Photo: Scott Strazzante, The Chronicle
“If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” – George Washington
In February, 2016, American conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro spoke at the University of California, Berkeley to little fanfare or protest. Security consisted of two personal bodyguards.
On September 14, 2017, he came to speak at Berkeley again, but this time things were different. Hundreds of police officers set up physical barriers in a roughly half-mile long perimeter around six campus buildings while almost a thousand protesters gathered outside the auditorium to protest Shapiro’s speech. The prestigious university lifted a 20-year ban on the use of pepper spray on campus grounds. Local business boarded up their buildings in anticipation that the protest organised by ‘Refuse Fascism’, an affiliate of Antifa, would turn violent.
Heavily armed police in riot gear watched on as protesters chanted “no Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA”, while others held signs objecting to the university hosting Shapiro. These signs accused Shapiro, a 5’9” orthodox Jew, of being a “xenophobic, misogynistic, fascist white supremacist”, and that his speech was “intellectual thuggery in the service of the Trump/Pence fascist regime”. Banners were erected on campus building’s proclaiming “We say NO to your white supremacist BULLS**T” and messages of resistance such as “We don’t want your racist hate.” scrawled upon the sidewalks.
Meanwhile, inside the university’s Zellerbach Hall, hundreds of students cheered as Shapiro gave his talk, which he titled “Say No to Campus Thuggery”. During his speech, Shapiro spoke about the importance of protecting freedom of speech as well as condemning both Antifa and white supremacists. He also criticized the rise of identity politics and victim culture and emphasised the value of open discussion and debate as well as the importance of viewing people as individuals and not as members of predetermined groups or ideologies.
Of the large-scale protest taking place outside and the accusations of fascism levelled against him he had this to say, “Fascism is the phenomenon whereby people believe that they have the capacity to ram their beliefs down your throat at the point of a gun. I have spent my entire career fighting against fascism. Antifa is fascist; I am not a fascist.” He then proceeded to criticise the protesters for trying to shut down his speech, “This is the way the Left works: if you don’t agree with them, everyone is a white supremacist. You’re a Nazi, Nazis should be punched, and therefore it’s totally fine to stand outside and try to shut down events if you can get away with it. They’re not getting away with it tonight because the police have been allowed to actually do their jobs.”
By the end of the night nine people had been arrested, some in minor skirmishes with law enforcement, some accused of carrying banned weapons. Together, the university and the city of Berkeley spent a combined $600,000 on police and security for the event.
So, what changed in the 18 months between Shapiro’s first and second speech at UC Berkeley to cause this massive escalation in hostility towards him? His ideas, principles and ideologies had not changed, but the world around him certainly had. Donald Trump was elected as President of the United States of America on November 8, 2016. This political shock led to a massive reactionary movement on the left, who united in righteous anger, were ready to enter the political fray.
This vicious anger was duly directed at Trump himself and indeed all prominent right-wing figures. This anger spawned a conglomeration of autonomous, self-styled anti-fascist groups in the United States, collectively known as Antifa, as well as leading to large and often violent protesting of conservative speakers on college campuses across the US. These protests often focused on trying to shut down the events of conservative speakers on the grounds that their speech was hate speech, not free speech, and thus did not deserve a platform.
Shapiro is not the only speaker to face these types of protests on University campuses in 2017. In Berkeley alone, Milo Yiannopoulos speech was cancelled after rioters set the campus on fire and threw rocks through windows, causing an estimated $100,000 in damages. Fears of violent protests shut down Ann Coulter’s speech after campus police gathered intel on protesters who were planning to commit violence.
While the opposition to conservative speakers at the university once known as the ‘birthplace of the free speech movement’ was particularly intense, protests and demonstrations occurred at universities all around the country. On February 15, 2017, a group of masked protesters at the University of Chicago attempted to stop Corey Lewandowski, a former Trump campaign manager, from speaking. On March 2, hundreds of students at Middlebury college in Vermont violently protested a speech by libertarian political scientist Charles Murray, assaulting him and his assistant. On April 6, protesters at Claremont McKenna College shut down conservative commentator and author Heather Mac Donald’s speaking event in what she described as an “exercise of brute totalitarian force”. The list goes on and on. The intensity of the demonstrations and the level of violence varies between protests, but the message is always the same: “We don’t like what you’re saying, so we’re going to shut you down.”
