April 24, 2014

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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Free speech includes ideas you don’t like, too

My first year of college was spent across town, at Hampshire College. After growing up in a small town in New Hampshire, never having heard the term “hipster” in my life, you can imagine the extent of my culture shock. I went into freshman year considering myself an extremely progressive liberal,, but by the time I dropped out at the end of the year, I realized just how traditional and conservative I was in many respects.

Nickolas Massar/Collegian

By enrolling myself in one of the most seemingly radical schools in the nation, I saw in an exaggerated microcosm the way political viewpoints tend to isolate themselves from opposing ideologies. This process tends to create a positive feedback loop where people only interact with politically like-minded others and can encourage each other into a fever pitch of radicalism that is far removed from the common-sense wisdom of the more traditional culture at large.

The thing I love about UMass is that one can find people from every cultural and political persuasion; this diversity of outlook keeps debate lively, and because so many students here pay their own way or are from lower and middle class backgrounds, arguments are rooted in practical experience. It is for this reason that I am a bit puzzled, and frankly dismayed, upon reading a Daily Collegian article about the actions of the Occupy and labor studies activists at a lecture on the merits of free capitalism last week.

From what I could gather from the article, activists went in with a predetermined goal to present their dissatisfaction with the basic tenets of the lecture. This in itself seems fair and reasonable – to symbolically show an opposition to the ideas presented. But the activists went further, disrupting the speaker and monopolizing the question-and-answer session with, as the Daily Collegian reported, “long-winded soliloquys.” What could have been an opportunity for lively debate about the relative merits of competing philosophies instead denigrated into divisiveness and bile. What got lost, in the process, was that both groups share the same goal of general economic prosperity.

Where can the cool-headed debate between opposing ideologies take place, if not in the halls of higher education? Harrison Searles, quoted in the article, was right when he said “the point of the University is the open sharing of ideas.”  Occupy activists need to remember that achieving their avowed goal of economic justice cannot happen outside of the democratic process. The foundational principle of a democratic society is allowing opposing viewpoints to be expressed, even those you find distasteful. Nelson Klein justified the disruption of free speech because it “… was not in the interest of our school.” It is not for one person, or even a large group, to decide the “interest” of a public school and silence opposing conceptions. The true “interests” of a public school are the ideals of a democratic society that apply without prejudice to everyone: free speech, individual liberties and academic freedom. It is all the more shameful that such overtly confrontational tactics were used in a collegiate setting.

Lest anyone dismiss my point right off the bat, I find it important to point out that I’m not a Republican, nor an Objectivist. Like any ideology is bound to be, I find these viewpoints at times hypocritical and inconsistent. But I’m not about to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Members of both of these groups are at times among the most vocal supporters of civil liberties. Approaching their views with hostile prejudice will preclude gleaning any kind of wisdom, however small, from their lectures. It would be so much more productive to challenge inconsistencies in their ideas, sharpening one’s rhetorical powers in the process, instead of shouting down a speaker giving a free lecture to the public. A glance at the Facebook page of the New England Objectivist Society shows how this has created a bitter and hostile attitude, in turn, towards the Occupy protesters. These groups, sharing the same goal of economic prosperity, should be finding common ground and working together to remove the influence of powerful financial interests from the governmental process.

It is patently wrong for Occupy protesters, who object to the phony capitalism of Wall Street, to take out their anger on a small college group whose economic ideal is economic freedom. The thriving small businesses and the strong local communities this would support is the very opposite of Wall Street. But then, if they had listened to the lecture instead of shouting it down, perhaps they would know that.

Gavin Beeker is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at gbeeker@student.umass.edu.

22 Responses to “Free speech includes ideas you don’t like, too”
  1. Katie McKenna says:

    Yes! Thank you for writing this. I agree completely. I wrote a similar column about the whole idea of respecting ideas that don’t fall in line with your own after reading about those activists. Nicely done!

  2. OccupyaTextbook says:

    This is exactly why I support what they are doing, but not them. The end is a noble one, but the style, crass, and attitude that most of them (who know nothing about financial market operations) of self-endowed nobility turns me off. No wonder people like the Tea Party better.

