COMMENTARY: Protests are justified, stemming from fear
I’d like to briefly address an argument I’ve been hearing against the protest of last week’s Milo Yiannopoulos lecture — an argument that centers chiefly on the conduct, tactics and motivation of the protesters, seeking to paint them as hysterical, rash, disrespectful and censorious.
Let me first say that I see tremendous value in the University as an open forum to contest differing and diverse thoughts and opinions. I am quite cautious and measured in discussing speech regulation on campus — any talk of the administration exercising control over the conduct of student groups, including over Yiannopoulos's lecture, should be conducted with a very light and incredibly cautious touch.
That said, let's not frame Yiannopoulos as a legitimate or worthy contender in this marketplace of ideas. During his brief remarks, he compared Black Lives Matter to the Ku Klux Klan, Rutgers University to "Hitler's Austrian art college" for graduating feminist writer Jessica Valenti, called for a halt to Muslim immigration to the United States, seemingly seriously contended that lesbians don't exist and that lesbianism is more of a fashion statement than anything else (also attributing the campus rape epidemic to lesbian women) and asserted that transgender people are afflicted with a psychiatric disorder.
He is also an outright white supremacist, but he tries to dodge this claim by expressing the sentiment through vague generalizations about the objective superiority of “Western society.”
What's perhaps more disturbing is that everything Yiannaopoulos says acts as a bit of a dog whistle to his followers — Milo knows how to take things just to the edge of permissible, but his followers don't. A number of them, whipped into a frenzy, were overtly racist and sexist outside, during and following the event.
Nevertheless, I can confess I struggled a bit with whether it was useful to protest his event at all and whether it was most appropriate to do so in this manner. Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that the action was important in allowing the incredibly brave women involved to take a visible stand against a man and roomful of people who loathe their existence.
I strongly believe it was important that people on campus threatened by Yiannopoulos's and his followers' ideology see that there are people who support them, who won't allow inclusion to be a subject of debate at the University where they live, work and sleep.
Was the red paint dramatic? Misogyny, racism, Islamophobia and transphobia all kill. They physically threaten. It's easy to second guess the action here when, as is the case for myself, whether or not his speech goes uninterrupted, has abstract philosophical consequences rather than real-world implications for your own perceived and actual physical security. The consequences of speech such as Yiannopolous's and his supporters’, taken over time and in aggregate, are quite a bit more dramatic than a few tubes of washable red paint.
Was the protest respectful and appropriate? When speech is not only intellectually abhorrent, or morally repugnant, but personally and individually alarming and threatening, is there an “appropriate” response? There's no way of contesting this event that could have been both “respectable” and effective.
We have made a lot of progress at Rutgers in fostering an environment that welcomes students of diverse backgrounds. We have only begun to grapple with the ways in which our University participates in and upholds the systems of oppression that afflict our society. We have barely scratched the surface of dismantling them.
It should come as no surprise that the people threatened by such a transformation are coming out of the woodwork to reopen a debate that was closed long ago. Islamophobia, racism, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia had their day in court. They lost.
Yiannopolous and his ilk have their right to speak, but let’s not pretend they’re legitimate contenders in a marketplace of opinions. The consequences of his speech are real. They are violent, literally and in metaphor.
How do you refuse to be disempowered or quieted by an ideology that demands your silence? What do you do when forces that seek to hold you down, seemingly on the wane, awaken and rear their ugly head?
The protest was organized out of fear. Fear that is real and justified. Fear of the proliferation of an ideology of violence and hatred with real-world consequences. For many involved in last week’s protest, the consequences of his speech are not a mere intellectual exercise — they are startlingly and painfully real. To engage Yiannopolous and his followers only as a philosophical consideration is a luxury available only to those who find themselves safely above the fray.
How do you stand up to the peers that hate you, deny it as they might? How do you begin to make people understand what’s at stake for the thousands on this campus whose comfort, autonomy, safety and existence are on the line? I might start with a tube of red paint.
Patrick Gibson is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in computer science and American studies.
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