Giancarlo Diaz, Baruch College:
In 1993 writer, Jonathan Ranch wrote a book called Kindly Inquisitors and identified what he would call the “humanitarian threat” to free speech. Unlike past threats to free speech, which involved overt intellectual authoritarianism that is easy to spot, the humanitarian threat is subtler. It occurs when people claim that certain ideas should be silenced because the ideas themselves “hurt” people. This threat to free speech appeals to empathy and promises a society without pain; all that has to be sacrificed is people’s ability to articulate their ideas freely.
This threat to free-speech is now exemplified in the prevention of right-wing speaker Ann Coulter from speaking at the University of California, Berkeley. The student groups that invited her to speak, the Berkeley College Republicans and Young America’s Foundation, were forced to cancel the event after it became clear that Berkeley would not be able to provide adequate security for the event due to violent left-wing protesters. Many protestors claim membership in a decentralized left-wing group who ironically calls themselves Antifa (Anti-Fascist) committing a contradiction worthy of an Orwellian dystopia. They believe that by acting like totalitarians through forcefully silencing their opponents they can they prevent a fascist uprising in America. This group was also responsible for the violent protest that occurred when right-wing speaker Milo Yiannopoulos attempted to speak at Berkeley.
Antifa follows the reasoning of the humanitarian threat to free speech by claiming Ann Coulter’s words are not simply statements they disagree with, but are actually the equivalent to physical violence, so they feel justified in acting violent in return. There are only two options with which human beings settle disputes: with words or violence. To conflate speech with violence is to risk unraveling civility in society into brutality. Antifa will claim they generally support free-speech but that Ann Coulter’s speech must be stopped because she allegedly holds fascist beliefs, and if allowed to continue, violence against minorities would ensue. While I believe this is an extreme exaggeration of Coulter’s beliefs, the content of her speech is utterly irreverent; she very well could be sprouting offensive fascist beliefs, but that is not the same as physical violence, and should not be treated as such.
Jonathan Ranch argues that the humanitarian threat to free speech could be seen during the Middle Ages with the Inquisition. The heretics held beliefs that contradicted the Catholic Church, which was a grave offense because it endangered the souls of the community. The Inquisition, in its humanitarian concern, had to forcefully silence the heretics. Even if their methods were violent, they would claim it was for overall humane reasons. However purportedly humane a group‘s goals are, silencing speech always ends up being more harmful to society then allowing hurtful or even mistaken beliefs to exist. When a group takes up the power to silence speech, what is considered hurtful or offensive will simply become anything the group does not want to hear. This is a problem because people can only develop their own ideas by facing ideas and concepts they don’t want to hear about but by allowing so, a dialogue can be established where people and by extension society can progress. Progress being something that can’t be clearly defined but must constantly be deliberated and debated on
The humanitarian threat is tricky to counter since it appeals to empathy for historically marginalized and politically oppressed groups. Anita’s claim of “humane” censor may seem reasonable superficially but are in fact entirely tyrannical and anti-humanitarian. The improvement of historically marginalized and politically oppressed groups was and still is entirely dependent on our ability as a society to speak freely without fear of physical reprisals. The dialogue that free-speech allows will often offend and emotionally hurt people but that is not a sufficient cause to allow violence. To fully counter the humanitarian threat, supporters of free-speech must acknowledge that the concept of free speech was never meant to make a society without hurtful or offensive speech, but allow for a world where people’s often painful disagreements could be settled peacefully with speech where “beliefs died but not people”.
Enemies of free-speech will like to believe that legitimate knowledge or criticism can be objectively separated from “offensive” ideas like Coulter’s, but in truth, they are practically indistinguishable. As Ranch states,” only such distinction is in the eye of the beholder,” so Anita’s fixation on Coulter’s speech is entirely subjective and arbitrary. Anita will loosely define any speech they dislike as fascist and then somehow an imminent threat to minorities to justify their violent censor as self-defense
Our country is fortunate enough to enshrine the protection of free speech in the First Amendment to the Constitution, stating “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble”. While Antifa seeks to destroy this sacred tenet in our society by preventing Coulter and others from speaking, they should be asked, as Jonathan Ranch puts it “‘if you are inclined to equate verbal offense with physical violence think again about the logic of your position. If hurtful opinions are violence, then painful criticism is violence…What do you do about violence? You establish policing authorities’ public or private to stop it and punish the perpetrators. You set up authorities empowered to weed out hurtful ideas and speech. In other words an inquisition.” Antifa is not the first inquisition to threaten our free-society and it will not be the last but here in the United States we thankfully preside over a legacy where free-speech has always won over the inquisition.