Why Shouting Down Speakers Is Absolutely Wrong

BY JOHN K. WILSON

Shouting down speakers, such as the recent suppression of Charles Murray’s speech at Middlebury College by a large crowd of protesters, is wrong. Plain and simple. It’s wrong. Shouting down speakers is morally wrong, unprincipled, anti-intellectual, and utterly indefensible.

For a long time, I thought this was an obvious position, but it’s becoming increasing clear that some people on the left think it’s a good idea. So let’s examine in depth the question of shouting down speakers.

Why is it wrong? Let me begin with basic principles: What is the fundamental principle behind the idea of shouting down a speaker?

Is the principle that people should have the freedom to shout down those they don’t like? By that logic, white supremacist gangs should be allowed to shout down people of color whenever they try to speak.

Is the principle that a big crowd of people should get to shout down those they don’t like? Obviously, bigots can form a big crowd, too. There’s no good reason why an unpopular viewpoint should be shut down.

Is the principle that everyone has free speech, and therefore the right to shout down is equal to the right to speak? I’ve heard this argument before, from a conservative who told me, as he threw my newspapers in the trash, that I had the right to print a newspaper and he had the right to destroy it. You can heckle and chant a message to express yourself without continuing it endlessly in order to suppress a speech. This is just the verbal equivalent of blowing an air horn.

Is the principle that racists shouldn’t be allowed to speak? That may seem appealing at first. But deciding who is and isn’t a racist (and trusting the authorities to decide it) may be harder than you think. What if whites claim that anti-racist speakers are really racist against whites? What if it extends beyond race to religion and other categories? Should speakers who mock religious opposition to gay rights be banned for attacking religion? Should atheists be banned? Should critics of atheism be banned?

Right now, politicians around the country seek to silence critics of Israel on campus based on the claims that they are anti-Semitic. Why shouldn’t they get to ban them, if anybody called a racist shouldn’t be allowed on campus? What makes you think that if racists can be banned, your particular definition of racism will prevail in a country that elected a racist as president? This little game of shouting down a speaker not only opens up the floodgates for any speaker to be shouted down, it also makes it much easier to justify other kinds of censorship that have the same effect.

As a tactical matter, shouting down Charles Murray doesn’t stop racism. It reinforces the delusions of white people that they’re the victims of oppression. Censorship doesn’t refute anything Murray says, it only makes him a free speech martyr.

More importantly, those of you who shouted down Murray could not have done more to help Donald Trump and the Republicans. Right now, Republicans around the country are seeking to suppress free speech on campus under the pretense of protecting free speech from authoritarian leftists. By silencing Murray, you will help them silence you. They can’t say it publicly, but Republicans love what you did because you have done more to help their repressive bills and their re-election campaigns than anyone else on any campus.

One of the worst aspects of the censorship of Murray is how it distracts everyone from the far greater threats to free speech out there. I could be writing about the bill in Iowa to impose political hiring of Republicans on colleges. I could be writing about the bill in Arkansas to ban all public schools from having Howard Zinn in the curriculum, along with any materials “concerning” Zinn’s books, meaning any book that mentions or cites Zinn. Instead, I have to lecture the left about why censorship is wrong. This should not be a difficult thing to understand.

There are plenty of alternatives to shouting down a speaker. You can hand out information and post it online. You can stand up and turn your backs in disgust. You can ask tough questions. You can ignore Murray and have events about analyzing and ending racism. You can hold events about Murray’s racism and refute his ideas. These won’t end racism, either. But free speech has a far greater likelihood of changing people’s minds and making them think about racism and why it’s wrong.

Shouting down a speaker doesn’t take courage. It takes cowardice. Maybe it’s the fear of listening to someone with different views. Maybe it’s the fear that you won’t be able to disprove a racist’s ideas, so you need to silence them instead. Maybe it’s the fear that your peers are too stupid to understand reason and need to be intimidated instead.

Whatever the reason, censorship is the tool of authoritarians and idiots. It has no place in the progressive movement. It has no place on a college campus.

23 thoughts on “Why Shouting Down Speakers Is Absolutely Wrong

  1. The signers of this lengthy list of Middlebury faculty played no small role in creating the hostile environment that not only shut down Murray but also resulted in a physical assault against a professor in the economics department who hosted his lecture.

    https://middleburycampus.com/article/letter-from-middlebury-faculty/

    They should be ashamed of their role in this disgusting and violent episode, and held responsible for fostering an environment of anti-intellectual bigotry on the Middlebury campus.

    • I am responsible for my own voice and actions – not others. That, like the not shouting down principle, seems like an obvious and self evident one. That letter called on an individual not to provide introductory remarks, its signatories (unless they did something else as well) bear no responsibility for disruptive behaviour or violence – in exactly the same way that a critic of Israel bears no responsibility for anti-semitic actions. To conflate responsibility in that manner is sloppy thinking.