  3. Ben Taylor says:

    With all due respect to Mr. Beeker, the collegian article earlier this week was lacking in journalistic neutrality. The characterization of the commentary those activists who remained behind to engage in the Q & A section as ‘long-winded soliloquies’ is highly problematic. At least one individual engaged Mr. Bernstein with a pointed critique of the narratives he failed to recognize in his speech, and provided a rather well informed counter-narrative about the capitalist underdevelopment of the ‘third world’. The fact of the matter is that the Objectivist club, the Umass GOP, and Mr Searles pay lip service to free speech, but are uninterested in acknowledging when truth is spoken to the hegemonic ideas of society. This is a group which was distributing such ludicrously offensive material as Ayn Rand’s “America’s Persecuted Minority: Big Business.” In a world where wealth is highly concentrated into the hands of the few, and where the median wealth held by people of color is a mere sliver of that held by white people, such literature is deeply offensive and deserves to be called out. Did we stop the lecture from happening? No, we are not like the Fraternal Order of Police, who willing pull the levers of power to silence radical narratives., but we did challenge the deeply problematic narratives espoused by Mr. Bernstein, which by the way, have been spoken many times before. This was not a new talk by Mr. Bernstein, the speech has been delivered almost verbatim elsewhere, and is available on the internet. We did our research, why don’t you do yours? The mic checks delivered a point by-point counter narrative to the falsehoods, mis-characterizations and obfuscations delivered by Mr. Bernstein, but the collegian has demonstrated a lack of journalistic integrity by silencing that narrative, while sympathizing with poor old Mr. Bernstein, whose pro-one-percent narrative was challenged. I would like to remind the editorial staff at the collegian what violating freedom of speech really looks like: http://dailycollegian.com/2009/11/17/mishandling-of-lavesseur/

  4. danielle says:

    Don’t you see? Things are too far gone, we can no longer NOT do these kind of things! I wish I had been involved with their actions.

  5. freespeech says:

    Thanks so much for writing this. It’s really refreshing to hear someone defend free speech on both sides of the debate, while recognizing that one may not express free speech at the expense of the other.

    It should be noted that comments or wall posts from outside users of the NEOS page do not necessarily represent the views of individuals within, or the whole of, NEOS. It is a public page that welcomes outside commentary provided that it is relevant and respectful. Posts and comments from the other side of the political spectrum, which meet those criteria, have been kept. As such it should not be misunderstood that NEOS has as an entity expressed categorical “bitterness”.

    This university is a forum for the free exchange of ideas, and I thank you once again for recognizing that. Good work, Gavin.

  6. MatthewSM says:

    Well done, Gavin. Shame on those who disrupted the talk. They should have waited until the Q&A to challenge Dr. Bernstein on any perceived mistakes in his arguments.

    Congratulations to Gavin again for communicating the merits and defining characteristics of free speech, most of which is apparently lost on those who disrupted the talk.

  7. Scytale says:

    I wish people who were not present at the event would refrain from writing columns about it. The speaker spent at least half the time spouting outright lies, and the protesters shouted facts at him. This isn’t about whether or not we like someone’s ideas, this is about whether or not it’s ok to have a lecture where the speaker makes a series of claims that are simply not true. Should we respect the free speech of people who claim the Earth is flat, too?

  8. Harrison Searles says:

    Scytale, your loyalty to the views of the protesters is admirable. However, your claim that he was “spouting outright lies” is false, and is a deliberate attempt to cease discourse on the topic. Perhaps, in your own opinion, the matter is settled and that the theories that Dr. Bernstein used are unsound. However, that is neither the view of Dr. Bernstein nor those who hosted the event. To the contrary, they though what the lecturer had to say was still interesting and very much worth listening to. The entire point of freedom of speech, as J.S. Mill emphasized in _On Liberty_, is so that no one person’s truth can dictate the views of others. It is simply not just to let a group of people stop the peaceful association of others for the promulgation of certain theories just because that group does not view them as truthful. If it were as easy as you suggest to show that Dr. Bernstein made “a series of claims that are simply not true” then either the protesters could have expressed their opinion outside of the lecture hall or could have waited til the Q&A to challenge the speaker. In a free and open society, no one has the right to declare dogma that it is not just to challenge nor do they have the right to stop another person from speaking what they consider to be lies. So yes, flat earthers have a right to speak on a college campus, just as do creationists and socialists.

  9. Scytale says:

    Harrison, if you are speaking, and I angrily interrupt you and storm out of the room, does that mean I violated your freedom of speech? I think not. By those standards, people would be violating each other’s freedom of speech all the time. As a general principle, interrupting someone who is speaking and then leaving the room is not considered an infringement of that person’s rights. And that is all the protesters did: they interrupted and left.

  10. Scytale says:

    On another note, if Gavin Beeker had actually attended the lecture before writing this opinion piece, he would know that it wasn’t about “thriving small businesses and strong local communities.” The lecture was explicitly in support of big business, and glorified the robber barons of the 19th century. The activists knew what they were protesting.

  11. Ed Cutting says:

    I keep reminding people — Hobbes said that life in a state of nature was boorish, brutal and above all else brief.

    I hear that they had a problem with burning “occupy” tents in August, ME — a 12 quart pail full of gasoline and a match at 4 AM — do I need to say more?

    This is why you folk need to undertand the social contract. Th econcept that I won’t harm you or your property because I have a legally enforcable right to prevent you form doing that to me…..

