In light of the anger and protest over commentator Lauren Southern’s invitation to speak on campus last semester, it is a reasonable expectation that the same sentiments will be displayed when conservative pundit Ben Shapiro comes to speak later this month. While there is no doubt many deplore the ideas of these and other speakers, certain trends exposed during the Southern protest hint that demonstrations may do little good. While people certainly have the right to protest, taking the time to observe the opposition logically will help their cause.
To make a convincing case for any argument, it is imperative to be familiar with the opposition and their stances. I’d never heard of Southern before her event on campus, and I find it hard to believe that everyone demonstrating was familiar with her. Many argued she is a hateful white nationalist, but were protestors making these conclusions themselves or merely absorbing and relaying others’ opinions? Moving forward, I recently saw a Facebook post making blanket claims about Shapiro. Regardless of your initial reaction to these claims, draw your conclusion by listening to Shapiro firsthand. (I’d recommend his speech at Northwestern last year; hardly anyone asking questions agreed with him, yet the discourse was civil and engaging).
Labeling anyone with whom you disagree hateful or a white supremacist cheapens the labels to a point where they no longer apply properly. Shapiro, an orthodox Jew, has been labeled a white supremacist. Yet in the past few years, actual white supremacists have tried to obliterate him, so much so that he has become their top social media target. Shapiro was similarly blasted by Milo Yiannopoulos and the alt-right for his departure from Breitbart News and his choice not to support President Donald Trump in the election. Claiming Shapiro is a white supremacist is mind-bogglingly illogical. The natural response to his ideas, if you disagree, should not be moral attacks, but instead to argue that he draws incorrect conclusions from available facts.
Visibly protesting Shapiro and similar voices can ironically backfire. Using Southern as an example, most students had no idea who she was, at least until a protest paralyzed West Bank for an evening. The idea of these demonstrations is to discredit certain individuals, yet doing so can drastically raise the person’s profile, a counterproductive side-effect. Evil ideology is thwarted because its premise is not logically sound, and can be shredded in open debate. Doing this, rather than merely yelling that a person is hateful, shrinks a speaker’s visibility, a far better tactic.
All this said, people obviously have free speech, which allows them to protest whatever or whomever they choose. Take note, however, that this does not include the right to obstruct others’ rights to speak or assemble. If you choose to do so, make sure you have evidence to leverage any accusations, and consider that civil discourse may convince others more effectively.
This letter has been lightly edited for clarity and style.
Bobby Hahn is a sophomore mathematics major at the University of Minnesota.