The concept of freedom of speech seems to have a very slippery meaning, in that it means very different, even disparate, things to different people. The idea behind freedom of speech is great: by allowing the free-flowing exchange of thoughts and ideas, somehow (usually through some form of essential reasoning apparently inherent in all humans) the Good Ideas will float to the top of discourse and prevail over the Bad Ideas, which have some essentially unreasonable thing about them. The notion of a marketplace of ideas, such as it is, is both beautiful and, frankly, absolute bullshit.
Like all marketplaces, the marketplace of ideas is dressed up as a neutral area where people are free to exchange ideas as equals. However, in reality, the powerful dominate and control the marketplace to further their gains and strengthen their ideological foothold. To be a little less abstract, the correctness or incorrectness of those ideas we are exchanging is determined by dominant ideologies. This is why people are sympathizing with a Nazi – sorry, “white nationalist,” don’t want to be libelous – who got punched in the face, yet nobody is talking about the anti-fascist protester who was shot at the University of Washington on Jan. 20. This indicates that white nationalism is less of a threat to the dominant ideological forces in society than anti-fascist protesting and speech.
The kind of unmitigated freedom of speech that allows for hate speech or the identification of undocumented students at universities is more than just speech to the people it affects, it’s straight-up violence. The luxury of being able to exchange these ideas is something we don’t acknowledge enough. The debates we have in our classrooms are already privileged because while we’re arguing about wealth inequality or the need to divest from fossil fuels, or any other one of countless issues, people in the communities we live in, let alone globally, are being adversely affected by these problems.
Actions against ideas that endorse this kind of violence are not themselves violent; they are taken out of self-defence. The recent protests at UC Berkeley are probably the best examples of both the hate speech I am describing and the action against that speech. Milo Yiannopolous, famous for outting trans people at his talks, was scheduled to speak at UC Berkeley and allegedly had been planning to identify undocumented students on the campus. Yiannopolous’ talk did not happen thanks to massive action against Yiannopolous.
We have to stop understanding ideas and concepts as merely tools to get good grades or support arguments with friends or classmates. The ideas we endorse and the concepts we deploy work to either prop up or tear down oppressive ideologies and institutions. At their worst, these ideas may even seek to make things worse for the people who already deal with the brunt of their consequences. Especially at an institution such as a university, we have an ethical responsibility to understand whom our beliefs have the potential to affect, how they affect these people and, most importantly, how they play into the power dynamics of the “marketplace of ideas.”