  12. Harrison Searles says:

    “As a general principle, interrupting someone who is speaking and then leaving the room is not considered an infringement of that person’s rights. And that is all the protesters did: they interrupted and left.”
    That is not the case, and it is surprising that you would say that seeing that that was not what happened during the lecture. The police were needed more than a couple times to remove individuals from the room, and it was generally only when the police came that the protesters stopped. If the police are needed to force people to leave, how can you suggest that no rights were violated? Furthermore, the fact that the lecture was interrupted six times over the course of an hour shows that there was a concerted effort to stop and critically disrupt Dr. Bernstein. Perhaps you should have attended all of the lecture before writing your comments…

  13. Michael Caution says:

    “interrupting someone who is speaking and then leaving the room is not considered an infringement of that person’s rights. And that is all the protesters did.”

    Wow context-dropping. The whole reason these thugs were in the wrong was because the lecture was a formal event put on by a college group. We are not talking about informal conversation between two people or even a group of individuals where interruption can be a common occurrence. To suggest that is completely dishonest. The host group did not spend all their time and energy to set up a forum for outsiders to come and heckle a speaker. The forum was solely for Dr. Bernstein to come and give a lecture. To disrupt him in any way is a violation of his and the host’s rights to free speech. If you wish to spread your own ideas you should have been able to reserve a separate room and spew your ideas to those willing to listen.

    Apparently I had to spell this fact out because a lot of the rationalization on the part of the “protesters” doesn’t take cognizance of this distinction between everyday conversation a formal lecture forum. Rights do apply within a specific context, make sure you think through your arguments.

  14. Scytale says:

    Harrison, I was there for the entire lecture, and I saw that the vast majority of protesters left the room voluntarily. A few were indeed escorted out by police, but that was because the police came in before they had finished speaking. Presumably they also intended to leave after they were done speaking, but never got to finish their statements.
    Michael, first of all, you are the one making dishonest suggestions. The protesters did not “heckle” the speaker, they read counter-arguments to what he was saying. And I did not know that someone could be a “thug” just by using their voice in a way you don’t like.
    Now let me see if I understand your notion of “free speech” correctly. If I reserved a space somewhere on campus to deliver a lecture in which I made outrageous claims – for example, saying that you are a serial killer who eats babies – would you still say that anyone who disrupted me in any way is a thug violating my right to free speech?

  15. The 98% says:

    Scytale, I recommend avoiding practicing law. One is an opinion, the other is defamation of character. One is backed up by facts, the other is an attack on character.

  16. Michael Caution says:

    It doesn’t matter the manner or tone in which Bernstein was interrupted. It doesn’t matter that he was able to finish his complete lecture during the alloted time. It’s the principle of the fact that he was interrupted at all. Any attempt at defending such disruption is rationalization. A lecture is not an open invitation for “reading counter-arguments”. The fact is that these degenerates openly broke with any tie to rational discourse when the violated the host and speaker’s right to speech and the college’s right of property. They made it known by their actions that they don’t care to engage in an intellectual battle but rather a physical, ultimately violent one. They’ve adopted the principle of force. By forcibly disrupting the lecture they’ve dropped all pretense of respect and rationality. It doesn’t matter how polite they are while they do it it still is an action based on the principle of force. This is why they are impish thugs. Free Speech is absolute. Leaving out obvious cases of libel/slander and inciting physical violence individuals should be allowed to say whatever they want so long as it doesn’t violate others rights. That’s why I suggested the only way to morally exercise one’s opposition to a lecture would be either to protest outside the event or reserve a separate room and invite those willing to listen. Otherwise leave Bernstein only. If people are interested in challenging Bernstein they may do so on the Q&A but in the form of a question not a diatribe. The lecture forum is the speaker’s time if you don’t like it, don’t go. Other people’s soap boxes are not your platform get your own. Have we killed this horse enough? For fuller exposition touching on these ideas I suggest you read Ayn Rand’s Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal and The Virtue of Selfishness.

  17. td says:

    What the anti-capitalists did is called a “Heckler’s Veto” which is a form of censorship where you silence someone by creating disruptions (like repeatedly yelling a nonsense phrase such as “Mike Check” or shouting “rebuttals” so loudly the original speaker can’t be heard) in order to prevent that person from expressing their opinions. It is a tactic favored by those who fear that they cannot win the argument in a calm, rational and fact based discussion.

  18. Scytale says:

    Michael: So, in other words, you think that no one should have been allowed to express any disagreement with Bernstein in any way (not even during the Q&A, since you said that the Q&A should have been for questions only). Apparently, your definition of free speech is “if I reserve a room to speak, then I have a right to say anything – even proven lies – with no interruption and no disagreement. Any interruption or disagreement, even when polite or fact-based, is a violation of my rights.” Well, I’m sorry, but this definition is utterly ridiculous. I don’t care what your cult leader Ayn Rand says. Free speech does not include the right to spew lies with impunity. On the contrary, free speech includes the right of people in the audience to challenge such lies.
    td, the only facts being said in that room were coming from the protesters.

