Why Banning Bannon Is Bad

BY JOHN K. WILSON

This morning, about 100 student protesters at the University of Chicago (including UChicago YDSA, UChicago Student Action, UChicago Socialists, and Students Working Against Prisons) chanted “Disinvite! Disinvite! Disinvite!” and demanded that the administration ban an invitation from University of Chicago business professor Luigi Zingales for Steve Bannon to speak on campus. As the author of President Trump Unveiled: Exposing the Bigoted Billionaire, I think it’s fair to say that I hate Steve Bannon with an intense passion. But censorship of Bannon by a university is the last thing I want to see.

A group of University of Chicago faculty wrote to top administrators last week, asking them to ban Bannon from appearing on campus.

Below is the entire text of the letter, interspersed with my criticism of it:

As faculty representing the breadth of the University’s intellectual community and committed to critical and rigorous intellectual exchange, we are deeply concerned that Stephen Bannon, the founding member and executive chairman of the board of Breitbart News and former Chief Strategist to President Donald J. Trump, has been invited to speak at the University of Chicago. Bannon traffics in hate speech, promoting white supremacist ideologies meant to demean and dehumanize those most marginalized, often people of color. His presence on campus sends a chilling message not only to students, staff and faculty at the University, but also to the young people who attend the University of Chicago Charter School and Laboratory School and to the primarily black neighbors who surround the university.

I agree that Bannon promotes white supremacy. But I disagree that allowing free speech on campus sends a chilling message to people of color. To the contrary, it is more likely to spark students and faculty to express their values and work to ensure that Bannon’s bigotry never wins again.

Specifically, when speakers who question the intellect and full humanity of people of color are invited to campus to “debate” their worthiness as citizens and people, the message is clear that the University’s commitment to freedom of expression will come at the expense of those most vulnerable in our community.

Bannon isn’t being invited to debate the full humanity of people of color, and probably wouldn’t say a word about it, except to claim that he believes in their humanity. So how do you decide in advance that he must not be allowed to speak? Do you investigate the views of every person invited to speak on campus?

A commitment to freedom of expression doesn’t come at the expense of the most vulnerable–it protects them and their right to hear speakers who challenge the racist presidency. It is true that people of color might learn that almost half of the country voted for a bigoted moron. They might learn that there is no safe space for immigrants in Trump’s America. They might realize that we live in an unequal country where some people are racist. That’s a painful truth, but one we all need to understand.

All of these realities harm people of color. But recognizing these truths is not the harm. Being reminded of bad things, past and present, is not the harm. If it were, we would have to ban all speakers and classes who talk about racism and oppression. The harm comes from what Bannon did in electing Trump as president, not from his talking about it. When people imagine that speech is the harm, they create a dangerous regime of censorship and an even more dangerous failure to recognize what harm is and how to stop it.

We, therefore, believe that having Bannon on campus stands in fundamental opposition to the diverse and inclusive community the University professes to want to build.

A diverse and inclusive community is not created by banning speakers and repressing ideas. A diverse and inclusive community is determined by what a university embraces, not by what it bans. If a speaker with these ideas must be banned, then surely any professor who agrees with Bannon and voted for Trump must also be banned. And then shouldn’t any pro-Trump student also be banned, or else the diverse community will be endangered? At what point do you stop banning people with the wrong ideas? And why do you trust the administration to ban the right people? When supporters of Israel say the BDS advocates are anti-Semitic and must be banned, do you trust the administration to disagree? On what principle would you base that decision?

Over the past couple of years, the University has made clear its commitment to free speech and has positioned itself as a national leader in defending freedom of expression. As academics, we understand that our work is only possible in a context where intellectual inquiry is afforded the space and freedom to push the boundaries of knowledge. At the same time, we believe that our mission of setting global standards for excellence in research and teaching is only possible in an environment where every member of our community is valued and hate speech that is meant to undermine their full participation is not tolerated.

If we must have an environment where “every member of our community is valued,” then that must include the members who are pro-Trump. Obviously, banning Bannon shows to any Trump voters in the community that they are not valued. The only way to value every member of the community is to protect the free speech of everyone on campus.

The defense of freedom of expression cannot be taken to mean that white supremacy, anti-semitism, misogyny, homophobia, anti-Catholicism, and islamophobia must be afforded the rights and opportunity to be aired on a university campus.

