When VICE co-founder Gavin McInnes was pepper sprayed and jeered off the stage during his speech to the NYU College Republicans on Feb. 2, the club released a statement defending and explaining its choice to invite McInnes despite his history of making inflammatory statements. “The purpose of this event was to promote free speech and not to promote certain ideas,” the statement read. Similarly, during the violent protests against Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of California, Berkeley last week that caused $100,000 in damage, the defender of the alt-right also expressed his disappointment in his opponents’ reticence to respect free speech.
Frequently, groups who invite divisive speakers defend their actions by saying that while they may not agree with all of the speaker’s political views, they want to encourage conversations that lead both sides of the political spectrum to a point of greater understanding. This is all well and good — discussion between partisan groups is a noble pursuit and certainly a viable step toward reconciling our differences. But the issue presented is a two-fold problem.
One, there is a difference between inviting conservative speakers whose beliefs are contrary to a university or organization’s liberal reputation and inviting figures who have repeatedly been, say, banned from Twitter for inciting hate speech and abuse. In the former situation, the speaker’s beliefs may be controversial, but he or she has not actively sought harm — physical or otherwise — for another person. In the latter scenario, paying speakers to visit the campus may not be directly supporting their behavior, but it does give them a platform to espouse hateful doctrines.
Two, having a speaker come to lecture does not promote discussion — not in that moment, at least. It is giving them a platform to speak for the majority of the event, with limited — if any — time for questions following the primary address. Conversations inevitably follow the event in smaller, broken-off groups likely made up of friends whose beliefs are already compatible. It’s unlikely that many opinions will be challenged. Discussions, on the other hand, are democratic. They involve participation all throughout the event. Unlike the speaker-on-the-podium structure that lectures have, discussions encourage collective involvement.
It’s wonderful that the NYU College Republicans and conservative groups nationwide say they are trying to promote discussion. It’s doubtful, however, between different groups, if it’s their honest intentions at all. Inviting divisive guests baits the speaker’s opponents. McInnes’ pepper spray incident and the ensuing chaos that followed were both to be expected that night.
Email Hailey Nuthals at [email protected]