Last night a popular alt-right troll disrupted a controversial modern production of Julius Caesar staged with a Trumplike figure in the lead role. Some people are incensed at this production and arguing that it depicts and encourages the assassination of Trump himself, and that fury has built to the point that random theaters with "Shakespeare" in their name are being threatened by imbeciles across the land. Never mind, for the moment, that Shakespeare's plays are shot through with blunt commentary on the politics of his time, or that staging Shakespeare to comment on contemporary politics is common and nearly as old as they plays themselves, or that the same thing has been done with an Obama-like Caesar with very little fanfare, or that the entire point of the play is that Caesar's assassination is self-indulgent folly that leads to disaster. People are angry.
One angry justification for disrupting the play goes like this: liberals do this to conservatives, so this is fair play. We're just imposing liberals' rules on liberals. Liberals disrupt conservative speakers on campuses all the time, and if that's okay, why isn't this okay?
This way lies madness and destruction, the excuse to abandon everything we believe. We follow our principles because they're right, not because everyone agrees with them. We follow them in adversity and in the face of opposition and even injustice. We give due process — a jury trial — to a cop who shot a motorist even if a very good argument can be made that the cop executed the motorist without due process. We defend the free speech of Nazis and communists who would deny it to us if they had power. At one point, I would have been able to say that we don't torture people even if they torture.
The "eye for an eye" theory of respecting free speech is particularly pernicious because it represents the worst sort of collectivism, something the principled Right ought reject. Note that people who say "apply the Liberals' own rules to the Liberals" aren't disrupting, say, an Antifa rally or the meeting of some Berkeley student group that advocated shutting down a conservative speaker. They're disrupting other people entirely, on the theory that everyone they deem part of the nebulous collective "Liberal" deserves to be silenced because someone else in that nebulous collective engaged in silencing behavior. The actors and playgoers in New York, under this theory, deserve to be shut down because they stand responsible for the acts of all "liberals" everywhere. (The suggestion that anyone going to see Julius Ceasar must be a liberal does not reflect a very healthy self-image amongst the Right.) This closely resembles the logic of hecklers on college campuses, who argue that nearly any conservative speaker stands responsible for Klansmen and neo-Nazis and overt bigots everywhere. It's contemptible and can be used to justify doing nearly anything to nearly anyone. It's the sentiment behind saying American Muslims may fairly be oppressed because Christians are oppressed in Saudi Arabia — even while celebrating our nation having greater freedoms than Saudi Arabia.
And yet, the "we're just applying their rules to them" theory has some heft. It's not because of the nasty, disruptive little totalitarians themselves. Antifa scum and pseudo-educated campus thugs are not legitimate foundation for any adult's philosophy. No, the bit of plausibility comes from the reaction of people in authority, people who ought to know better, people whose conduct is somewhat more fairly attributed to a larger political groups. A few hysterically censorious kids screaming for a professor's termination for crimethink do not threaten the foundations of free speech, but Yale lauding them does. Relatively few thugs disrupting a speech and even physically assaulting a professor don't call into question the culture's support for free speech, but Middlebury offering weak slaps on the wrist and shrugs for that violent behavior does. A violent mob in Berkeley does not undermine the legitimacy of free speech doctrine — a mob is a mob — but Berkeley's timorousness or indifference in the face of violent censorship does. Students furious at a professor disagreeing with them don't call into question the nation's commitment to freedom, but state officials refusing to guarantee a professor's safety do. In short: the regrettable behavior of officials who have failed to stand up to disruption of speech are the people most responsible for legitimizing further disruptions of speech, whoever commits them.
But we can, and should, do better. Commitment to free speech as an American value — as an element of American exceptionalism — has always required tolerating evil and injustice and idiocy. We don't refrain from disrupting speech because the speakers deserve it, or because we've been treated fairly by the speakers or their allies. We refrain from disruption — and ought to punish those who disrupt — because free speech is the necessary prerequisite of a society based on individual rights and freedoms. It's the right that's the gateway to all other rights. Shrugging and abandoning it as a value is an abandonment of our commitment to all rights.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
- Free Speech Triumphant Or Free Speech In Retreat? - June 21st, 2017
- The Power To Generate Crimes Rather Than Merely Investigate Them - June 19th, 2017
- Free Speech, The Goose, And The Gander - June 17th, 2017
- Free Speech Tropes In The LA Times - June 8th, 2017
- I write letters - June 1st, 2017