In The Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff argue that we’ve been fostering a sense of fragility within an entire generation of Americans. I think they make a cogent argument that progressives often go too far in their assertion that speech can be equated with violence, at the risk of shutting down free inquiry, particularly within institutions where it has traditionally been so valued, the world of higher education.
There seems to have been a pernicious creep of the concept, to the point where attitudes that many would readily scorn as offensive are further categorized as so dangerous that they cannot be spoken. And I would imagine that only the most strident of progressives would completely dismiss the dangers of quelling this speech.
Still, there is, I believe, an absolutely legitimate conversation about what constitutes dangerous speech, and where the line lies between speech itself and action. There is clearly no doubt that when one advocates for violence or harm to another that one is complicit in that harm. Leaders who condoned violence in the Jim Crow era gave comfort to those who would perpetrate horrific acts including lynching, assuring them that they would suffer no consequence for their actions.
And when someone encourages violence against members of the political opposition, and promises to eliminate the consequences, regardless of whether he happens to have great political power like president of the United States, that person bears much of the blame when the violence comes to pass.
A lot of speech, though, isn’t as overt in its fostering of violence. What is the impact of simply denigrating a group of people but not calling for violence against them? It’s certainly valid to criticize the beliefs of a group of people that you disagree with, but what if it ranges into ad hominem attacks and dehumanization?
The practice of reducing the conception of an out group’s humanity has been relied upon many times through history for political gain, some of the most prominent examples being the characterization of Jews as “parasites” in Nazi Germany, and the labeling of Tutsi tribal members as “cockroaches” which helped to ignite the Rwandan genocide.
Liberals have been horrified by President Trump’s use of words like “infestation” to describe undocumented immigrants, which he has done multiple times. While I wouldn’t personally suggest that these statements be censored, they have an impact.
There is in fact a direct link between speech that dehumanizes others and the prevalence of violence against those defamed. Even if we ignored the mass shootings within communities of color by white supremacists, which are limited in number but growing, we have clear evidence that it really does become much easier to hurt others if we don’t see them as equally human to ourselves.
And when power transforms that way of thinking into policy it’s especially destructive. When leaders put into place structures by which harm is caused, they bear some of the burden of guilt shared with those with a more direct role.
The work of Better Angels revolves quite strongly around the idea of eliminating the types of thinking that lead to demonization and dehumanization of others, and while we generally apply this idea to our conversations about those who oppose us politically, we have just as much responsibility to apply this principle to our characterization of people who might be affected by our political choices.
Our fear can push us toward the demonization of others, to the point that we forget their humanity. This is clearly something that occurs on both sides of the divide, and when this leads into acts of political violence, we must condemn them regardless of our affiliation.
The proper response to this kind of demonization and hate speech, however, is a subject of intense debate and controversy. Haidt and Lukianoff cover the topic of recent campus protests extensively in their book, including those that have been distinguished by the presence of black-clad (often masked) anti-fascist, or Antifa, protesters, who have occasionally broken into violence. And they touched on the increasing prevalence of belief—on both sides—that violence is an acceptable tactic for protesters to use, citing a 2017 poll by the Brookings Institution which found that roughly one in five college students agreed.
On the left, the notion often stems from the idea that the speech they’re protesting is itself a form of violence, that the racist or anti-immigrant ideas being advocated by right-wing speakers help to perpetuate the oppressive systems that exist in this country, causing deep suffering and therefore warranting a response in kind.
I’ve personally felt myself shifting towards this idea that speech can be violence, drawing upon what I feel is a growing sense of empathy for groups that have been marginalized repeatedly and systematically over the course of our country’s history. Their suffering is real, and shouldn’t be minimized as part of this conversation. But I also agree with the authors’ noting of what can be called cognitive distortions, which exaggerate the effects of a single speaker’s visit, and which place all of the actors within the scene in the camp of either good or evil.
The Antifa movement seemed to gain momentum in the U.S. not too long after President Trump’s inauguration, when protesters at UC Berkeley succeeded in getting a speech by right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos cancelled, using violence and property damage. In the wake of that incident, the campus newspaper published a set of essays defending the concept of violence as protection, one of which was titled “Violence helped ensure safety of students.”
On the face of it, the arguments presented in those writings do deserve some attention, if not acceptance. Juan Prieto, an undocumented student who wrote that piece, claimed that there was a threat of a “campaign” against undocumented students, which could possibly include doxxing (revealing personal information publicly). Given the recent policies of the Trump administration and the behavior of some of its more extreme supporters, there’s reason to believe that this could have compromised the safety and security of the people targeted.
But as Haidt and Lukianoff argue, there was nothing stopping Yiannopoulos from doing this online anyway, and the fact is, this student has been open about his own status without fear of reprisal from immigration authorities. It is indeed the case that free speech law does not include the incitement of violence, but if we equate criticizing someone with the urging of violence against them, the line blurs everywhere, and the effect on speech can be truly devastating.
I believe that many of the things that Milo and other right-wing figures who make their living giving provocative speeches say are wrong. They should be met with vigorous oppositional speech and of course protest.
