The University of California, Berkeley, canceled a speech by Ann Coulter this week because the school couldn’t find a safe place for the conservative author to deliver her remarks. The decision comes just a couple of months after violent unrest at the college led to the cancellation of a speech by controversial alt-right figure Milo Yiannopoulos. Closer to home, students at Middlebury College in Vermont last month protested a talk by Bell Curve co-author Charles Murray, who they accuse of being a white nationalist.
If the agitators on the far left are trying to make the alt-right seem almost reasonable by comparison, they’re doing a bang-up job.
Sam Harris, a writer and neuroscientist who advocates for a “new center” in American politics, said this on his “Waking Up” podcast after the Yiannopoulos riots: “The moment you’re using violence to prevent someone from speaking, you are on the wrong side of the argument, by definition. How is that not obvious on the left at this moment? I mean, you’re going to, what, burn down your own university to prevent someone from expressing views that you could otherwise just criticize?”
He continued: “In the age of Trump, when you really want to be able to say things against creeping right-wing authoritarianism, having an authoritarian, anti-free speech movement subsume the left is a disaster politically.”
Harris has clashed frequently with left and right, and we don’t always agree with him, but it’s hard to argue with his position that “there is virtually no space to occupy between the extreme left and the extreme right that doesn’t get you attacked by both sides.” The divide between left and right wouldn’t seem nearly as wide if those on both sides stopped viewing every publicly stated opinion as a provocation and instead took the time to examine the argument itself.
When we write an editorial, we are not expecting everybody to read our position and adopt it as their own. Our intention is to articulate as best we can where we stand on a particular issue – and why – so we might contribute to debates that matter. We encourage people to disagree and tell us where they believe we are wrong, because that is how public dialogue happens. And we expect our own opinions to evolve as more information becomes available or we learn something that we overlooked the first time. It’s an occupational hazard that readers sometimes take the straight-forward style of opinion writing as arrogance or self-righteousness, but hemming and hawing makes for an unpleasant reading experience. So we take our lumps, but we hope that by offering our opinion we help you shape your own – regardless of where it falls.
For the most part, this works out fine. There will still be people who react angrily to opinions they disagree with and assign writers imagined attributes that make them easier to despise, but not much can be done about that. It takes a lot less effort to demonize intellectual opponents than to try to understand them and respond thoughtfully.
And that brings us back to Ann Coulter.
She should be welcomed to Berkeley. Students and professors there should listen to her speak, ask her tough questions and thank her for coming. Then they can get to work separating Coulter the person from her ideas. And it’s the ideas they should dismantle – not with hot fury but the cold precision of truth. To protest Coulter the person only helps her sell books and schedule more paid speaking gigs. To riot gives her power.
That is the lesson the left seems unable or unwilling to learn.