Current events have provoked personal concern that we are losing our ability, willingness, and even desire to engage in respectful, rational debate about the critical issues of our day, especially when significant disagreement exists. Anger, threats, and violence have replaced cool heads seeking common ground in the pursuit of truth.
Officials at UC Berkeley, considered the birthplace and bastion of the Free Speech Movement, canceled a speaking engagement by conservative pundit Ann Coulter, arranged by College Republicans and scheduled for April 27. Citing security concerns, Chancellor Nicholas Dirks said police had “very specific intelligence regarding threats that could pose a grave danger” to Coulter should she show up to speak. Perhaps there were genuine reasons to worry about Coulter’s safety. After all, the same campus suffered more than $100,000 in property damage caused by protestors expressing their displeasure over the visit of controversial former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos. Of course, no one planned to force students, faculty, or guests to attend Coulter’s lecture, much less to agree with her. Neither attendance nor agreement was required. Even liberal comedian Bill Maher came to Coulter’s defense, likening the cancellation of her speech to “the liberals’ version of book burning.”
Even more disconcerting is the rise of an ideology that views “hate speech” as a kind of “violence” that deserves to be met with actual physical violence in the name of “self-defense.” I’ll grant that there might be speech that actually qualifies as “hate speech.” To what degree it should be silenced, when it falls short of making actual threats, is another matter and another discussion. However, many people view “hate speech” as the expression of any viewpoint with which they disagree. In the April 12 edition of the “Wellesley News” (Wellesley College), student editorialists ventured to make the case for using physical force to stifle free speech. Offering an intellectual defense of a very narrow reading of the First Amendment, the authors argued: “The spirit of free speech is to protect the suppressed, not to protect a free-for-all where anything is acceptable, no matter how hateful and damaging.” Yet, the “free-for-all” about which they express such vehemence may be nothing more than a reasoned viewpoint or an opinion on a critical issue with which they disagree. It is as if someone (who the someone is always concerns me) has already been decided what viewpoint you must hold before you have a discussion about an issue. To hold another viewpoint is in itself “hateful.”
I’m not exactly sure how we got to the point that actual physical violence in justified to protect people from exposure to words and arguments that they might possibly find objectionable or even wrong. Words with which a person disagrees is “unjustified violence,” but actually breaking windows, torching buildings, and physically assaulting people is justifiable “self-defense” to save people from exposure to a viewpoint that has already been rejected before it is expressed or discussed.
In such a climate, I fear that reasoned, respectful debate will be less and less welcome. Considering the important issues which warrant such debate, I am discouraged by the practice of silencing—by threat and actual violence—the voices that disagree. To be honest, I am sometimes intimidated. And that is frightening because it means raw power is winning out over respectful reason.