We’ve met Katherine Cross before, in a piece she wrote defending the punching of Nazis. Identified as “a pizza loving feminist sociologist, trans Latina, and amateur slug herder, working on her PhD at the CUNY Graduate Centre,” she writes for The Establishment, which I don’t read but, upon perusal, seems to be a slightly upscale version of PuffHo—about as Authoritarian Leftist as they come. It should in fact be called The Authoritarian. (To wit: its headline article today the Grammys for blatant racism: they gave Adele an award for best album of the year but ignored Beyonce because, they say, she was black. They also spell “Black” with a capital letter and “white” without one.)
The article Cross wrote before, “Why punching Nazis is not only ethical, but imperative,” was a deeply flawed piece of writing, and I took it apart on this site. But she’s equaled it with her latest piece on Alternet, “What liberals don’t get about free speech in the age of Trump.” Yet most of us have already gotten what we’re said not to “get,” and I’m surprised that this piece was published in the first place. I suspect that, like PuffHo, The Establishment publishes left-wing pieces with little or no remuneration to their authors.
But on to the piece, which I’ll summarize briefly. Cross says there are two things we liberals don’t get about free speech. She is, of course, mostly concerned with Milo Yiannopoulos.
1.) Free speech doesn’t entitle anyone to a platform anywhere you want. Cross says this:
This is the key difference. You can think whatever you like, and even say it without fear of government reprisal, but when you introduce force-multipliers for speech into the equation, things begin to get very hazy indeed. You have a right to a view; do you have a right to pronounce it to millions of New York Times readers, however? No. We have no problem recognizing this when it’s about something silly like Bigfoot, but the minute matters of consequence enter the frame, suddenly people are mystified by the very existence of standards.
To speak to so vast an audience is a privilege, not a right. To speak through a newspaper or magazine column, a TV talk show, an interview on national TV, a speech at a university, or a primetime debate program, is, by its very nature, a privilege not open to all. There are billions of people on this planet, each speaking their views at any one time, but they can’t all appear on the Today show. Once again, we intuitively grasp this basic logistical matter, but forget about it entirely when a raving bigot shows up, feeling cornered by an abstract principle into insisting that he or she be given not only space to speak, but the largest possible platform and audience for it.
It has been the pride of my life to be able to write editorial copy and speak at universities and conferences around the world. I do not, however, delude myself into thinking I have a right to any of these things. They are privileges I have earned. I have a right to the views I espouse here; I do not have a specific right to force the editors of The Establishment to use their platform for that espousal.
Duh! Is there anybody here who hasn’t grasped the difference between asserting a right to speak at, say, a college, and a right to speak in a public square? Milo didn’t have an a priori right to speak at Berkeley or any other school: he gained that right because he was invited to speak by the College Republicans. Once he was asked and accepted, he had a right to speak. Even the University Chancellor recognized that right, and urged the Berkeley community to act accordingly. And once Yiannopoulos had that right, he could say anything he wanted unless he violated the courts’ interpretation of the First Amendment: permitting speech so long as the speaker’s words didn’t urge listeners to commit immediate violence. Of course Milo’s presence—he wasn’t allowed to talk—did lead to violence from protestors, but that wasn’t was his words were designed to do: it’s what his mere bodily appearance produced. You cannot ban someone from speaking simply because those who thought they might be offended by his speech (and not inflamed to do his bidding) start rioting, hurting people, and destroying property.
That much is obvious. So on to Cross’s second point:
2.) Free speech has to be balanced against another “right”: the right for society to be free of speech that will damage it. To her credit, Cross doesn’t say that people like Milo abrogate people’s right “to not be offended.” Instead, she says that Milo’s words were designed to encourage his followers to further marginalize and physically injure those already marginalized, which will create a dystopian society. To further her argument, Cross brings up—yes, again—the Nazis:
So many people are hung up on Yiannopoulos’ right to free speech (without enumerating the specifics, e.g. a right to this platform, a right to payment from this institution, et cetera, none of which are democratic rights per se), while ignoring the rights his hate-mongering specifically abridges.
. . . What I protest in Yiannopoulos’ “Dangerous Faggot Tour” is that he incites action, which cannot be ignored or brushed off by its targets. Yet despite being central to the issue, it is rarely the focus of chest-beating free-speech absolutism in the editorial pages.
