“Are you up?” I ask my old neighbors in Minnesota.

“Yes! How is Michigan’s campus faring?” 

“There is certainly a lot of protesting that has occurred,” I remark. “What are you feeling right now?”

After a chuckle, they respond, “There’s finally a president that can Make America Great Again.” 

Call me crazy, but once Donald Trump won the 2016 election, I called one of my hometown neighbors to talk about the result. The husband and wife are staunch Trump supporters. I was curious, in an unconfrontational manner, why they voted, and questioned why they supported (and continue to support) this man.

I identify as a moderate liberal with libertarian leanings. When I heard Ben Shapiro, a conservative political commentator and writer, went to the University of California, Berkeley campus last week to speak, I began to question the months- (if not decades-) long debate on free speech. When Shapiro was set to arrive, a multitude of police officers entered the campus, buildings were closed off and roads were blocked for fear of violent protest. In addition, this coming week is “Free Speech Week” at UC Berkeley, where political and provocative commentators such as Milo Yiannopoulos, Ann Coulter and Steve Bannon will come to speak.

After these occurrences, I really questioned what exactly is “free” speech. Frequently, I am troubled by some of the talking points of these contentious speakers, but it is too often that I don’t know how to process the responses to these speakers. When I read about the rioting and screaming protesters during Ben Shapiro’s talk, I queried in a completly philosophical manner on why there is such a visceral response toward both the protestors and the speakers. What really is hate speech? Is “hate” speech free speech? How should we approach this discourse? What is truly an “open mind?” What is moral: to defend the speech of controversial speakers, or to attack it?

“Hate speech is not free speech” is one of the phrases I hear a lot on campuses, and I think that the nuances of the free speech debate rest partially on a lack of understanding definitions. Hate speech, defined by the American Bar Association, is speech that “offends, threatens, or insults groups, based on race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, or other traits.” Though this might be obvious, the root of the argument against this speech isn’t if this is wrong, it’s if this is illegal.

This question creates a shifting line of what is accepted and what isn’t. Some commentators suggest that simply being offended by “micro-aggressions” is inappropriate on college campuses. However, lackadaisical action on this front can be harmful to the well-being of students who do fear when blatant racist sentiment is spewed.

Moreover, on July 19, the Supreme Court ruled in Matal v. Tam, a case against a band wanting to call themselves “The Slants” (which was considered a slight against Asian-Americans), that the name was subjectively racially-charged rhetoric but still protected under the First Amendment. But the vast majority of speech, in my view, is extremely arbitrarily “hate speech,” and depending on one’s perspective “offensive” as the definition suggests. So why is it that there is this deep-seated reaction to controversial speakers attending events on campuses?

It isn’t hard to recognize that humans exist on a biological leash: We are able to control our desires, our emotions, our well-being, etc. This goes in conjunction with the heart of the free speech debate. This isn’t an issue of what should or should not be said. Rather, it is what should and should not be debated. And the rise of this question is mostly due to the fact that politics and culture have never been more intertwined. Moreover, culture is highly personal, as many of us know. Politics can be slow and arduous. Culture is vibrant and creates the norms in which most “hate speech” derives its importance. The significance here is that discourse is derived from the Freudian logic of the id and ego.

We know that people often vote based on their gut decisions. However, I think that this conclusion has expanded not just in voting because, in my view, the 2016 election shifted the cultural and political spheres much closer together. Therefore, the more irrational, emotional side (id) is at the forefront of our debates today. Politics, however, were framed by our founding fathers as a highly rational, ego-based discussion. It is important to note that the id is far stronger that the ego, and too often we can mistake one for the other. In my view, these two spheres have merged closer, which has specifically created a broader debate on free speech.

If Ben Shapiro and Ann Coulter come to this campus, I am confident that a sizeable portion of the student population will protest from their ids and, sadly, believe they are thinking logically. When we are pressed about our belief systems today, I see more often that we appeal to an emotional side and can’t truly defend our beliefs. This pushes easily-repeatable phrases that make us think that we are rational, when in fact, we are appealing to a mob mentality without supporting or truly understanding what we say.

I strongly support the idea that through education, we are able to create a more equitable place. A significant portion of education is being psychologically well-rounded. Therefore, I find it silly to think most humans can’t discern the difference in rhetoric that is blatantly, morally wrong and rhetoric that is controversial.

Even so, actions are always more important than words. This means that those who are inspired to act hatefully on ethically ambiguous claims are far more morally corrupt than those who listen, question, debate and disavow their views. I guarantee if students were to listen, as I do, to Ben Shapiro’s speeches (although I greatly disagree with many of his viewpoints), understand his logic, prepare for his speech on their campuses and debate him (and possibly win), it would be far more impressive. Encouraging an inquisitiveness to how these individuals came to their conclusions, however uneasy it might be, is necessary in fixing the hyper-partisan landscape that we exist in today.

Racist and sexist speech should be discouraged entirely from our campus, but when Ben Shapiro debates the pay gap, I caution against resistance and hurling insults. Any topic of new policy needs to be questioned, debated and examined. While I recognize the importance and right to protest such events, I don’t think protests such as the one on Berkeley’s campus are constructive or conducive to further conversation. If one of these individuals comes to the University of Michigan, I ask that we not resist, resist, resist, but engage, engage, engage. Come ready with an open mind, listen to their talking points and prepare to logically overthrow their arguments, even if it offends you (as many of their speeches do). Don’t arrive not truly understanding your position, saying irrational and commonplace phrases that only contribute to a new essay on the lack of discourse on college campuses.

David Kamper can be reached at dgkamper@umich.edu. 

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