David R. Henderson  

How to Deal With Those You Disagree With

The Naik Strategy... Metaphorical Voting on "Let An...

Brown University, where I had a civil debate in 1980 with an advocate of conscription, had a shameful event last week. New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly was there to speak, but some thuggish people in the audience shouted him down and wouldn't let him speak. As a result, others in the audience who presumably went there to hear Kelly didn't get to.

The administrators of Brown University who failed to protect free speech--and Brown University property--should be ashamed of themselves.

Moreover, it's quite conceivable that some of the people who went to hear Kelly speak attended, not just to hear him, but to ask him tough questions and maybe even argue with him. They didn't get to because of the disgraceful behavior of the disrupters.

On his site Legal Insurrection, law professor William A. Jacobson tells of a professor who had a chance many years ago to hear George Lincoln Rockwell, leader of the American Nazi Party, speak at Brown in 1966. Professor Ken Miller, then a young undergrad at Brown, writes:

A new campus group called "Open Mind" was formed. Once recognized by the University, it re-invited Rockwell to campus. Rockwell spoke to a packed house in Alumnae Hall. Multiple groups picketed his appearance, including dozens of Holocaust survivors, many of whom were then only in their 30s and 40s. The memories were fresh, and the scars were real. As I walked through the crowd with a few friends, one of the picketers came up to me and asked us why we wanted to hear such a "monster." To underline the point, he rolled up his sleeve and pointed to the numbers tattooed on his forearm. We all knew where those numbers came from.

How far Brown has fallen. People then had the self-confidence to invite an actual Nazi and now the administration won't protect a police commissioner.

Miller points out also that just by listening, he learned an interesting lesson:

Once inside, a hushed crowd listened to the full range of Rockwell's charismatic style. He was charming, funny and, frankly, disarming. He knew how to break the tension in the crowd, telling us "the last time I was in Alumnae Hall, come to think of it, I wasn't sitting. I was hanging onto a girl about half-stewed at a dance." Everybody laughed, and I did, too. But as the evening wore on, I learned a lesson. True fascism doesn't begin with the shouting, fist-shaking tyrants we see in newsreels of the 1930s. It enters with charm and wit. Its strategy is to beguile and divide, to offer easy answers to problems like crime and poverty. Blame them on the "others" -- the blacks, the Jews, the Commies who are spoiling our otherwise virtuous society. It then promises to heal those lesions by cutting them out, figuratively at first, and then literally once the masses are firmly under control.

For the first time in my life, I understood the allure of fascism, the reason that "good people" could have supported the likes of Franco, Mussolini and Hitler. I also understood why the notion that "it couldn't happen here" is hopelessly naive. It could happen here, and it most certainly would happen if we forgot the lessons of history, lessons that Rockwell brought to life with a sinister smile that evening in Alumnae Hall. I'm glad I was there. I'm glad the talk was allowed to go on. And I'm glad Brown was an open campus where those lessons could be learned in the most personal way possible.

What a profound point! The only thing you learn by shouting people down is how to shout people down. On the other hand, you can learn a lot by listening.

I'm less impressed by the people at Hamilton College around the same time. Jacobson points out that they walked out en masse at the end of the speech. Obviously they had a right to do that and that was a peaceful protest. But had I been there, there would have been one person left in the audience and I would have got to ask him some questions.

I particularly liked the comment on Professor Jacobson's site by "Zoomaster," who wrote:

This is one of the things that baffles me most about the young and the senseless.

How can one know who one's enemies are unless one knows exactly what one's enemies say and what they stand for. There is no such thing as "aural cooties." Just hearing a speech given by someone one does not like does not lead to automatic indoctrination, subjugation, and submission.

Grow up kids. There is a dangerous world "out there" beyond the hallowed walls. And there ain't enough germicide around to protect you against the cooties. You've got to build up your immune system the hard way. Through exposure to all kinds of thoughts and philosophies and through re-dedication to the principles of freedom and liberty we find in the Founding Documents.

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CATEGORIES: Property Rights

COMMENTS (29 to date)
Mark V Anderson writes:

This is a great posting and yet there are no comments here. Maybe that's because everyone who reads this forum agrees so completely that they think there is nothing to say? I hope that's why.

