by Justin Robbins
A short time ago, I was unhappily compelled to rise in defense of snow-colored flake Richard Spencer after he was caught on camera slamming his face into the elbow of an anti-Nazi demonstrator. If social media shares and comments are any indicators, my take on the incident was not very popular; the reaction, a mere fraction of the faction who’ve been enjoying one of the new “punch a Nazi” apps.
Restless for another target, demonstrators recently converged on the University of California Berkeley to protest a speech (they hadn’t heard) by Breitbart editor, liberal antagonist, and pouty boy band extra, Milo Yiannoupolis. On a campus with a proud history of supporting free speech, the demonstrators wreaked sufficient havoc to cause over $100,000 damage and have Milo’s presentation cancelled for fear of violence. Politically, the incident was seen on the left, and on the right, as vindication of their respective perspectives. In reality, only the right has claim to the moral victory.
The takeaway from that “protest” was a $100,000 bill to UC Berkeley, and probably a million or more clicks for Milo. The real kicker is that every national media outlet, for the very first time, had to learn how to spell and pronounce Yiannoupolis. Think about that.
This essay takes its title in response to a truly worthy antecedent argument by Julia Serano, “Free Speech and the Paradox of Tolerance.” In it, she defends violent protests, and advances the ideas of philosopher Karl Popper, and includes an excerpt from his 1945 work, The Open Society and Its Enemies; highlighting this concept, “Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.”
A parallel irony was offered by an anonymous American officer, and quoted by newsman Peter Arnett, in his report of the 1968 U.S. Air Force bombing of the Vietnamese village of Bên Tre, “We had to destroy the town to save it.” You can almost smell the futility.
I get that as a straight, white, cisgender, natural-born American male, I rest in the lap of privilege. That it may seem patronizing to say I truly empathize with Serano, and with her rationale in defense of violent opposition to certain speech and, perhaps, speakers. So, it is not without some sincere regret that I submit to you this contention; she is wrong.
Take a hard, honest look at the state of our union. Whatever solace might be drawn from a functionally useless popular win of 3,000,000 votes, should be shattered by the fact 62,000,000 people voted for different ideas. That point cannot be stressed enough. We don’t vote for people, we vote for ideas. You can focus all the indignation you’d like on the so-called president, but he was just a vessel. It is a folly of reasoning to attack the body, yet leave whole the ideas which support its weight.
So it is with all vessels. Today’s Spencers and Yiannoupoli are nothing original; neither is anything they have to say. The only power they have is in whatever reaction they are able to evoke. Consequently, time spent punching Nazis and burning campus venues is time wasted.
To have that more clearly stated, read Popper’s next sentence in Serano’s excerpt: “In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would be most unwise.”
It is on that foundation I continue to stand as what Serano feels a need to call a “free speech absolutist”; no offense taken. I would ask her to consider this: Who do you trust to decide for you what is safe to hear? Once you’ve declared someone…anyone…the arbiter of “proper speech” what refuge have you when they decide your speech is not?