By now, most people who care about free speech in academia and in society in general have noted the fury expressed by the left whenever former vice president Mike Pence is invited to speak at a university, such as when he spoke at Stanford University on February 17, 2022.
The latest attempt to prevent Pence from appearing at a major institution of higher learning is occurring at the University of Virginia. This gives those of us interested in the anti-free speech rhetoric of the left the opportunity to note how it is employing some new phraseology and tactics that we all need to be aware of as we struggle to maintain basic free speech rights in this country.
There are several standard smears in the left's anti-free speech toolkit.
There is the accusation of the last five years or so that every white person is a white supremacist.
There is the accusation that every person who has qualms about the rise of transgenderism and does not, for example, think it is appropriate to introduce adult themes of sexual behavior to kindergarteners is “transphobic” or “homophobic.”
But the blanket accusation that anyone who is moderately conservative or even quite conservative (as most people would accept that Pence is) is “dangerous” is fairly new. The left is basically saying that the roughly half of the country that voted for the Trump-Pence ticket in 2020 cannot be represented in the ranks of outside speakers on college campuses.
One way that the left is trying to cordon off academia from a huge chunk of the population of the US is by what might be called “the suicide ploy.” This is a particularly insidious tactic used primarily by LGBTQ+ (and whatever others bits of the alphabet and computer keyboard keys are the latest thing in identity politics) activists and usually involves a combination of personal testimony of how oppressed by the patriarchy the writer feels and then proceeds to the citation of rafts of statistics about the mental health travails of that sexuality-obsessed community and suggests that the mere presence on a campus of a supposed monster like the supposedly hate-mongering Pence can lead to thoughts of suicide by the writer and his or her fellow drama queens.
This is simply emotional blackmail in the guise of adult argumentation. It is increasingly common and it has the advantage of painting those who oppose, for example, the transformation of everything from pronoun use to the destruction of women’s sports by letting into competition men who think they are women, as heartless bigots consigning their fellow human beings to early deaths by suicide.
The sexual left has probably overplayed its hand here. Most Americans are not buying the argument of, “If you let Mike Pence speak at the University of Virginia, the corpses of disrespected non-heterosexuals will pile up in the streets and let that be on your head!” It’s a silly argument and is melodrama and not reality.
Let’s take a look at such an argument in the form of a March 13, 2022 opinion piece in The Cavalier Daily, an independent daily publication at the University of Virginia.
The piece, one notes, contains the increasingly common “trigger warning”—which is actually a rather clever marketing ploy in that it envelopes the article in question with a sense of urgency and importance:
Trigger Warning — this column discusses suicidal thoughts.
Thus, even before we read about the supposedly vital need to prevent University of Virginia students from having any contact with a former vice president of the United States we are drawn into the troubled mental world of the writer. This is not a rational way to discuss free speech issues.
Like many leftists, she claims that she is all in favor of free speech rights for those on the right:
I will begin by saying that I respect the fact that conservatives have the freedom to speak their opinions.
before (surprise, surprise) advocating that these rights be denied in an actual instance:
At the same time, I would also argue that as a school, when certain opinions go against students’ safety, we must question if those speakers should be welcomed on Grounds. Pence’s presence should not be welcomed, nor should the University allow speakers on Grounds who deny the full humanity of all students.
Note the use of the word “safety” as if Pence is some pistol-packing public menace.
And note that the writer suggests that simply a being social conservative entails denying “the humanity of all students” even as she tries to deprive her fellow students of access to the full range of intellectual discourse and debate.
She quotes various branches of the Democratic Party and lobbying groups on the sexual left and says:
I could go on, but what is apparent is that Pence — in his own words — does not view same-sex relationships as equal to heterosexual relationships.
True enough and that is true of millions of Americans. Are they all to be forbidden to speak at the University of Virginia?
As is common among non-heterosexual writers in the pages of college newspapers these days, this author seems to think that the purpose of higher education is to make sexual minorities comfortable in their lifestyles and that if free speech and exposure to major public figures are to sacrificed to achieve that end, so be it:
My main point is that, in my own experience, the climate at the University is already difficult for some LGBTQ+ students. Mike Pence coming to speak will only make that worse — he should not be invited.
As a lesbian, I have struggled significantly during my time at the University. I came out towards the end of my senior year of high school and did not feel comfortable acknowledging my sexuality in my hometown. I figured college would be this amazing place to learn who I was and express that safely. I could not have been more wrong.
She goes on to argue that because she suffers from mental health problems, Pence should not be allowed to speak:
Actions taken by politicians, like Pence, create discriminatory situations that can lead to gay individuals struggling. It is important to consider how serious inviting someone like Pence to speak at the University is and think about how LGBTQ+ students will be affected.
I do not feel comfortable being in an academic environment where anti-LGBTQ+ individuals are welcomed with open arms to speak.
There are several aspects of that passage worth noting. For example, she presumes to speak for all LGBTQ+ people and assumes that all of them are Democrats or otherwise on the left. She is also arguing that, in effect, left-leaning LGBTQ+ activists should get to determine who gets to speak at the taxpayer-funded University of Virginia.
She also seems clueless about the importance of free speech at a university, one moment advocating for recognizing the full humanity of others and being “welcoming” and then ending with a demand that Pence be banned from speaking—so much for being welcoming and recognizing the full humanity of others:
I sincerely hope that we as University students can consider how to help our fellow students feel safe and welcome. We can disagree on things like our favorite dining hall, or more political arguments like tax policy, but we should not disagree on one another’s humanity. The community of trust begins with respecting and welcoming all students. This can start with YAF rescinding its offer for Pence to speak.
