It’s Come to This: Defending Ann Coulter

UC Berkeley just cancelled a speech by conservative provocateur Ann Coulter, citing safety concerns in the wake of the violence that broke out on campus in February just before a speech by former senior Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos. The violence that cancelled that event had been committed by people who identify with the political left and with the anarchist movement. This is a shocking and disturbing development at a college that has a long and proud tradition of embracing and encouraging free speech, but it is also a development that is emblematic of a larger problem that should spark some serious introspection on the part of today’s left.

Don’t get me wrong: I think that Ann Coulter is a horrible, horrible person, and I disagree with her on just about everything. I believe that she cynically cultivates a brand of conservative extremism intended to push people’s buttons: she knows that the more provocative her ideas are, the more buzz she will generate, which translates into the large following that she has made a career successfully parlaying into profits. I often question whether she even believes half of what she says.

Photo of Ann Coulter by Gage Skidmore

Nonetheless, I support her right to be heard. College in particular is supposed to be a place where budding adults can experience a smorgasbord of new ideas, new philosophies, new lifestyles, and new kinds of people. It is often the first major test of the foundational values instilled by family. As young adults, college students get to evaluate the merits of their new experiences, and the appropriateness and worthiness of incorporating the new ideas into their own lives.

When voices like those of Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos are excluded from that mix, it deprives students of the richness that a full breadth of viewpoints can offer. But far worse, it breeds closed-mindedness and communicates a stark insecurity about the ability of the “correct” ideas to stand on their own. Perhaps ugliest and most ironic of all, this censorship is often committed by people who boast of being “tolerant.”

When I was in college, people of all kinds of extremes came to speak on campus. Students got upset. They protested. They got angry. But ultimately, the speakers got to be heard, no matter who they were.

I remember a World War II vet saying once, regarding some American political pariah, “I don’t agree with a damn thing that that SOB says, but I’ll fight to the death for his right to say it.” I respect that. That is a perspective that seems far more in keeping with the spirit of “free speech” that we on the left claim to value so deeply. The First Amendment was not put in place to protect palatable, agreeable speech.

When we go down the road of saying, in effect, “no free speech for people we disagree with,” we head in the direction of authoritarianism.

I realize, and cringe, that this means that really ugly ideas will be heard, but that is healthy: when it is normal for all sides and all ideas to be aired, the idiocy of bad ideas is glaring enough that they don’t gather steam.

This is a very important concept for us on the left to start absorbing, because the resentment fueled by decades of our behavior toward those with differing ideas is part of why we’re now stuck with a Trump as our President. It’s how Trump, a self-proclaimed billionaire, could present himself as an oppressed victim and not be laughed off the stage. Trump was enough of a rich, media-savvy blowhard that he was able to be heard, and because that was such an anomaly, such a rarity, he was seen as a symbol to rally around, someone who had made it through to “finally” speak for millions of people who had come to hold similar ideas but felt like they had been repeatedly silenced by “political correctness.”

Think about what it is like to be shut down for trying to express an idea that is important to you – not being given the opportunity to communicate a complete thought and the reasoning behind it and then not being given the respect of a debate, but instead being simply, abruptly and smugly labeled and written off – end of discussion. Think about what years, even decades of this treatment as a second-class citizen must be like. Some of us, of course, don’t have to use a lot of imagination to understand what that kind of treatment is like, having experienced it from the birth due to the color of our skin, our place of birth, our gender, who we are attracted to, etc.

But think, then, about how infuriatingly hypocritical it must feel to see the same people who have done this to you parading around the streets carrying signs proclaiming their tolerance and love. Salt in the wounds?

Allowing undesirable ideas to be heard does not equal agreeing with them. Allowing undesirable ideas to be heard does not mean that you are willing to let them flourish. Bad ideas, exposed as a normal part of a healthy democratic discussion, die of their own weight. Allowing undesirable ideas to be heard is simply the baseline of respect that we should offer one another as human beings, as a starting point to being a civil society. And contrary to what many on the left seem to think – and this is really important – denying that respect and shutting people down does not prevent the ideas from existing or even growing: it merely forces them underground and causes them to grow more twisted and distorted amid grinding bitterness, rage, and lack of sunlight. Trump’s voters have been there for decades. They are largely people whose mildly distasteful ideas, denied the dignity of hearing and discussion, were allowed to simmer and become something far less likable.

UC Berkeley’s decision to cancel Ann Coulter’s speech was wrong but understandable. The school was worried about the safety of their students in the event that violence should break out again.

But the anarchists and Trump-opposing students who started fires and committed other acts of violence a couple months ago to stave off a speech from Milo Yiannopoulos should take a moment to absorb that they did no favors for the cause of true tolerance, for the legitimacy of their own beliefs, or to prevent those who agreed with Mr. Yiannopoulos from doubling down even harder on their support of him. The handful of people who behaved destructively instead vividly displayed their own intolerance, and contributed to a further deepening of the divide in our country. In driving the monster from the village, they merely fed it.

Ann Coulter deserves the right to say what she thinks as much as Bernie Sanders, Rachel Maddow, Elizabeth Warren, or any other American. As long as Coulter and people like her continue to get shut down, their ideas will only get meaner and uglier.

– rob rünt

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