This week, the British government formally rejected an online petition started on its website to cancel U.S. President Donald Trump’s upcoming state visit on the grounds that it would “cause embarrassment to Her Majesty the Queen.” The petition amassed more than 1.8 million signatures, the second-most signed petition on the website. A rival petition called for President Trump to be extended an invitation, saying that the “U.K. is a country that supports free speech and does not believe that people that appose [sic] our point of view should be gagged.” Despite the dubious spelling, the petition amassed more than 310,000 signatures, also above the threshold that prompts a response from the government.
The British government’s decision to support the leader of the free world should surprise nobody, but it sent a strong signal that they did not believe in objecting to his views by shutting him down.
It was the right thing to do.
Through the lens of a college student, the debacle appears like a higher-stakes version of the argument that played out violently in Berkeley, Calif. two weeks ago, when fiery Breitbart News editor and provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos’ planned speech was met with protest and riot in the streets. In fact, so infuriated was President Trump with the treatment of Yiannopoulous that he tweeted, “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view - NO FEDERAL FUNDS?”
It’s a debate that we saw take place at Penn last year too, when former C.I.A. director John Brennan’s talk was cut short by protesters after just 15 minutes. A chorus of boos and heckles from a group that reportedly included at least one Penn student led to the conversation abruptly ending.
The sad spectacle of mass movements attempting to silence the views of those they disagree with has become all too common. Of course, there is a big difference between silencing Milo Yiannopoulous and silencing a sitting president of the United States — at the time when Britain undoubtedly needs America most — but the principle is the same: “This person says things that offend me, and so I don’t think they should be able to speak.”
Many things that Yiannopoulous says are repugnant, but nobody is being forced to listen, and shutting the speech down entirely does nothing but propel him to mainstream headlines and Twitter trends.
Shutting down a speech isn’t protest, it’s retreat.
If you believe in the repugnancy of somebody’s message, allow their message to be heard and the opposition will grow. Shutting down a speech is a sign of weakness.
Some might argue that offensive speech, or “hate speech,” is an exception to free speech. Even for those people who do not subscribe to free speech absolutism in the way I do, the importance of hearing extreme opinions in an academic setting should be obvious. How else, after all, can moderate people mitigate extreme views if they are never exposed to them?
The widespread pandemic of crowd censoring is alarming because it implies that there are vast quantities of generally young, student-age people who believe that shutting down speech is a valid form of political discourse.
Perhaps the most tragic part of the story is that age cohort. At a time when we college students should be exposing ourselves to more ideas — even those we may rightfully disagree with vehemently or find morally outrageous — many of us have an inclination to wall ourselves off from potentially offensive material.
That is harmful to our education and a harmful way to see the world. Rather than engaging with an idea, some of our fellow students are disengaging from it. Students who disagree with a speaker on campus should bring in their own speaker, organize a peaceful protest while allowing the speaker to appear or even engage the speaker in a way that allows them to respond.
The nation is polarized to an unhealthy degree, and there will be no improvement in that situation if our age group refuses to engage in real dialogue with political speakers, even those from the crazy fringes.
Given that Republicans control all levers of government in Washington, it’s hard to see how many left-leaning students could benefit from shutting down these speeches rather than engaging with them. For conservative and libertarian students like me, a more open attitude toward campus speakers of all political stripes would be a welcome change.
REID JACKSON is a College junior from New York, N.Y., and London, U.K., studying political science. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Common Sense” usually appears every other Thursday.
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