February began with University of California Berkeley canceling a planned lecture by controversial alt-Right speaker Milo Yiannopoulos following violent protests opposed to his appearance. Conservatives referred to the decision as censorship by “leftist cowards” organizing a “liberal lynch mob.” Some accused UC-Berkeley itself of censorship, even though the decision was motived by public safety, not opposition to Yiannopoulos’s positions.
Shortly thereafter, the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) invited Yiannopoulos to speak at this year’s event. People on the right gloated of their higher commitment to free speech. No matter that Yiannopoulos regularly and deliberately espouses positions meant to provoke disgust and hatred – Simon and Schuster paid a healthy advance for the aptly named “Dangerous,” he outed a transgender student at a recent event, and he bathed in pig’s blood to protest “globalization” and he blames female victims for being harassed: Never mind that. Liberals who oppose him, went the narrative, are cowards who are intolerant of any opposing views.
And then, video emerged of Yiannopoulos apparently praising adult men, including priests, having sex with young boys. This was a bridge too far for CPAC: They rescinded his invitation. Simon and Schuster also canceled the book deal, and he has even resigned from Breitbart.
This is the perfect learning opportunity: conservatives have a line, liberals have a line. Yiannopoulos, who made a career of trying to cross as many lines as possible, managed to finally cross CPAC’s, and possibly even Breitbart’s. The question is: Will conservative Americans take this experience to heart? Will they realize that their own revulsion at his positive comments about hebephilia is similar to the revulsion that liberals feel when he willfully attacks women, Muslims, transfolk, and others?
There are plenty of articles that point out that freedom of speech is not freedom from consequence, and that the First Amendment does not require that speech must be granted a platform. Yiannopoulos’s First Amendment rights have not been trampled; all the organizations that have refused to allow him to air his positions further are within their legal rights.
The courts have ruled that, in the United States, the First Amendment is not absolute. “Fighting words” and certain incitements to crime are two cases where speech can be limited legally. Even so, it is not clear that Yiannopoulos has crossed those lines.
However, his comments have consistently been outside the political mainstream. As such, this ought to be a moment for reflecting on empathy. Empathy is about recognizing the validity and reality of someone else’s pain. Because reasonable people of conscience across the political spectrum have different reasons for rejecting his complete message, it should be easier to empathize with the disgust of others.
Perhaps it is difficult for conservative males to see why someone would be so deeply offended by Yiannopoulos’s outing of transgender students, but they are equally offended by his comments on man-boy relationships. As a liberal, I do not expect a conservative to necessarily understand my defense of transgender rights. I do hope that a reflective conservative can have the empathy to understand that silencing this individual is not about political disagreement, it is about wanting to minimize the amount of hatred deliberately spread in the world.
There are conservatives who also reject elements of his platform. In the wake of the scandal, Jonah Goldberg, senior editor of National Review, was particularly scathing about CPAC’s interactions with him: “Apparently, conservatives still draw the line there, but not at anti-Semitism or racism. The tent, sad to say, is big enough for that.”
In saying this, Goldberg shows some of that much-needed empathy, and should be praised for that. But is this the status quo? Even Goldberg seems to be admitting that it is not. Whether it really was, CPAC’s invitation appeared to be a tribal nose-thumbing at the liberals who had pressured UC-Berkeley: “We think free speech includes hearing Milo’s important perspective,” wrote the American Conservative Union’s Matt Schlapp.
I support Free Speech. I support everyone’s right to share reasonable positions within a free society, with the intent of the betterment of society. When someone is being deliberately provocative, though, and when they are acting in ways that are hurtful to others, regardless of their political viewpoints, society has a right and an obligation to voice disgust with those positions.
My call for greater empathy is not limited to this case. If you consider yourself a conservative and have trouble understanding liberal complaints about other issues or speakers, especially if you think that liberals are supposed to be tolerant but don’t always act like it, take a moment to consider: Is there something you’re not seeing? Perhaps you’ve truly found a case of liberals being intolerant of simple dissent, but perhaps there’s just cause for their disgust and intolerance.
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