by James A. Bacon
There is a widespread notion among militant leftists at the University of Virginia, as there is in universities across the Commonwealth, that exposure to objectionable ideas causes “harm” to those who hear them and, thus, should be suppressed. This logic is a totalitarian wolf in sheep’s clothing. While I do not countenance the banning of speech — even the speech of those who would happily ban mine — I do believe this leftist trope must be combatted forcefully in the marketplace of ideas.
We observed this thinking in the run-up to the speech by Abigail Shrier, author of “Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters,” which highlights the role of social contagion in the spread of transgender identity among teenage girls and the potentially irreversible damage of hormone treatments and sex-change surgery.
Shrier is Public Enemy No. 1 to transgender activists, and their social media accounts lit up once word got out that the Jefferson Council and its partners were hosting a Q&A event with her on the Grounds. I won’t bore you with the serial misrepresentations of Shrier as a transphobe and a hater. Rather, my intent here is to explore the logic that speakers with views like hers are unwelcome at UVa.
“Unfortunately, knowing that the university is OK w allowing hateful ppl to come to this school (pence, pompeo, other hateful republicans) it is clear that ‘free speech’ and ‘bipartisanship’ is valued over the safety of their students,” messaged one writer in a QSU (Queer Student Union) account. (My bold face.)
Consider also this message posted on the website of the Department of Women, Gender and Sexuality”:
On October 11, Abigail Shrier will speak at the University of Virginia. While she is free to express her views, the WGS Department urges audience members to recognize that her opinions lack rigorous evidence and create an anti-trans climate at UVA that can make students, faculty, and staff feel unwelcome here.
While the WGS Department deserves credit for acknowledging Shrier’s right to speak, it perpetuates the idea that hurtful opinions make people feel unwelcome.
There’s a very simple answer to those who find speakers’ ideas harmful: Don’t attend the event!
It’s not as if someone is broadcasting the speech over loudspeakers across the university. No one is being strapped down with eyes forced open, a la Clockwork Orange, to view unpalatable images. The Shrier event took place in one discrete location, Minor Hall. Ninety-nine percent of the Grounds was a safe space!
If transgender militants found Shrier’s ideas objectionable and didn’t want to be harmed by them — the idea that someone can be “harmed” by uncomfortable ideas is pathetic in itself, but I won’t linger on that thought — all they had to do was… well, nothing. All they had to do was go about their daily routine. Shrier did not emit invisible hate rays that penetrated building walls and traversed great distances.
Far from being fearful, transgender militants organized a protest. Indeed, they crowded the entrance to Minor Hall, waved placards, engaged in protest chants, and hurled invective at people trying to get in. A few even harassed attendees leaving the event. The only “hate” in evidence emanated from the demonstrators.
The canard that speech is violence is not designed to protect the militants’ tender sensitivities. It is pretzel logic designed to shut down the expression of views they don’t like. That logic is deployed selectively. In the eyes of leftist militants, only others engage in “hate” speech. Only the views of their enemies deserve to be shut down.
On paper, the Ryan administration supports the right of conservative members of the community to hear speakers of their choosing. The University Police Department and office of Student Affairs curtailed the ability of protesters to disrupt the Shrier event (although, as the Jefferson Council shall make clear in a follow-up report on the event, they could have done more). While calling for civil dialogue, President Ryan has yet to criticize the underlying ideology that students and faculty deploy to suppress ideas deemed to be “hate” speech.
The administration has acted to ensure that speakers with views that are controversial in the eyes of militant leftists can speak at UVa, and for that we are grateful. But, ironically, outsiders like Abigail Shrier are almost unique in their ability to speak freely. Students and faculty routinely self-censor and refrain from expressing their true views. While it may be appropriate to restrict the right of individuals to advocate physical violence, as in, say, killing Jews in Israel, expression at UVa will never be truly free until the proposition that speech causes emotional harm is thoroughly discredited.