I agree with Allison Talker’s recent op-ed that intellectual diversity—including provocative and challenging speech—must be tolerated and engaged with here at Columbia, and that putting the safety of student attendees at risk is unacceptable. But I’m unconvinced that the Tommy Robinson event was intended to provide “an environment conducive to productive discourse” between students and Robinson, whose uncompromising rejection of liberalism inspires attacks on toleration. This bears great doctrinal and philosophical importance, so I believe it’s worth stepping into the fray.
Robinson is not the first speaker on campus to experience resentment, nor will he be the last. Columbia students are going to be intolerant of attacks upon their humanity. For the Columbia University College Republicans who organized the event, this seems to be a motivating principle. If you look at the list of speakers they’ve invited, which includes Milo Yiannopoulos, Martin Shkreli, Charles Murray, Dinesh D’Souza, and Mike Cernovich, almost every speaker can be understood as a reaction to Columbia’s liberal slant, transforming the act of hosting a speaker into a political statement. We seem to have forsaken questioning whether these events are even intended for the moderates among us, or if the speakers are even interested in what students have to say.
The most impressive achievement of CUCR—tapping into the pulse of fringe sentiment outside of Columbia’s bubble—is partly an outgrowth of evaluative instincts, and partly an embrace of the approach that divides the world between friends and enemies with no middle ground. An approach that vividly reminds us of notorious political philosophies that make bipartisanship impossible and is violently disposed to extremes of opinion.
One would think that if we’re capable of practicing enduring discussion, we’re capable of enduring tolerance. But at events designed to be politically divisive, tolerance is unwelcome, and productive discourse is unattainable.
Students like Talker seem to have accepted the idea that the First Amendment means all provocateurs should be engaged with. And all attempts to disrupt them are impairments of intellectual diversity that go as far as to prevent liberals from being able to grapple with radical politicization. “If you don’t understand how someone begins to think like this, you will never understand how to stop it,” she warns.
But to familiarize ourselves with the likes of Tommy Robinson and to prove ourselves tolerant, do we really need to provide speakers with a platform for hate speech? Progress can be lost if ideologues gain greater exposure and poison political dialogues, and hosting regular events for them is the equivalent of introducing their ideologies into the mainstream.
It is the craft and culture of protest that keeps politics moving in one direction. Intellectual development is the hallmark of any great society, one that doesn’t discourage diversity of thought. But I’m skeptical of Talker and Columbia’s criticism of the protesters when the cost of engaging with hateful rhetoric requires a new kind of action. One that demands more than one person with well-researched questions being in the audience.
This raises an important question: What kind of action should protesters take? The violent protests at Middlebury that harmed a professor who was interviewing Charles Murray are not the answer. But the silent protests at Harvard of Betsy DeVos may not be either. Progress necessitates more than protest, but it also requires effective protest. When we ask our students to maintain the balance between peace and order, we mustn’t forget that racists and firebrands are not permanently invested in either.
In the long run, students need protection from the abuses which led them to protest in the first place. It is no accident that Islamophobia and reports of hate crimes are on the rise. Maligning protesters though seems perilously close to converting the Rules of University Conduct into a suicide pact, transforming Columbia from a place of intellectual diversity into a scene of discrimination for the sake of order.
The author is an ancient studies major in the School of General Studies, Chairman of the International Campaign to Stop Rape, author of the upcoming novel “Benevolence,” a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, and a current columnist for Spectator. Follow him on Instagram at @supercoolkid212.
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