February 22, 2020

Truly free speech absent at colleges

Words are not violence.

You’d think this truism would be easy for some on the left to swallow; the entire workability of the First Amendment rests on that principle. Because words are not violence, we say that in a civilized society, we should be able to speak freely, that we should be entitled to our opinion, and that anyone who reacts to our words with violence should be punished for that crime.

Yet that perfectly obvious logic seems to elude more and more of the left these days.

Several weeks ago, the Berkeley College Republicans and Young America’s Foundation invited me to campus to speak. For context, I spoke at the college in April 2016; there was no violence, and nary a protester. Instead, I spoke with several hundred students, many of whom disagreed. The event was cordial and friendly and fun.

Last week, UC Berkeley announced that it would not be able to ensure a venue for my scheduled speech in September. Officials said they didn’t have a venue available on the date in question, and then didn’t provide alternative dates. Only after a public hubbub did they pledge to allow me to speak on campus as well as covering the relevant fees.

What changed? Between April 2016 and July 2017, Berkeley saw several major violent protests held by opponents of President Donald Trump. First, in February 2017, alt-right provocateur and Trump acolyte Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak at the campus. Anti-fascism protesters, allegedly along with some Berkeley students, crashed the venue, began destroying property and setting things on fire, and posed too much of a security risk for the event to continue as planned. Then, in April 2017, Berkeley canceled a planned event with Ann Coulter, moving the date and place for the event, alleging that the university had been “unable to find a safe and suitable venue.” That same month, anti-Trump protesters clashed with pro-Trump protesters who set up shop in Berkeley to stump on behalf of free speech.

Berkeley’s decision-making process has become more and more common across the country. As leftist protesters grow more outrageous, administrators seem more than willing to grant them concessions, up to and including cancellation of events that anger the protesters.

When I spoke at Cal State Los Angeles in February 2016, the administration attempted to cancel the event outright; I showed up, anyway. Protesters blocked the entrances and assaulted students who wanted to come to the event; they pulled the fire alarm. Students had to be spirited into the venue secretly, two-by-two. They eventually were trapped there until the crowd outside dispersed. Meanwhile, the police allegedly were told by the administration to stand down. When I spoke at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, protesters invaded the speech in an attempt to shut it down. When I asked police to remove the protesters, they responded that the administration had told them that if they did that, they’d have to shut down the event entirely.

Too many leftist administrators are playing an inside-outside game in which they capitulate to violent protesters who seek to shut down free debate. They wouldn’t cave to such protesters from the right — if writer Ta-Nehisi Coates were victimized by violent protesters, you can guarantee that administrators would send the cops in force. But violence is a convenient excuse for excluding unwanted viewpoints.

And exclusion of unwanted viewpoints has become nearly universal on college campuses. Administrators now tell students that they can expect college to be a “safe space,” a protected area where they need never feel uncomfortable. To that end, all “microaggressions” must be policed. Microaggressions, as professor Jonathan Haidt of New York University states, are “small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless.” By thinking of words as violence, actual violence can be justified as a natural, decent response to verbiage you don’t like. In fact, one of the professors at Cal State Los Angeles, in anticipation of my speech, posted a note on his door saying as much: “The best response to micro-aggression is macro-aggression.”

We cannot have a political conversation with one another if we’re going to label one another’s arguments a form of brutality, to be prevented at any cost. That merely incentivizes violence as a rational response to words. It actually promotes the logic of violence, since the very act of violence in response to words now can be seen as an expression of righteous indignation: The more violent you are, the worse the microaggression must have been.

Furthermore, the microaggression culture that culminates in leftist rioting on campuses and administrative sycophancy to it generates a generation of mentally unhealthy people. As Haidt states, the use of “trigger warnings” — warnings designed to alert people to the risks of microaggressions — actually make students more paranoid, less prone to engage with the world, unduly emotional and upset. Instead, students should be exposed to ideas with which they disagree, and learn to control their emotional response to them. Get angry, by all means — but speak about your anger, rather than using it as an excuse to avoid thinking about the implications of views you hold or oppose.

I’m currently scheduled to speak at Berkeley in September, after testifying about the dangers of microaggression culture before Congress this week. The administration now says that it’s fully committed to the event moving forward. I certainly hope that’s the case. And I hope that leftists across the country stop burying themselves in the solipsism of the microaggression culture and heed the words of former President Barack Obama: “I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view.”

We’ll be a better country if we stop the coddling, fight the violence and begin listening to one another once more. 

Ben Shapiro is editor-in-chief at The Daily Wire, host of the most-listened-to conservative podcast in the nation, “The Ben Shapiro Show,” and author of The New York Times best-seller “Bullies: How the Left’s Culture of Fear Silences Americans.”