Ross Levatter writes:

Or maybe because it's Saturday night and it just went up within the last few hours...

John Smith writes:

These liberals will not agree with your ideas. They too want to control the thoughts of the masses, they simply wish to control it in a different direction. That is all.

8 writes:

The funniest are the anti-fa, the anti-fascists who engage in violence.

It definitely is a big problem, but goes well beyond that last comment in the post. When one side refuses to even listen to the other side, they not only don't understand it, they have no way to respond to it except to increase the use of violence or "fascist" tactics. Another big problem is that it dilutes the value of terms such as racism. I doubt the presence of an actual Nazi would have resulted in a much different reaction than the police commissioner saw.

By marginalizing the near-left or near-right, you succeed in pushing them further into the extremes, but you also pill the extremes towards the center. This leaves many people unable to differentiate between them.

In America or Britain, I tend to think this will work out very well for libertarians and conservatives, since there's very little extremism. In someplace like Greece, or Spain (where Franco is being rehabilitated), you could get a much different outcome when the political pendulum swings.

Julien Couvreur writes:

My only gripe with your insightful post is that you frame this as a free speech issue. I think that may not be the best way to look at it.
The event organizer or venue owner wants to provide reasonable conditions for speakers, interesting and challenging topics for the attendance, as well as a safe and respectful environment for all.
Organizers who cannot manage such balance lose speakers and/or attendance.
So it's just another instance of a marketplace solution: putting two different groups of people in touch within rules set by the venue owner.

On a separate note, I wonder what other modes of interaction we could develop to allow the audience to interact and express themselves without being disruptive.
You could imagine new silent gestures ala Occupy Wall Street for expressing dissent.
Or maybe the organizer could give people Apps to put on their cellphones to select emoticons or maybe put a red or green screen.
Any ideas?

Daniel Kuehn writes:

We have a weird history of being near Rockwell locations (then again, Arlington is a small place). We used to live two blocks away from his Courthouse "headquarters", and then Kate's mom (who we lived with for two years lived about two blocks away from his probably more famous farmhouse on Wilson Blvd. It's a an odd episode in Arlington history - this is a good article on it that came out just about a month ago: http://www.arlingtonmagazine.com/September-October-2013/Nazi-George-Rockwell/

David R. Henderson writes:

@Julien Couvreur,
I see your point. Because Brown University is a privately-owned university, it's more of a property rights issue and maybe a contractual issue. (Notice that that was the category I gave it.) You could argue that Brown had the right to let the mob take over. On the other hand, I would bet that in the various documents that Brown students are handed is something about how everyone is supposed to respect academic freedom. If so, this would be a breach of contract.
@Mark V. Anderson,

Andrew writes:

The president of the school wrote, "our University is – above all else – about the free exchange of ideas. Nothing is more antithetical to that value than preventing someone from speaking..."

But it's not remotely conceivable that any of these protesting students will get punished, however slightly.

Tom Nagle writes:

Fantastic post. I recall that when Ahmadinejad was invited to speak at Columbia University after speaking at the United Nations, there were protests and demands to cancel the invite. Instead, he was allowed to come and speak and was respectfully interviewed by the University President. In response to well-chosen questions, Ahmadinejad made a total fool of himself. One example: When asked about the persecution of homosexuals, he responded "In Iran we don't have homosexuals like in your country … In Iran we do not have this phenomenon. I don't know who's told you that we have this."

Emily writes:

There is totally "aural cooties." Some students who start out being very opposed to a speaker will be persuaded by him. Maybe this will be because he's correct, maybe not. But that's part of why he's there, right? It's not as a public service to his opponents.

I don't think a college should tolerate these sorts of disruptions. And maybe when student groups behave this way, they wind up pushing more people to the opposite side. But implicit here is that what people should be focused on is learning, and that's what's in their best interests. But if much of campus already agrees with you, and that's what you're optimizing for, you have very little to gain by opposing sets of views being heard because if they are heard, some people will be persuaded. Stigmatizing those views could very well be effective for you - and the more reasonable those views will sound to people, the more that's the case.

