In a move that can only be described as a collective death wish, according to a petition by some staff members of the University of California, Berkeley, the anthropology department has rescheduled a lecture by well-regarded anthropologist Anna Tsing so that the campus can make room for Milos Yiannopoulos, a figure known for his controversial stances on immigration and transgender rights.
Why they would risk backlash like this is, at first glance, out of the blue. However, like everything in America, free isn’t free; it is measured by money and politics as usual, and like all national events, we will see its consequences day by day on our campus.
On Sept. 21, Berkeley will be having a “Year of Free Speech,” what they are calling a celebration of using debate to find common ground in a divided nation. However, the guest list is very telling in what this event is actually about.
Along with Yiannopoulos, the main events include conservative commentators Ann Coulter and Ben Shapiro, who have gained infamy for their bizarre political comments. Coulter once argued in a CBS interview that not only should all Americans be required to be Christian, but that Jews should be forcibly converted.
Shapiro has gained popularity for his debates with left wing commentators and students, with video titles like “Ben Shapiro DESTROYS Transgenderism and Abortion,” and the soul-crushing “Ben Shapiro Thug Life Compilation,” featuring him debating different feminist writers, but with edits of people shouting “YO DJ PLAY THAT S— BACK.”
What this shows, however is that the department values money over substance. As Political Science Professor of Brooklyn College Corey Robin points out, colleges with more money will be privy to more visits and discussions by more public and controversial figures, because it promises a return investment in paying them to speak. Keene State can’t afford to host someone like Shapiro or Coulter because we couldn’t afford to pay them.
Berkeley does, and will value their voices over those with something to actually say, which can be dangerous to actually informative debate. But should we do what many have argued and “no platform” them? Should they even be allowed to speak in the first place? I couldn’t make up my mind, so I went to the free speech discussion in the L.P. Young Student Center to see what other people had to say.
The general consensus was that while many of these people were repulsive, they do have a right to a platform. Many pointed to the events in Charlottesville and other violent outbreaks as good example of when to step in, and I have to agree, though I have my own take on this.
In regards to this issue, I think we should draw a very strict line in regards to the difference between saying something and doing that thing. For example, Shapiro and Coulter, as repulsive as they are, are currently not criminals; they haven’t violated the law, be that domestic or international, and therefore, I think they should be allowed to speak.
That being said, free speech is a two-way street; if Shapiro can say something, so can an audience member. The right to heckle and criticise these speakers, while often abhorrent, is also a vital right. Just because speakers like Shapiro have the right, doesn’t mean they can’t face certain consequences for these statements, be they dissociation or public ridicule.
What we should be “no platforming,” however, are those who have committed heinous acts. Take Henry Kissinger, for example; far from Shapiro, he hardly swears, he respectfully disagrees and acts civilly during panels and debates. He is also a war criminal, who prolonged the Vietnam War by sabotaging peace talks, illegally bombed Cambodia and Laos, accelerated numerous civil wars in Africa and helped plan the overthrow of democratically elected Chilean president Salvador Allende and replaced him with fascist dictator Augusto Pinochet . The only place where he should be is a jail cell, not at book deals and conferences. These individuals use respectful discourse in order to get away with their crimes; they should be “no-platformed.” The list goes on; George W. Bush gets away with 500,000 Iraqi civilian deaths according to medical studies by the University of Washington, due to either coalition airstrikes and drones or starvation and lack of medical care, but has been able to get away with it..
John Yoo is responsible for developing the doctrine of torturing prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib in a 2003 memo, but got two panels at a meeting of the American Political Science Association “8”. Dick Cheney made money off of the Iraq War due to his association to Haliburton, but somehow isn’t in prison. The list could go on forever.
These individuals, along with many others, are the ones who deserve to be neglected and denied a platform until they face court for their crimes. Yet, we will likely never see this; after all, if this is repeatedly happening, then there clearly exists a framework to defend these people, and as of right now, we have no way of breaking it.
In other words; Milos, Shapiro and others are just clowns, and they should be handled like any other court jester; just don’t pay attention to them and they won’t cause any trouble. What we as college students at Keene State can do is two-pronged; for one, we can help marginalized people and other groups have a chance to exercise free speech by using resources like clubs and school newspapers to show different perspectives.
The second, and more difficult part, is to be willing to protest and challenge individuals who use the platform they are given to get away with murder, regardless of whether they are polite or not. As Immanuel Kant once said, “Let justice reign even if all the rascals in the world perish from it.”
Colin Meehan can be contacted at email@example.com