Steinberg: Restricting controversial speakers will only polarize us further

Kent Steinberg, Op-ed Contributor

At Northwestern and many other American universities, the concept of debate is distorted. Our universities were founded with a specific purpose: to educate students to be active and informed individuals in our society. Aristotle said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” His ideas served as the foundation for Western pedagogical practice. But somewhere along the way, our nation’s preeminent colleges have forgotten that ideas are meant to be debated and that opposition is an invitation for intellectual discussion.

A few weeks ago, students at University of California, Berkeley prevented Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking at an event by breaking windows, lighting fires and, in the process, damaging the principle of free speech. These violent and disorderly acts were justified by Alex Schwartz in his column, where he claimed Yiannopoulos’ speech constituted hate speech and therefore this gave the demonstrators the right to suppress it. This is a dangerous line of thinking. In blindly refusing and disparaging alternative opinions, protesters in fact acted to further polarize our increasingly fragmented society along political lines.

When the protests became violent, Yiannopoulos hadn’t said anything warranting violence on Berkeley’s campus. Students decided he should not speak, assuming his words would assuredly be hateful based on Yiannopoulos’ prior controversies and political leanings.

The problem with suppressing hate speech is that different people can interpret different things as hate. Hate is based on highly subjective terms. If I’m a Christian fundamentalist, then the views of a pro-choice advocate might be considered hateful from my perspective. But if I’m a pro-choice advocate, then the anti-abortion views of a Christian fundamentalist could be considered hateful. While it’s alright to have these individualized views on what you deem hateful, suppressing the other side from speaking doesn’t actually prevent hate, but rather allows it to fester in isolated, politicized spheres.

Suppressing the other side’s speech gives credence to the other side suppressing yours in return. If a liberal student majority at a California school refuses to let someone speak due to his hateful rhetoric, why should a conservative institution not feel justified in doing the same? And in the end, the suppression of the other side’s “radical” beliefs doesn’t result in any productive conversation or real progress.

Shutting down Yiannopoulos before he can speak might only further polarize our political atmosphere in a time where we already are faced with extreme partisanship. And while conservatives are often guilty of the same suppression, it should be the intent of our higher-level institutions to rise above the fray and set an example. Our universities should prepare us to create a future that is far less fractious and politicized, where we can learn how to reach compromise even when faced with extremely contentious ideas.

Kent Steinberg is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.