  19. Yale Cohn says:

    I’m always embarrassed when I read about college students interrupting or otherwise interfering with the ability of speakers on college campuses to freely express their beliefs.

    I’m embarrassed for the colleges but, even more so, for those who are doing the interrupting, given how poor their basic understanding of the concept of “free speech” really is.

    College campuses, which should be among the freest places in the country when it comes to the open exchange of ideas are, sadly, becoming among the most restrictive.

    Contrary to what entirely too many of today’s college age youth may have been lead to believe, you have no implicit right “not to be offended,” and, however much you may wish to paint it so, any speech with which you disagree with and may even be disgusted by is not, by default, “hate speech.”

    Were it not for people expressing what were, at the time, wildly unpopular opinions on women’s rights, civil rights, gay rights, etc, – opinions which were all born on or nurtured on college campuses – we’d never have seen the overwhelmingly positive and powerful changes to our society born from people expressing those very opinions.

    At the same time however, there are still people who may be opposed to those changes, or who may hold beliefs about other issues entirely which you may, indeed, vehemently disagree with.

    And they have the same right to express them, without interruption or censorship, as you do yours.

    That the people who most loudly and frequently call for “tolerance” are also among the quickest to seek to stifle debate, discussion, or the exchange of ideas they may disagree with by intolerantly seeking to squelch or stifle said is quite troubling.

    A person’s right to free speech ends where their fist touches your nose, not where their words enter your ear.

    All ideas, all beliefs, all positions deserve an equal and open airing, whether you may agree with them or not, nowhere more so than on college campuses.

    If you have real faith in the strength of your own ideas and beliefs – whatever they may be – allowing others to speak out against them or express ones which run in opposition to your own can only help to both strengthen your own commitment to them as well as highlight their legitimacy and efficacy in the court of public opinion.

    Allowing the opposing views their right to a full public airing will do far more to advance your own cause by allowing them to be exposed as the canards they are than simply trying to shout them down ever will.

    When people try to deny others their right to fully and freely express their own opinions it not only paints them as petulant and oppressive, it also raises fundamental questions about the legitimacy of their own beliefs if they truly believe they cannot withstand any challenge, however earnest – or innocuous – they may be.

    The “real world” is rife with people holding a variety of opinions about near to every issue imaginable.

    So, too, are college campuses.

    And every single one of them deserves to be heard.

  20. Jenna says:

    “A person’s right to free speech ends where their fist touches your nose, not where their words enter your ear.”
    Well, by that reasoning, since no fists touched Bernstein’s nose, his right to free speech was not violated… In fact, this raises an important question: How come the protesters don’t have a right to not be offended, but the speaker has a right not to be challenged? How can speaking freely (albeit in a loud voice) be a violation of free speech?
    It seems to me that none of this is about free speech at all. Each side wants to have their own opinion heard and to have the other side silenced.

  21. dennymack says:

    Oh, my. Those who shout down speakers rarely fare well in an open debate. They tend to be unaware of the obvious errors in their arguments, because their arguments have never been challenged. They speak in the closed circle of their like-minded associates, and create imagined arguments for their opponents that have little to do with what their opponents actually think. When confronted with their ACTUAL opponents arguments, they shout them down. IT is infantile.

    They may justify this by claiming that their opponents arguments are all lies. Why not let the audience decide what to believe?
    They may argue with why their opponents put forth certain arguments. Demanding that someone prove their motivation is easier than refuting their argument.
    When all else fails, use academic jargon that makes vague pronouncements sound substantial. (Try: “problematic narrative” and “social justice”)
    They may ascribe every ill in the world to the actions of their opponents. Why are people hungry? Capitalism. Why is there racism? Capitalism. War? Capitalism. Why does my quant-head brother make more in finance than I make as a poet? Capitalism.
    The sad part is that they will go away from the exchange thinking that they got the better of it,and none of the people they talk to will tell them differently. When the next election comes around and the Enviro-anar-collectivists don’t win, they will think it is because of the Koch brothers. They will eventually conclude that democratic politics is broken, and logic demands that they go outside the political process. Some of them will.
    We are back in 1968, and the Weather Underground starts making bombs again.
    (RE: The inevitable response that Occupy is all-peaceful: Occupy Portland alone saw the fire-bombing of the Portland World Trade Center and the arrest of several self proclaimed anarchists with glass-jar grenades.)

  22. Westie says:

    The lack of critical thinking in the empty halls of Academia has reached a point of negative returns. The drone’s responses regarding Freedom and Rights demonstrates a cascading failure that approaches terminal state.

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