For those who have read my recent article on drones, you may have guessed that I less than admire the CIA, particularly the current administration’s drone policy and usage. Still, I was appalled to learn that Students for a Democratic Society violently shut down CIA director John Brennan’s speech last Friday, because it appeared to me a clear violation of freedom of speech.
I personally challenged SDS to answer the one fairly simple question everyone was asking: “if you are so confident the speaker was a ‘war criminal,’ why not take him up on his offer to answer your questions rather than shut the event down?” What I received in response, several days later, was an op-ed (ironically enough) containing precisely what I did not ask for – SDS’s opinions on the CIA.
Undoubtedly, freedom of speech cannot be used to defend actions such as falsely shouting “fire” in a crowded theater. Whereas dissenting opinions and ideologies are unequivocally defended by the first amendment, inciting a riot is unequivocally a crime. But director Brennan incited no riot. SDS protestors, who instigated the ensuing violence, are far guiltier than director Brennan of shouting “fire.” How, then, can SDS make any reasonable claim that their actions did not infringe upon free speech?
The answer is that director Brennan and the event’s attendees had no right to free speech because their opinions disagreed with those of SDS; specifically, because director Brennan and most of the audience believes that “the United States is a benevolent force.” Does this mean, in the eyes of SDS, that anyone who less than vehemently despises the United States has no right to free speech? Such policy would likely cost the majority of Penn students, from all sides of the political spectrum, their first amendment rights.
I, for one, believe the United States is a benevolent force – presumably, I no longer have the right to free speech. Of course, the United States is no perfect nation; to dispute this would be absurd. Obviously, in the past, the US has committed grave and unforgivable mistakes; to dispute this would be more absurd. But in my opinion, and in the opinion of many diverse thinkers nationwide, the United States in general is a force for good, in its ideals of freedom and tolerance and in its actions in protecting innocents from terror and tyranny.
My paternal great grandparents, who survived the holocaust (not without losing innumerable siblings and family members), who were liberated and reeducated by the United States, understood this. My maternal grandparents, who were respected as equals in this country after escaping religious persecution in their native Iran, understood this. To deny the validity of this opinion would be equally absurd.
Herein lies the folly of so many radical leftist ideologies. Western society, perceived as imperfect, is instead construed as wicked and horrible; and the alternative, no matter how terrible it has proved itself historically, is romanticized. As a result of this flagrant over-exaggeration, the inevitable shortcomings of society that occur in an imperfect world are exhibited as disqualifying factors, wielded strategically to cast doubt on the system as a whole. Surely, because humanity is still plagued by inexorable ailments, it must be no freer than it was under the scourge of tyranny in the dark ages, or the brutal yoke of Soviet gulags.
(I highlight this not to criticize non-Western civilizations, but rather to celebrate certain Western values.)
It follows that the very values of Western society are taken for granted, called into question, and ultimately discarded. What is freedom of speech? Surely it isn’t that important, certainly less important than provoking feelings of insecurity.
But in reality, freedom of speech is crucial – it allows us to speak out against oppression and intolerance, to criticize Western Society; and only thereby can Western society self-improve.
Thus, there are more pressing issues at hand than SDS’s blatant hypocrisy. Forget the violence SDS has enkindled while protesting violence. Forget that SDS has denied so many students a platform for free speech on the grounds of disagreement, all the while demanding dissenters respect their first amendment in the form of an op-ed article. Forget that, for all its assertions that the CIA bombs innocent civilians, SDS was once the parent organization of Weather Underground, a group that literally bombed innocent civilians. Forget all of that because we must stand together, regardless of our backgrounds and political leanings, to preserve one of our most important constitutional rights.
According to Pew Research, fully 40 percent of young Americans favor government restrictions on speech. It would be impossible to legally ban some speech, even that which may be offensive, without embarking upon a slippery slope that will ultimately disallow criticism of the government and destroy all virtues of Western society.
To avoid this, we must fight to protect not only the right to free speech in our country, but also the culture of free speech on our campus. As demonstrated by David French in his recent visit to Penn, without an appreciation for the culture of free speech, the right to it loses its purpose.
And if you do not believe in the immeasurable value of free speech for its use in criticizing and, therefore, bettering our government and society as a whole, or for its facilitation of intellectual discourse and free exchange of ideas, believe in freedom of speech for its ability to diminish and discredit offensive speech launched by fringe groups.
Indeed, prohibiting hate speech may seem to be a solution to temper hateful feelings. But drawing a thin curtain of censorship over hateful speech does not make hate go away. On the contrary, by silencing the hateful, we inspire pity upon them, framing them as oppressed victims. Furthermore, by telling people that hatred is wrong without explaining why, by silencing hatred so that nobody learns how to effectively argue against it, we allow it to fortify itself and take firm root in the darkness. If you don’t believe me, observe how entrenched hatred born of “political correctness” censorship has erupted as of late and empowered the rise of Trump.
Therefore, though it may cause us to fear for our own safety at times, the only way to combat hatred is to pull back the curtain and expose it for what it truly is.
So, if you are an unsuspecting bystander caught up in the whirlwind of opposition between SDS and the rest of the University of Pennsylvania, do not fall prey to their obnoxious and outrageous arguments in defense of obstructing speech. Because free speech fuels academic growth. Because it allows us to criticize those in power with whom we disagree. And most importantly, because it is a tool to resist hate; because hate is a beast that flourishes in the shadows, and the only way to defeat it is to shed light on its ugly face.