The protest against Shapiro was not unique then, nor was it the largest or most violent of demonstrations. It was remarkable however, because of the scale of the protest and the magnitude of the vitriol and intolerance directed at a fairly mainstream centre-right conservative. Shapiro is not a deliberate provocateur like Yiannopoulos who delights in causing outrage and ‘triggering’ people, nor was he a member of the campaign team which helped to elect the most divisive President in US history. His views hail directly from traditional conservatism and are shared by a large percentage of the American people.
The accusations made against him were largely unfounded and ignorant of both facts and history. Shapiro was labelled a Trump/Pence puppet despite being a consistent and loud critic of Donald Trump, describing him as a “bully” and slating him on numerous occasions. He was branded as a fascist despite a long history of fiercely advocating free speech and the sharing of ideas. He was accused of being a Nazi and a supporter of the alt-right, despite a lengthy public history of attacking supremacist groups.
Furthermore, Shapiro is Jewish, and according to the Anti-Defamation League, he was the number one journalistic recipient of white supremacist anti-Semitic tweets in America, 2016. He would open his inbox each day to see images of himself photoshopped into gas chambers, yellow Jewish stars pinned to his chest. This makes him perhaps one of the least likely people to support the alt-right.
Yet despite all of the aforementioned evidence that runs contrary to their claims, the left engaged in a massive organised protest against Shapiro’s right to speak. This illustrates two things. The first is that the people protesting Shapiro were not aware of his views. In fact, it is unlikely that many of them knew who he was prior to the protest. The second is that they did not care what he had to say anyway. They knew he was a conservative and that was enough incentive for them to want to shut him down. What’s more, they were ready and willing to utilize large scale demonstrations and even violence to do so
This all begs the question, why do these protests occur with such regularity and ferocity? Why the intense intolerance of opposing viewpoints? Why do so many people on the left, especially young people, flat out refuse to listen to or engage with arguments or ideas that they do not agree with? I often wondered, if the protestors disagreed with these speakers so much, why they didn’t attend their speeches instead of protesting them? Why didn’t they choose to engage the speaker in a debate? Why not challenge them on their apparently deeply flawed opinions and views? If their own ideas were so virtuously right, and the speakers were so monstrously wrong, why not simply defeat them in reasoned argument instead of trying to shut them down?
These problems are attributable to the phenomenon of confirmation bias. This is a tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s pre-existing beliefs or hypotheses, and to reject the ideas which conflict with those beliefs. The majority of the aforementioned young people have grown up surrounded by a particular worldview, one dominated by political correctness, identity politics and outrage culture.
This worldview is reinforced by the media they consume, the books they read and the universities they attend. They surround themselves with people who share this same worldview. Social-media algorithms spoon feed them news articles and opinion pieces which support their ‘correct’ perception of the world. This results in confirmation bias; a tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s pre-existing beliefs or hypotheses.They are shielded from alternative viewpoints by their parents, schools and university administrations and grow up in a world where they are told that their feelings and emotions are of paramount importance.
This results in a world of micro-aggressions and safe spaces, “Cry In” events and puppy rooms, adult colouring books and participation trophies. This has produced a generation of young people who are hysterical in the face of adversity. They are quite literally incapable of rationally dealing with ideas or arguments that conflict with their established worldview. They see someone like Shapiro, a straight white male conservative, and conflate his ideas, view’s and character with all of the negative connotations they have learned to associate with that particular ‘type’ of person as defined by their worldview: racism, fascism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, privilege. Then they attack him on those grounds. It’s identity politics at its best. And it is to be reprehensible, as it shows the far-left’s ignorant intolerance of alternative ideas and opinions.
The sad truth is that many on the left would rather silence a speaker who holds a view that they disagree with than engage them in intellectual debate. “But hate speech isn’t free speech,” I hear the leftists screech over the clatter of toys rattling off the floor as they’ve been thrown unceremoniously from the pram. And despite their antics, I happen to somewhat agree with them. They do have a salient point here, which is that speech which advocates or encourages violence based on hatred should not be tolerated.
However speech is not hate speech simply because it is offensive, and too often activists on the far-left have labelled any speech with which they personally disagree as hate speech. This practice is undemocratic, oppressive and downright dangerous. Dangerous because it insinuates that if I disagree with you, and if I attack your ideas, and you find that offensive, then that is tantamount to an attack on you personally, an attack on your very identity. My speech is then characterized as ‘verbal violence’ or ‘hate speech’. And because this type of speech is violent in nature, it should be silenced, and if it cannot be silenced, then it justifies a violent response.
