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“Free speech is coming to an end in America, and it’s not your fault—it’s theirs.”
Sound familiar? It’s a common accusation in political discourse nowadays—whether “they” are “liberal fascists” or “conservative deplorables.” Peruse the comments section of any mildly controversial piece and you will find a horde of angry commenters accusing the other side of silencing dissent. Hearing these people, one would imagine free speech is dead, the country is doomed, and democracy as we know it is coming to an end.
But never mind these unending predictions of apocalypse. We have reached a point where dissent has become incomplete without offensive language, and one finds it difficult to have a substantive political discussion without resorting to insults, name-calling, or, even worse, harassment and complete silencing of the opposition.
Milo Yiannopoulos, shortly before his downfall, was the epitome of this desire to insult rather than debate. He would regularly turn issues of politics into into bloody battles where nothing is sacred and all is profane. Under the excuse of protecting free speech, Yiannopoulos has notably repeatedly attacked a transgender student for her identity and organized Internet trolls to send hateful tweets towards actress Leslie Jones for her role in “Ghostbusters.”
Such sentiments are echoed even by our president, who recently tweeted in an unsubstantiated accusation that President Obama had wiretapped his phone during his campaign: “This is McCarthyism!”
Not exactly, Mr. President. McCarthyism was a time of blacklisting by the government on trumped-up charges (pardon the pun). Suspected “Communists,” minorities, women, and homosexuals did not have the latitude of free expression they thankfully do today. Obscenity laws prevented the distribution and expression of various types of free speech, especially that of a sexual nature. And many Hollywood entertainment professionals were blacklisted and falsely claimed to be Communist subversives. The government doesn’t practice this today, thankfully, but the President seems to be starting to.
Free speech today is freer than it’s ever been. It is unrecognizable from the McCarthy days that Trump pointed to. So why do some believe it is dead, when we are clearly far beyond the 1950s?
Take the reaction to what happened at UC Berkeley when Yiannopoulos was prevented from speaking there last month. There was no end to the critics, including our own President, who condemned Berkeley and “the left” for “censoring free speech,” as Milo himself said. The university did not violate the first amendment—Yiannopoulos was originally allowed to speak there, after all. As many have noted, most students did not actually participate in the riot; they chose to peacefully protest outside the event, exercising their First Amendment right to do so, just as Milo’s right to speak wasn’t impeded by them or the university. The non-peaceful protesters are to blame, and though they might be forgiven for their beliefs, their successful attempt to silence Yiannopoulos was overdone and unfair, and should not be tolerated. Looking at the event’s critics, however, Trump’s reaction to the protest was also overdone—responding to unjust silencing with more silencing.
The problem with today is not that speech isn’t free, but rather that individuals on both sides have tried to use extreme measures to insult, silence, and discredit each other. Both sides talk of tolerance but both sides use their “free speech” to create intolerance. The right is no less guilty than the violent protestors on the left. Extremists on both sides have called professors “disgusting,” forcing them to step down for their beliefs, as others have taken on the role of Internet trolls who force people to back down out of fear of being publicly shamed.
Actions on both sides are unacceptable and resort to inexcusable tactics to silence opposition. The only time free speech shouldn’t be “free” is when it attempts to silence that of others. This form of silencing, of “anti-free speech,” as it were, is a form of free speech, but it is one that undermines this very right basic rights, of liberals, conservatives, allies, and critics alike.
Sound and fury don’t lead anywhere: well-founded arguments do. For example, after a particularly controversial staff editorial a few weeks ago, The Crimson was criticized uniformly as “spoiled rich Ivy Leaguers” and “liberal fascist pansies” despite the diversity of thought present on the Editorial Board. Very few commenters engaged in substantive discourse as to why they disagreed. Tolerance of such speech leads to intolerance.
Of course, both sides are at fault for playing into this game of silence. Free speech isn’t dead, by any means. And McCarthyism isn’t being practiced by the government at large, regardless of what some may believe. But it might just be practiced by ourselves, at least in spirit, if not in outright subversion, to each other.
Robert Miranda ’20 is a Crimson Editorial writer living in Holworthy Hall.
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