Saltzman: Northwestern and its hate speech fetish

Levi Saltzman, Op-Ed Contributor

While it’s impossible to separate Tuesday’s speaker event by Northwestern College Republicans and NU’s chapter of Young Americans for Freedom from James Lindsay, we’re misplacing our attention by fixating on the internet conspiracy theorist our peers invited to campus. Like so many on the academic right, Lindsay draws people out with epithets so provocative that any at-scale response could be branded as hysterical. Students protest the man known for calling “Woke ideology” the new slavery, and in return he gathers culture war materiel for his online base. NU’s front-facing conservative groups hosted a fascist circus clown, the physical embodiment of popular “liberal snowflake destroyed by alpha male” YouTube videos. Lindsay’s invitation is an extremist party trick designed to disorient a supposed liberal enemy — it’s about as politically serious as a racist rant on an incel message board.

We should pay attention to the problems that are at our level: NU’s institutional cowardice and our peers’ ideological insincerity. The University gave students the approval to invite a neo-fascist variety act to campus. Lindsay spoke for free, but NUCR’s funds, provided by the Associated Student Government, allowed the group to hire the entertainer a security detail that actively blocked protestors from entering the event.The administration makes a mockery of our intelligence by obscuring this behind the veil of “free speech” even as our tuition money pays to protect a bigoted fabulist from criticism.

If we want to address the debate over campus speech with any semblance of good faith, Tuesday’s events must be a case study in defining hateful dialogue. If the administration disagrees with that, I’m sure many students are curious about what “too far” looks like to NU. Advertising an event with skull-and-crossbones over the queer pride flag does not meet the University’s threshold, and neither does inviting a speaker who claims critical race theory through “race marxism” will cause a “white genocide.” As pathetic as the administration’s apathy is, it’s also elucidating: NU draws no line when it comes to issues of speech. Can a proponent of the “white genocide” conspiracy speak on campus? Yes. Asked and answered.

When contacted by multiple students about Tuesday’s event, University President Michael Schill responded to student concerns with the innocuous, platitudinal vocabulary of the media-trained. The quiet violence of Schill’s response is a betrayal of the students he is supposed to serve. We know there are technicalities, and we’ve heard them all before: “Northwestern is federally funded, it has to protect free speech; if these people aren’t given a platform, they’ll further radicalize; we can only respond to hateful rhetoric with self-love.” The institutions and ideas of speech the University relies on are predicated on the interest of all parties in an intact political system. 

There’s a great quote by playwright Jean-Paul Sartre on the rise of antisemitism: “Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous … But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words.”

So when does concern for student safety exceed the institution’s fetish for unrestricted speech? Demagogues like Lindsay are employing a brand of rhetoric which adopts the fundamentals of Naziism and its fascistic counterparts in the twentieth century. If that feels like dangerous hyperbole, it’s supposed to. The genius of post-ironic conservatism is that it isn’t self-serious — it adopts the giddy cruelty of internet troll culture to express a subdued but genuine contempt for minority groups. 

When James Lindsay levels attacks against the Auschwitz Memorial or prays for queer activists to be drowned to death, he’s not operating within the realm of debate. He’s miles away, typing in the same basement as his followers when they peruse antisemitic conspiracies about Cultural Marxism online. After all, our peers in these organizations are the ones engaging with a romantic and fictionalized political world, a fantasy where they’re criticized for their bravery rather than their hatefulness. 

The spectacle of Tuesday’s event, where students sloped through the side door of Swift Hall to witness an individual essentially watchlisted by the Southern Poverty Law Center, made clear how allergic on campus conservatives have become to actual political debate. These students decry “cancel culture” even as they silo themselves among the ideologically monstrous. What we witnessed on campus was a clarifying instance of a common political sequence. Students were put in harm’s way and gaslit by peers and administrators who blanketed extremism with the language of respectability.

The school actively chose to lend James Lindsay a platform. Through the vague rhetorical playbook of “honest debate,” these clubs hosted a far-right extremist who flew to NU and belittled the marginalized for the entertainment of our peers. While hate crimes against the very people Lindsay attacks continue to spike both in our community and outside of it, NU will claim its hands are tied and that we’re lucky to live within this system. It’s a staggering lie.

Levi Saltzman 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.