The very first amendment of the Constitution reads, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” Notice there is not an addendum to this provision that reads anything like, “Except if its speech I don’t like” or, “except speech that’s really bad.” This might come as news to many political writers and their thousands of followers on social media who revel in violence to those they deem neo-Nazis.
It all began on Inauguration Day when Richard Spencer, leader of the “alt-right,” white nationalist, and all-around abominable individual, was punched in the face by a protester. I immediately recoiled at the violence, hoping it would not be a portent to the disillusion of our liberal democracy. To my horror, many pundits and social media personalities reveled in the violence toward their political opponent. Joe Veix, culture editor at Newsweek, described watching Spencer get punched in the face as an “infinite joy.” To Newsweek’s credit, they took the column off their website and issued an apology, but running an article that celebrated violence with such alacrity in the first place is surely condemnable.
Controversial Rutgers professor Kevin Allred also said that he hoped the man would be punched again. These individuals were not alone; tweets to this effect have been spread quite literally tens of thousands of times.
The answer to hate speech is always more speech. Good speech. Your speech.
I can unequivocally say that Richard Spencer and his ilk are emetic bags of backward thinking horror that have no place in civil discussion; yet here they are. So what is to be done about them? The same thing that has been done to those who have spouted hate since the dawn of the freedom of speech that has dominated the West for the last few centuries: out-argue them.
The answer to hate speech is always more speech. Good speech. Your speech. I find myself getting nervous when I think about where this might lead. How long will it be until people start thinking it’s OK to punch any number of people for any number of their political thoughts? After all, climate change could have a catastrophic effect, so all those who deny its reality must be reached with violence. Tax policy affects too many people for it to be subject to normal philosophical and practical debate, those who disagree must be stomped out. Once we accept the premise of violence, the road is not very long before we reach this point.
The Nazis killed millions of people, but so did the communists of Russia, China and Cambodia. By the logic that some speech is so far outside the mainstream that it should be met with violence, I should be able to punch any thoughtless Occupy-Wall-Streeter in the face for wearing a shirt with the hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union on it. If I were to do this, it would be absolutely unacceptable despite all the lives taken by the disgusting regime that flew the flag of the USSR. The acceptable thing to do is discuss the issues with people and try to sway them to your side. The “speech is violence” mentality is a short step away from giving people the license for punching anyone they disagree with.
The almost comical irony of the whole situation is that the people who are purportedly so afraid of rising fascism, have in turn become fascists. The news media and social media alike are replete with individuals voicing their fear that fascism is right around the corner after Trump’s election. It turns out they were right, though not in the way they thought. It turns out that the brown shirts are the people that are most afraid of turning a corner and seeing a gang of rabid “Make America Great Again” hat wearers. Really, they should look in the mirror. The real brown shirts are those who would lazily resort to violence instead of doing the hard work of thoughtful argument. People can be reached if you show them good will. We are moving exactly in the wrong direction. It is impossible to truly know what direction our politics is headed in, but all signs point in the wrong direction.
The most recent example was the riot that broke out at the University of California, Berkeley, led largely by non-students. This genuine riot’s powder keg, filled with protesters punching Trump supporters, fights breaking out, fires burning, was set off because Breitbart senior editor Milo Yiannopolous was due to speak there. To be clear, Yiannopolous is a genuinely small-minded and mean-spirited man; but is this the reason the revolution must begin? Is Milo Yiannopolous this generation’s Lexington and Concord? Our republic should be made of sterner stuff.
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