After discussing, in the latter portion of my previous column, the professional troll that is Breitbart News Tech Editor Milo Yiannopoulos, I was sincerely intending to pick a more pleasant topic for this week. But then, as fate would have it, three days after I wrote about the merits of light versus heat, a real (non-metaphorical) fire was started on the campus of University of California at Berkeley. Given the amount of free publicity Yiannopoulos has already received, I might have decided not to write about it, but the self-righteous disdain with which the media cast the protest has convinced me that a more nuanced take is in order.
For those still unfamiliar with the story, I’m referring here to the recent protest and subsequent fire that resulted in the cancellation of a scheduled Yiannopoulos speech at UC Berkeley. Most of the controversy has surrounded a small subsection of the protesters who marched onto campus with their faces covered, destroying property and wreaking havoc in an attempt to shut down the event.
In reflecting on the media coverage of the protest, I was reminded of a recent column written by my fellow columnist, Calvary Rogers. Though he was speaking primarily about Penn, Rogers’ observation that there are “many critiques of how black students protest, yet barely any critique of the racism we experience on campus,” is certainly relevant to the situation at UC Berkeley.
The vast majority of what’s been written about the event at UC Berkeley has either been an outright condemnation of the protestors or a criticism of their destructive actions. And while most articles about it have highlighted Yiannopoulos’ bigoted message, few demonstrate the full extent of the danger that Yiannopoulos poses. Without fully covering the threats that engender protests, the media inadvertently diminishes the concerns of vulnerable students.
Already, Yiannopoulos has shown he’s not above targeting individual students. During a speech at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, he mocked a transgender student who later decided to leave the university. And before the UC Berkeley event there was word that Yiannopoulos was planning to out undocumented students as part of an attack on the sanctuary campus movement.
For those students who feel directly threatened by Yiannopoulos, the argument that he has a constitutional right to free speech would likely mean little when weighed against their own self-preservation. The reality is that being targeted by Yiannopoulos leaves students susceptible to harassment and possibly even death threats by his more reckless followers. That isn’t to say he shouldn’t be allowed to speak, but rather that the concerns of those vulnerable students should be taken seriously.
Currently, I don’t believe universities are doing enough to quell the fears of their students. If we are to be unwavering in our defense of free speech, then we should be equally unwavering in our defense of those who are threatened by it.
By far the most popular argument against protesting Yiannopoulos is that doing so only helps his movement. It’s also not a hard one to make — his pre-order book sales shot up after the UC Berkeley incident. But while destructive protests, like the one at UC Berkeley, certainly make Yiannopoulos’ job easier, it’s likely he’d still paint himself as the persecuted conservative if faced with even the most respectful of demonstrations.
Taken to its logical extreme, the argument against fueling Yiannopoulos’ narrative can seem like an argument against any kind of resistance. This is, after all, a man who tried to defend our country’s history of slavery by saying other cultures did it too; surely he’s capable of framing any rational dissent as fascistic censorship. Given his propensity for distortion, I’m sure many students would rather just try to stop Yiannopoulos than attempt to play nice with him.
Personally, however, I can’t commend the act of shutting down a Yiannopoulos speech. Yes, Yiannopoulos may spin whatever criticism he faces but a resistance would likely be more successful if it had better optics. And as far as the argument that hate speech shouldn’t be considered free speech, history — including recent history — has proven that university administrations cannot be trusted to make that distinction.
My main gripe is not so much that the media took issue with the protestors but that they did so without equally weighting the concerns that they faced. I don’t deny that the UC Berkeley protest was likely a net gain for Yiannopoulos, but I doubt the students involved felt they had any other choice. For all the pundits and writers who jumped at the chance to criticize the students’ method of resistance, there are very few who accurately portrayed the fear that may have drove them to that decision.
CAMERON DICHTER is a College junior from Philadelphia, studying English. His email address is email@example.com. “Real Talk” usually appears every other Monday.
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