Thursday, April 20, 2017

Silence Bubbles

Ann Coulter was scheduled to speak at Berkeley this coming Wednesday, but university administrators have cancelled the event, citing "active security threats." The Young America's Foundation, the Republican group that was to sponsor the event, is, unsurprisingly, crying foul, especially after it appears that the conditions that the university caved in to liberal students who wished to deny Ms. Coulter a venue.

Whether the university is being straightforward about their reasons for nixing the event or not, I don't know. But, let's presume for the moment that the Young America's Foundation is correct in their assertion that pressure from more liberal students lead the university to back out of the engagement. (And it's likely that at least a few anti-Coulter students and their allies will claim credit for this turn of events.) What has been gained?

Okay, so a speech by someone that many liberals consider hateful has been nixed. And that's really about it. The people who would have gone to hear what she has to say can still hear her speak - she planned to go to the campus and talk anyway, and I'm not certain that the school can prevent her from doing so. But even if she didn't go in person, she could always make the speech and post it on YouTube. Or summarize her remarks on television. She could send out the text of her speech in an e-mail to supporters and allow it to be passed around to other people who wish to read it. She could make it into an e-book or/and print-on-demand and offer it up for sale (or for free) on Amazon or another online bookseller. She could distribute it as a podcast for download.

I'm not the world's most creative thinker, and so I'm sure that there are lots of other ways that Ms. Coulter could get her words out to any and everyone who is willing to listen - and this could be a much larger audience than just the members of the Young America's Foundation. But even if the goal was to simply come between Ms. Coulter and expansive news coverage of her remarks, the coverage of her being denied the chance to speak during the formal event would seem to have rendered that moot. So... I don't really understand what has been gained here.

The only concrete effect of all of this seems to be that Ann Coulter will not be speaking at Berkeley as part of a formal event sanctioned by the University itself. And I don't really understand how that changes anything. It's not as if Berkeley formally places its stamp of approval on everyone who sepaks there or everything they say. And, as I noted above, nothing about this new situation prevents anyone from actually hearing what she has to say. About the only effect that I see is that some number of students can go about their day secure in the knowledge that speech they disapprove of is being given outside of any sort of official university channels. Which may be of some comfort to those individuals, but it doesn't seem to move the needle in any other way.

If one presumes that the things that Ms. Coulter is planning to say are legitimately a clear and present danger, that danger has not been mitigated. Her words can still reach a receptive audience, and if the fear is that those people will take those words to heart and act on them in unacceptable ways, nothing has been done to educate them in a different direction or convince them that their actions would be harmful. If the worry is that the in-person interaction carries some increased influence, little more than slight inconvenience has been added to overall situation - there are other places where the talk could take place that are easily reachable by the students who want to hear her.

And if the point is really as narrow as simply not having the talk at Berkeley, that smacks of NIMBYism, and all of its accompanying concerns. Simply preventing conservative speakers from formally coming to campus isn't going to get rid of the conservative students who attend the school. Even "safe space" arguments seem to be weak here. If the very presence of conservative speakers prompts one to feel unsafe as an 18 year-old freshman, it seems unlikely that college will do enough to defang the world that it will be safe for that same person when they graduate at 21 or so.

(As an aside, this was one of the things that I was dubious about when I worked with children. As much as I understood the goal of protecting them, or even sheltering them, from the nasty aspects of life in the broader world, without some experience in engaging them, all we were doing was delaying the day when they had to deal with them unprepared.)

I understand the appeal of closing oneself off from a world that seems to legitimize one's dehumanization. But that doesn't make that world go away. Sooner or later, the bubble will go away. And that world, warts and all, will be waiting.

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