
Unless we all have it and defend its practice, none of us enjoys free speech. That’s the reminder we progressives must take away from the Cal-Berkeley embarrassment.
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