I have been a non-fan of Barack Obama ever since I read his much-hyped 2006 speech about what a wonderful idea he thinks it is to mix religion with politics. And I’ve disagreed with all his administration has done to prove he really meant it. But I pay attention to thoughtful people even when I generally disagree with them, and I must admit Obama hit a home run with a portion of his commencement address at Howard University last week:
America is big and it is boisterous and it is more diverse than ever. … And with so many folks from so many places, converging, we are not always going to agree with each other. … So don’t try to shut folks out, don’t try to shut them down, no matter how much you might disagree with them. There’s been a trend around the country of trying to get colleges to disinvite speakers with a different point of view, or disrupt a politician’s rally. Don’t do that – no matter how ridiculous or offensive you might find the things that come out of their mouths. Because as my grandmother used to tell me, every time a fool speaks, they are just advertising their own ignorance. Let them talk. Let them talk. If you don’t, you just make them a victim, and then they can avoid accountability.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t challenge them. Have the confidence to challenge them, the confidence in the rightness of your position. There will be times when you shouldn’t compromise your core values, your integrity, and you will have the responsibility to speak up in the face of injustice. But listen. Engage. If the other side has a point, learn from them. If they’re wrong, rebut them. Teach them. Beat them on the battlefield of ideas.
The phenomenon he’s talking about is pervasive. A group calling itself the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has tracked “disinvitation” cases like the infamous one involving Brandeis University and Ayaan Hirsi Ali since 1999 and found the trend steadily growing. Another group, the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, hands out annual “Muzzle Awards” to those who best implement Big Brother’s thought-control mission. Former Clinton administration official Kirsten Powers filled an entire depressing book last year with material along these lines, called The Silencing: How the Left is Killing Free Speech.
“Disinvitation,” of course, is just the tip of the iceberg. It only arises when someone is ignorant enough to extend an invitation to a thought-criminal. Ninety-nine percent of the time, those who arrange for campus speakers have the savvy to invite only “correctly-thinking” speakers in the first place.
Data compiled by FIRE and the Thomas Jefferson Center show that much of the bias in major universities is against conservatives. The latest brouhahas involve Virginia Tech’s disinvitation of Wall Street Journal writer Jason Riley, who had the poor judgment to be both black and conservative at the same time, and Sheffield University’s expulsion of a student for expressing religious opposition to same-sex marriage on his Facebook page. The news is also filled with stories about attempts—sometimes successful—to prevent presidential candidates, especially Donald Trump, from delivering their messages.
But conservatives are not the only victims. Even Richard Dawkins managed to get disinvited from a science and skepticism conference for suggesting that some feminists—not the “vast majority,” in his words, but “some”—were “pernicious.” Nor does being a feminist guarantee immunity. Germaine Greer, one of the most accomplished and prominent feminists in the world, had to fend off a disinvitation campaign last fall because of comments she made about transgendered individuals.
Prominent secularist professor Phil Zuckerman is someone who bucks the trend. Zuckerman believes that liberals of today’s generation are searching for “anything that makes them feel as though they are fighting the good fight. … They think that when they are protesting George Will or they are protesting Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a person that is my hero, they think they are fighting that similar fight of a generation or two earlier and they are mistaken. They are wrong and it’s horrible. I totally agree that free speech and rigorous debate is the heart of democracy and a society that I would want to live in.”
Liberals get well-deserved criticism for the role they’ve played in this kind of censorship. But they didn’t invent it, and they certainly don’t monopolize it. It was the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops that issued thought-control guidelines in 2004: “The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors, or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.” These guidelines have been used in efforts to prevent university students from hearing from people like HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and gun safety advocate Victoria Reggie Kennedy, and there was intense Catholic backlash against last week’s Notre Dame speech by Vice President Biden.
It’s not just the bishops. The hundred-thousand Christians who petitioned to prevent the Satanic Temple from holding an event in Oklahoma City this summer are guilty. Oxford University Press, which has banned all references to pigs and sausages in its children’s books to avoid offending Muslims, is guilty. The government of Denmark, which recently fined a man for a Facebook post comparing Islam to Nazism, is guilty. The students who disrupted a performance of Hindu hymns by a singer not of Indian descent are guilty. Those behind the successful campaign to remove a billboard near O’Hare Airport that read “Boycott Israel until Palestinians have equal rights” are guilty. So are those behind the legislation that’s been introduced in more than twenty state legislatures to punish persons or organizations promoting boycotts of products produced in the West Bank territories illegally occupied by Israel since 1967.
It’s not my mission here to defend Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Jason Riley, Donald Trump, Richard Dawkins, Germaine Greer, Kathleen Sebelius, Victoria Kennedy, George Will, or for that matter Barack Obama, or anything in particular that any of them ever did or said. It’s just to point out that we’ve slipped a long way from the famous aphorism attributed (perhaps incorrectly) to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” These are all thoughtful, accomplished people. In each case, with a little effort, I could find ideas they’ve expressed that I agree with, and ideas they’ve expressed that I don’t. But if I’m prevented from hearing their views, I never get that chance.