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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Column: Jerks do not have right to a platform

    Bill Maher, smarm-meister and overall unpleasant person, is back in the news cycle yet again with University of California, Berkeley’s, students rallying against his invitation to speak on their campus. The Berkeley students feel that Maher’s “bigoted and racist” beliefs — as the petition classifies them — should disqualify him from being given a platform on their esteemed campus.

    A few, most notably David Frum of The Atlantic, think that this shouting down of someone with anti-Islam beliefs and who’s a supporter of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals — not to mention a general major-league asshole — represents a deep and dire threat to free speech.

    First off, censorship by the state is completely wrong. Jackbooted SWAT-team thugs should not be able to beat down someone’s door because some Republican legislator doesn’t want them looking at “the hentai” or “the scary movies” again.

    This does not mean everyone should automatically have their opinions given a platform. The public debate is like a public pool, and like a pool, there’s always going to be one asshole who takes a giant steaming dump in it, and we should not let those people into the damn pool.

    But time and again, the media has failed to do this, falling prey to the idea that both sides need to be given equal time. On issues from climate change to vaccine denialism, this strategy has succeeded in changing the window of reasonable debate toward crazy by successfully legitimizing the crazy.

    Listening to all the GamerGate nonsense, one realizes that there’s a growing belief that all offensive speech should not only be allowed but also not criticized, and speakers should not be told to think about the repercussions of what they say based on a similar principle.

    But there’s a world of difference between offending people because it undermines their vile grasp on societal power — like white people and right-wing fundamentalists — and offending those who are stomped on by the establishment and who take offense from words that remind them of the traumas they’ve experienced.

    Frum and those like him often argue that delineating speech in this way stifles creativity, but, from a scientific standpoint, that is bullshit. A Cornell University study showed that mixed-gender groups told to be more politically correct actually came up with more ideas than ones that weren’t, because — surprise, surprise — people engage and empathize better with others when they’re not being exclusionary.

    That doesn’t mean taking away platforms for people we don’t like. However, both the media and media consumers should be more critical about who receives a megaphone. They should look at those people are railing against, whether their venom is reserved for the discriminated and disempowered rather than the brutes and bullies in power and whether their arguments rest on lies and fallacies rather than facts and logic. And if they’re pulling for crazy, they shouldn’t be given the license to distort debate. Because, when those people are given a microphone, or even just not prevented from using one, their ideas are implicitly given weight and permission.

    So please, folks at Berkeley, understand that you do not need to give Supreme Douchelord Bill Maher a platform to be seen as promoting “free speech.” And if he doesn’t like it, he can still whine about it on his nationally broadcast cable show.


    Tom Johnson is a film and television production junior. Follow him on Twitter.

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