Oct. 30 author’s addendum: Since this column was published, it has come to my attention that several of the claims I made in it were unverified. I would like to retract those remarks and apologize to those who were hurt by them.
In politics, always respect the rule of unintended consequences. That is to say, politics is chess, and you must anticipate the consequences of every action, the consequences of those consequences and so on. If you don’t, your actions could very well backfire. In this column, I will discuss the actions of Healing to Action (H2A) and the larger progressive community, and I will explain why I believe their current trajectory may backfire. The two actions I will consider in particular are the intentional or unintentional misrepresentation of facts and support for a ban on hate speech.
On Wednesday, the Vassar Conservative Libertarian Union (VCLU) hosted a lecture by a conservative Cornell law professor, William A. Jacobson, entitled “An Examination of Hate Speech And Free Speech on College Campuses.” This was the original title for the event before it was changed to “‘Hate Speech’ is Still Free Speech, Even After Charlottesville,” and then back to the original. This title, and the subject of the event itself, instigated serious concerns within the Vassar community and prompted H2A, a progressive activism group at Vassar, to hold a meeting attended by hundreds of students. The focus of this meeting was to ensure the safety of the student body during the event, and attendees shared their thoughts on how best to do that. They also workshopped ideas about how to effectively boycott or protest the event.
I want to make absolutely clear that I in no way condone hate speech on or off campus. My intention in writing this is ultimately to support the progressive causes of racial equality, intersectional feminism and the creation of a more tolerant and peaceful society by presenting what I believe is the best course of action.
The first action that I would like to address is the misrepresentation of facts. For this, I would like to clarify the truth of a few claims H2A made about the event for the sake of upholding truth. Firstly, while Professor Jacobson is a conservative and runs a conservative publication called “Legal Insurrection,” it was alleged by some that he is actually a white supremacist. There is no evidence to support this fact, and while some may argue that conservative and white supremacist are one and the same, Jacobson, to my knowledge, has not been accused by anybody besides H2A of harboring racist or white supremacist opinions.
Furthermore, some people alleged that news of the event was shared on white supremacist and neo-Nazi websites and publications. My research found that the news was shared on four sites: Legal Insurrection, VidolAmerica.org, LongRoom. com and VCLU’s own newspaper, Tertium Quids. While some of these sites lean right, none could reasonably be considered white nationalist in the way that the Daily Stormer or the KKK’s website can. The statement that the event has been shared on white nationalist websites is misleading.
Lastly, there is no evidence that I could find to support H2A’s claim that members of national hate groups are likely to come to this event as they did in Charlottesville. The president of VCLU told me that they know of “five people” who are attending and who shall remain confidential.. Besides that, there is no evidence of attendees from the outside community, and claims of any are little more than speculation branching off of the earlier claim that news of the event was shared on white nationalist websites.
I bring up these points for a simple reason: the pursuit of honesty. I don’t believe H2A was malicious or even intentionally dishonest in these statements. Furthermore, I am just referring to what I heard from H2A leaders at their Monday meeting. It is possible that this information came from the VSA or some other source. I am, admittedly, without knowledge of where this information originated. That said, it is up to each group to screen the facts that they present.
Also, it must be noted that the VCLU has acted dishonestly as well. Originally, the VCLU president misrepresented the event on his VSA funding application by attaching a title he did not intend to use. If we wish to have truly equitable and constructive discourse, the first thing we must do is hold ourselves to a high standard of honesty. For both groups, I believe the rule of unintended consequences will ultimately prevail if they continue to misrepresent the truth. It will backfire, likely through the public sentiment.
Now I would like to address the topic of the lecture: how to address hate speech in relation to free speech. I think it is a reasonable assumption, drawn from both firsthand testimony from the H2A meeting as well as a proven correlation between left-wing beliefs and support for a ban on hate speech, that most H2A members and much of the Vassar community would support, or at least consider, a ban.
Americans, however, are more split on exactly what to do about this: A YouGov poll shows that “59 percent of Americans say people should be able to express even deeply offensive views, while 40 percent said government should prevent people from engaging in hate speech” (The Atlantic “America’s Many Divides Over Free Speech,” 10.09.2017). Much of that 40 percent consists of Democrats, minorities and young people. However, banning hate speech would not help the left, and it might even hurt us.
First, we must consider how anti-hate speech laws would be enforced and how hate speech would be interpreted by the government. There actually are useful case studies for this, since several European countries, including France, the UK and Germany, have laws banning certain forms of hate speech. Unfortunately, hate speech, whether we like it or not, is in the eye of the beholder, and it ultimately falls on the government to enforce how hate speech laws are interpreted. As I stated earlier, it is fair to say that progressives “long for Europe’s hate speech restrictions,” based on the notion “that those laws are used to outlaw and punish expression of the bigoted ideas they most hate: racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, misogyny,” (“In Europe, Hate Speech Laws are Often Used to Suppress and Punish Left-Wing Viewpoints,” The Intercept, 09.29.2017). However, this notion might be somewhat misguided.
While hate speech laws have been used effectively to combat racism and anti-Semitism, there have also been many questionable interpretations of them, particularly against left-wing speech. Take France for example: “In 2015,” writes the Intercept, “France’s highest court upheld the criminal conviction of 12 pro-Palestinian activists for…wearing T-shirts that advocated a boycott of Israel.” In the UK, meanwhile, “‘hate speech’ has come to include anyone expressing virulent criticism of UK soldiers fighting in war,” (The Intercept).
Now, I would like readers to imagine a country in which, unlike most of these European countries, the political system is completely broken, and a far-right lunatic with a loose understanding of truth is the chief executive. It’s a stretch, I know. Now imagine what would happen if those aforemen- tioned hate speech laws were in place in this totally hypothetical country. The executive branch, run by a man who often takes the terms of the left—like “fake news” and “racist”—and turns them against the left, and courts filled with justices appointed by that man would be in charge of enforcing those laws. I would go to jail if this were the case. So would many Vassar students. All of this assumes, by the way, a serious alteration or deletion of the First Amendment, which courts have consistently said prevents this sort of legislation.
Finally, we must ask ourselves if banning hate speech is truly the solution to the overlying problem of institutional racism. I would argue no. Making hateful speech illegal does not simply stamp out the sentiment that caused it in the first place. A ban on hate speech in France certainly didn’t stop over a third of the country from voting for far-right and islamophobic presidential candidate Marine Le Pen. Nor did similar bans prevent the rise and prominence of other far-right parties all across Europe. People will still vote, act and commit violence in the name of racism regardless of the law because they are still, in fact, racist.
There are better ways to combat racism. Christian Picciolini, the founder of Life After Hate, a group that tries to integrate KKK members, neo-Nazis and white supremacists back into society argues that these hateful groups are filled with people who feel powerless to control their lives and that punishing their actions is unnecessary when there are other effective ways of changing these people. He uses a method of education and exposure to multiculturalism to reintegrate white supremacists, and it has been proven to work.
I would like to close by emphasizing the importance of this issue. As H2A frequently reminds people, racism has always been here, it is ingrained in societies all over the world and it isn’t going away soon. That is why it cannot be fought sloppily. Efforts to combat racism must be deliberate. Progressive groups cannot simply misrepresent the facts, try to physically fight white supremacists or pass dangerous legislation to silence them. If we truly want to combat racism, we must make a choice to be smart about it.
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