Censorship on Campus

I’m beginning to suspect that the self-proclaimed liberals who protest scheduled talks on college campuses across the US are. in fact, conservative students working undercover to foster public disgust with the left. Some of these fiascos have to be staged. After all, it’s difficult to imagine a better way of shoring up conservative politics than by depicting liberals as a lot of hypersensitive scoundrels playing fast and loose with the First Amendment.

Residing as I do on the far left of the political spectrum (I don’t usually identify as “liberal,” simply because I personally have no use for the term outside of its economic sense), I’m perfectly content to leave the shameful business of censorship to my counterparts on the right. While they go to extreme lengths—including efforts to pass dubious legislation—to shut down critical discussion of Israel, for instance, it never occurs to me that we ought to respond in kind. They want to offer apologetics for atrocities? Great: There are few things more satisfying than laying waste to their spurious claims and exposing them as the vile demagogues that they are.

Suppression of speech is by definition, and without exception, undemocratic. It’s also, as I think most people intuitively understand, totally counterproductive. Just as employing the ad hominem betrays the unsustainability of one’s argument, attempting to suppress another person’s views, however offensive, is a reliable way to, as it were, lose the sympathy of the jury. Moreover, gag someone enough times and, far from disappearing them into obscurity, you’re bound to elevate their status and heighten public interest in whatever it is they have to say. I hold these truths to be self-evident. Perhaps I no longer should.

Thanks in part to excessive media hype, the recent blowout at UC Berkeley, where a scheduled speech by conservative firebrand Milo Yiannopoulos was canceled after demonstrations turned violent, represents something of a climacteric with respect to the contemporary debate on free speech, of which college campuses have been the predominant theater.

According to university officials, the hooliganism was carried out “by a group of about 150 masked agitators who came onto campus and interrupted an otherwise non-violent protest.” While I’m somewhat serious when I say I think there’s a chance that such incidents are false flag operations, Occam’s razor stipulates that we accept the “masked agitators” as overzealous protestors who are legitimately hostile to Yiannopoulos’ politics. In which case they are doing incalculable damage to their cause.

Furthermore, tempting as it is to draw a sharp distinction between these self-styled anarchists and the non-violent protesters whose demonstration they hijacked, the fact remains that, for many liberal students in America and abroad, gagging people like Yiannopoulos is a common goal and has been for years. The means may differ, but the end is essentially the same: Silencing unwanted viewpoints. If this weren’t so, Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks wouldn’t have felt compelled to pen a 1400-word letter justifying the university’s refusal to cancel the speech in advance. (Contrary to Trump’s idiotic tweet, in which he threatened to cut Berkeley’s federal funding, the administration defended Yiannopoulos’ First Amendment rights every step of the way; they are beyond reproach in this case.)

There’s no denying that Yiannopoulos’ enormous popularity, or notoriety, is by and large a consequence of the intolerance he’s met with on his “Dangerous Faggot” tour of college campuses. It’s owing to episodes like the one at UC Berkeley that he’s celebrated, rightly or wrongly, as a sort of free speech martyr. Would he be a total nonentity otherwise? Probably not. But I seriously doubt he would have a $250,000 book deal with Simon & Schuster—news of which, by the way, triggered an avalanche of indignation on social media and led feminist writer Roxane Gay to pull her upcoming book from publication, effectively guaranteeing Yiannopoulos a spot on the New York Times Best Seller list. It’s a vicious cycle, as they say.

Consider the following, which Yiannopoulos posted to social media following the cancellation of his speech:

I have been evacuated from the UC Berkeley campus after violent left-wing protestors tore down barricades, lit fires, threw rocks and Roman candles at the windows and breached the ground floor of the building. My team and I are safe. But the event has been cancelled. I’ll let you know more when the facts become clear. One thing we do know for sure: the Left is absolutely terrified of free speech and will do literally anything to shut it down.

Do you see how it works? Regardless of his views—which, as I understand them, are no more abhorrent than your average Republican’s—Yiannopoulos emerges from the conflict as the sober, sensible party. His fan base swells as people already suspicious of “liberal” motives take another step to the (alt) right. Meanwhile, those of us on the left who feel strongly about free speech are obliged, I would argue, to defend unequivocally his right to express himself and, at the same time, to rebuke anyone attempting to infringe upon that right. But this, of course, will do nothing to stop blackguards like Yiannopoulos from associating the entire left with hostility to free speech. He and his acolytes couldn’t dream up a better scenario.

There is, of course, one context in which censorship can be, and almost always is, extremely effective. It’s the one George Orwell wrote about in Nineteen Eighty-Four, after having observed the horrors of twentieth-century fascism. For a state hell-bent on acquiring absolute power and control, imposing uniformity on its subjects is essential; individualism must be stamped out. The first and most important step in doing so is crushing free speech, the purest expression of individual liberty. Where there is no free speech there can be no meaningful dissent.

Look, for instance, at what’s happening in Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has used last July’s abortive military coup as a pretext to confer upon himself the powers of a dictator. Predictably, his first order of business was to crack down on free speech (something he had already been doing for years, albeit more insidiously). Mere weeks after the coup attempt Erdogan had shut down over 130 media outlets and arrested dozens of journalists. A Stalinist purge of every element of society, from law enforcement to academia, duly followed. Now, as Patrick Cockburn writes, “the AKP and far right nationalist super majority in the Turkish parliament is … stripping the assembly of its powers and transferring them wholesale to the presidency.” The future looks dark:

President Erdogan will become an elected dictator able to dissolve parliament, veto legislation, decide the budget, and appoint ministers who do not have to be MPs along with senior officials and heads of universities.

All power will be concentrated in Erdogan’s hands as the office of prime minister is abolished and the president, who can serve three five year terms, takes direct control of the intelligence services. He will appoint senior judges and the head of state institutions including the education system.

All of which presupposes the absence of free and open debate, the suppression of “dangerous” ideas, the punishing of vocal dissent, the intimidation of those inclined to speak out. Interestingly, the point of the article from which I quoted above is to draw parallels between Erdogan and Trump, the latter having clearly demonstrated his various authoritarian tendencies. Most notable is his open hostility to the media (going so far as to concur with Bannon’s characterization of them as the “opposition party”), but there are other signs as well. For example, Trump has repeatedly indicated that he believes it should be illegal to desecrate the American flag, suggesting at one point that flag-burners ought to be stripped of their citizenship, First Amendment be damned. (Ironically enough, Milo Yiannopoulos justifies his fanatical support for Trump by citing the latter’s alleged free speech credentials—a categorical absurdity.)

The United States is obviously a much more stable democracy than was Turkey (which has seen multiple extralegal reversals of power throughout its history), and Trump obviously lacks the political cunning of Erdogan, but parallels nevertheless exist, and we ought not to be overly phlegmatic about them.

Circling back to what I wrote at the beginning of this essay, how can it be that the liberals who want so badly to silence their political opponents are unaware of the fact that they’ve adopted the original totalitarian principle? Don’t they realize that their actions—insofar as they are liable to set menacing precedents—are an aspiring despot’s wet dream? Can they really be so unaware of themselves? Here’s a truism courtesy of Noam Chomsky: “If you’re really in favor of free speech, then you’re in favor of freedom of speech for precisely the views you despise. Otherwise, you’re not in favor of free speech.” Either the liberal censors populating university campuses are unaware of this general truth, or they reject it. I don’t know which is worse.

Michael Howard’s essays and short fiction have appeared in a wide variety of print and digital publications, Dissident Voice among them. He lives in Vietnam. Read other articles by Michael.