Vermont US Senator Bernie Sanders’ remarks calling for UC Berkeley to go ahead and permit the alt-right darling Ann Coulter speak despite the recent violence of neonazis descending on Berkeley and harming local citizens have been spread across the internet by right-wing and politically correct gatekeeper pundits.
Sanders is quoted as saying, “Obviously Ann Coulter’s outrageous ― to my mind, off the wall. But you know, people have a right to give their two cents-worth, give a speech, without fear of violence and intimidation.” This claim itself is innocuous. What philosophers should be more circumspect of is his claim that
Taken out of context, as a disembodied principle, letting people speak their piece, and being a good listener are of course basic principles of decency that should only be contravened in exceptional circumstances.
But the times we are in are not innocuous. Black people are dying. Women are being forced to have babies they don’t want and can’t take care of. Hispanic people are being deported. Islamic people are enduring hate-crimes and denied entry to the US. LGBTQ people are being killed, harassed, and institutionally discriminated against. These are not events that arose out of thin air, but are the product of speech–speech which has led to hate, which has led to violence. Pretending that there is no correlation between the unleashing of hate speech and violent hate acts is a grave mistake.
Especially in light of recent violence as a result of UC Berkeley allowing alt-right hate groups to sponsor bigot Milo Yiannopoulos, and that expensive, failed fiasco, and the descent of neonazis nationwide on Berkeley two weekends ago, causing bloodshed, violence, and property destruction, it makes sense for UC Berkeley to learn from its mistakes of forcing on the local community hateful people and prevent people such as Coulter who spread disease vectors of violence through their hate memes. Quarantining infectious diseases of hate memes is the responsibility of government and universities, as well as informed, aware citizens.
We get specious sentences, like this one from Inquisitr that “A non-partisan group originally invited Coulter to Berkeley for a speech on April 27.” Drilling a little deeper, Young Americans for Freedom, a wing of the Young American Foundation, is a Koch brothers front-group. The same people that brought you the Tea Party alt-right and Trump, also bring you Young Americans for Freedom, a perverse euphemism if ever there was one. And this group is the real force between the Coulter scandal. Alt-right billionaires are puppeteering foolish youth into doing their bidding for them to create scandal and to confuse the over-apologetic progressive center. Running such a disinformation campaign, where hate speech becomes allowed and spread like the virus that it is, while constraining the rights of peaceful protesters is the perverse sense of freedom that these UC Berkeley front groups are perpetuating, whether they are aware of it or not. Meanwhile, Berkeley college Republicans declare “the Free Speech Movement is dead,” another opportunistic abuse of the Civil Rights Movement to promote hate speech.
Sanders, I’m sure, did not make his comments in light of recent events. On this account, he is simply mistaken that saying NO to parasitic elements is a “sign of intellectual weakness.” I’m not sure who Sanders’ publicist is who encouraged him to fall into this alt-right trap, but his moral high ground should not be eroded over a misunderstanding of the stakes of this issue, in light of the context of recent events.
While those unschooled in making distinctions tend to default to the knee-jerk response that not inviting detestable people and their divisive and violence-inducing hate speech into their home, their habitat, the communities in which they live, is censorship, let them be reminded that no one has the right to say whatever they want wherever they want. You can preach to your own choir as much as you want; but if you want into my church, I’m going to vet you first–thoroughly. If I yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater, that’s creating a situation of malicious harm, and I am culpable for the consequences. People like Coulter should also be liable for any hate acts following their hate speech. To conflate speech as any speech, is to abuse the ideals of democracy and the sanctity of words. It is to make war by other means. To feign innocence while one’s actions cause violent acts by those moved by the passions stirred up by those words. Fanning the flames of hate is as bad as the ensuing acts that follow from those words. Words and deeds go inextricably hand-in-hand. We ignore this simple fact at our own peril.
So I urge Sanders, and all other thinking people to think a little deeper.
The counter-argument–if we don’t give people like Coulter a forum, then maybe other people in other places won’t give us a forum–is, I believe, the underlying concern most good-hearted but misguided people have in their strategic apologetics for the free screech fallacy. They treat all language as equal, or equally deserving listening, because they fail to differentiate between public-good-oriented speech, and destructive speech. Of course, the fear boils down to: but who is the arbiter of such speech? Who decides what is hateful and what is helpful? It’s like US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s controversial definition of porn: I know it when I see it.
Differences are a healthy component of a pluralistic democracy. However, “some differences are asserted so irrationally that debate is foreclosed, and those differences, while they must be tolerated in a free society, must also be denounced by all right- thinking persons. Hate speech-speech directed against women, Jews, blacks, and gays-falls into the second category,” writes Stanley Fish. Like Jürgen Habermas’ refusal to allow religious fundamentalists a legitimate place in his constitutional republic because they “claim exclusiveness for a privileged way of life” that precludes “civilized debate … in which one party can recognize the other parties as co-combatants in the search for authentic truths,” so too must hate speech by divisive self-proclaimed bigots be excluded from the fora of academics, politics, and civilized life.
Amy Gutmann, among others, classifies hate speech as a different form of speech than regular speech,
Milo Yiannopoulos’s threat that he will “return Berkeley to its rightful place as the home of free speech — whether university administrators and violent far-left antifa thugs like it or not” sounds like a threat of violence. What if Greenpeace said, “We are going to stop the rape of the earth fossil fuel companies are perpetuating, whether these companies or the corporate shills in government like it or not?” I’m guessing if they tried to do this, they would (1) be unsuccessful, and (2) be met with violent opposition. Why should alt-right thugs like Yiannopoulos and Coulter (who self-describes herself as a “mean-spirited, bigoted conservative”) be treated any differently? Why should democrats and city officials roll over, play dead, and let neofascists steamroll them and what they have built? I know I don’t want my taxpayer dollars going to such nonsense.
As Oliver Wendell Holmes in Abrams v. United States declared hate speech as that speech “fraught with death,” anyone compounding existing structural inequalities by calling for more structural inequality or bigotry against those historically beaten down by the white supremacist patriarchy ought to be censured from inclusion into the community of discourse.
I’ll end by citing a passage from Stanley Fish in his essay Boutique Multiculturalism, or Why Liberals Are Incapable of Thinking about Hate Speech:
“Banishing hate speakers from your little conversation leaves them all the freer to pursue their deadly work in the dark corners from which you have averted your fastidious eyes. Gutmann’s instinct to exclude is the right one; it is just that her gesture of exclusion is too tame-it amounts to little more than holding her nose in disgust-and falls far short of wounding the enemy at its heart. A deeper wound will only be inflicted by methods and weap- ons her liberalism disdains: by acts of ungenerosity, intolerance, perhaps even repression, by acts that respond to evil not by tolerating it–in the hope that its energies will simply dissipate in the face of scorn-but by trying to stamp it out.”