There’s an interesting debate going on right now about Milo Yiannopoulis, the far right skeez-ball troll whose speaking engagement was recently canceled at UC-Berkeley after violent riots broke out. There were some reports that he’d planned, to publicly name undocumented students on campus, which he denied (he’d previously outed trans students in the past, so it’s conceivable he would’ve been that much of a douche).
Naturally, people are claiming that his free speech rights were violated. People like the President of the United States, who threatened to pull federal funding from UC Berkeley. And this raises an interesting debate — is protesting repellent speakers inconsistent with a belief in free speech?
The short, easy answer is “no.” I’ll let xkcd’s Randall Munro explain.
The longer answer is just a more extended “no,” but I think I can give a bit more context. Basically, though, you can be done with reading this article, because comics are a much better medium of communication than blogging, and I clearly picked the wrong profession.
Free speech doesn’t mean “everyone gets a megaphone.”
In 2007, my junior year at Penn State, Ann Coulter came to give a speech. I was President of the school’s chapter of Amnesty International at the time, and we, along with a number of other progressive groups, decided to protest her speech.
The speech was heavily attended — both by the college’s many conservatives, and by a lot of locals living in the surrounding rural area. And as they walked into the speech, they saw us. And they were annoyed.
“What a bunch of whiners,” they said. “This is America! Take your PC bullshit to China!”
I am not particularly aware of a political correctness movement in China, but the rebuke to our protest was broadly the same from everyone who engaged with us: “FREEDOM OF SPEECH!”
It was a strange argument to make against us, as it was precisely the reason we were protesting — and it also totally missed the point of the protest.
The reason we were protesting Ann Coulter was not because we thought she did not have a right to speak at Penn State. It was because the school was paying her a lot of money to speak, and the money they were using came from a fund that was partially filled by the student’s tuition. I forget what the exact number was, but I believe it was around $10,000.
Our argument was that, if the school wanted to pay political commentators, then they should. But Ann Coulter is not the type of conservative who has very much of value to say. She’s a demagogue and a bigot and a troll. Penn State’s not exactly a small-time school, and there was no reason to think that, if they’d wanted to, they could’ve gotten a slightly more thoughtful conservative commentator. There’s no shortage of right-wingers who aren’t dumbasses.
Had Ann Coulter wanted to exercise her right to free speech, no one would’ve stopped her — the school had designated “free speech zones,” one of which happened to be the patch of pavement in front of the HUB, which is where she was speaking, and thus was the place we chose for her protest.
She could’ve gone to one of those spots — for free! — and said whatever she wanted. We would’ve argued with her, but we wouldn’t have questioned her right to talk.
But no one sat long enough for us to explain this — in their eyes, we were crybabies who hated freedom of speech.
Tools to shut down a conversation
Phrases like “Free speech” and “Political Correctness” are really good at shutting down what might have otherwise been productive conversations. They’re both misleading. Freedom of speech, as Munro points out, is not freedom from criticism or backlash — it is merely freedom from the government interfering with your right to say what you want.
People with platforms — news outlets, universities, churches, etc. — all have to play a role as the gatekeeper to their platform. With some exceptions (the equal time rule, for example, which only applies to political candidates during elections), they are allowed to give time to whomever they choose. Universities position themselves as a place where ideas can be exchanged, but the universities get to choose which ideas are worth exchanging.
Geologists, for example, would not invite a flat-earther to lecture their students in most cases. Acting programs wouldn’t be questioned for inviting Daniel Day-Lewis to speak instead of Pauly Shore. One of these people is clearly better at what they do than the other, with more to say.
There’s nothing wrong with setting rules of engagement.
Likewise, the matter of “political correctness” often glosses over a major point: every arena of debate has its own rules of engagement, and what is often dismissed as “political correctness” is more often an attempt to better define those rules of debate. Let me provide an example.
When I have disagreements with my wife, we have an understanding that we’re not going to say or do certain things. I used to roll my eyes when I was frustrated — she called it out as arrogant and condescending, and I don’t do it anymore. She would occasionally tease me about certain things that hit a really soft spot — I asked her not to, and now she doesn’t.
We still haven’t totally worked out the exact rules of engagement, nearly five years into our relationship, but we have the understanding that it’s a work in progress, and we know that it’s important that we a) communicate and b) do so respectfully. Otherwise, we’ll spend our time attacking each other rather than working together to get the things we both want.
This is basically what’s happening with what many people are calling “political correctness.” Certain groups of people are saying, “Hey, we’d like you to maybe speak to us in this way — it feels kinda disrespectful, otherwise.” You might feel defensive or embarrassed when they say this: I was mortified when my wife pointed out the eye-rolling thing, so naturally I got angry at her because that was easier than admitting I was being an asshole. But you have to understand that they’re totally allowed to ask for certain things in order to feel respected.
That’s what respect is — it’s treating someone with the dignity that they ask for. And if you’ve ever asked someone not to call you a certain name — a racist, an idiot, a butthead, a moron, a bigot, a douchebag, a fuckstick, a wankstain, a jerkyjerkjerkface, etc. — then you’ve engaged in this exact same behavior.
A new America
The reason we’re having these fiery conversations about what we can and can’t say is because more people are taking part in the conversations now. The academic and political conversation in the US was created by rich, white males, and has been dominated by them for a long time. They wrote the constitution, they created the government, and they populated academia. So they set the rules of engagement. It was understood that threats against their personal safety were not conducive to civil discussion, so threats were taken off the table.
Today, we (fortunately) have more voices in the conversation. This is good — democracy is about getting different people with different interests working together. But now that there are women, LGBT people, and people of color in the conversation, and they’re saying, “Hey, can we go back and discuss these rules of engagement so they take my unique experience into consideration?”
Most people who believe in democracy believe that its lifeblood is civil conversation. If you can talk about an issue civilly, without resorting to ad hominem attacks and cheap rhetorical tricks, then you’re likely to come to some form of agreement or compromise. But for a democracy to work, all parties have to have input on the rules of that conversation. There will never be a perfect agreement, and sometimes people’s feelings will get hurt. But that doesn’t mean that the rules of engagement aren’t worth discussing.
Featured photo by mpancha