She then quotes Ron Rosenbaum, and expert on the history of Nazism:
For Trump, his army of trolls, and his ideological lieutenants like Yiannopoulos and Richard Spencer, words are playthings used to win a moment’s battle, to elicit a reaction, and to hide as much as to reveal. It is their actions that speak true.
And then, mentioning Hannah Arendt, Cross says this:
Hannah Arendt had the right of it when, in her Origins of Totalitarianism, she explained what the purpose of Nazi propaganda was. It was not a proposition presented for debate, compromise, and rebuttal, but an alternative reality that justified its own existence:
“The assumption of a Jewish world conspiracy was transformed by totalitarian propaganda from an objective, arguable matter into the chief element of the Nazi reality; the point was the Nazis acted as though the world were dominated by Jews and needed a counterconspiracy to defend itself.”
In other words, these were articles of faith that served to justify Nazism’s aims. They told the world what had to be true in order for race laws and death camps to make moral sense. This was not a matter for debate, though it had been disproven on its merits time and time again.
And, at the end, although Cross claims she’s not trying to excuse the violent protests at Berkeley, she says she understands why they did what they did: they had to fight Milo’s “actions”—or rather, what she sees as his call for immediate violence:
This is not to say that quests for truth are pointless — quite the opposite — but rather that we should understand what they can and cannot do. You cannot disprove the truth of an action; you can only combat it.This essay will undoubtedly be positioned as a defense of the violence at Berkeley. It isn’t; a disquisition on the merits of political violence as such requires its own article. But the argument I’ve made here should serve as an explanation of why, when faced with an establishment that is deaf to all reason, some may have felt setting lighting equipment on fire to be their only recourse.
Inasmuch as it stopped Yiannopoulos from radicalizing his audience into committing hate crimes against their fellow students, the protest achieved something meaningful. But it diminishes us to flush that down the memory hole of another pointless debate about tediously abstract and immature constructions of free speech. If we must do this, then let us do it properly. Let us call actions by their names, acknowledge the harms of those actions, and then, with the terms of debate and its principles properly grounded, discuss the matter.
After all, is that not what those of us who care about words are obliged to do?
This is deeply confused. First Cross tells us that there is a “right” to be free from the kind of violence-inducing speech promulgated by Yiannopoulos, then says that we must combat that “hate speech” by calling it what it is: not only hate speech, but speech designed to wreck society. But we’re already doing that! Plenty of liberal outlets have done what Cross says we’re “obliged” to do: argue against Milo, produce counter-speech, and even accuse him of “hate speech.” So what’s the problem? And if you can’t “disprove” the truth of an action (i.e., speech), why even “discuss and debate the matter.” What’s the point if listeners are “deaf to reason”?
Why did Cross even write this piece?
Her problem is that she indicts Milo for truly violating the First Amendment as interpreted by the courts—for making speeches that he knows will move his audience to violence. Well, that’s just not true, and if it were, Cross or anybody else could take Milo to court for violating the Constitution.
Milo doesn’t call for violence. Yes, he does stuff that I think is unwise, like publicly naming a transgender student and was (so I hear) about to urge Berkeley students to name fellow students who are undocumented immigrants. To my mind that’s wrong, but I say that as a person. As someone acquainted with the law, though, I have to add that although I think it’s wrong, it’s also legal, and I’ll defend Milo’s right to say those kinds of things.
There is no “right” for people to not be subject to speech like Milo’s. If they don’t like it, they don’t have to listen to his talks. But the kind of speeches Milo gives on campuses do not violate the First Amendment, and thus abrogate no legal rights. The Constitution does not prohibit, nor has it been interpreted to prohibit, calls for social changes that other people think are harmful. If that were the case, then every Muslim could riot when Charlie Hebdo cartoons are published, every black person could riot when some of the tenets of the Black Lives Matter movement are questioned, and every believer could riot when religion is criticized. For indeed, all of those offended by such speech believe it will wreck society. Cross sees herself as the Arbiter of Non-Damaging speech, and thereby guts the First Amendment, as many Authoritarian Leftists do.
And I’ll add here that the censorship of a free press, which is what the Nazis did when they assumed power, was done in the name of keeping German society peaceful.