I hold two values dearly. The first value is this: I want to live in a society that protects my right to freely express my views and opinions, even (and especially) if my ideas are not popular with the majority opinion. The second value: I want to live in a society that champions justice; I want to be part of a community that intentionally corrects its course when it becomes conscious of its role in oppressing others.
What should I do when the speech of others conflict with my commitment to justice? Should I use my freedom of expression to advocate that others should be stripped of their right to express their morally bankrupt views? Should I protest the right of others to speak evil and falsity when it conflicts with my convictions of equity and truth?
For a poignant and contemporary illustration of this dilemma, one need look no further than the recent protest and ensuing skirmish at Berkeley, over a scheduled speaking appearance by Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos. The event was cancelled. A highly controversial conservative writer, Yiannopoulos was previously banned from Twitter for barrage of racist statements that violated the platform’s terms of service.
Personally, I only need to read what Yiannopoulos himself writes to know that this is a man who I strongly, even vehemently, disagree with on many issues. If I were a Berkeley student, I would not be excited about his visit, either. But would I try to shut it down? Would I participate in a protest? Would I boycott it? Or would I engage?
In a 2002 interview, black liberation activist, feminist, and prolific author bell hooks, was presented with the following scenario: suppose a Nazi is invited to a college campus to give a public lecture. A group of students organize a protest and request your assistance in blocking the hate-filled message from gaining an audience. Should you join the protest group? bell hooks replies,
[M]y response is always on behalf of free speech, because basically, I always tell my students, if you look at the history of, you know, silencing, ultimately, the people who get silenced are the dissident, radical voices, and any time we try to shut down people, it in fact ends up being something that causes us to suffer more.
For bell hooks, the struggle for liberation must center on the defense of people’s right to speak openly, uncensored. If you diminish the capacity for other voices to be raised, you only build mechanisms that can be used to silence yourself. It is hypocritical to ridicule the policies and language of others while refusing to be ridiculed. But more than that, it is downright counter-productive and self-destructive in the long run.
The work of fighting racism and oppression — dismantling systems of injustice in the world — requires you to speak against them. But if your next step is then to shut down other people’s ability express their ideas, you are only replacing one system of censorship with another one. Policing other people’s words equates to advocating, “Free speech for me, but not for thee,” which categorically amounts to the denial of freedom for those from whom you fighting for liberation. In short: you become the very thing you are trying to overthrow.
In Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations, published in 1994, bell hooks writes:
When repression via censorship becomes the norm in progressive political circles, we not only undermine our collective struggles to end domination, we act in complicity with that brand of contemporary, chic fascism that evokes romantic images of unity and solidarity, a return to traditional values, working to deny free speech and suppress all forms of rebellious thought and action. (p. 83)
For bell hooks, the classroom is a microcosm of society as a whole. When students are afraid “to express themselves freely and openly” it is because a culture of fear permeates and pervades, socially and institutionally. Self-censorship is always the result of perceived punishment: it is an action taken when the cost of voicing an opinion is deemed greater than the cost of shutting up and living with the status quo. To actively promote a climate where people are tentative to voice their ideas is to share something in common with an oppressor — no matter how self-righteously one believes themselves to be on the side of justice and goodness.
Whether conservative or liberal, whether politically ‘right’ or ‘left,’ it seems equally tempting for us all to leverage our free speech to insist that other people ought to shut up. How dearly we want to apply our own standards for ‘permissible speech’ on to one another. How much easier it is to take the shortcut of denying the legitimacy of an opponent’s right to speak than doing the hard work of confronting their falsehoods one after another.
Rosa Luxemburg said, “Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently” than the perceived position of the majority, especially when the majority represents (and holds) the seat of power. To care about liberation, justice, and equity, means protecting the minority’s ability to dissent and ridicule. To advocate otherwise is to adopt the something of the rhetoric of the oppressors themselves — tyrants who impose the rules of speech upon their subjects. When you fight fascism with fascism, fascism is guaranteed to win.
And there is one more dimension that needs addressing: personally, I had not even heard of Yiannopoulos before the Berkeley incident, and now I am here writing about him. In a real sense, the mission to diminish his voice actually heightened his platform. Allowing someone the space to speak — no matter how hateful, racist, or misogynist they might be — not only simultaneously protects your own space to directly retort their claims and falsities, but it also pours far less fuel on the fire of their rhetoric. If you want to amplify someone, just try censoring them.
Interested in talking about this issue some more? Join me for the following public conversation at the London Public Library to dialogue further. I will be talking to Jeff Preston on Monday, March 6. If you are a local reader, I hope to see you there!