One of the more interesting occasions in my college experience took place as I was waiting in line for a campus lecture. The announced speaker was Milo Yiannoupulous, a right-wing journalist who at the time was arguably the most influential voice among young conservatives. Now this particular figure, like many political pundits on the right, was a bomb thrower, prone to saying outlandish and hateful things about Muslims, migrants, and LBGTQ people.
Naturally, having such a figure at UCLA inflamed progressive activists, who promptly staged a protest. However, their goal wasn’t just to register disapproval that the event was taking place. Rather, they linked arms and sought to block everyone waiting in line from even entering to hear Yiannoupulous speak.
This strategy caused quite a dramatic scene, with the conservatives looking to attend the event and the leftist protesters screaming at each other back and forth.
Being in an inquisitive mood, I decided to journey between both sides and discern the motivations of the parties involved. My conversations with the progressives were especially interesting. They justified their actions with the following reasoning: First, Yiannopoulos was a bigot who held extremist positions about some of the most marginalized communities. Therefore, they had a moral obligation to prevent his words from even being heard by an audience. If such an individual were allowed to speak, he may persuade the crowd to adopt his hateful politics and as a result support prejudiced leaders and policies in the future.
It was this conclusion that I argued was a step too far, and felt actually revealed something quite dangerous about the American left. You see, the attitude expressed by my fellow UCLA Bruin that night is really a foundational one for the entire young progressive generation.
In so many words, today’s activists feel a moral obligation to monitor what speech should be allowed in society. Bigotry must be stomped out at the level of jokes, articles and public lectures, before it becomes reflected in the actions of government.
The problems in this approach, which seems so good-natured on the surface, are multi-faceted. One, what progressives are admitting is that they fundamentally no longer trust the public. Support for free speech requires an act of faith, that the people around you are as smart as you are, and will know how to discern right and wrong when hearing different points of view. The left has abandoned this doctrine, however.
The new politics suggests that the masses are actually full of gullible dopes, who can be easily manipulated by clever speakers like Yiannopulous into becoming monsters. So the important work is to protect the common man from being exposed to such figures in order to ensure that transformation doesn’t take place.
One cannot understate how problematic this is. Namely, how can progressives portray themselves as being for the people, while also taking such a dim view of the public’s capacity for critical thinking? A genuine populism must also be supportive of free, unhindered speech.
The only time it is typically considered OK to censor what content a person should consume is during childhood. We accept that parents have the right to prevent their kids from seeing mature movies or television shows before they are ready, for example.
But the grown adults who sought to see Mr. Yiannopulous that night were not children, and they naturally took offense to the idea that they needed moral guidance from a bunch of college students.
Furthermore, it is worth noting a central truth about politics: The public respects strength. People embrace activists who have the grit to deal honestly with opposing ideas, even if they are hateful, and beat them back with eloquence and principle. The civil rights movement didn’t win by getting George Wallace banned from “Meet The Press.” It won by offering a vision that was more beautiful than anything the Jim Crow-ers could possibly contend with.
When progressives take the opposite approach, and simply try to prevent the opposition from being heard, we look weak.
The response from the average voter isn’t, “Wow, look at these social justice heroes,” but rather, “Jeez, if the left can’t handle different opinions, can we really trust them with the government?”
A common response from activists to these arguments is to bring up Nazism. Wouldn’t it have been just, they say, for a German progressive to have blocked entrance to an address from Adolf Hitler as he was campaigning to become chancellor?
Of course the answer to that question is yes, as the Nazis presented a level of historic evil the world had never seen before. And yet, such comparisons bear little relevance to how to handle such issues in America.
What made Hitler so effective wasn’t that he was allowed to have free speech. It was that he was offering language Germany yearned to hear. A century of antisemitism, racial supremacy, and social Darwinism had carefully taken root in German culture and was waiting to be brought to the surface by a clever orator — and that’s what happened during the Nazi era.
America does not have those toxins circulating in its bloodstream that would allow a hateful regime like the Third Reich to arise. Hitler may have gotten fervent applause from Berlin crowds in the 1930s, but if he had spoken at UCLA during the same period, the response would have been quite different, I assure you.
We don’t have to fear free speech in our country, because we are a fundamentally good people. We must have faith in the decency of the common man, his bedrock values, his ability to think with as much principle as you and me.
Expose the public to everything — from the poets to the buffoons, the demagogues to the statesmen of learning and wisdom — and trust in their ability to pursue the proper course.
For when given the facts, the American people always have.
Joshua Heath is a Santa Clarita resident. “Democratic Voices” appears Tuesdays and rotates among local Democrats.