When I was a freshman in high school, I managed to piss off almost everyone who followed me on Instagram with one single post. I'd heard the old saying that there are two things you should never talk about publicly: politics and religion. But to me, this just didn't make sense; politics and religion were my two favorite things to talk about.
To be fair, the post was pretty offensive. The intention was to criticize the theory of Heaven and Hell but instead ended up publicly slamming Christianity and Islam, the two largest religions in the world. The way I phrased my argument was provocative and mean; it was not a shining example of civility. It ended with me publicly apologizing and deleting the original post.
In hindsight, I realize that my inflammatory language obscured the main point I was trying to make. However, I still think my point was valid. It bothered me that once people saw what I wrote and said "I'm offended!" they refused to even listen to the rational side of my argument.
The thing is, I think there can be incredible value in offensive speech. I don't think there is any idea that is so sacred that people shouldn't be allowed to challenge it.
Therefore, it bothers me to see so many instances of young liberals trying to prevent conservative speakers like Ben Shapiro from coming to college campuses.
Colleges are supposed to be a place where the free exchange of ideas can occur, where students are exposed to controversial thought that challenges their assumptions and are forced to reevaluate their own opinions. However, when liberals refuse to even allow a prominent conservative to express their ideas, the ideal of intellectual freedom is inherently undermined. As students, we are shutting down a conversation before it can even occur.
More disturbingly, we are refusing to listen to someone just because they have a different viewpoint than us. I think liberals often fall into the trap of assuming that our ideas are the absolute truth and anyone who dares to challenge our views is committing heresy. this is a very human response, but it is the wrong one. Arrogance is not a virtue. And when we refuse to engage with conservatives, we are retreating into our liberal bubbles and stymieing our own intellectual growth.
We are being closed-minded and this is antithetical to our liberal values. We as liberals are supposed to be open-minded. We are supposed to champion diversity, and diversity includes a diversity of thought. I hear liberals say, "I won't tolerate intolerance." But this is absurd. Tolerance means tolerance. If you only tolerate speech that you agree with, you are not being tolerant. Throughout history, progressives have been willing to challenge prevailing orthodoxies. We should not stop others from doing the same. We should not sacrifice freedom of speech at the altar for the sake of preserving our sacred cows.
Some liberals say that hate speech should not be allowed on college campuses. But the Supreme Court has consistently ruled that hate speech is free speech. In the classic On Liberty, John Stuart Mill describes how hateful speech can be useful to society because if people can see how awful these ideas are (whether they be racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, etc.), then these ideas can be rejected. The public intellectual Jonathan Rauch has argued that hate speech has actually helped minority groups gain rights. In the context of gay rights, the speech of homophobic figures has shown the American public that homophobia is irrational and they have been increasingly willing to reject this nonsense. So the answer to hate speech is not censorship; it is more speech.
Recently, Ben Shapiro came to the George Washington University campus, which naturally generated some controversy. I disagree with many of the things Ben Shapiro says and I find his views about trans people to be incredibly offensive and dead wrong- but I will still defend his right to express his views. And the notion that minority groups need to be protected from Ben Shapiro's speech is ridiculous and frankly patronizing. LGBTQ+ people and people of color have survived centuries and decades of violent oppression; we can survive a talk by Ben Shapiro. I'm proud that at GW, liberals tried to engage Shapiro in intellectual debate rather than trying to shut his talk down. My roommate notably got into an argument with Shapiro about socialism, an exchange that went on for about 12 minutes where two sides of an economic argument were presented and defended- the free exchange of ideas at its finest.
We liberals have to ask ourselves— what are we really afraid of? Do we truly believe that allowing someone like Steve Bannon to speak on college campuses will convert people to his white supremacist ideology? And if we as liberals cannot respond to Steve Bannon's prejudice with our own rational arguments, or if we cannot have a rigorous debate with someone like Ben Shapiro, if we cannot engage in discourse and win the battle for ideas, then we have failed. Because in a free society, we must be willing to allow controversial, offensive, even hateful speech- and be confident that through our speech, our own ideas can prevail. This, after all, is the essence of liberty.