Tom West writes:

I absolutely share the revulsion at seeing this person shouted down, and I like the "aural cooties" argument.

However, let's also be honest. The result of exposure to "aural viruses" is not always improved immunity to them. Sometimes the patient succumbs.

After all, I'm certain quite a number of Russians and Chinese might contend hat Britain's toleration of Marx's words and writing was not worth the eventual cost.

The urge to suppress is not irrational. I believe it's *wrong*, but it's not irrational.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Tom Nagle,
Thanks very much. Great story about Ahmadinejad.
Hmmm. You make your case well. I'll have to think about it.
@Tom West,
The result of exposure to "aural viruses" is not always improved immunity to them. Sometimes the patient succumbs.
Good point. I guess I'm thinking that Emily might be right too.
After all, I'm certain quite a number of Russians and Chinese might contend that Britain's toleration of Marx's words and writing was not worth the eventual cost.
Good point. Even if they wouldn't contend it, I would. I think my argument, therefore, has to be more nuanced. In the case of Marx, I would not trust the government to suppress just him and not others.
OMG. I'm getting aural cooties from Emily and Tom West. :-)

Tracy W writes:

Emily: I always thought that J.S. Mills had a good argument that freedom of speech is valuable in part because one can never really understand and appreciate an argument until one's heard the best arguments against it. He gave the example of how lukewarm most Christians' belief in Christianity was in his day, compared to when Christians were persecuted.

Jack PQ writes:

I second @Tom West: a virus can give us immunization, but if it is too potent it can kill us outright.

The key here I think is that in a university setting, everyone should be capable of critical analysis upon hearing "evil" speech. But for the greater public, this is debatable.

Jacob A. Geller writes:

@Tracy, the quote by J. S. Mill you're thinking of is “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.”

The rest of that quote is as follows: “His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion... Nor is it enough that he should hear the opinions of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them... he must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.”

Andrew_FL writes:

The rest of that Ahmadinejad at Columbia story is that was literally the only thing he said that the crowd disliked.

I'm not sure I would compare the two cases. For several reasons, actually.

Jim Rose writes:

great post, hayek made the point that fascism and communism have the same allure.

“Fascism is the stage reached after communism has proved an illusion.” FA Hayek

Both, as you say, enters with charm and wit. they beguile and divide; offer easy answers to problems. Blame others and promise to heal by cutting these others out of society.

Shane L writes:

Agreed with nearly everything here, good post. One question: how would the administrators of Brown University protect their speaker? I can only think of many security guards literally dragging out the protesting students. Students resist, fights break out, people get beaten up.

Well perhaps that is acceptable in the circumstances? It does seem like a hard thing to police though.

Emily writes:

@Shane: Prevention. You make very clear to students beforehand that this type of behavior will result in suspension or expulsion and then you follow through. Few Brown students will be willing to be expelled for this. If you still have a couple being disruptive, you can remove them.

Jeff P writes:

I get the debate about why this person should have been allowed to speak and I am sure that Prof. Henderson's point was to provoke the very discussion that occured above.

What I don't get is what the Commissioner of the NYPD was there to talk about or why the students so disliked what he was there to say.

Again, I realize that this is an off-thread/on-topic post and I apologize if I am out of line.

mike davis writes:

Nice post. I didn’t know about the events at Brown and the comments give me a good way of thinking through the question of what, if any, should be off-limits for discussion on campus.

That said, I think the real problem is not an occasional mob of half-baked sophomores shouting down a police commissioner. The real problem is the mob running around in our own heads. For some reason, most of us hate it when our ideas are challenged by other ideas. Mill’s quote (which I don’t remember reading before, thanks) seems to me not just an admonition to let people speak as an admonition to listen.

Art Carden writes:

Fortunately, I don't have much experience with shout-downs and the like at speeches I've attended or given. The problem I usually observe is apathetic students who are just there for extra credit or to fulfill convocation requirements or something and who aren't paying attention.

I suspect that an appropriate way to deal with this would be to refer to the disruptive students to the student judiciary.

