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Columbia Spectator Staff

In an op-ed published in Friday's Spectator, Adel Elsohly, who serves as the graduate advisor of the Muslim Students Association, responded to Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders's appearance at Columbia on Wednesday. After accusing Wilders of spending much of his speech "inciting fear within a community," Elsohly argued that Wilders's remarks surpassed the bounds of free speech and instead forayed into the realm of hate speech. Condemning Wilders's words as frighteningly similar to rhetoric issued in pre-World War II Germany and 1990s Rwanda, Elsohly made the case that it is our responsibility as Columbians and human beings to "stand up against hate speech, irrespective of the target." He ended his earnest plea for acceptable speech by asserting that everyone deserves "freedom from fear" as much as a right to free speech. Elsohly has a point—Wilders's speech did develop into an uncomfortable string of not-so-politically-correct criticisms of the Islamic ideology. In fact, his statements could be considered hate speech, as they attacked a specific set of beliefs. He argued against an ideology's influence and proclaimed his passionate dislike for a religion. Hate speech is hate speech, and it made an appearance on campus last week. But that is where my agreement with Elsohly ends. He may be correct in the classification of what was said, but his prescribed response of limiting hate speech sets the stage for the disintegration of the First Amendment rights that we all cherish. Banning hate speech ultimately prevents us from supporting the principle of free speech. By all means, I understand the motivation behind banning abhorrent and offensive words from our public arena. Such a restriction would almost definitely result in a more cohesive and amiable society. Imagine it—a world in which people couldn't criticize one another's beliefs or values. Think of how many reasons for war would disappear and how many causes of conflict would evaporate. However, the concept of free speech arises not from a desire for a more conciliatory community, but from a determination to do away with restrictions to individual freedom. In fact, we feel the need to enshrine rights to free speech in such documents as the Bill of Rights because they do not come by default. They aren't a given. In fact, they are far from guaranteed—human nature tends to allow the strongest to prevail, regardless of the effect that has on particular groups and their opinions. Therefore, we embrace the idea of anybody having the right to say anything. With this right, though, comes the need to distinguish between identity and ideas. For a society to accept free speech and protect those who push its boundaries, the community must recognize that criticism of an ideology is not equitable to attacking individuals. Elsohly claims that standing up against an ideology "can only mean standing up against the people," a conviction that has distressing implications. Though it is valid to criticize the merits of an argument, asserting that an attack on a belief is an attack on believers represents the rejection of free speech's basic principles. Adopting this mindset means that any denunciatory speech suddenly becomes hate speech. If individuals cannot criticize ideas without accusations of attacking the people that espouse them, free speech becomes meaningless. It must be clear to all members of society that such a distinction exists unless all criticism of ideas is outlawed for the sake of protecting the ideas' adherents. Of course, a guarantee by authorities that critical speech does not result in any sort of violence or unrest must accompany this realization. Cherishing the right to free speech is our choice, and it is not an easy one. It comes with the risk of seeing the uglier side of discourse. If we give people the right to say what they please, people will eventually get offended. They will be insulted. They may even feel threatened. Their core values may be treated like trash, and their beliefs may be scorned and condemned. I would even argue that such a thing as "freedom from fear" could not exist in a society that truly values free speech. Such an idea implies that any ideas that even slightly intimidate others, whether rationally or not, could not be presented. That is a fearful prospect indeed. How, then, are we supposed to react to people like Wilders? The first step is giving them a taste of their own medicine. The responsibility of countering the inappropriate sentiments that result from free speech lies with the people. Provide counterarguments, create a dialogue, and fight hateful words with constructive ones. Don't wait for the authorities to protect your feelings and sense of comfort—wield the tools being used against you, and take a stand for those ideas that bring people together, not drive them apart. Derek Turner is a Columbia College sophomore. Opening Remarks runs alternate Tuesdays.opinion@columbiaspectator.com

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