Barricades and police helicopters aren’t the usual preparation for a campus speaker, but on the morning of Oct. 17, we were not preparing for a normal speaker. The famous white supremacist Richard Spencer had finally succeeded, by threatening a lawsuit, in booking an auditorium here at the University of Florida, where I recently started as an assistant professor in the Political Science Department. And he was coming along with his band of neo-Nazi acolytes. The university had to take precautions.
The Friday before, as I was trying to decide how to talk to my students about Spencer’s planned visit, I noticed the Arendt Center at Bard College quoting statements from a speech by far-right German politician Marc Jongen on its official Twitter account. I learned that the center had invited Jongen, the “party philosopher” and newly elected representative of Germany’s new far-right party, Alternative for Germany (AFD), to speak at its annual conference. He had spoken for about 20 minutes about populism and Germany’s refugee crisis, received some polite pushback from his interlocutor Ian Buruma and the audience, and then the conference had moved on. Shocked that the center would invite such a figure, I talked to some other concerned colleagues and helped draft the initial version of what would become an open letter to Bard, calling on the college to distance itself from Jongen. Meanwhile, when Spencer spoke at my university, he was met with jeering protesters and denunciations from university officials, including the President Ken Fuchs.
I found myself unexpectedly on the front lines of both these controversies over far-right political figures and their interactions with the academy, just as we’re searching as a nation for a clear answer for how to handle the speech of people such as Spencer and Jongen. Here, academics face a real dilemma. Suppress the speech of extremists and they can play the victim — or accuse their opponents of being afraid of their views. Yet, argue in good faith with someone like Jongen or Spencer, and they can present their positions as reasonable options among many in the marketplace of political ideas. They have their right to speak. But we should take seriously our right not to listen.
Jongen’s talk at Bard was unnerving in part because it was so uneventful. Presented as a philosopher rather than a representative of the AfD, his fellow participants were generally polite even as he was calling German President Angela Merkel’s refugee policy an act of violence against the German people. Jongen was no doubt aware of the propaganda coup handed to him by his appearance at a center named for Hannah Arendt, a refugee from the National Socialist regime. Right after, he posted the talk on his website and called it a victory for the AfD’s “cause.”
Groups like the AfD and individuals like Jongen and Spencer exploit our society’s openness and respect for differences to make their views seem more innocuous than they are. By debating Jongen as a philosopher, we are treating his party and their views as valid positions among many different ones — which lends them a form of legitimacy in our liberal society. Extremist groups exploit that tendency to make the formerly unspeakable speakable. They then manipulate people’s legitimate sense that their concerns aren’t being heard by ensconced political elites to advance their much more radical agenda of rehabilitating extreme forms of racialized nationalism.
In other words, it is easy to claim the cause of free speech when you have no real commitment to it. Individuals like Spencer and Jongen are seeking legitimacy from institutions such as universities that pride themselves on taking all views seriously, but their goal isn’t to contribute to open ways of thinking that promote free inquiry. Rather, their hope is to establish oppressive systems of culture and government that exclude the most vulnerable from participation in public life. How can we respond to their interest in speaking — and honor our genuine commitment to free speech — without helping them advance their causes, which are fundamentally opposed to freedom?
It’s clear that we shouldn’t follow Bard’s lead and treat a leader of a far-right party as just another individual with whom to have a polite academic conversation. But that doesn’t mean people like Spencer and Jongen shouldn’t be allowed to speak at all: In fact, I supported Spencer’s right to speak here at my campus and declined to sign a faculty petition opposing his visit. But the right to speak is distinct from a right to polite debate and a legitimizing academic reception.
Today, we’ve conflated a right to speak with a right to be taken seriously and debated. But while the former is a right, the latter is a privilege, and one that should be reserved for ideas that do not fundamentally threaten the foundations of our free and democratic society. The response to Spencer — aggressive questioning and even heckling — was spot on. Spencer is not entitled to respect because his odious ideas undermine the open debate he claims to want — which was why I thought the deferential reception of Jongen at Bard was so perplexing.
Although we can’t (and shouldn’t) block the far right from speaking in public, we also shouldn’t help it by providing its leaders with prestigious academic invitations that grant their ideas the illusion of normalcy. We must challenge their efforts to present themselves as simply one more participant in an ordinary political debate. We should instead confront them, vocally and visibly, as a real political movement that threatens our fundamental norms of open, democratic life. Only then can we hope to contain the far right, and ultimately defeat it.