It’s a little depressing, on multiple levels, to see Jessica Valenti and Pam Spaulding celebrating because protesters at Smith College managed to shout down some bigoted halfwit who’d been invited to give a speech to the College Republican group on campus. Apparently, the “awesome feminists of Smith forced [anti-gay speaker Ryan] Sorba out after a mere twenty minutes of speaking, when he was drowned out by protesters.”
It’s sad first at a principled level, because two women who student feminists around the country look to as guides are endorsing the utterly illiberal idea that the proper response to bad speech—and after skimming a draft of Sorba’s preposterous forthcoming book, I can confirm that his remarks were destined to be both loathesome and stupid—is to silence the speaker. The man’s views may be repulsive, but the students who invited him were entitled to have an opportunity to evaluate those views and come to their own conclusions about their merits. Indeed, had the protesters sent in a couple of halfway-bright students from the biology and philosophy departments during Q&A, I’m confident they could have made the poverty of his reasoning embarrassingly clear to all in attendance. It probably would have made a hell of a YouTube clip, as well. Instead, by choosing bullying over persuasion, they handed this jackass the moral high ground, for what I can only assume is the first and last time in his life.
It’s also sad at the tactical level, because it shows how little some folks have learned from a decade of David Horowitz’s antics. Congratulations, guys: You’ve just elevated this obscure clown into the online right’s celebrity du jour. I’m glad you enjoy the video clip of the students shouting Sorba down so much, because you’re about to see a lot of it, on a hundred conservative blogs, as proof that those awful boorish feminists are so afraid of Sorba’s “ideas” that they’re unwilling to engage him in debate, or indeed, to even let anyone hear whatever “devastating” case he was planning to make. How many times does this scenario have to play out before people start to recognize that it always ends up as a PR coup for the supporters of the silenced speaker?
Addendum: The comments at Feministing show this to be an interesting Rorschach blot. Plenty of folks took more or less the position I did, provoking a variety of responses.
A number of people appear to think that showing up at an event for which a student group has properly reserved space, then making it impossible for anyone to hear the speaker, simply counts as countering his speech with theirs. I’m curious how many would take that view were the situation reversed; I suspect few.
A few think that “free speech” is not at issue because the government wasn’t censoring the speaker. Of course the First Amendment is not at issue for just that reason, but “free speech,” the broader concept, surely is. Some of those folks made a similarly confused appeal to private property. But, of course, the property belongs to Smith, which had allowed the College Republicans to use that property to host a speaker.
Most common, though, was some variant of the idea that free speech and open debate are wonderful, but this particular fellow is so hateful or so irrational or so beyond the pale that his remarks don’t count. But the value of endorsing “free speech” as a general principle is precisely to avoid having to make these kinds of decisions about the merits of the speech, barring some very specific exceptions like “incitement to riot.” Speech that isn’t controversial, that isn’t going to occasion protest, will never require us to invoke free speech as an ideal. Conversely, speech that is controversial—the kind of speech that might actually need the protection of that principle—is always going to be regarded as “beyond the pale” or “too much” by somebody. (Fill in the blanks yourself for the variant where this case is different because he’s not a “scientist” or an “expert.”)
Conservatives think Jeremiah Wright’s sermons are “hate speech”. “Men’s rights” activists say feminists regularly engage in hate speech. Presumably they, too, would like to send a message that those speakers are unwelcome on their campuses. You can say “well, their view is wrong and the Smith students’ view is correct,” but insofar as the disagreement is still there, this is pretty unhelpful: Everyone thinks they’re right, and so everyone feels entitled to drown out the speech they dislike. You end up with the meaningless principle: “Free speech, except when we feel strongly enough about how terrible and wrong it is.”
I suppose that works out fine in Northampton: If someone’s invading your safe space, someone whose ideas and way of life are not just wrong but deeply abhorrent, an assault on your identity and community by their very presence, then the community can hound them out—at least if enough people feel strongly enough about it. But I’m guessing LGBT folks in the rest of America might be less sanguine about living under that set of rules.