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Anu Sawhney (CAS ‘20) is the co-chair of the Young Democratic Socialists of America at BU. She is part of a coalition called BU Students Against Hate Speech, which is working to oppose the proliferation of “hateful, violent rhetoric” on campus. You can contact the coalition at [email protected] or stay updated on upcoming events on their Facebook page, BU Students Against Hate Speech.
As the co-chair of the Young Democratic Socialists of America chapter at Boston University and as a woman of color at a largely neoliberal institution, I’ve long accepted that higher education institutions rationalize decisions that may compromise the welfare of their students with the benefit these decisions bring to their own capital and reputation.
That’s why I was disappointed but not surprised when I learned that the BU administration had approved the request of a conservative group to allow alt-right talking head Ben Shapiro to speak at an event this November. Members of the group, Young Americans for Freedom, have come to the defense of Ben Shapiro, who promotes the spread of far-right and openly fascist ideas.
As stated in a petition launched by several student organizations on campus including BU College Democrats, BU Students Against Imperialism, BU Young Democratic Socialists, BU Feminist Collective, BU Students for Justice in Palestine and the Center for Gender, Sexuality, and Activism, Shapiro has a history of making bigoted remarks that do not deserve a platform at Boston University. The petition, on change.org, currently has over 1,500 signatures.
Members of YAF believe that Shapiro’s hateful rhetoric should be protected as “free speech.” However, these remarks are not a form of Shapiro “exercising his right to free speech” but rather are a form of hate speech aimed at dehumanizing and disenfranchising whole sections of the population, including BU students and community members.
The unfortunate thing is that it’s relatively easy to get swept up in the specious “free speech” arguments that organizers of the event and even the university administration make. The Daily Free Press reported that after negotiations, the Dean of Student Activities agreed to cover security costs amounting to $12,720. Why does a private institution have to provide a platform for hate speech while otherwise claiming to foster ideals of inclusivity? Are marginalized students really that disposable to this administration when it comes to protecting their image?
Those who defend Shapiro’s right to free speech forget that he does not have a right to a venue and a crowd at a private institution whose values he does not respect or adhere to. BU does not have to tolerate, let alone platform, Shapiro. Shapiro’s hateful remarks promote views that are offensive to anyone who is not in a position of privilege.
In 2016, he tweeted “Trayvon Martin would have turned 21 today if he hadn’t taken a man’s head and beaten it on the pavement before being shot” in reference to the fatal shooting of the unarmed Black teenager in 2012. He also advocated for the forced transfer of Palestinians, tweeting in 2010 that “Israelis like to build. Arabs like to bomb crap and live in open sewage. This is not a difficult issue. #settlementsrock”. Shapiro later partially retracted his support for sudden, complete relocation, but this and other statements still stand to dehumanize entire groups of people, is racist, and serves to justify the oppression and military occupation of minorities and oppressed people here in the U.S. and abroad.
Most recently, Shapiro came under fire for making homophobic statements, saying in a video that if politicians try to push an agenda of “LGBT indoctrination” in schools and leave parents with no choice he will “pick up a gun.” Shapiro was one of the most searched right-wing figures by the Quebec City mass shooter. Let alone being hateful and “conservative,” Shapiro has on more than one ocassion incited violence, and this most recent comment is almost a direct call for more mass shooters, as if Quebec wasn’t enough of a controversy for his taste. It should be clear that at some point free speech contains opinions that are extremely unsafe and embolden those who may be prejudiced against minorities. It is irresponsible of Boston University to allow this ideology of hatred to breed yet more hatred on campus.
Instead of condemning remarks that incite violence, YAF is busy preparing to bring Shapiro on campus and thereby endanger the safety of their peers, tweeting about a club visit to a gun range with the hashtag #BenShapiroSecurityDetail. Although they claim this is a joke, this raises only more questions – why would the group bring a speaker on campus who would need that level of protection? Why would it ever be a joke to bring guns on campus in 2019? It should also be noted that Shapiro denies the existence of transgender people, has defended the use of conversion therapy on gay people and calls homosexuality a sin.
In the months leading up to YAF’s request, Boston University formed a Free Speech Committee and announced that the University Policy on Free Speech is “that the remedy for speech that is distasteful, emotionally and intellectually uncomfortable, or even offensive is not suppression of speech, but more speech.” Not only does this undercut the collective harm of hateful, bigoted speech, but it also brings into question what would permit the suppression of “offensive speech” — nothing in the First Amendment states that students of a private institution are obligated to foot the bill for and allow a bigot on their campus. Students of color and queer students are the most vulnerable and yet somehow the most disposable under this university policy that essentially leaves us to our own devices should Shapiro come to ‘debate’ us and spread hateful rhetoric against us.
This ‘free speech’ argument is increasingly used as a guise to proliferate hateful rhetoric. The hypocrisy of this could not be starker: BU is a school that prides itself on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. but is ready to institute a policy that would incite fear among vulnerable students and enable Shapiro to espouse hateful beliefs toward them solely to serve their own interests and to salvage a neoliberal reputation.
All of this feeds into a culture of political apathy on BU’s campus, despite the fact that we urgently need to build solidarity and awareness among our peers. Unfortunately, our fellow Terriers often feel as though doing so is not a valuable use of their time and is discouraged by the university.
The current situation at Boston University with YAF requires us to build a student-inspired movement against hate, intolerance and facism that cannot be suppressed by the university administration and their corporate interests.
We must protect our peers of color, women and queer students if the university will not, because it is just a fact that hate breeds more hate — as seen from shootings and a general uptick in hate crimes after the Trump election and under his administration nation-wide. If BU wants to continue to promote itself on the legacy of MLK and ideals of inclusivity and diversity to its students, to the community and to the world, then it must disinvite Ben Shapiro immediately.