In fact, that’s exactly what freedom of expression means. It means that ideas we dislike are not banned. And there’s good reason for it. Should every homophobe who opposes gay marriage be banned from campus? For part of his presidency, that description would have applied to Barack Obama. Should outspoken atheists be banned from universities for being anti-Catholicism, anti-Judaism, and anti-Islam?

Bannon’s positions as articulated in Breitbart News and the policies he helped to promote during his tenure at the White House do not open opportunities for debate and exchange; they diminish such opportunities. These positions represent neither reasonable speech nor evidence-based and rigorous intellectual inquiry.

If Bannon has no evidence and no intellect, then there is nothing to fear from letting him speak. The assumption that bad ideas “diminish” the opportunity for debate is simply incorrect. All ideas, bad and good, can be debated. Even if you could knew with certainty that Bannon will not say anything worthwhile (and you cannot), that would not be a good reason to ban him.

He is cited as the most consequential proponent of a recent ban on immigration, which is currently embroiled in legal challenges for its discriminatory targeting of majority Muslim countries. He has unabashedly advocated for more general restrictions of historically legal forms of immigration, in ways inconsistent with generally accepted ideals of openness embraced here on campus. Moreover, he is a founding board member of and, until very recently, had been an executive at the media company Breitbart, espousing the most detestable facets of the so-called “alt-right” movement, including a blatantly racist “news” section explicitly devoted to associating black people with crime.

I disagree with those who oppose immigration, but I cannot see how banning them from campus is a useful or reasonable response. Nor should helping to found a media company that says evil things be the basis of a ban.

Our decisions about who we provide access and opportunity to speak on campus cannot be separated from the our country’s extensive historical legacies of oppression and inequality in which the University of Chicago is deeply embedded.

This is absolutely right. The history of oppression should inform what speakers you should seek out to invite. The mistake here is imagining that campus speakers are a zero sum game. Someone’s invitation to have Bannon speak does not in any way infringe upon the ability of anyone to invite other speakers to campus. So if you think the speakers at the University of Chicago don’t discuss oppression and inequality enough, then you should be inviting more speakers who will discuss those issues (for example, me).

The history of oppression and inequality argues against censorship, because the victims of it tend to be members of oppressed groups and their advocates. If this principle of administrative censorship is embraced, it would mean that all proposed speakers must be reported to the administration and then scrutinized for their hateful ideas. Is this your standard: that anyone who has ever said anything deemed offensive to any group be banned by college presidents, because they are experts on oppression?

In the current social and political climate of the country–in which the rights and safety of immigrant, black, Muslim, and LGBTQ communities are routinely threatened–the hate speech represented in Bannon’s body of work are not the insignificant musings of a fringe political group, but rather the governing philosophy of the chief executive and a newly emboldened political movement based on white supremacy and religious intolerance. Rather than normalizing hate speech by granting it a privileged forum, the university should model inclusion for a country that is reeling from the consequences of racism, xenophobia, and hate.

This is an argument that anyone who supports the governing philosophy of the president should be banned from speaking at the University of Chicago. Having a speaker at the University of Chicago is not what normalizes hate speech; electing a bigoted president is what normalizes hate speech. Banning speakers won’t change that reality. The way that a university models inclusion is by expressing widespread criticism of hateful ideas, by exposing and refuting hate, and not by banning hateful beliefs. So people should protest Steve Bannon, but should not protest the fact that he is allowed to speak. Protesting against free speech actually muddies the argument against Bannon’s hateful beliefs.

As a University we must do the difficult work of collectively judging how we enact our espoused principles and adjudicating between principles that point us in different directions. We believe that Bannon should not be afforded the platform and opportunity to air his hate speech on this campus.

In a free society, and a free university, we do not collectively judge which principles are right and wrong, and ban the expression of wrong ideas. It’s always problematic to presume to know exactly what a speaker will say before he says it. The assumption that Bannon will engage in hate speech is actually not clear at all.

Moreover, we believe his presence will have deleterious consequences on our ability to build a diverse and inclusive intellectual community–a principle that is also central to the University’s mission.

Having an offensive speaker on campus will not harm a diverse and inclusive community, and banning Steve Bannon will not create a diverse and inclusive community. In reality, a diverse and inclusive intellectual community requires a lot of hard work. Censorship can seem like an easy shortcut, but it doesn’t work. You can’t defeat hate by trying to ban it from one college campus. Doing so will only empower hateful ideologues and endanger the principles of free expression that protect all of us.

