Against all reason, it appears that some of our fellow students remain enamored with bigotry in all its forms. The Columbia University College Republicans have decided to bring a series of objectionable speakers to campus. The most abhorrent of these is Mike Cernovich, an alt-right provocateur, conspiracy theorist, anti-feminist, and white supremacist. A former CU Dems board member, Ben LaZebnik, CC ’18, detailed some of Cernovich’s truly horrendous views in his op-ed, “From the Party of Lincoln to the Party of Pizzagate,” but even a quick Google search will tell you all you need to know.
CUCR will tell you they are bringing these individuals to campus for the purpose of “discourse.” That is utterly and completely false. In fact, these speakers fundamentally undermine discourse on college campuses. If CUCR sought to represent conservative voices on campus, they would bring real Conservatives who can challenge liberal ideas and provide value to our campus. Instead, they’ve chosen to bring racist provocateurs, drowning any possibility of real discussion underneath their bile.
The consequences of bringing provocateurs to campus go far beyond simple discourse. These individuals directly threaten communities on our campus. Tommy Robinson, who spoke on campus recently, has suggested that we intern select Muslims, and he has been repeatedly arrested for aggressive assaults. Cernovich, who is coming to speak at Columbia on Monday, was one of the primary promoters of Pizzagate, a blatantly false conspiracy that led to a man firing a rifle in a pizza shop. Before that, he made his name as a misogynistic commentator who frequently advocated for sexual assault and denied the concept of date rape. He’s also instigated internet harassment campaigns against individuals who disagree with him, which have led him to falsely insinuate they engage in pedophilia. For women, people of color, religious minorities, or, honestly, anyone with a hint of decency, these speakers attack our values and threaten our very existence.
This is exactly why we have an obligation to respond to these individuals. However, when we seek to resist these bigots, it is fundamentally important for us to remember what our goals are: to protect and support communities threatened by these individuals, to prevent such hatred from returning to our campus, and to elevate the voices that actually add value to the world.
If we hold ourselves to these standards, the way that students have engaged in the past does not work. Across the country, students have responded to these individuals by protesting, by shouting them down, by drowning them out. From Middlebury to Berkeley, these protests have gained national media attention and enraged people across the political spectrum, but have done little to stop these bigots from coming to campuses or to protect communities of students.
In many situations, protests are extremely valuable. Over the past year, as the Trump administration repeatedly threatened Muslim Americans, undocumented individuals, LGBTQ persons, and more, Americans across this country stood up in some of the most prolific forms of civic activism in our nation’s history. In these situations, protests can be inspiring, can build community, and can set the stage for real progress.
Yet, we must be able to realize when certain forms of protest are not working. When students shout down extremists, these bigots are empowered rather than erased; the bigots receive media coverage, and with it, legitimacy that they should never have.
When we try to shout down white nationalist speakers, it provides credence to falsehoods such as “both sides are at fault” or “students don’t believe in free speech.” Such debates shift the discussion away from our collective disdain at the anti-Semites, racists, Islamophobes, and misogynists who then attempt to use us as political props. If these speakers did not get so much attention when they came to college campuses, their despicable ideas would remain confined to the dustbin of history.
For this reason, we are counter-programming every single hateful speaker CUCR decides to bring in. We are choosing to highlight individuals who are doing extraordinary good in the world, not provide attention to those who espouse hate. We are intentionally holding these events at the same time Cernovich and others are speaking because we believe these individuals should not be given the attention they so desperately crave. In response to Cernovich, who is coming to campus on Monday, Oct. 30, we will be discussing how to counter white nationalism and hatred with Alan B. Howard, the chair of the board of the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Jessie Daniels, a professor who has extensively studied white nationalism and cyber-hatred.
Let’s remember, the white nationalists are not strong, influential, or even legitimate. They do not represent our campus or our country, and we should not give them power over us by the way we react to them. We are better than them and our actions should show it. We believe the best way to counteract hate is with unity and strength. We hope all of Columbia will join us.
The authors are executive board members of Columbia University Democrats.
To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.