In the past few years we’ve seen a distressing rise in “shutdown culture”: the attempt by some on the “politically correct” authoritarian left to shut down speech by individuals and groups with whom they disagree.
Let me start with some important distinctions. It is perfectly legitimate to protest a speaker, to gather outside the hall to make the counter statement that “this speaker is a doofus.” And it is fine to protest a university or other institution’s choice of commencement speaker, to make the counter statement that “this speaker has abhorrent ideas and our institution should not put them forward as someone to be admired.” Neither of these are examples of shutdown culture; they are examples of the fine and noble principle that “the cure for bad speech is more speech.”
And there may even be occasions when the operation of the state or another powerful agency must be shut down by disruptive protest. As Mario Savio put it in a famous speech at the University of California, Berkeley in 1964:
There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus — and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it — that unless you’re free the machine will be prevented from working at all!!
But Savio was speaking in the context of the Free Speech Movement protests, touched off when a student activist was arrested for manning a table for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in violation of campus policy. It was the machinery of censorship and silence he was speaking of stopping. And he did put his body upon it to stop it, he went to jail and was harassed by the FBI.
In contrast to this sort of dedicated protection of free expression — one of the most sacred human rights — we see deliberate efforts to disrupt and shut down disagreeable speakers. One recent example was Ben Shapiro’s talk at California State University, Los Angeles last month. Protesters physically blocked the theater to keep people from entering to hear Shapiro, and his speech was disrupted by a false fire alarm.
Ironically, the topic of Shapiro’s speech was how “leftist” notions of diversity threaten free speech. And in a further irony, some of the protesters blamed CSULA President William Covino for thrusting them into a tense confrontation and so staged a sit-in in front of Covino’s office and tried to block him from leaving campus.
It was a sad and embarrassing day for anyone who supports true cultural diversity and understands that, by definition, it does not include silencing dissenting voices.But we hit a new peak of shutdown culture in Chicago last Friday, when an organized group of disrupters were able to shut down a rally for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Again, let me be clear: Trump has expressed a number of execrable ideas. It is just and good to protest his appearances and rallies. It is fine to picket outside his events, to put a “Dump Trump” bumper sticker on your car, and to disinvite any Trump supporters from your parties.
But it is not ok to tear a pro-Trump sign out of a supporter’s hand, or vandalize a car with a Trump sticker. And it’s not ok to shut down a Trump rally, denying supporters — however confused and misguided they may be — their rights of free speech and free association.
And this isn’t only about the ethical principle that we must respect the basic rights of all, even the most odious; though in a sane and just world that would be a sufficient argument. It’s also about the fact that censorship of one’s opponents is a grave tactical error. It sends the message that one’s own ideas can’t carry the day in a fair fight, and it allows the opponent whose speech has been denied to cast themselves as the victim and seek sympathy.
A Monmouth University poll of likely Florida GOP primary voters conducted March 11 to 13 and released Monday found that twice as many respondents said Friday’s events made them more, rather than less, likely to support Trump. (That is, among those who were influenced; two-thirds of respondents said Friday’s events had no impact on their support for Trump.)
Rather than making a bold statement that reduced support for Trump’s vile agenda, this self-righteous exercise in shutdown culture only made him a stronger candidate in Tuesday’s primaries. And it gave him law-and-order talking points for the general election campaign.
Confused progressives have been celebrating the shutdown of the Trump rally as a victory. But it was neither a moral victory nor a tactical one. If anything, it put Donald Trump closer to the White House.