Over the past few weeks, there have been two major controversies regarding far-right speakers and their potential to speak at universities. Richard Spencer was supposed to speak at Auburn University, but the university decided to cancel the event. Subsequently, a federal judge overturned the decision to cancel the event, deciding that Spencer did indeed have the right to speak at the university, and protests ensued. The following week, U.C. Berkeley cancelled an event with Ann Coulter due to safety concerns.
In these cases, and in cases like these, many opinions come out on the side of protecting free speech. The thing is, only one kind of free speech has champions of its protection. The far-right racists’ opinions and ability to express themselves take precedence over the opinions and concerns of the protesters.
Of course, this makes sense. Based on the precedents set in this nation, we protect all kinds of speech, unless that speech directly and immediately endangers the physical safety of the people that hear it. These precedents created this situation in which alt-right free speech is heavily protected. The problem with having a legal system based on precedent is that it is inherently conservative. It is resistant to change and preserves systemic abilities to maintain injustice.
At another level, though, the fact that these particular protections are happening at universities is deeply troubling. Arguments for hearing the arguments of the far-right often include a line or two about the importance of students’ learning about perspectives that aren’t their own. This would make sense if this perspective didn’t represent majority opinions that are present in our daily interactions. Sure, most people aren’t actively advocating for the KKK or alt-righters, but racism in America is the norm. Hate toward people based on specific identity categories (race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ability, socioeconomic status, etc.) is our norm. We don’t need to hear perspectives articulating that this exists because we know it. We see this hate coming from our peers, our superiors and our elected officials.
When students protest far-right speakers on their campuses, they aren’t trying to hide away from the hate of those speakers. They are (we are) trying to guide our own educations and get the most out of the time that we and the people around us are paying so much for. It is a waste of time, money and energy to entertain hate when we already so obviously know about its existence. It is also true that if there is any space in which it is appropriate for students to take charge of their own learning, it is a university context. While it is true that no one forces anyone to attend lectures, the statement of complicity says something significant about how the university feels about protecting its students as compared to the free speech of those not even party to the institution.
Folks seem to forget sometimes that, while we are still young, we are adults. Adults who can get married without our parents’ permission, vote, be conscripted in the case of a draft, make major medical decisions about our healthcare and, presumably, make decisions about the work that we want our education to do on us and for us. We are not young children whining about eating our vegetables, nor are we adolescents complaining about algebra.
In fact, having some of these speakers on campus can actually harm our educations. By creating a space that allows for the alt-right to speak freely without adequate critique, those hosting the speaker are also opening the space to real violence against people from historically marginalized backgrounds.
Furthermore, is not the purpose of attending university to get us to become better adults who can think critically? And shouldn’t many people who critique “whiny” college students be pleased with this fact? In his indictment of students attending elite institutions, Bill Deresiewicz discusses the problem of students getting through an entire tertiary degree without developing critical reasoning skills. Students making decisions about the kinds of people and kinds of thought they want to support is a demonstration against that idea. We are not simply excellent sheep. We develop moral compasses and stick to ours, even when our administrations leave theirs at the door for the sake of growing endowments or being “provocative.”
The outcomes of these two cases are devastating for the future of building a better, less racist society. A federal judge said that is important for someone from the alt-right to spew his hatred and racism in institutions of learning. He didn’t make a point about how it’s important to learn the logic of the alt-right in order to combat it. There was no move to push readers of his decision to think about how hearing opinions like that can help us refute them in the future.
The rationale given for canceling Coulter’s event is equally problematic. Canceling the speech for safety reasons is essentially a rejection of the concerns of the student voices speaking out against her presence. It says that if they weren’t worried about the safety of the speaker, it would be fine for her to defend the racist ideologies she espouses and those of the people she works with.
There is certainly an argument to be made that in order to get things in this nation clean, we must air all of our dirty laundry. And in some ways, this is true. We do need to be able to have open communication about these things. However, we need to talk about them with the understanding that we are getting them out in the open in order to get rid of such hateful thoughts for the rest of eternity. We cannot talk about these ideas or create space for them for the mere sake of doing so. We must create that space if, and only if, the goal is to build a better future by correcting the logic and subsequent behaviors of the people who are hateful towards anyone because of an identity that is a part of who they are.
Sure, the logical progression of arguments from the far right may work. However, a progression of logic that starts from faulty assumptions cannot possibly end with correct conclusions. Those arguments start from faulty premises and completely ignore the fact that historical inequalities have created a system in which the deck is stacked. The dice are weighted. And until we can get to a point where the die are no longer weighted and the deck is no longer stacked, we cannot be so complicit in the spread of hatred, and we must support students in their endeavors to think critically.
Contact Mina Shah at minashah ‘at’ stanford.edu.