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More speech

Robin Lakoff, professor emerita of linguistics | February 3, 2017

I have not encountered very much of the discourse of the alt-right (e.g. Steve Bannon and Milo Yiannopoulos). But their utterances strike me as both infantile and anti-social: infantile, because their rallying cries are variants of the three year old’s “I, me, mine”; anti-social because their notion of humanity excludes pretty much everyone who is not white, male, Christian, straight and native-born. Yet I think that Milo Yiannopoulos should have been allowed to speak at Berkeley on February 1, both by protesters and by the university administration.

I am in perfect agreement with the protesters that what Yiannopoulos has to say is trite, harmful and above all stupid. His is a level of discourse that is out of place in a serious university, unimaginable in a classroom or any other location designed for teaching and learning. It sets a bad example for the kind of civil discourse a university hopes to instill in its students. And yet I wish he had been allowed to speak. Why?

My comments are addressed to both the protesters who wanted to stop the talk and the administrators who cancelled it. I hope that in the future (I am sure that this problem will recur many times over during the next several years) even a speaker as undeserving as Yiannopoulos will be permitted to speak. I am making this argument for several reasons.

First, in keeping any speaker from speaking, protesters should be aware that their actions, even if superficially successful, are apt to have negative unintended consequences .The aim of should be to change minds, not to prevent people from encountering ideas, however noxious or nonsensical. The aim of protest should be to encourage others, particularly uncommitted others, to listen to a speech critically and use their knowledge to provide ammunition against those noxious views. Merely shutting a speaker down may have the unintended effect of creating sympathy for his or her views. We have already seen the president make illegitimate use of the events of Wednesday night to argue in favor of destroying the university, something he would undoubtedly like to do for plenty of reasons. But the chaos and destruction people saw on news programs probably brought more people to sympathy with both Trump and Yiannopoulos than won them over to the other side.

So demonstrating to keep a speaker from speaking is bad for at least two reasons: first, it is unlikely to persuade the uncommitted; and second, it gives aid and comfort to the very people who are the reasons for the protest.

An even more important reason to let such speakers speak is that the locus of his speech was a great public university. In such a place, even vile speech should be permitted, again for a number of reasons. For one thing, the university, more than any other institution, is about speech, in its many forms: lecturing, discussing, reading, writing, and conversing. Students come here to learn how to be better creators and users of language in its many forms, to learn to evaluate language, and to acquire the knowledge and sophistication to tell the good from the bad – what we call “critical thinking.” So in a university it is essential to permit students to encounter bad talk along with the good, to give them something to practice on in an intellectually supportive setting.

Besides, when administrators cancel a speech, or protesters shut it down, that can send an unintended negative message: You are not smart enough to know that this is bad speech; we have to protect you and make sure you are not corrupted by it. But that message is the worst kind to send to students, who, first, are smart enough to be at a great university; and second, are there to learn how to deal with all kinds of talk.

Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media have made a different choice: They have thrown speakers who misuse language off their sites. I think that these media have a more reasonable argument than the university for doing so, since their function is entertainment, not education.

When the university encounters a controversial speaker, it should use the speech as a “teachable moment.” Advertise it widely; encourage students to attend. In front of the building where it is to take place, small numbers of protesters should be encouraged to hand out information sheets with Web sites (and references to reading materials) that audience members can access for more reliable information. Plan, well in advance, to make use of that ancient stand-by, the teach-in. Several should be scheduled, some before the speech and some soon after it, where members of the university community can bring questions and arguments, and civilly and peaceably explore what was said. Experts from the faculty, graduate students, and authoritative community members should present opposing perspectives. The anarchists too should be offered the opportunity to present their positions calmly and civilly.

Constitutional scholars like to say that the remedy for bad speech is more speech; sunshine is the best disinfectant. Arguably this was truer when there was less access to information; with the Internet, it’s much harder to stop or argue against the spread of even the worst ideas. But more speech still the best way we have to deal with bad speech in a democracy.

Before too long, students will be out in the world, where they will continue to be exposed to all kinds of speech. But once they’re graduated, they will be on their own, and will have to make their own determinations about how to understand the political language they will be hearing for the rest of their lives. Ideally, their education has provided them with the necessary tools. By giving students access to all kinds of ideas, even dangerous ones, we immunize them against the attractions of glittering lies. And in so doing, we may immunize all of society as well, and create a more robust democracy.

Comments to “More speech

  1. Very well said. I wish more professors (especially those teaching undergrads) would have taken a moment to inspire students to think through this lens. There is an attitude of entitlement among my generation, that causes great ignorance to the world around us. Unfortunately, I was disheartened to return to class the day after the riots (I won’t even gratify these by calling them protests, because I do believe the intent was always to stop the speech), only to proceed with life as normal. This catastrophe–one that received great national attention–was a great platform for faculty members to use the respect the student body has for them, to encourage them to become students not just within the classroom, but outside the classroom as well. There was far too much celebration and entertainment derived from this disaster, and far too many lessons not learned.

    Milo Yiannopoulos plans to return to Cal. And I hope that the campus as a whole will do something–anything–to ensure that the response is far different the next time around.

  2. It’s fascinating that I can listen to the same “hate speech” from a supposed member of the “alt right”–a gay Jew representing a supposedly white-supremacist, anti-semitic, homophobic group–and hear none of the selfishness, infantilism, triteness, harm, or stupidity that seems to obvious to you. What I do hear and see is him defeating the evangelists of those views and ideas you apparently consider “correct” with better arguments.

    That is why speech (this is not “hate speech” just because you or any number of others so label it) should be protected: because your view of things is not the only view, and not necessarily (or even likely) the correct view. And that is why, apparently, even professors of linguistics need several more years of training in logic, rhetoric, and that most precious of all commodities: critical thought.

    Even if we grant Yiannopoulos arguments are all the negative things you claim they are, then at the very least the positive views you represent need the exercise. The American left is reduced to name calling, and one-word-or-phrase preemptions of arguments (“hate speech,” “racist,” “homophobe,” “misogynist,” etc.), a dodge which has succeeded for decades and sapped its intellectual vitality. If Yiannopolous and the “alt right” are simply clever sophists, then respond with better arguments! Not name-calling, not ad hominem, not appeals to ridicule (which, no matter how clever, are still fallacies). In short, beat Yiannopolous at his own game. But not out of spite, out of a desire to have your message heard and understood.

    • Apparently using logic and reason to defeat the “racist” “homophobic” “sexist”, etc. arguments made by Milo is not a viable option for these self-righteous lunatics. Instead they resort to violence and speech suppression. This is not only anti-American but also a sad commentary on the state of this once-great University. I hope they get the message before the ACLU takes them to court.

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