Criminal Acts Don’t Help Free Speech
January 26, 2017 (Fault Lines) — Six days ago Richard Spencer, a self-professed “white nationalist” and purported leader of the “Alt-Right,” was punched in the face during an interview about the Presidential inauguration. According to the District of Columbia, this is a crime punishable by up to 180 days imprisonment.
The Internet cheered collectively at Spencer’s assault. A review of the web, from scholarly think pieces to your uncle’s brazen Facebook rants, would have one think Spencer’s assailant was a real life equivalent of Captain America. This criminal act was lauded as an expression of patriotism worthy of a new Presidential Medal of Freedom.
During the inauguration, unknown perpetrators chose to firebomb a limousine. This is a crime called “Malicious burning, destruction, or injury of another’s property,” and carries the potential for ten years’ imprisonment at the high end of the spectrum. People shrugged.
In another related Inaugural incident, people smashed the windows of a Starbucks. Once again, people shrugged. A colleague of mine nodded on seeing the video, saying “Good. Protest is as American as apple pie.” This “protest” is best termed “Defacing public or private property” and is also a crime. Yet the collective national consensus was a nod and a shrug.
Across the country, at the University of Washington, protesters attacked individuals waiting in line to hear the self-styled provocateur Milo Yiannopolous speak at Kane Hall. A student and his father were beaten. That’s either assault in the third degree or assault in the fourth degree, depending on how the cops and prosecutors decide to handle the incident.
Worse yet, someone decided to fire a bullet into a person waiting in line for the chance to hear this “free speech extremist” speak. While the motivations behind this criminal act are unknown, the shooting is still a felony under Washington’s laws.
The day after the inauguration, hundreds of thousands took to the streets in various cities to march for women’s rights. Each was a beautiful example of the right to peaceably address the government for redress of grievances. Until Madonna, the pop star of “Vogue” and “Like a Prayer,” gave a speech where she allegedly fantasized about blowing up the White House. Naturally, she changed her tune when the Secret Service paid her a visit over those remarks.
America, it’s time to have one of those “honest conversations” we keep asking for and somehow never reach. When did it become acceptable to silence the voices of those with whom you disagree by committing criminal acts? Why is violence the answer to speech you don’t like? When did bullets, rather than sunlight, become the best disinfectant for bad ideas?
Yes, protestors by definition often break the law. But take a look at a different sort of protest. The Democracy Spring protesters didn’t commit acts of violence against anyone. They knew they would be arrested, and when they were they didn’t resist arrest. They posted bail and went back to their protest. The non-violent nature of their actions spoke volumes about that which they saw as wrong.
Compare this to punching Richard Spencer or shooting someone waiting outside a Milo talk. The message conveyed by such actions is the protestor has no idea worth communicating other than violence to silence those they don’t like. It is an act of cowardice that speaks more to the assailant’s lack of character than any true message.
Worse still for those who commit criminal activities in the name of “protest” is these criminal actions most likely gave a greater audience to those they wanted to silence. When Milo confirmed the University of Washington shooting, he chose to continue the event, because in his rationale the opposition couldn’t be allowed to silence others by “killing us.” In that moment the narrative shifted from combating the allegedly dangerous “hate speech” of a man who calls himself a “virtuous troll” to “this man is willing to get shot for his beliefs.”
Richard Spencer will most likely benefit from the blindsided attack on inauguration day. By punching him in the face with live cameras rolling, someone who advocates for a “peaceful ethnic cleansing” gained victimhood status and possibly a book deal. If Spencer’s assailant meant to strike a blow for truth, justice, and the American way, it backfired spectacularly. That hook to the jaw just gave the “alt-right” more legitimacy than ever before.
The hard truth we all must accept from the unhinged lunacy following January 20th, 2017 is that if the American Experiment is to continue, we must learn to get out of our bubbles and listen to those with whom we disagree the most. Learn the positions of those you don’t like, instead of simply ignoring them or shouting them down. Once you know what that person really believes, discuss the ignorance of their positions instead of resorting to violence.
Do you want to remedy bad speech and hurtful ideas? Replace them with better speech and stronger, more intellectually sound ideas. Resorting to violence and criminal acts only serves to make the other side look good and delegitimizes your position.