 

5 thoughts on “Why Banning Bannon Is Bad

  1. “Do you investigate the views of every person invited to speak on campus?”

    This is the problem with rhetorical questions. Sometimes you ask one and people just look puzzled and say ‘yes, of course I do, what do you do? Stick a pin in a random page of a telephone book?’.
    I think this whole argument is a predicated on an entirely false notion – that everyone gets to speak at the University of Chicago. They don’t. Only a tiny proportion of human beings, a fraction of those who might want to say something actually get the opportunity. Would the University of Chicago give each of those 100 protestors a lecture hall and an evening to express their opinion on Bannon? Of course not, at some point simple practicalities get in the way. Bannon is not simply turning up at a random corner of the road and pontificating, he has been invited, he will be given AV equipment, a room to speak, advertising for his event, and more than anything the stamp of authority to speak.

    I have spoken at the University of Chicago on a few occasions. On one of those occasions I made the point that I was speaking about the religious beliefs and world view of a group of people who do not get invited to speak – that my speech was being privileged in a way that may be necessary (or even positive) but that we should also be very aware of. What the protestors get (in their unsophisticated and naïve way) and you do not (in your nuanced missing the wood for the trees) is that the invitation privileges Bannon’s speech. It says that the University of Chicago (or someone at the University) thinks it is more important to listen to Bannon than to a Black, or LGBT, or Latino student.

    I get why someone wants to hear me speak more than a student (I know more), I even get why you might want to listen to Bannon (we already know what the students think), but to pretend you cannot understand the problem does the quality of debate in general a disservice.

    • Robert, thanks for your comments. I completely understand that an invitation privileges Bannon’s speech and brings prestige to him. I keep trying to get people to invite me to speak at the University of Chicago again, but I don’t have those privileges. However, the existence of privilege does not justify censorship. There is no “stamp of authority” to speak, nor should there be any concern about the “quality of debate” for an individual event. It is the choice of faculty and students to invite speakers to events, and any attempt to have the administration control those choices is a threat to intellectual freedom on campus. So it’s not the case that Bannon (or anyone else) has a right to speak on campus; it’s the fact that members of the university must have the right to invite speakers of their choice. If you dislike their choices, you are perfectly free to ignore them, criticize them, protest them, and invite different speakers. But you don’t get to ban them at a free university.

      • I largely agree with the point you make but the administration does in reality control who speaks. There is a finite bit of pie (in the form of lecture halls, AV equipment, and notice boards to post adverts), and more people who would like pie than there are slices. Somebody has to decide how that pie is divided. The common position is to say that staff can invite anybody they like if the room is not already booked (first come, first served). The administration decided it should be that system, and your point that once they have made that system they should get out of the way (the principle that even rule makers should be bound by the rules they make) is sound.
        But what if a group of people decide that the system is privileging one set of voices, let us say white, male, well-educate voices, and that those voices are using the privilege to speak about other (silent) groups who are not afforded the same platform? I think that is a fair critique (two of the four times I have spoken have been about a living religious tradition I am not a member of). What if people decide that general privileging has unfortunate side-effects and point to a case where ideas that both privilege a particular voice and are also vacuous end up getting heard over the experience of marginalised people (the Bannon case). Are they not entitled to say the pie is being divided up in the wrong way, and that the division is unhealthy? And if they are who has the power to change the way the pie is divided other than the administration?
        I will grant that shouting to ‘disinvite’ is a crude and unsophisticated argument, but if students already had highly developed self-reflective critical thinking skill and understood the structure of institutional decisions one would wonder what it was they needed to be taught.
        Treating this whole issue as a simple speech issue ignores that it is actually an issue about unequal privilege. You might argue that removing somebodies privilege is not the same as censorship but they feel the same to those people who feel entitled to their privilege (much alt-right, MMA, heartland resentment in the US is clearly caused by precisely that).

        • This is a simple speech issue. There is no finite bit of pie. Once you get past 4pm, the University of Chicago has a vast number of empty rooms with AV equipment, and I cannot imagine how anyone thinks the limited availability of bulletin boards could justify censorship.

          You can discuss privilege when you talk about who doesn’t get invited to the U of C, and you should try to fix that by inviting different voices (and providing funding for it–perhaps one reason why a business professor invited Bannon is that the business school has much more money for everything than anybody else at the U of C). But banning Bannon doesn’t allow those voices to be heard. Privilege has nothing to do with the question of banning a speaker, which is always wrong, no matter how unequal or unfair the world is.

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