For as long as they’ve existed, universities have acted as the protectorate of public discourse. In the pursuit of a healthy democracy, universities have promoted academic research, aided in the development of critical thinking and facilitated opportunities for students to engage with a multiplicity of ideas. All of this, of course, has been seen as a way to create a public that is capable of interacting with the diverse world around them.
The premise behind higher education is that once the tools of discourse are in all of our hands, we can come to the table and sort out which ideas would best govern our society and defeat the bad ones with tempered reason. To do so, so the premise commands, we must hear out all ideas regardless of their content.
That premise has gone largely unquestioned — until now. Today, universities and defenders of free speech face a great challenge: what happens when those who reject the foundations of free speech want a seat at the table? What happens when the ideas of Richard Spencer, Steve Bannon and Milo Yiannopoulos are dragging themselves into the mainstream and demanding to be heard?
The Oxford Union grappled with this question last week as they hosted Steve Bannon, former chief strategist for President Trump and known propagator of white nationalism. Though many student groups on campus protested, the president of the union, Stephen Horvath, defended their invitation by saying, “it is only through listening to the opinions of others that we can fully understand those opinions.”
Compelling a defense as it is, it makes the same critical mistake other universities have made when they invite deeply controversial speakers like Bannon; the speakers aren’t interested in an honest discussion about their opinions in the first place.
Rather, they’re showing up to play a part. Steve Bannon believes deeply in his racist, xenophobic convictions, but his appearance at Oxford, The Economist and other forums prove that he’s only willing to defend the notion that his ideas have a right to exist.
Individuals like Bannon and Yiannopoulos have acted as bastions for free speech, making themselves martyrs in defense of others like them that have been disinvited or deplatformed by groups opposing their presence in public spaces.
This is why when interviewers and moderators try to pin them down, they escape accountability for their views by lying about where they stand on certain issues. For example, Bannon weaseled his way out of being linked with violent neo-Nazis in an ABC interview with Sarah Ferguson by completely rebranding his viewpoints. He’s not a white nationalist, but a protector of the “Judeo-Christian west”; not a nativist, but an “economic populist”; not a racist, but a defender of free speech.
To be clear, all of these are euphemisms for terms he’s embraced openly in other public spaces. At a gathering of the National Front, France’s far-right, anti-Muslim political party, Bannon told supporters to wear the terms racist and xenophobic like a “badge of honor.”
His very presence in Europe, in fact, is to promote anti-immigrant, pro-white nationalist political parties all across the country. These same groups are dedicated to spread false information about marginalized groups to justify discrimination against them — a strategy Bannon himself championed as the head of Breitbart for several years.
But Bannon won’t defend those views when challenged. To him, they are symbols of free speech and anti-censorship. What that means is that we can’t use reason and logic to dispute the ideas, because to do so would imply that Bannon’s ideas are rooted in reason and logic in the first place.
Thus, it’s not that we shouldn’t invite speakers like Steve Bannon because we disagree with them. It’s that we shouldn’t because we can’t disagree with them. The purpose of hosting different ideas on campus is not just so we can hear what people are saying, but so we can think about legitimate, reasoned ideas that can be engaged with. Men like Bannon are trolls seeking to be validated with cushy public appearances that make their ideas seem just as palatable as intellectuals and thinkers. To equate those two is to do a disservice to public discourse greater than any harm refusing to invite a speaker could ever do.
Every day, this becomes increasingly applicable to UAA. We don’t get big name speakers every week like the Oxford Union, but we’ve had our share of high-profile figures, especially as of recent. In the past couple years alone, we’ve had Bill Nye, Dan Savage, Laci Green and Shaun King come to speak.
These are nowhere near as hot-button appearances as Bannon or Milo, but it’s only a matter of time before a controversial, rising star like Ben Shapiro comes to UAA. Once they do, the university should exercise extreme caution when deciding whose ideas we want to legitimate and whose ideas we cast away.
Rejecting someone’s voice is not a contradiction of free speech. Rather, it is a rejection of irrationale and demagoguery to preserve reasoned discourse. We as a society and as a student body must decide what is thought provoking and what is a threat to civil, genuine discourse. Speakers who hijack the marketplace of ideas must be deemed the latter.