Many academics trace the word “liberalism” back to the famed economist Adam Smith, who believed in a form of laissez-faire market economics where the market should not be heavily restricted. But Smith’s idea of classical liberalism, from which modern liberalism later evolved, also extended to the concept of fundamental liberty for all—whether it be freedom of thought, religion, speech or any other such right. Unfortunately, the modern liberal movement has strayed far from its namesake.
As of late, campus liberalism has devolved into an assault on any forms of free speech it deems offensive and into an attack on our very constitution . But this assault isn’t just occurring in liberal bubbles like New York or California—it’s occurring on this campus, and on campuses across the nation. The very institutions meant to promote intellectual curiosity and the exchange of ideas have become breeding grounds for a fascist strain of liberalism that seeks to violently silence the voices of their detractors.
Fascism isn’t just when an authoritarian government suppresses dissent. It rears its ugly head any time a political movement decides to silence, rather than defeat, their detractors.
Just in March, enraged liberal students violently disrupted an event at Middlebury College, where the controversial social scientist Charles Murray was due to speak. Their protest got so out-of-hand that the event had to be shut down, and a professor who was assaulted by these violent protesters wound up in the hospital. Recently at the University of California, Berkeley, which was once considered a bastion of free speech, a speech by controversial right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was canceled after protesters hurled rocks at police, smashed windows and stormed a building . Just days ago, conservative commentator Ann Coulter was also barred from speaking at UC Berkeley after the University realized she might have been in “grave danger” if she tried to speak. In this case, it was outside agitators who were in large part responsible for the violence and disruption, rather than students. However, the situation still serves to show the totalitarianism that has corrupted factions of the leftist movement. These horrific instances of intellectual fascism are no stranger to our very own campus here at the University of Massachusetts. In 2016, protesters from the Five Colleges collected at UMass and attempted to shout down Yiannopoulos, when he and several other controversial panelists spoke at an event arranged by the UMass College Republicans.
Why are these students so outraged? In a recent Op/Ed for the New York Times titled “What ‘Snowflakes’ Get Right About Free Speech,” Ulrich Baer argues that “the parameters of public speech must be continually redrawn” to accommodate marginalized groups. He argues that views which “invalidate the humanity of some people” restrict public speech for others, and should be censored in their own right. This is the type of argument violent liberal protesters usually point to, the notion that what they perceive as “hate speech” is unacceptable and must be shut down. But, there are several fundamental flaws with this type of argument, which have left conservative and liberal free speech activists alike aghast at this new brand of fascism.
The first is that “hate speech” is an entirely subjective characterization, and cannot be proven in any objective terms. There exists some speech that most would consider hate speech, and other speech that many would think is not. But there is a large gray area in-between, of controversial speech that divides opinion and defies clear-cut characterization. There are no absolute criteria by which anything can be judged as hate speech, and it will always be a matter of opinion. The slippery slope of subjectively determining some speech as unacceptable is incredibly problematic—anyone can argue that they consider any piece of speech “hate speech.” This type of attitude where some speech is deemed unacceptable has been used by authoritative political regimes to silence dissenters throughout history—whether it be in the USSR, China or Nazi Germany.
Additionally, there is an element within this line of argument that many members of ethnic minorities could find demeaning. To argue that they need to be shielded, or otherwise coddled against speech that targets them, is to imply that minorities need to be protected by noble, virtuous campus social justice warriors. It is to imply that minorities are less capable than the rest of us of engaging with and defeating ideas they rebuke, an idea that is not only flat-out false but also highly racially inflammatory.
The next and most jarring flaw in Baer’s argument is how strongly it reeks of intellectual cowardice. Keep in mind, we’re talking about pseudo-scientists like C harles Murray, who once wrote that Black people are genetically pre-disposed to be less intelligent, and political hacks like Ann Coulter, who has claimed that Latino-Americans have a “cultural acceptance of child rape.” If liberals are truly incapable of engaging with and defeating such vile, fact-devoid arguments in the free market place of ideas, what does that tell us about the strength of their arguments?
The final and most important reason this sequence of recent events must not continue is that this brand of liberal campus fascism is disgraceful to our Constitution, the document created to protect our most fundamental liberties. The First Amendment grants us all the right to free speech, a right that courts have declared some exceptions to. These exceptions include “fighting words,” threats and incitements of crime—but, notably, there is no exception for “hate speech.”
The way forward for liberal campus activists is simple: Protest these speakers peacefully, hand out pamphlets exposing their erroneous ideology or otherwise make your disagreement known—but the moment protesters stray into the violent silencing of the voices of their detractors, their movement becomes the very same brand of authoritarian fascism they decry within the Trump administration.
Bradley Polumbo is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]