But shutting down this speech is counterproductive in several ways. It reinforces the notion that words are so harmful that we must protect students and others from them at all costs. This is directly anathema to our free speech tradition as a country, where a robust ACLU has made a habit of protecting the right even of Nazis to speak their views publicly.
Countries like Germany have made it a crime to say hateful things, like “endorsing, glorifying or justifying the National Socialist regime of violence and despotism” for example, while in the U.S. we have followed a different path, insisting that good ideas will crowd out the bad in the realm of public opinion.
Shutting down opposition speech also serves to galvanize that opposition, as is pretty evident from any cursory perusal of conservative media that touches on the topic of campus protests. Far from protecting vulnerable campus populations, it simply serves to draw more attention to the fight, and more hateful alt-right and white nationalist activists.
I feel the same about the violent tactics that are used to execute these shutdowns. While they may be effective in bullying administrators and faculty into withdrawing support for controversial speakers, the cause is ultimately harmed by this violence. There are even studies that back up the notion that non-violent resistance is vastly more effective than violent resistance in terms of human progress. It draws more support and allows for more effective and innovative organization.
For this reason, I’ve been disappointed with the lack of condemnation of violent protest tactics—particularly that of black bloc practitioners like Antifa and anarchists—by the field of Democratic candidates.
Recently, a conservative speaker was once again prevented from speaking on a college campus, this time acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan—he has since resigned—who was stopped from making his keynote at an immigration conference at Georgetown by student protesters.
These protesters were absolutely right that the deaths of migrant children in DHS custody are shameful, and we should be doing everything in our power to stop these tragedies. And protesting is a valuable tool in the kit of those fighting for justice. But I feel as though this situation is emblematic of the shortsightedness of many of the tactics used on the left, shutting down what might be productive conversations, and reinforcing the sense on the right that the left is the side aligned against free speech.
The chants that rang out from last week’s protesters included, “When immigrants are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back!” These activists legitimately see violence in the actions of McAleenan’s department, evidenced by their reading of the names of children and others who have died in the custody of ICE after being detained at the border. They have chosen to confront this violence with their own speech, and I maintain that their cause is absolutely just.
But I also acknowledge that their methods are likely counterproductive, particularly the act of preventing him from speaking at all. Not only does it feed the conservative narrative of persecution, but it prevented the acting secretary from being held to account at the Q&A session that was scheduled to follow his speech. Perhaps a better approach would have been a demonstration outside the venue, or even a brief chant inside before allowing McAleenan to speak and then confronting him with tough questions afterward.
It’s crucial that we have these conversations, especially in places within the academy, where those who are confident that their positions lie on the right side of history should be able to hold their ideas up against others to confirm it.
Yes, I agree that the Trump administration has inflicted immeasurable suffering upon some of the most vulnerable people in the world, and their policies should be condemned in the strongest terms. But it’s still possible in this country, and indeed more effective, to voice this truth to power directly, while doing it on terms where the righteous position wins out on merit, rather than force.
It’s even more troubling when protesters engage in violent action against their foes. Take the case of Andy Ngo in Portland. Better Angels leader John Wood Jr. wrote an inspired piece about the lessons that we might take from this incident, where Ngo, a right-wing journalist was beaten and doused with milkshakes and silly string at an event featuring competing demonstrations by the racist Proud Boys group and left-wingers, some of whom identified as Antifa.
While it’s not even clear that Antifa were the culprits, and there’s a lot of uncertainty around the event, it is pretty clear that Ngo was injured by protesters on the left, and they continued to attack him after he declined to retaliate and walked away.
Ngo is by no means blameless in this saga, and video has since emerged of him hanging out and laughing with an alt-right group, Patriot Prayer, as they planned a violent confrontation with leftist protesters. But none of this justifies the violence aimed at him, and thus far there have been lamentably few statements about this or other violent clashes involving Antifa or other masked groups from those hoping to headline the Democratic presidential ticket. And when you look for any coverage of this issue, it seems clear that conservative media outlets have been able to weaponize this fact to further inflame passions on their side.
I recognize that there are tons of moving parts in many of these stories, and sometimes the black bloc marchers have simply been trying to offer shelter to demonstrators vulnerable to threats of violence from right-wing groups. But several of these left-wing activists have allowed themselves to use violence in reaction to far less dangerous threats, and this deserves our universal condemnation.
In the tradition of Dr. King and the generation of civil rights protesters that taught us how to effectively advocate for a cause, we must be the party of peaceful resistance. If many of our courageous forebears were able to stand up to fire hoses and dogs without raising their fists in reprisal, certainly we can withstand some hateful words without responding with violence.
None of this is to say that political violence and coercion is solely the province of the left. In fact, I would argue that it’s a much bigger problem on the right, given that groups like Antifa have never killed anyone, while an alt-right activist murdered a leftist counter-protester at Charlottesville’s Unite the Right rally, and many more of the politically motivated mass shootings of recent times have been perpetrated by right-wing radicals than those on the left.
But if the Democrats don’t actively denounce the political violence and bullying that occurs from the left, it leaves room to assume a tacit endorsement, and that’s not a party I want to be identified with.