Shouting down speakers, such as the recent suppression of Charles Murray’s speech at Middlebury College by a large crowd of protesters, is wrong. Plain and simple. It’s wrong. Shouting down speakers is morally wrong, unprincipled, anti-intellectual and utterly indefensible.
For a long time, I thought this was an obvious position, but it’s becoming increasing clear that some people on the left think it’s a good idea. So let’s examine in depth the question of shouting down speakers.
Why is it wrong? Let me begin with basic principles: What is the fundamental principle behind the idea of shouting down a speaker?
Is the principle that people should have the freedom to shout down those they don’t like? By that logic, white supremacist gangs should be allowed to shout down people of color whenever they try to speak.
Is the principle that a big crowd of people should get to shout down those they don’t like? Obviously, bigots can form a big crowd, too. There’s no good reason why an unpopular viewpoint should be shut down.
Is the principle that everyone has free speech, and therefore the right to shout down is equal to the right to speak? I’ve heard this argument before, from a conservative who told me, as he threw my newspapers in the trash, that I had the right to print a newspaper and he had the right to destroy it. You can heckle and chant a message to express yourself without continuing it endlessly in order to suppress a speech. This is just the verbal equivalent of blowing an air horn.
Is the principle that racists shouldn’t be allowed to speak? That may seem appealing at first. But deciding who is and isn’t a racist (and trusting the authorities to decide it) may be harder than you think. What if whites claim that anti-racist speakers are really racist against whites? What if it extends beyond race to religion and other categories? Should speakers who mock religious opposition to gay rights be banned for attacking religion? Should atheists be banned? Should critics of atheism be banned?
Right now, politicians around the country seek to silence critics of Israel on campus based on the claims that they are anti-Semitic. Why shouldn’t they get to ban them, if anybody called a racist shouldn’t be allowed on campus? What makes you think that if racists can be banned, your particular definition of racism will prevail in a country that elected a racist as president? This little game of shouting down a speaker not only opens up the floodgates for any speaker to be shouted down, it also makes it much easier to justify other kinds of censorship that have the same effect.
As a tactical matter, shouting down Charles Murray doesn’t stop racism. It reinforces the delusions of white people that they’re the victims of oppression. Censorship doesn’t refute anything Murray says, it only makes him a free speech martyr.
More important, those of you who shouted down Murray could not have done more to help Donald Trump and the Republicans. Right now, Republicans around the country are seeking to suppress free speech on campus under the pretense of protecting free speech from authoritarian leftists. By silencing Murray, you will help them silence you. They can’t say it publicly, but Republicans love what you did because you have done more to help their repressive bills and their re-election campaigns than anyone else on any campus.
One of the worst aspects of the censorship of Murray is how it distracts everyone from the far greater threats to free speech out there. I could be writing about the bill in Iowa to impose political hiring of Republicans on colleges. I could be writing about the bill in Arkansas to ban all public schools from having Howard Zinn in the curriculum, along with any materials “concerning” Zinn’s books, meaning any book that mentions or cites Zinn. Instead, I have to lecture the left about why censorship is wrong. This should not be a difficult thing to understand.
There are plenty of alternatives to shouting down a speaker. You can hand out information and post it online. You can stand up and turn your backs in disgust. You can ask tough questions. You can ignore Murray and have events about analyzing and ending racism. You can hold events about Murray’s racism and refute his ideas. These won’t end racism, either. But free speech has a far greater likelihood of changing people’s minds and making them think about racism and why it’s wrong.
Shouting down a speaker doesn’t take courage. It takes cowardice. Maybe it’s the fear of listening to someone with different views. Maybe it’s the fear that you won’t be able to disprove a racist’s ideas, so you need to silence them instead. Maybe it’s the fear that your peers are too stupid to understand reason and need to be intimidated instead.
Whatever the reason, censorship is the tool of authoritarians and idiots. It has no place in the progressive movement. It has no place on a college campus.
John K. Wilson is the co-editor of AcademeBlog.org and the author of eight books, including Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies and President Trump Unveiled: Exposing the Bigoted Billionaire.
Published in Academe Blog, the blog of Academe magazine, March 3, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily CAUT.