Oh, yes. It is so welcoming to all students to demand that Young Americans for Freedom disinvite Mike Pence because his policy positions make some students uncomfortable.
She could simply not attend the event or protest peacefully outside it. But nooooo. Pence must not be allowed so much as to set foot on campus and any of her fellow students who might want to hear what he has to say about, well, free speech and cancel culture, must not be allowed to do so.
The writer is a freshman—is she going to spend the rest of her undergraduate years demanding that speakers she disapproves of be barred from addressing audiences at her university? Soooooo, why is she in college again?
Well, you might say, this is just one student in an op-ed piece. True. But what of an editorial of that same publication, such pieces carrying more weight than a single op-ed?
Let’s examine the March 17, 2022 article, EDITORIAL: Dangerous rhetoric is not entitled to a platform.
Note the hyperbolic use of the word “dangerous” to characterize Pence’s position. This kind of overblown rhetoric is irresponsible, to say the least. It is nothing less than an attempt to bar social conservatives from appearing on college campuses. It provides as an example of such supposed monsters the distinguished scholar Erika Bachiochi by saying that the event she appeared at “drew criticism”—as if upsetting leftists is a crime:
Just last month, an event hosted by the Federalist Society on abortion drew criticism for being one-sided and platforming a transphobic speaker.
And here we have an editorial complaining about an event being “one-sided” even as it argues for preventing Mike Pence from speaking at the university. Banning speakers isn’t one-sided?
Significantly, the British term “platforming” is now being adopted by the anti-free speech left here in America as if allowing anyone to speak at all is equivalent to endorsing that person’s position. By this logic, only speakers bland enough not to be objected to or only those okayed by the academia-controlling left will be allowed to speak at America’s colleges. Beware the word “platforming.” It leads to people the left does not like being “deplatformed.”
It is truly frightening and disgraceful for a supposedly serious publication to suggest that Mike Pence (who is admired on the left and the right for doing his duty on January 6, 2021 in dangerous circumstances) and those who hold his views pose some kind of actual danger to anyone. These slanders of roughly half the American population are worth quoting at some length so that readers can get an idea of how far student journalists are getting from average people’s perceptions of reality:
…the University has accepted Pence’s visit as an “opportunity to hear from, and engage with, leaders and experts from a wide variety of fields and perspectives.” So-called “perspectives” should not be welcomed when they spread rhetoric that directly threatens the presence and lives of our community members. The LGBTQ+ individuals Pence has attacked, the Black lives he refuses to value and the successful stories of immigration he and the former president hope to prevent — these very people are our peers, our neighbors and our community members. We refuse to condone platforming Pence.
The University’s silence is deafening. Do not mistake this for neutrality, however. To be silent in the face of those like Pence is a choice — in this case, a choice to fail to protect the lives of those on Grounds who Pence blatantly threatens through his rhetoric and policies. To hide behind a sentiment that celebrates engaging with “leaders and experts from a wide variety of fields and perspectives” is to actively undermine the values of diversity, honor, integrity, trust and respect that the University purports to celebrate. Silence in the face of a homophobic, racist and transphobic politician only makes room for such “perspectives” at our University.
Note this passage in particular:
We refuse to condone platforming Pence.
They editorialists are treating the act of speaking in public as a crime that must not be “condoned.” By allowing Pence to speak on its campus, the University of Virginia would be “platforming” him (i.e., endorsing everything he says, rather than just welcoming as it rightly says, “leaders and experts from a wide variety of fields and perspectives” to address members of the campus community) and that fulminating editorialists will not stand for. They say they will not be silent, even as they attempt to silence Pence and say flat out that they do not want to hear (note the scare quotes) any “perspectives” that might upset them. That is a strange attitude for budding journalists to take.
And instead of calming the atmosphere, the editorialists inflame it by defamatory accusations that Pence is stirring up violence:
to protect the lives of those on Grounds who Pence blatantly threatens through his rhetoric and policies
Pence has done no such thing and such statements demonstrate that the editorialists, in their eagerness to portray themselves as brave crusaders on behalf of the oppressed, only render themselves ridiculous. They should be ashamed of themselves for throwing around such charges at one of the most decent and honorable public servants in America today. There are dangerous white supremacists out there and trying to portray Mike Pence as one only weakens the fight against such people.
It is tempting to say that the editorial is laughable, but it is not. It is a stark example of how social conservatives are unjustly, incorrectly being lumped in with the far right. They are the targets of the anti-free speech left, which is using psychobabble about the supposedly constantly suicidal mental state of vast numbers of the LGBTQ+ community (many members of which, one would think, would not be thrilled to be so characterized) to charge social conservatives with being dangers to their fellow Americans. These "dangerous" social conservatives should, therefore, be banned from addressing audiences, runs the argument.
As we saw recently at Yale Law School, this anti-free speech hysteria on the left is escalating. The left can’t even tolerate student groups like the YAF or campus chapters of the Federalist Society inviting speakers, let alone allowing universities proper to do so. And when such groups do feature speakers of their own choosing, they are said to be generating “controversy.”
To say that by simply giving a speech, Mike Pence is threatening the lives of students is looniness. And yet that what is being said by The Cavalier Daily editorial board.
This is not just a matter of callow young people saying silly things. These are future journalists who regard millions of their fellow Americans as violence-prone and who want to stifle the very actors on the right who stand for peaceable conduct and fidelity to the Constitution.
That is a scary development.