photo credit: Josh Borsykowsky

Hate Speech Comes to Campus

Controversy is raging on the University of Buffalo campus, as alt-right bomb-thrower Michael Knowles is set to speak on March 9th. His lecture, titled “How Radical Feminism Destroys Women (And Everything Else)” is designed to manufacture outrage and attention, under the guise of “debate.” His comments at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference were even more deliberately provocative, as Knowles declared, “There can be no middle way in dealing with transgenderism… transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely.”

There’s no way to interpret that statement other than that transgender people must be eradicated from public life, and most of the university community understood that clearly. There have been widespread calls from faculty and students to cancel Knowles’ appearance, and there are planned counter-protests across campus tomorrow. University President Satish Tripathi condemned Knowles’ “hateful and dehumanizing rhetoric,” but also made it clear that the law prevents him from stopping Knowles from speaking, while also acknowledging that, “espousing our university’s values and clarifying the First Amendment may ring hollow — and, indeed, feel wholly inadequate.”

The First Amendment defense does, in fact, ring hollow, as it protects Knowles’ right to espouse his bigoted views, but whether it does or should protect calls to violence against marginalized people isn’t so clear. And it in no way guarantees Knowles’ right to a platform. As an American, no one can stop you from writing Mein Kampf, but that doesn’t mean Random House is obligated to give you a book deal.

But according to the laws that govern our public universities, UB is obligated to give a platform to someone calling for UB’s most vulnerable students to be “eradicated.” The worst part is, it’s not clear whether Knowles actually believes anything he’s saying or simply craves attention, but when it comes to the latter, his event has already been a rousing success.

Knowles’ tactics are firmly established in the alt-right’s playbook at this point. A right-wing provocateur books a speaking gig on campus and deliberately pushes ideas any decent person would object to. Decent people do object, the provocateur gets the attention they crave, and the University is in a bind: let the bigot speak and betray the trust of your students, or shut down the circus, and the person advocating genocide gets to smugly point to “the intolerance of the left.”

Intolerance of bigotry is no vice. And giving bigotry a platform, as the law is forcing the University to do tomorrow, is no virtue. The only thing we can do is make it as clear as possible how cynical and shallow Knowles’ tactics are, and that his bomb-throwing is simply a sad cry for attention — albeit one that comes at the expense of a marginalized group of students who have already been targeted by bigots of every stripe.

That Knowles will try to defend his deliberate provocations as an intellectual debate that deserves a place on a University campus is a disingenuous argument, and needs to be called out as such. Someone who hides behind the First Amendment while feigning outrage that the UB community gets to use their First Amendment rights to loudly object isn’t someone interested in bringing “debate” to campus.

That trans people have the right to exist isn’t up for debate. Whether the University must be obligated to give a platform to calls for violence against its students certainly should be.

— The Subject Editorial Board