By all appearances, Stanford students had done it. We had invited a controversial speaker, published varyingly coherent articles of support and opposition, and had a rational campus debate about free speech. Those who were interested in what Robert Spencer had to say would attend his event and debate him if they so desired, while those who wished to voice their dissent would attend the “Rally Against Islamophobia,” a protest organized by a new activist group named Stanford Against Islamophobia (SAI). After turning our noses up at attempts to shut down free speech at Berkeley, it looked like Stanford was going to do better.
We didn’t descend to Berkeley-level depravity. Not quite. There was no violence when Robert Spencer spoke on campus, no attempt to shout him down. But at 8:40 p.m., 20 minutes after he began his talk, over 150 members of the crowd ostensibly gathered to hear him speak promptly stood up and left, while Arabic music blared from Bluetooth speakers concealed around the hall.
The students, planted by SAI, had arrived at the event early to clog up the venue. As a result, dozens of students, many of whom were presumably interested in starting a genuine dialogue with Spencer about his views and rebuffing him, were turned away. I myself arrived at about 7:20 for an event scheduled to begin an hour later, and was one of the last people admitted.
The early signs were ominous. Music began to play from somewhere in the crowd just a few minutes into Spencer’s speech, though it was quickly silenced. There was palpable tension as Spencer continued. He thanked the College Republicans, “the most marginalized community at Stanford University,” for organizing the event, and grinned wickedly at the guffaws and incredulous murmurs emanating from the crowd. He went on to lament what he described as a “relentless smear campaign” from both the Stanford Daily and this very publication, and questioned the Stanford administration’s decision not to allow live streaming of the event.
“If [Stanford] wanted to expose my hate speech, they could have said ‘film away.’ I don’t deal in any hate speech — I just deal in unwelcome truths,” said Spencer.
Shortly after, the activists in the crowd disgraced themselves.
Instead of attempting to debate Spencer on his arguments, or allowing those who would have to attend the event, over 150 SAI affiliates stood up and departed, chanting and playing music. SAI have since released a statement denying that they had officially sanctioned the playing of music, but this made little difference.
“Hello, fascists!” crowed Spencer, feigning disappointment but clearly relishing the opportunity to riff on modern activism. He opened up his goodie bag of superlative insults and distributed them with glee: the activists were the “children and heirs of the fascists and the Nazis,” “liberal totalitarians,” and “neo-Brownshirts.”
As she was leaving, one of the departees quite literally hissed at me and told me I was “racist” for remaining seated while she and her comrades left (see footage below). I laughed and tried in vain to explain that I was a reporter there to cover the event, an explanation that failed to satisfy the protester, who hissed a second time.
On first glance, this form of protest was not so bad. After all, as mentioned above, the protesters were not explicitly violent. But imagine if they had, instead of occupying the seats and subsequently vacating them, simply blocked others from entering, and left the seats unfilled that way. The result would have been the same, the intention largely the same, and their actions rightly condemned. This was better than violence, yes, better than shouting Spencer down. But the protest was a deliberate attempt to block students from engaging with Spencer in any capacity. If you personally do not wish to engage with the man, fine, power to you. But preventing others from doing so is shameful.
The crowd was severely depleted by the time the activists left. Spencer claimed that he had asked the administration to allow further students into the event if any left and been rebuffed, suggesting that he had caught wind that such a walk-out might take place. Whatever the case, the vast majority of those who remained were enthusiastic Spencerites, and, as such, the conversation predictably narrowed.
“I do hope that the Stanford President and the Provost resign,” bellowed Spencer in response to a question from a Stanford Daily journalist, to vigorous applause from the sparse gathering that remained. He preached to the choir about political correctness paralyzing rational discussions of terrorism, feeding his crowd bone after bone.
The crowd, sensing that they were among allies, amped up their questions. “Is the answer a new Crusade?” asked one questioner, alluding to the Medieval religious wars motivated, among other things, by a desire to extricate the Holy Land from Islamic rule. These conflicts resulted in the deaths of over one million people and also featured some of the most horrific anti-Semitic violence in pre-modern history. One can only hope the questioner was not intimately familiar with such details. Even Spencer appeared perturbed: “No, I don’t think so,” he began, before he was interrupted.
The most insightful discussion of the night came when one brave soul stayed behind to ask Spencer why he painted Islam with such a broad brush and why he wasn’t more specifically critical of extremist groups. Spencer and the questioner had a reasonable dialogue for about five minutes, and while I don’t think either party came away with a radically changed world view, the conversation was constructive.
This was a lone light, though, in what was otherwise a showcase of the failure of contemporary campus discourse. Nobody listens to anyone anymore, everyone thinks everyone else is a fascist, and civil conversation is a thing of the past. I have no idea what the protesters think they achieved last night, but it certainly wasn’t a win in the battle of ideas. “I think it comes from a place of ignorance,” said one woman in the crowd. “I don’t think those students understand what they walked out on.” I don’t agree — I have talked to students opposed to Spencer’s visit with intelligent, insightful objections to him. But with the way students conducted themselves, I can forgive her for thinking otherwise.