Imagine a bunch of chairs had been set up for a speaking engagement, and someone had tried to destroy as many of them as possible to decrease the number of people that could attend the engagement. (Assume too, for the sake of argument, that the number of chairs determine the possible audience size: the grass on which they are set up is wet and muddy, so people wouldn’t just be able to sit on the ground, and the speech will last for a tiring while, so standing is off the cards too.) For all intents and purposes, this appears to fall on the spectrum of silencing, albeit of a seemingly benign sort, and I suspect most of us would agree.
When it therefore came to my attention that some students were last month taking as many free tickets as possible to Dick Cheney’s originally scheduled speaking engagement, I couldn’t help but be a little miffed. Such actions admittedly come from well-intentioned political activism. However, not only does it take advantage of the Cornell Republicans’ good will, but, more troublingly, it demonstrates the increasing political sectarianism within American society.
Irrespective of how much you disagree with what Cheney did while in power, as both a matter of principle and of application, we shouldn’t disrupt speech. For a start, how can either liberals or leftists expect to present the strongest censure of Cheney without first hearing his strongest defense? After all, we need not look further than Barack Obama to discover that a Hobbesian attitude toward foreign policy isn’t uniquely right-wing. If one believes there is a moral obligation to disrupt Cheney’s speech for his involvement in reinstating torture and initiating the Iraq War, then so too should one disrupt, for example, Obama for authorizing the execution of an American citizen without trial, the unprecedented waging of collateralized drone warfare and continuing the mass surveillance begun by the administration of which Cheney was a member. I suspect many who are planning to disrupt Cheney wouldn’t feel nearly as compelled to disrupt Obama if the latter were invited to speak, suggesting philosophical inconsistency across partisan lines.
However, I understand these actions stem from profound disagreement with Cheney’s economic policies. Some may regard fiscal conservatism, “neoliberalism” or however else free market capitalism is today labelled as hostile to impoverished people, a socioeconomic identity as real as, say, a racial identity. However, Cheney’s domestic policies are the product of a predominant worldview that sees capitalism as the most equitable way to structure society, not an intrapersonal, reactive attitude like hatred. Even then, besides intent, a consequentialist would see that the harms wrought by Cheney are fundamentally different in character than the most grotesque examples of hate speech. Hate speech can directly provoke literal violence, whereas advocating for lower taxes, if you believe it leads to social harms, causes harm indirectly. In fact, the jury is still out on whether status-quo capitalism is any worse than what could replace it — which is why political economists continue to disagree, after all.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m not defending Cheney’s worldview — I’m simply considering the reasoning that may have led to it. Asking whether Cheney ought to be unrestricted in his speech raises the age-old question of whether speech should ever be restricted. Beyond cases like wrongly shouting “fire” in a crowded theater, I doubt that anyone could name a single person who they would entrust with the responsibility of weighing the benefits and costs of speech — in other words, of serving as society’s ultimate censor. But, if one believes that a governing body of more than just one person would be a better evaluator of speech, then are they not implicitly acknowledging that a group’s ability to evaluate speech improves in proportion to the number of different individuals that constitute it? And, if this is the case, then why not increase the size of this group to the furthest extent? In other words, to encompass as much of society as possible?
As argued by the philosopher John Stuart Mill, when ideas collide, the stronger of the two inevitably prevails. If Cheney’s ideas are so wrong, then there won’t be uptake of them. However, since there is uptake, we have a helpful sign for those who disagree with him that there are some minds that need to be convinced. This helpfully reveals how arguments against Cheney need to be refined, but this is only possible when his own arguments are understood at their strongest. Otherwise, not only do well-intentioned members of the left play into the galvanizing narrative being constructed by the right that free speech is under siege on college campuses, but, more fundamentally, they deprive themselves of the valuable opportunity to strengthen their argumentation.
While some would argue it’s still possible to access Cheney’s arguments via the internet, forcing discourse from a physical venue to a digital platform also constitutes a disruption of speech. An in-person speaking engagement affords the opportunity to more easily query and converse with a speaker, which would become more apparent to the average Cornellian if a leftist speaker were barred from speaking. Besides, we all know how productive political discussions over the internet tend to be.
To conclude, I’d like to add that airing my beliefs on subjects including identity, immigration, determinism, pre-professionalism, Bitcoin and God has been my favorite extra-curricular at what can feel like an alienating institution. However, I sense I’ve exhausted my noteworthy opinions as a college student and so would like to mark this as my final column. I thank my editors, Jacob Rubashkin ’19 and Katie Sims ’20, and all who’ve followed Not a Cop over the past year.
Lorenzo Benitez is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Not a Cop appears alternate Mondays this semester.