Advocates on both sides of the right-left divide defend their views
with a zeal that is more religion than intellectual exercise.
Who threatens free speech?
That was the title of my last blog post. In it I argued that conservative speakers are routinely prevented from speaking on college campuses, but far left speakers are not.
The left uses an armamentarium of tactics to silence conservative speakers. These include: threats of violence that discourage schools from considering conservative speakers in the first place; demands that scheduled speakers be “uninvited;” outlandish claims that the conservative speaker is a racist, white nationalist or bigot; and shouting, screaming and being disruptive, or physically barring them from entering the lecture hall.
At Middlebury College, where researcher Charles Murray was prevented from speaking, audience members, in organized fashion, turned their backs to Murray and held up banners to prevent attendees from seeing him.
After human rights activist and scholar Ayaan Hirsi Ali was invited to speak at Brandeis University to accept an honorary degree in 2014, left wing students and faculty pressured the administration to cancel her talk (although to save face they vaguely promised to welcome her to campus in the future to engage in a “dialog”). That same year, former presidential advisor Condoleezza Rice decided to cancel her invited commencement speech at Rutgers University due to student protests. She was too controversial for the left-leaning students.
When the University of California, Berkeley invited conservative pundit Milo Yiannopoulos to speak in 2017, riots resulted in $100,000 in damage to the campus. Intimidated by the destruction, the university canceled the speech. Due to left-wing pressure, UC Berkeley also canceled a talk by conservative commentator Ann Coulter, although they restored Coulter’s invitation to a later date.
Historically, the term “liberal” was applied to people who held the liberal values of tolerance, support for free and open debate, and respect for individual points of view. Far-right conservatives, on the other hand, were associated with excessive nationalism, nativism, racism and intolerance for people unlike themselves.
But today the left has hijacked the liberal ethos and converted it into a belief system characterized by the worst elements of intolerance formerly associated with the right. When it comes to tolerance for free expression of opposing ideas the difference between right and left is clear.
But why the difference?
Psychologist and social critic Jordan Peterson has offered an insight into the left-right divide on free speech. He believes that when the intellectuals and politicians who established the modern conservative movement defined themselves in the mid-twentieth century, they faced a critical choice. Were they going to include voices from the fringes of their movement? These included groups that were nativist, anti-Semitic, racist and overly nationalistic—-for example, the John Birch Society, the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party.
Peterson believes that the emerging conservative movement wisely decided to define its boundaries by excluding its far-right fringe. But the left has never defined its boundaries. It never answered the question, “How far left is too far?”
As a result, today we see the left include extreme groups like Antifa, the Earth Liberation Army, and an assortment of anti-capitalist parties like the Communist Party-USA and the Socialist Workers Party. Some of these groups are as intolerant and violent as anything ever seen on the right. Along with the extreme ideas of these groups come extreme tactics which sometimes are violent and often shut down free speech.
What are other reasons for the conservative-liberal divide on free speech?
Many of today’s social institutions are populated by people who lean left. This is true of the press, universities and many civil society groups. The very largest and most influential social media platforms are decidedly left-leaning. They often censor voices on the right while they restrict, de-monetize or ban voices on the left. The social media giants also tolerate openly anti-American, anti-Israel and anti-Semitic content.
Activists and others on the left are thus supported by a range of powerful social institutions—-and they are aware of this. Perhaps this awareness emboldens them to disrupt and shut-down speakers. On the other hand conservatives cannot count on the sympathetic support of the most dominant social institutions. Could this restrict their willingness to engage in extreme tactics?
This phenomenon is perhaps more evident in Europe than the US. In 2014, a politician in England stood on a public street and read aloud from an essay written by Winston Churchill. The essay was critical of Islam. The local police promptly arrested the man for anti-Muslim incitement. But last year, during a flare-up of violence at the Israel-Gaza border, protesters in London screamed death threats to Jews. Their chants included “You dog only death will come to you/You Zionist only death will come to you.” Nevertheless the protestors proceeded uninterrupted.
Both those on the right and left are keenly aware of what sorts of speech will get one into trouble or not.
Recently, at San Francisco State University, anti-Israel students intimidated and physically stopped a group of Jewish students from distributing literature and speaking to passers-by on campus. And they did this while university administrators and campus police looked on. Had students presented an informational table critical of, say, the policies of Arab countries, they would have been denounced as racist and shut down by the very same administrators and campus police.
The threat to free speech comes not just from violence, but also from the threat of violence. Spineless college administrators and faculty will self-censor in favor of leftist speakers and against conservative speakers. They know that a conservative speaker may lead to an uproar and violence that will, at a minimum, be a headache and at maximum, a threat to their careers.
Far-right groups are sometimes violent. But there aren’t enough violent people on the right to constitute a major threat on most campuses.
A group of students at Portland State University met to air their experiences with political correctness in their classes. One student after another described their decisions to keep silent in the face of liberal professors who presented views they disagreed with. As one student explained, “I paid $1,000 for this course and I was not going to risk my grade. So I stayed silent.” The left-supporting atmosphere on campus had a chilling effect on these students’ free speech.
Religion may also play a role in all of this. Advocates on both sides of the right-left divide defend their views with a zeal that is more religion than intellectual exercise. Both sides may go off the rails. But those on the right—-where religious belief is more common than on the left—-have a built-in circuit breaker when it comes to zeal. That circuit breaker is a religiously-based ethical system that values the individual, sets standards for right and wrong, and promises rewards and punishments to keep one’s behavior in line. The secular activist on the left is less likely to have these ethical restraints.
Defending Free Speech
Whether the threat comes from the left or the right, free speech must be defended. The free and open expression of views is the oxygen that keeps a free society alive.
Instead of teaching young people to advocate blindly for the racial, ethnic, gender or sexual identity groups popular today, why not teach them the genuinely liberal values that are the foundation of a free society? Foremost among those is free speech.