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PENNING: Free speech should beat back violence, not encourage it

• Sep 14, 2017 at 3:00 PM

We are fortunate that when people say the names of our communities — Grand Haven, Spring Lake, or even West Michigan — what is most likely to come to mind is the geographic features we enjoy.

Our local reputation may be one economic or political characteristic, or demographic make-up. But our locality is not tarnished with memory of tragedy.

Such is not the case with Charlottsville, where an ugly confrontation commanded attention and turned the Virginia city’s name into a meme for hatred, violence and debate about free speech. One can hope that they, and we as a nation, recover our sanity and perspective.

President Trump hit the hornet’s nest on the issue when he inserted the words “both sides” into a statement he made about the incident in Charlottsville, where a white supremacist rally was met with counterprotest and violence broke out, including a car plowing into a group of counterprotestors, killing one person.

In decrying racism and hatred and violence, Trump indicated that violence was perpetrated by both the white supremacists and counterprotestors. This was empirically true — members of both groups threw punches — but it was not politically expedient to say so in that moment. It would have been better to call out the white supremacists, whose message was clearly racist and whose actions precipitated the tragic events. The larger conversation about violence replacing tolerance and dialogue could be saved for another less heated occasion.

I tried to bring up this point a week or so later, when I was noticing a trend in social media of people equating all people on the right ideologically of being prone to violence, as if those on the left were always correct in their views and consistently peaceful in their expression. In fact, ideological perspective is more often about opinion than fact, and no large group of people is entirely violent or entirely peaceful. All ideological groups have their unfortunate extremists and none are without fault, even though the large middle majority on both the left and right can express their views with reason and restraint.

I posted a piece from CNN on Facebook that made this point, and noted that the left in our country also has exhibited hatred and violence. It also noted that, on college campuses in particular, this extreme was manifested by shouting down speakers that the left did not agree with, thus eroding free speech. In some cases, speeches had to be canceled because of the potential of violence, property damage, threats on the speakers’ lives.

What bothered me about this was the moral relativity assumption that violence is OK if it is done on behalf of a particular viewpoint. It also bothered me because, as a student, and now as a professor, I had always been told that a college hosting a speaker never means they endorse the views. Colleges are supposed to be about higher education, questioning assumptions, examining alternative views, tolerating differences. But certain colleges were shutting down speech if it didn’t parrot a perceived official doctrine.

It’s one thing to hold the line at speech that incites violence or is obscene, but it’s another to exemplify what our law cautions as “prior restraint,” which amounts to censorship.

My Facebook post became a forum for those I know on both the left and the right. There were interesting and thoughtful remarks on both sides, but there was also invective, defensiveness and anger that were sadly contrary to the intent of my post.

One person said I was wrong based on meetings that we had at GVSU. I pointed out I was speaking about national trends and doubted a meeting in little old Allendale could disprove events across the fruited plain as reported by CNN.

Another person questioned my values. This is a common and weak rhetoric. It’s an ad hominem attack — insulting the person versus discussing the issue. It’s also an illogical exemplar of a false dichotomy — assuming that in my pointing out there is violence on the left that I endorse it on the right. This is preposterous. My values, I pointed out, include telling the truth and having peaceful dialogue. Would that my values were shared by some defenders of the left.

But it has gotten better. Since my Facebook post, there have been many mainstream media reports calling out “Antifa,” a leftist group claiming to be against fascism and doing so with fascist and violent tactics. Alan Dershowitz, a liberal legal scholar at Harvard, said in an interview that the left needs to acknowledge its own hatred and violence.

Richard Epstein, who calls himself a classical liberal and is a foremost legal academic teaching at the University of Chicago and New York University, said in a weekend Wall Street Journal interview the American left is inappropriately pushing for curbs on “offensive” speech. Everyone offends someone most of the time when they speak, Epstein points out. The remedy is not to shut down speech but to encourage more of it.

Indeed. That’s what John Stuart Mill, the English philosopher, said in the 1800s: “Let truth and falsehood grapple, and the truth will out.”

Perhaps the left-leaning Berkeley University in California is returning to its liberal roots. By liberal I mean the classical meaning of being liberated from oppression, including in speech. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the institution has invited back some speakers who previously were canceled or shouted down by protesters. These include Ann Coulter, Milo Yiannopolous and potentially Steve Bannon, all conservatives known to be provocateurs and likely to go against the ideological grain at Berkeley. But that’s OK. In fact, that’s the point of free speech, particularly on a college campus. Let them be heard.

Those offended or in disagreement should respond not with violence, but their own arguments. Or walk away.

As for the rest of us, the best counsel is ancient. In 1 Peter 3:9, the advice is “do not repay evil with evil, or insult with insult.” That’s holy behavior, not to mention good communication strategy if you want people to hear your side.

— By Tim Penning, Tribune community columnist. A collection of Penning’s columns in the book “Thoughts on Thursdays” is available at The Bookman.

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