Deplatforming: a losing political strategy


Photo credit: Genevieve Humphreys

Illustration by Genevieve Humphreys

In the Feb. 15 edition of this paper, Benjamin Gonzalez argued for the “right to deplatform hate speech” in order to deny “racists and xenophobes from using our university as a megaphone for their harmful ideologies.” The majority of college students agree. According to a Jan. 30, 2019 report from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), 60 percent believe in prioritizing an inclusive environment over protection of students’ rights to free speech.

Gonzalez rightly critiques Dinesh D’Souza, hitting similar notes as an article I co-authored in 2017 immediately after the speech. We dissected D’Souza’s ahistorical view of Nazi Germany, his dehumanizing discourse on “illegal aliens” and a variety of logical fallacies.

However, Gonzalez neglects important political dynamics and sets an arbitrary standard for limiting speech. The article conflates comfort and safety, while justifying a dubious model for activism.

Although deplatforming may be popular among college students, it represents a bad political strategy given the country’s ideological makeup. Conservatives outnumber liberals by nine percent and a rising plurality of Americans identify as independents, according to Gallup.

Taking advantage of millions of swing voters and the young people who are defecting from the Republican Party requires reasoned debate and persuasion on the merits of our arguments, not deplatforming. If liberal Democrats wish to win elections and not alienate voters, we should recognize the opportunity that a controversial speaker presents to promote our policy ideas and listen in good faith.

First, it is not clear that D’Souza’s remarks constituted hate speech — words that attack individuals or groups because of their race, ethnic background, religion, gender or sexual orientation — because his argument centered upon legal status. Nor did D’Souza advocate violence or threaten individuals, a condition that the Supreme Court determined in Virginia v. Black necessary to define something as hate speech. I do not think his comments about immigrants are acceptable, but legal minutia cannot resolve a fundamentally political dispute.

Second, Gonzalez discounts the political valence of D’Souza and other deplatformed speakers. Regardless of whether we agree with disinvited speakers like Ben Shapiro, Steve Bannon or even John Brennan, they often represent a sizable share of public opinion that should be understood and debated. Inviting a backlash by deplatforming will not persuade conservatives to defect.

We should follow The Economist’s lead. Its editor, Zanny Minton Beddoes, defended her decision to host a discussion with Bannon despite the fact that he “stands for a worldview that is antithetical to the liberal values The Economist has always espoused. We asked him to take part because his populist nationalism is of grave consequence in today’s politics.”

Third, the idea that D’Souza’s voice denies Gonzalez’s speech or that of undocumented immigrants is misguided. If it were true, he would not have a regular column in this paper, and the growing coalition of activists and political support for DACA students would not exist. The D’Souza and Yiannopoulos visits were, despite their clownish absurdity, still net-positive because of the discussions they catalyzed.

Unfettered corporate election spending, large technology and media conglomerates as well as the almost certain demise of net neutrality mitigate the free exchange of ideas. However, our campus can serve as a “marketplace of ideas” in ways that other parts of society cannot. We have a small student population, a largely supportive faculty and are capable of organizing on behalf of others if we choose.

Finally, Gonzalez implies that the SGA decision to fund Jonah Goldberg’s visit to Trinity neglects the “common interest of our peers” by promoting “crackpot conservative theories.” This is another instance of Gonzalez discounting someone’s prominence and ideas. Goldberg is senior editor for National Review and works in the American Enterprise Institute, both key establishments in conservative thought. Moreover, his latest book Suicide of the West deals with many timeless issues — such as tribalism and the role of government — that are worthy of public debate.

If we refer to such speakers and their ideas with contempt, we commit an act of bad faith and lose the chance to have respectful debates. Deplatforming will seem unreasonable to our country and is a bad political strategy if we intend to expand the Democratic coalition. Instead, let’s hone our political messages and policy ideas through debate.