This is precisely why we have seen so many student protests descend into violent chaos in the past year. This apocryphal idea that speech can be violent and thus can justify a violent reaction combined with a refusal by many on the left to listen to or engage with arguments which they vehemently disagree ideologically has led to what can only be described as an all out war over the freedom of speech. One which has played out loudly and publicly on campuses across America in the past year as an individual’s ‘right’ not to be offended comes into direct conflict with an individual’s right to speak freely and openly.
Unfortunately, universities have by and large done more to exacerbate the problem than they have to alleviate it. Administrations often strive to shield students from opposing viewpoints, something which is antithetical to a university’s typically stated aim of helping young people to broaden their minds and develop the resilience necessary to succeed in the real world. UC Berkeley circulated the following email to students prior to Shapiro’s 2017 speech: “We are deeply concerned about the impact some speakers may have on individuals’ sense of safety and belonging, no one should be made to feel threatened or harassed simply because of who they are or for what they believe. For that reason, the following support services are being offered and encouraged.” The notice went on to list student and employee support services. The notion that the mere presence of a conservative speaker on campus would lead students to require counselling would be comical if it was not so troubling.
Upon hearing about the email, Shapiro noted: “If you feel you need counselling because of my speech, you probably did need some sort of psychiatric help before that.” To engage in constructive debate requires an acceptance that you may be exposed to views that you disagree with or find upsetting. You must be willing to offend, and be willing to be offended. This mollycoddling by universities creates mentally weak students unwilling and unable to deal with alternative ideas.
As incidents of violence grew more frequent, many universities went as far as to outright ban polarizing speakers from appearing on campus, citing fears for student welfare and campus safety. This gave radical leftists a heckler’s veto, it sent a message that if they threatened enough chaos and violence then they could get the university to cancel event’s they didn’t agree with. No-platforming speakers because of the sensitivities of students sends a dangerous message that it is possible and acceptable to silence the voices of speakers you disagree with through dissent and threats of violence.
It’s worth noting that the assault on free speech is not a purely American issue, On February 20, 2017 a talk in Trinity College Dublin with the Israeli Ambassador to Ireland, Ze’ev Boker, was cancelled at the last-minute because of protests. The event had been organised by Trinity’s Society For International Affairs (SOFIA) but the event was opposed and successfully shut down by another college group, ‘Students for Justice in Palestine’.
Human rights activist Maryam Namazie also cancelled a scheduled speech at Trinity College. This was after the university tried to attach a number of conditions to the event, stipulating that all students present at the talk must be Trinity students, members of the society holding the talk, and also that a moderator host the event ‘for balance’. The college told student organisers that they “didn’t want to give the impression that Trinity was one-sided or antagonise Muslim students.” Namazie cancelled the event in protest after the university refused to back down on these stipulations. She argued that “such conditions are not usually placed on other speakers,” that it was “meant to be an event that was open to the public,” and that these conditions were not raised with Islamist speakers, noting that “An Islamist speaker was invited last month and he has explained why apostates should get the death penalty. He has explained why there is the punishment of stoning for adultery and so forth. None of these conditions were put on him.”
While there were no large scale or violent protests in Ireland in the past year I am uneasy with the knowledge that speakers were shut down on Irish campuses, especially Trinity, the country’s flagship university. As a community of Irish universities, the closest we have been to a serious attack on free speech during this academic year has been the unsuccessful attempts to get Nigel Farage disinvited from giving at talk in Trinity College. We as a nation and as a people must strive to keep our minds open to all forms of political discourse, whether we agree with the speaker or not, lest we risk following America into the Stygian abyss of close minded intolerance and censorship.
The war on free speech looks set to continue in 2018. We as a society now face a moral dilemma. We can opt for a society in which free speech, vigorous debate and the sharing of ideas is encouraged, with the aim of creating an open minded, emotionally mature and intellectually formidable population. A society in which our views are judged purely on merit and not on the skin colour, sex or sexual orientation of the speaker and in which those views are never censored on the grounds that they offend someone. The alternative is a society in which an individual’s right not to be offended takes precedence over an individual’s right to free speech. A society where individuals refuse to engage with alternative viewpoints and are never exposed to contrary ideas and ways of thinking and where those who do hold opposing views are viciously scorned, attacked and subjected to slander and defamation. A society in which people strive to silence the voices of those with whom they disagree, utilising violence if necessary, with the supposed aim of creating a world in which speech, and by natural extension thought, are rigorously and tyrannically policed.
“Without freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom- and no such thing as public liberty without freedom of speech” – Benjamin Franklin