It is really disturbing that things like this happen in a university setting. Sinclair Lewis was right that fascism in the US would arrive wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross, but in some respects it already manifests itself in intemperate outbursts fueled by a culture of perpetual outrage.

Shane L writes:

Emily: good reply!

Arthur_500 writes:

We have seen this happen many times in recent years. Certainly during the Vietnam War students shut down many campus events in which the military, CIA or some other terrible perceived group wanted to meet with students and/ or faculty.
Recently we had the Occupy folks. A group of Canadians who came to the US to start a non-defined protest. Hundreds of ignorant Americans joined the protest without a clue as to what they were protesting. Their entire demeanor made many Americans unsympathetic to whatever cause they might have been trying to promote.
Students are taught many things from sources such as Cartoons, video games, movies, and even schools. Ask one about Global Warming and they will spout the 'part line' without being able to tell you anything about the theory of global warming or why there is no evidence of it.
When people get away with poor actions they become powerful in a bad way. When schools fail to teach the idea of studying for the sake of learning, they fail to be useful in developing those students.
It was a tragedy that the Police chief could not give his speech. It shows that the students at Brown are powerful at isolating themselves from facts and unpopular opinions and the faculty supports this close-mindedness.

[comment edited with permission of commenter. --Econlib Ed.]

Mark Bahner writes:


The NPR program "Snap Judgment" had a great story this past weekend about a black journalist who had long talks with 3 successive heads of the KKK in Maryland. He apparently convinced all 3 to quit the KKK.


Mark Bahner writes:


Another interesting aspect of this...I'd be shocked if Brown students would do the same thing to Michael Bloomberg. In fact, I'd expect they'd welcome him warmly. But Bloomberg is Kelly's boss.


Mark Bahner writes:

Emily (Nov. 3, 12:31 PM) writes

But if much of campus already agrees with you, and that's what you're optimizing for, you have very little to gain by opposing sets of views being heard because if they are heard, some people will be persuaded.

Who is "you" in this statement? Is "you" the knuckle-dragging students who shouted Ray Kelly down? Or is "you" the Administration at Brown?

This whole situation brings up an analogous situation of teaching Creation vs Evolution in schools. If I were a science teacher, I'd be very happy to teach about the belief in a 6000-year-old earth, Noah's Ark, and that. And then I'd teach the scientific evidence against those beliefs. In fact, I'd be happy to bring in the top people in the United States who believed in a 600-year-old earth to come to debate me.

If I "lost" some students to the Dark Side, well, so what? They would at least hopefully have reached their opinions through thought.

I would challenge both the students that believed in a 6000-year-old earth and those who thought the earth was ~4 billion years old to consider, "What evidence would convince you that your current thoughts in this matter are wrong?"

Arthur_500 writes:

I thought about a little devil last night; What is the value and place of civil disobedience?

My generation read Thoreau's Essay on Civil Disobedience when we were in school. I often marvel at how many individuals cite this Essay when they are arrested. It seems they forgot that Thoreau went to jail

I think our educational institutions often fail to deliver the entire message. Maybe they need to look at another message - Keep your friends close and keep your enemies closer. Then they would learn more about their "enemies" and might be in a better position to counter their arguments or come up with better solutions.

Rob Huck writes:

In the late 1990s, I was an executive VP of our Students Union at the University of Saskatchewan. A local member of parliament had been in the news with his denunciation of hiring quotas for aboriginals at the university. This led to a heated public outcry and over-the-top rhetoric denouncing his denunciation, as you can imagine.

Instead of joining in the chorus, our SU president, who happened to support the quotas, thought it would be a good idea to invite this MP to campus to have a debate with a provincial cabinet minister on the subject. We organized a special event in our facility and invited members of the university and public alike to watch.

There were the inevitable protests, and the crowd was a bit unruly, but in the end, the two men were both able to express their opinions and debate the issue in public, and it was done safely and (reasonably) respectfully.

Even though I didn't agree with our SU president on the subject, I thought he showed a great deal of respect for the freedom of expression and the diversity of opinion. I was proud to be a part of the SU that day.

A pity this sense of respect seems to be disappearing on campuses.

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