    • As Aaron’s post explains, asking the president not to legitimize a speaker by introducing him is completely different from censoring a speaker. Using the phrases “creating the hostile environment” and “held responsible” certainly seems to suggest some kind of punishment for expressing a perfectly legitimate opinion.

      • Amusing. You actually believe that nothing in the following text could possibly be construed as inflaming hostilities against Murray and the students and faculty member who sponsored him? The letter’s signers called a student club (and, by implication, its faculty sponsor – who was later injured in the attack) a “propaganda” outfit, charged it with a litany of grossly inflammatory accusations, and demanded that it be held “responsible” for explaining why it brought Murray to campus. As is all too often the case, Aaron, the unscholarly and bigoted faculty behavior that you defend is also a prime example of the very same charge you carelessly lob at others:

        “To be clear, this is not a case of disagreeing with the ideas of a fellow scholar. Rather, this is to recognize that this event was organized by a chapter of the American Enterprise Institute, is funded by the AEI, and that Mr. Murray has been peddling AEI propaganda as a “public scholar” since the 1990s. Let the AEI be responsible for explaining to the College and the wider community why they hosted someone whose scholarship has been thoroughly discredited and who denies the basic human dignity of members of our community.”

        • There is nothing necessarily wrong with inflaming hostilities. Everyone is free to denounce other organizations as propaganda outfits and ask them to explain their speakers. That is not the same as encouraging people to shout down speakers, which this letter did not do.

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  4. There’s nothing wrong with inflaming hostilities as a simple matter of self-expression of a strongly felt belief. There is something wrong with using a position of power – as faculty members are in by virtue of their rank – to urge the persecution of a legitimately sanctioned student club over its choice of speakers, which the letter absolutely did by calling the club “responsible” for a litany of grossly inflammatory charges.

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  6. The problem is not with leftists who are suppressing freedom of thought and speech. It’s with leftism itself. You can’t condemn this action as though its incidental to being a leftist. It is the very natural fruition of leftist ideology.

    The left’s idealistic quest for absolute egalitarianism moves it in a religious like way to crusade against her enemies. Because equality is not just an outward but an inward reality for them they must not only suppress physically the outward freedom of others but must also prohibit thinking where possible about things that are heretical to the left. This is why the left has taken positions of teaching to carry out the catechism of the youth.

    This is the same reason why the French Revolution naturally and logically devolved into the blood bath in the name of “libertad, fraternite, egalite”.

    Of the three it was the latter they wanted more than anything. However in order to make unequal humans equal you have to use force and violence.

    That is why not surprisingly it is only leftists who do these kinds of things. So if you condemn this you are condemning the liberalism itself which when unfettered naturally becomes the radical leftism we see on campus.

    • Any argument that begins “all leftists are” (or “all conservatives are”) is usually very wrong, and that’s certainly true of this argument. It’s not true that only leftists shout down speakers, and it’s certainly not true that only leftists seek to (or succeed) in banning speakers. However, even if that were true, it wouldn’t follow that leftism itself is repressive.

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  8. Excellent post, I agree with almost all of it. Something I’ve been wondering about, though, John: would you today revise any of your conclusions from The Myth of Political Correctness? Have you considered revisiting the issues examined in the latter in book form?

    I ask as someone who read and was deeply impressed by TMPC as an undergrad. As much as I hate to admit it, it seems like some things that existed only in Lynne Cheney’s fever dreams in the ’90s have recently started to become realities on certain campuses. Do you think this impression is warranted?

    • So far, I think my argument in The Myth of Political Correctness remains true, although I’d be happy to have someone write a refutation. There have always been leftists seeking to suppress free speech, in the 60s, the 90s, and the 10s. Don’t let one example distort reality. Indeed, the threat to higher education from Republican legislators has never been greater than it is today.
      Two years ago, I wrote this about my book 20 years after writing it, which I think is still true:

      When I called political correctness a “myth,” I was never denying the fact that some leftists are intolerant jerks, and sometimes their appalling calls for censorship are successful. My point was that even though political correctness exists, the “myth” about it was the story that leftists controlled college campuses, imposing their evil whims like a “new McCarthyism” or “China during the Cultural Revolution.” In reality, then and now, the far greater threat to freedom on campus came from those on the right seeking to suppress opposing views.

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  12. I completely agree with Phil. Stanger and Middlebury faculty knew they were flame throwing, completely disregarding their duties to provide a safe and supportive learning environment. This is not about free speech. This is about respect and kind of discourse we legitimize as respectful. Call a judge a type A, control freak in open court. What do you think will happen?

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