As I sat waiting for George Harbison’s “The Victims of Socialism” talk, hosted by the Conservative Association at McGill University, one thing was clear: Its organizers were hoping for the best, but had prepared for the worst. A uniformed security officer guarded the door, and several more were inside, along with at least one in plain clothes. The Conservative McGill executives, seated in the front row, seemed to be making nervous small talk. Their anxiety wasn’t without cause: In the days prior, the event’s Facebook event page had degenerated into a lawless Internet brawl, replete with accusations of threat-making and white supremacism. While Harbison’s talk consisted mostly of recapping the undeniable atrocities committed by communist regimes, he went on to claim that left-wing academics possess an “intellectual, self-serving pathology.”
And then… nothing. No chanting protestors, no shouting audience, and no pulled fire alarms. The talk was completed without interruption. During the Q&A session that followed, several audience members made comments challenging Harbison, which generally led to brief, civil debates. At 6:30 p.m., the event ended and everybody went home.
And that was it for “The Victims of Socialism”. By the next morning, it seemed everybody had forgotten about Harbison and the event itself. I’ve certainly heard no mention of either since, and rightly so: 90 minutes of juvenile Reagan-worship isn’t worth the mental storage. By not showing up to protest, the event’s opponents issued the greatest condemnation of all—irrelevance.
Compare the quietude at "Victims of Socialism" with the infamous men’s rights talk at the University of Toronto in 2013, where disruptors pulled a fire alarm and forced a temporary evacuation; or the more recent airhorn-blowing protest at a Jordan Peterson talk at McMaster University. Admittedly, Harbison’s topic doesn’t have the same personal resonance as the social rights issues of these other talks, but the mud-slinging discussion generated on the event’s Facebook page showed that it still had definite potential to incite conflict.
The aforementioned protests have been described as attempts to “no-platform” speakers. That is, counter-protesters show up to prevent them from using a university event to spread their views. Proponents of no-platforming believe it is the best way to quarantine bigoted ideas. Opponents see it as censorship and worry about a creeping loss of freedom of speech.
But “no-platforming” is a misnomer. With their sound and fury, attempted no-platformers capture the media spotlight—and invariably share it with the speakers they seek to suppress. All of that attention gives the speaker access to a new, much larger audience, some of whom will find the speaker more persuasive than the protestors. In this way, protestors have been duped into doing their enemy’s work for them, boosting the influence of the enfants terribles they want silenced. For all the debate about whether no-platforming is morally right, we’ve forgotten to ask if it’s effective.
This is doubly true south of the border, where student rioting at an attempted Milo Yiannopoulos talk at UC Berkeley received national cable news coverage. Overnight, an alt-right groundling, previously concentrated in the great media latrine Breitbart, was on the news in every living room in North America. And he brought his jargon with him: Who could have imagined ‘cuck’ would enter our national vocabulary? Yiannopoulos could only have dreamed of creating this kind of exposure by himself.
It’s unfair to dismiss no-platforming’s proponents as whiny liberals or social-justice fundamentalists. Most are motivated by an earnest concern for the well-being of minority students and see no-platforming as the best way to stifle hate speech. But, no-platforming is more than tragically ironic; it is divisive. Moderate liberals are social justice advocates’ ideological kin, but many of them are turned off by tactics that they see as threatening free speech. Consequently, two of their deeply held values are pitted against each other—concern for minorities and social libertarianism. In making moderates choose between them, activists risk alienating potential allies.
The student body’s response to Harbison’s “The Victims of Socialism” talk was immaculate. Those who disagreed with him expressed themselves with admirable civility. And most importantly, they didn’t gift him free publicity. While it’s unfortunately fashionable to bash the media these days, one criticism is true: It loves a good circus. Students were wise to not to greet the visiting elephant with trumpets and fireworks.