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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.