How the alt-right weaponized free speech

Refreshing and needed historical perspective on the free-speech movement and its co-opting by the right:

Indeed, Berkeley’s far-right agitators routinely invoke the memory of activist Mario Savio, the standard-bearer of the FSM, going so far as to declare themselves “the new Free Speech Movement.” This, while boasting of the endorsement of America’s highest office: “The more abuse and harassment we suffer,” warned the Berkeley College Republicans in a joint op-ed following Yiannopoulos’s cancelled appearance, “the more controversial speakers we will invite to campus. We proceed fearlessly because we know we have the president of the United States on our side.”

Indeed, in February, President Trump implicitly threatened to withhold federal funds from the university for failing to cater to Yiannopoulos who, amid the renewed controversy involving Coulter, has announced a comeback, sensing an opportunity to regain status and rehabilitate his ego—not to mention, profit mightily.

“We will give out a new free speech prize—the Mario Savio Award—to the person we believe has done most to protect free expression at UC Berkeley and its surrounding area,” proclaimed Yiannopoulos in promoting Milo’s “Free Speech Week.” “Each day will be dedicated to a different enemy of free speech, including feminism, Black Lives Matter and Islam.”

This co-opting of Savio’s legacy is a calculated provocation, one that his son Daniel calls “some kind of sick joke.” Savio led the FSM to victory in ending all restrictions to political activity on campus, which included the rights of orators from all political perspectives. “Rather than ban speakers he disagreed with, Savio debated them, whether they were deans, faculty, the student-body president, or whoever,” wrote Robert Cohen, author of Freedom’s Orator: Mario Savio and the Radical Legacy of the 1960s. “And this was the spirit not only of Savio but of the FSM, which had an almost Gandhian faith that through open discourse anyone had the potential to be won over” to a cause.

Savio was a veteran of the civil-rights movement, and as Cohen details, “sought to convince the editors of the student newspaper there that their use of the term “n—-r” in the paper was hurtful and irresponsible … Savio did not deny students had the right to print what they chose, but asked that they reach out to their black classmates and reflect on whether in the future they could be more thoughtful about the impact their words had on the campus community.”

The FSM’s quest was decent and honest—it was about engaging in open, rigorous debate and the exchange of ideas, no matter how inflammatory or loathsome, with a goal of making progress. What’s happening now isn’t about discussion: it’s pure political tribalism. People like Coulter and Yiannopoulos aren’t brought to campus to contribute substance—hearing either speak for a few minutes quickly puts lie to claims of their brilliance. They are skilled antagonists who can reliably incite backlash from a perceived enemy; they are, as Dorian Lynskey of The Guardian describes, the “outcome of a grotesque convergence of politics, entertainment and the internet in which an empty vessel can thrive unchecked by turning hate speech into show business.”

Where trauma, real or perceived, has become a sort of morbid currency in some circles of the left, often used to justify unworkable demands of individuals and institutions, the self-described “politically incorrect”—adults who consider childlike behaviour to be heroically subversive—are in the grievance trade. Because each provocation inflates the value of a carefully-crafted persona, victimhood is actively—and ironically—sought; they prey on the vulnerable, ridicule targets of well-documented discrimination, then cry persecution when met with resistance.

While it’s vital to uphold and protect the right of all speech on campus—even the most abhorrent rhetoric from the ranks of the alt-right—it’s crucial to identify this new game being played and, as Savio desired, critically judge “whether the speech … is really free, or merely cant.”

And it matters that influential voices, while rightly demanding institutions uphold free speech norms, explicitly make that distinction.

Source: How the alt-right weaponized free speech – Macleans.ca

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About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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