One of the core tenants of American politics is power to the people, so when a person with considerable political influence does something that damages or impacts you, you are given the opportunity to air your grievances, either over mail, the phone or in person. In late spring of this year, constituents who directly benefited from Obamacare stood up in town halls and confronted the congressmen who were stripping away their health care. It was a display of resistance and bravery, yet when speakers such as Ann Coulter or Milo Yiannopolous were invited by students to speak on college campuses, they were protested and turned away.
This is an interesting paradox, and one that needs to be fixed. I recognize the fact that the aforementioned right-leaning pundits have at one point or another said sexist, racist and simply ignorant, hateful things. I condemn all of that, but I — an immigrant woman of color — do believe in their right to speak on college campuses.
Underrepresented groups — such as women, immigrants and people of color — are often the target of right-leaning politicians, pundits and supporters. They have been institutionally oppressed at all levels throughout history, and are constantly working towards equality. But instead of strengthening the idea of "liberal snowflakes" by violently protesting, as was done at UC Berkeley, underrepresented groups should take these events as an opportunity to listen and discuss the topics on which they disagree; make it an opportunity to fight back.
In early May, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent was invited by a sociology professor at Northwestern University to speak to the class. The event, however, was ultimately cancelled because of protestors. While these protestors were exercising their constitutional rights to non-violent protest by simply chanting and waving banners, their actions perpetuated the divide between the left and right and closed room for discussion. One protest organizer, April Navarro, said they were unwilling to engage with ICE, because "it [legitimizes] ICE's power." However, in my opinion, that is counterproductive. A more effective way to get your point across would be to attend the event and ask questions. In doing so, you would be creating a conversation and bridging the gap that separates the left and right. If you listen and speak with respect, you create an environment that allows both sides to hear and learn from each other. There is more power in respectful debate than in unyielding protest.
This kind of debate is something that some right-leaning students feel like they can’t have, because they have become a political minority on most campuses. In his Snapchat series "Good Luck America," award-winning journalist Peter Hamby interviewed conservative political commentator Tomi Lahren. She explained that conservatives on campuses have been "bashed so much we feel like we need to hide." As a member of a minority group, I know how this feels. We cannot shun those whose existence bothers us. While we may strongly disagree with what people have to say, everyone has the right to be able to listen and articulate their argument.
Of course, that is easier said than done. This is where the college administration comes in. When a controversial speaker is invited by a handful of students to speak on campus, the administration must be prepared for not just the backlash, but also for the need to encourage discussion and open-mindedness. College is a place to help you grow, and one of the ways it can help you do so is by challenging your perspective and teaching you the skills to be able to defend your ideas. I don’t agree with Tomi Lahren on many things, but I do agree with her when she says that students should "ask questions ... if you talk to people who only think like you think, there’s a problem." With all that said, free speech does have guidelines. Just as you can’t shout "fire!" in crowded theater, it was wrong for Milo Yiannopolous to plan to read aloud the names of undocumented immigrants on campus when he planned to speak at Berkeley, which would have directly put those students in harm's way. However, it should have been up to the administration to work with him to ensure no dangerous language was being spewed, instead of flat-out stopping him from speaking.
In today’s polarized political climate, the only way forward is through collaboration. We cannot have sides blocking each other and only believing their own side is the right side. Instead of shutting down opposing ideas, we should not only be able to listen and learn from them, but also to challenge them.
Lead Image Credit: David Geitgey Sierralupe via Flickr Creative Commons