The economics of free speech have become quite strange. It took $600,000, a sea of police officers in riot gear and concrete barricades to ensure Berkeley didn’t devolve into anarchy and chaos when conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro came to town last week. Demonstrations outside remained mostly peaceful with only nine arrests. This, however, is a troubling sign in light of what comes next on Berkeley’s campus.
Ben Shapiro was the first phase of the conservative speakers to come to Berkeley, and while formidable, he was entering the Berkeley arena at 5 foot 9 inches and 165 lbs. Undoubtedly, he is the most conservative and noncontroversial of what comes next. Free Speech Week, occurring Sept. 24-27 will bring to campus significantly more controversial characters like Milo Yiannopoulos, Ann Coulter and Steve Bannon. If the security measures remain consistent from the Shapiro event, Berkeley may well incur over $2 million in security expenditures to protect students and speakers from violence for sharing their ideas on a college campus.
If history is any indication, there assuredly will be violence at Berkeley in the coming weeks. The last time Milo Yiannopoulos came to campus, the nation watched as reporters and attendees were assaulted and pepper-sprayed, police barricades were used as battering rams, and fires were set in protest. Mr. Shapiro, it would seem, was a test run of an extremely heightened security measure taken to protect our most basic liberty of speech.
It’s disturbing that in the United States of America, this is becoming not only predictable, but unavoidable. Incited by alleged right-wing fascism, antifa and leftist sympathizers have openly acknowledged their intention and shown their ability to shut down speakers with whom they disagree. Right-wing groups are also becoming more willing and, in some cases, eager to combat this thought-policing with counterviolence. Violence begets only more violence.
The oddity of violent responses is that it has the opposite effect of what the violent intend. Rather than shutting up “fascist” ideas, right-wing speakers have gained more traction. To an extent, right-wing and conservative ideas have become the counterculture and certainly lack significant airtime in pop culture or the media, making them unique ideas. Becoming the unpopular and the fringe has given speakers like Mr. Yiannopoulos and Ms. Coulter an elevated platform. Being counterculture garners media intrigue and views. The hype surrounding potential violence in Berkeley gives protested conservative speakers more viewership than they would have otherwise had, thereby having the exact opposite impact of what protesters aim to achieve. Mr. Yiannopoulos or Mr. Shapiro at Berkeley attracts significantly more attention than a campus talk at a friendlier audience at, say, Liberty University or Bob Jones University would. More problematic for violent protesters is that when a speaker gives light to ideas outside the mainstream liberal talking points while simultaneously resonating at a deeper level with listeners, conservatives, trolls or “conservative” speakers gain inflated fame, elevating their platform further.
If you’re a leftist, the answer is simple: abhor violence and don’t participate in violent protests. If Ben’s ideas are bad, some will resonate with people, some won’t. If Milo’s ideas are sexist or racist, they will fall flat with educated listeners. It’s as if there’s an inherent belief that these conservative speakers are a disease and merely being in the same room with them will infect students, who will spread germs throughout the campus. Closer to reality is that college campuses are laboratories of political philosophy, and hearing good and bad ideas makes your worldview stronger.
My hope is that in the marketplace of ideas on campuses and more broadly, we can return to some semblance of civility and recalibrate to give power to good ideas and truncate the effect of trolls. During college, I attended speakers I wanted to hear and found better things to do when speakers came to campus with ideas I didn’t appreciate or respect.
Part of me now wishes that I went ready to engage in productive dialogue. If I exposed a weakness in their argument, that could have a positive impact for them and other listeners, and vice versa if they exposed a weakness of mine. In a civilized society, there is no place for violence in the sharing of ideas.
• Tyler Grant is a lawyer in New York.
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