We’ll Beat the Fascists With Ideas, Not Fists

As bad as the far Right is, shutting them down is poor strategy.

Nathan Robinson

In Boston August 19, over 40,000 counter-demonstrators surrounded a minuscule white nationalist rally. (Michael Nigro/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

This piece is part of a debate pack­age writ­ten for In These TimesSep­tem­ber issue. The print ver­sion went to press before the recent white-suprema­cist vio­lence in Char­lottesville, Va.

The successes of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn show that even amid fierce right-wing opposition, a clearly articulated left vision can win people over on its own merits.

This arti­cle is a response to Why I Helped Shut the Alt-Right’ Down,” by Mukund Rathi, and Don’t Give Fas­cism an Inch​,” by Natasha Lennard.

Natasha may be right that high­ly con­test­ed terms like free speech” and rights” can be unpro­duc­tive in this dis­cus­sion, so let’s frame the ques­tion with­out ref­er­ence to either: Should left­ists sup­port the shut­ting down of right-wing speak­ers on col­lege cam­pus­es, in par­tic­u­lar through dis­rup­tive protest? For sev­er­al rea­sons, I would answer no. 

First, the Left’s tac­tics should be eval­u­at­ed based on whether they advance the Left’s val­ues. At first glance, this might make the issue seem sim­ple: Yiannopou­los’ speech­es spread racism, we must stop the spread of racism, thus we must stop Yiannopou­los’ speeches.

But this per­spec­tive does not seri­ous­ly eval­u­ate the tac­ti­cal ques­tion. In the­o­ry, stop­ping indi­vid­ual racists from speak­ing inhibits the spread of racism. In prac­tice, exact­ly the oppo­site is true. Yiannopou­los might have dwelt in per­ma­nent obscu­ri­ty had the Left sim­ply ignored him. Instead, attempts to shut down his events helped turn him into a nation­al fig­ure. The Right argues that left­ists sup­press speech because we fear hav­ing to defend our ideas. Shut­ting down events makes it seem as if they are right, giv­ing them a pow­er­ful way to fur­ther their per­se­cu­tion nar­ra­tive and win sup­port­ers. For the Left, this approach has been a pub­lic rela­tions disaster.

Next, the trou­ble with sup­port­ing any amount of no-plat­form­ing” is that near­ly every jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the tac­tic also jus­ti­fies mas­sive addi­tion­al cur­tail­ments. After all, if Yiannopou­los and Mur­ray should be kept off cam­pus, sure­ly any mem­ber of the mass-mur­der­ing Bush admin­is­tra­tion should, too. But then what about Demo­c­ra­t­ic politi­cians who vot­ed for the Iraq War, or who sup­port our vicious­ly racist crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem? If the rule is no plat­forms for racists,” and near­ly every­one is racist to one degree or anoth­er, uni­ver­si­ties swift­ly cease to be places of mean­ing­ful dialogue.

This where do you stop” ques­tion isn’t mere­ly aca­d­e­m­ic. In 2015, Natasha’s prin­ci­ple that trans­pho­bic hate speech will be con­front­ed and besieged” was exact­ly why Cardiff Uni­ver­si­ty stu­dents peti­tioned to ban pio­neer­ing anar­chist fem­i­nist Ger­maine Greer from speak­ing. Natasha says there can­not be a fixed rule” as to what should be allowed, and that we wish we could shut down [more].” The ques­tion nev­er dealt with is: If there is no actu­al rule or prin­ci­ple in place, what will deter­mine who is too prob­lem­at­ic to speak? Peo­ple have vast­ly dif­fer­ing con­cep­tions of who the big­ots are, and often the pref­er­ences of those with admin­is­tra­tive pow­er will gov­ern. As Mukund acknowl­edges, pro-Pales­tin­ian activists are gen­er­al­ly the first to be deemed racists. Estab­lish­ing a uni­ver­sal norm that uni­ver­si­ty speak­ers should be free from both admin­is­tra­tive and pri­vate inter­fer­ence helps pro­tect left-wing dissent.

Final­ly, one pop­u­lar notion on the Left has it that allow­ing right-wing speak­ers on cam­pus legit­imizes” them and sub­scribes to the illu­sion that racists can be van­quished through pub­lic debate. The fear here is that if racists were per­mit­ted to be part of the pub­lic dis­course, they would win. I have far more con­fi­dence in the per­sua­sive pow­er of left-wing ideas. The suc­cess­es of Bernie Sanders and Jere­my Cor­byn show that even amid fierce right-wing oppo­si­tion, a clear­ly artic­u­lat­ed left vision can win peo­ple over on its own merits.

Natasha says that racial jus­tice is not proved” but fought for.” I agree, but the most impor­tant way to fight for an idea is to con­vince peo­ple to adopt it. And the pur­pose of pub­lic debate is not to speak truth to pow­er,” but to speak truth to peo­ple, show­ing the audi­ence (rather than the oppo­nent) why they should join you.

The appeal of shut­ting down right-wingers is easy to see; after all, nobody should want to see these speak­ers’ poi­so­nous doc­trines spread. But in the short term it’s coun­ter­pro­duc­tive, and in the long term it’s sui­ci­dal. Estab­lish­ing a prin­ci­ple that a mob veto” should gov­ern who gets to speak will only empow­er those most inclined to form mobs — i.e., the fas­cists. The Left will lose in a bat­tle of phys­i­cal force because it has the small­est force, but will win at a bat­tle of ideas because it has the best ideas.

This piece is part of a debate pack­age writ­ten for In These TimesSep­tem­ber issue. The print ver­sion went to press before the recent white-suprema­cist vio­lence in Char­lottesville, Va.

This arti­cle is a response to Why I Helped Shut the Alt-Right’ Down,” by Mukund Rathi, and Don’t Give Fas­cism an Inch​,” by Natasha Lennard.

Nathan Robin­son is the edi­tor of Cur­rent Affairs mag­a­zine and the author of Trump: Anato­my of a Mon­stros­i­ty.
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