Picture this: You’re biking back to your dorm after section (why does this class even have a section, am I right?) when you encounter some sort of demonstration in White Plaza. At a distance, it looks like the post-concert crowd outside the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, but as you get closer, you realize these sweaty, riled-up folks aren’t shouting about how sick EDM is. They’re smashing out the bookstore’s windows, throwing punches at every poor red-capped sap they see and setting some kind of cart ablaze while impotent administrators spray fire extinguishers down into the black smoke.
Some protesters are holding signs that say, “Trans Dykes are Good and Pure,” and you wonder what this is all about. Before you can ask someone (you know, engage in civil discourse), you’re pepper-sprayed at the unseen hands of some black-clad anarchist.
The good news (if there is good news) is that this apocalyptic mayhem played out at Berkeley, not here at Stanford. The riot that caused $100,000 in damage was a response to a visit by Milo Yiannopoulos, the noted troll whose liberal-bashing “Dangerous Faggot“ campus tour has earned him far more money and outrage than he’s worth.
Of course, it’s sad that the hecklers had their veto, and that by their inaction, the Berkeley police were complicit in the event escalating as it did. What I find even more unsettling, though, is how the violence has been justified online. On Facebook, I saw comment after comment making the case that Milo’s rhetoric is hate speech that makes students unsafe and puts lives at risk. Violence isn’t just permissible, but necessary to fight this gay, immigrant, Jewish Nazi. Even CNN got in on the excuse-making, labeling Milo an “extremist” and claiming he “rallies white supremacists.”
But video from Milo’s shows reveals that his views are a far cry from those of actual white supremacists like Richard Spencer, who literally advocates ethnic cleansing. Milo’s critiques of liberal campus culture reveal that far from radical, his positions are mostly mainstream conservative ones. Milo courts controversy not for the content of his opinions, but because he phrases those opinions in the most provocative possible way. Criticizing feminism doesn’t make you an extremist when a majority of Americans don’t identify as feminists, but Milo’s hyperbolic claim that “feminism is cancer” is clearly intended to shock and offend.
I’m not really here to defend Milo’s views, though — only his right to express them.
Though he’s not much of a fascist, I agree that some of what Milo says is unapologetically insulting enough to be accurately characterized as hate speech. The larger question, then, is whether such speech should be allowed in the public square. To me, it seems clear that a free society that bans the expression of certain opinions is no free society at all. There’s precedent for restricting free speech in public, but that involves not offensiveness, but “fighting words” and cases of intentional panic-provoking, like yelling “fire!” in a crowded theater.
To justify censoring Milo because his rhetoric put lives at risk is to dangerously conflate words and actions — his words and the actions of others, in fact. Show me a life that was directly harmed by something Milo has said (or a life that was saved because Milo couldn’t speak, for that matter), and I’ll show you my really surprised face.
I have to wonder if anyone honestly sees the rioting in Berkeley as a good thing, or if liberals who excuse it are just trying to make the best of a less-than-ideal outcome. Whether or not you like his views, what happened to Milo was bigoted and fundamentally illiberal. It’s scary to think this might be the new direction of student protests in the age of Trump. If there’s any truth in comparing our current political situation with that of Nazi Germany, we should take care to remember the Sturmabteilung, professional fighters who used violence to disrupt the rallies of Hitler’s political rivals.
I fully support the right to peacefully protest an event like this. I don’t blame all of the 1,500 protesters for the violent actions of some 150, but by the same token, I don’t blame Milo for violence committed by anyone who happens to agree with him. A less exciting video from the event is perhaps the most telling: a group of Berkeley students picking up litter in the aftermath. As large-scale demonstrations become an ongoing part of American life, these are the folks truly contributing to the safety of their campus community.
Contact Iain Espey at iespey ‘at’ stanford.edu.