The beginning of February saw conservative personality and provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos set to speak at the University of California-Berkeley. This took somewhat of an interesting turn, however, when violent protests broke out on campus ahead of Yiannopoulos’ appearance.
As CNN reported on Feb. 3, 2017, these riots caused $100,000 worth of damage across campus and ultimately led administrators to cancel the event amidst the violence. Attackers assaulted two Berkeley students during an interview. Protesters set fires and threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at police who were trying to contain the situation, injuring at least six people. This is a barbaric form of political activism, but what’s truly worrying is the reaction to these riots.
As of right now, America is as politically polarized as it has ever been in recent memory. The troubling trend of people on both ends of the political spectrum normalizing violence as a legitimate form of political dissent mirrors this polarization.
On Feb. 7, 2017, Berkeley’s student-run news publication, “The Daily Californian,” published a series of op-eds that justified the use of barbaric violence to shut out Yiannopoulos on campus. The premises of these articles can be surmised by their titles. “Violence as self-defense” argued that the violence used to shut out Yiannopoulos was justified. “Check your privilege when speaking of protests” argued anyone condemning the violent protesters was speaking from a place of immense privilege. “Violence helped ensure the safety of students” argued that the violence was beneficial as it protected students from the harm of Yiannopoulos’ rhetoric. “Black bloc did what campus should have” argued that violently protesting was a form of self-defense. “Condemning protesters same as condoning hate speech” argued that condemning the violence was equatable to agreeing with Yiannopoulos rhetoric, which the author described as hateful. “Plurality of tactics contributed to cancellation of Milo Yiannopoulos event” argued that freedom of speech should not be inclusive to Yiannopoulos’ rhetoric.
There are few instances in which violence can be truly justified. In my opinion, these instances are exclusive to using violence to defend oneself or another from violence. Part of the reason that political violence is justified is that there is a current wave of people equating polarizing rhetoric to physical violence. Many of the previously cited articles made this equivalency. A particular video of a protester at Yiannopoulos’ event went viral, as it depicted her asserting that Yiannopoulos’ rhetoric functioned to “threaten us, intimidate us, rape us, [and] kill us.”
The problem with the argument that the likes of Yiannopoulos’ words are equatable to violence is that it simply isn’t true. He has never advocated for violence of any kind. In fact, his rhetoric is virtually the same as numerous modern day American conservatives. I personally disagree with him on many issues, but to say that his words are equivalent to physical violence is intellectually disingenuous.
If one wants to characterize the likes of Yiannopoulos’ rhetoric as “hate speech,” that’s their prerogative. It’s their prerogative to protest what figures like Yiannopoulos have to say. It’s their prerogative to refuse to listen to or engage with people who espouse these viewpoints. It is not their prerogative to escalate this sentiment to literal violence.
Violence is a counterproductive way of combating ideas. The fact that Yiannopoulos’ political viewpoints are harbored by an overwhelming amount of Americans makes it important to listen to and engage with his rhetoric if one wants to dispel his ideology. In our current political climate, civil and tempered discourse has never been more important. It’s the only way we can grow as a collective. Using violence as a political tactic then normalizing its use is the mark of a regressive and archaic society.