October 13, 2017

IT’S COME TO THIS: Hecklers shout down California attorney general, assembly majority leader at Whittier College.

Last week, Whittier College — my alma mater — hosted California’s Attorney General, Xavier Becerra, in a question-and-answer session organized by Ian Calderon, the Majority Leader of the California State Assembly.

They tried to, anyway.

The event ended early after pro-Trump hecklers, upset about Becerra’s lawsuit against the Trump administration over DACA, continuously shouted slogans and insults at Becerra and Calderon. A group affiliated with the hecklers later boasted that the speakers were “SHOUTED DOWN BY FED-UP CALIFORNIANS” and that the “meeting became so raucous that it ended about a half hour early.”

The event, held in Whittier College’s Shannon Center theater, was free and open to members of the community, and featured introductions from both Whittier’s president and student body president. Becerra and Calderon were to have an hour-long question-and-answer session using audience questions randomly selected from a basket. As soon as they began the discussion, however, hecklers decked in “Make America Great Again” hats began a continuous and persistent chorus of boos, slogans, and insults.

On the one hand, I think that all campus speakers should be free to speak without interruption. On the other hand, I can’t help but note that in California, that rule hasn’t been observed equally, and quite a few left-leaning government and university officials have taken sides with lefty disruptors. So I have to hope that this sort of thing — a sort of mutual assured destruction — will cause them to rethink their positions and endorse free speech for all. Sometimes people need help learning:

There’s an old joke about a boy who complains to his mother that his little sister keeps pulling his hair.

“Oh,” responds the mother, “she doesn’t know that it hurts.”

A few minutes later, the mother hears the girl scream and runs into the other room. “She knows now,” the boy explains.

Principles that apply only part of the time aren’t principles at all, and tit-for-tat is a robust strategy for encouraging cooperative behavior, as Axelrod & Johnson have found. I’ve warned the left for years of the incentives their unprincipled behavior was creating; perhaps now that people are starting to react to those incentives, they’ll finally listen, instead of denouncing civil society and free expression as obsolete bourgeois values. Because I’d like to live in a world where everyone can be heard, but I don’t think you get to that world by giving free rein to (government-supported) bullies who want to shut down the “wrong” people.

And the folks at FIRE are entirely right that the protesters here are liable to prosecution (and correctly so) for shutting down the debate, and if such prosecutions became the trend, I’d welcome that. But, really, it’s easier for everyone to have a climate where everyone is free to speak without being shut down. But that climate has — intentionally — been allowed to slip away, and no one should be surprised to see people on the right take up tactics that seem to work, with impunity, for the left. We could have avoided this situation, if only the folks in charge had wanted to. As I’ve said before, “The thing is, you don’t get Hitler because of Hitler — there are always potential Hitlers out there. You get Hitler because of Weimar, and you get Weimar because the liberals are too corrupt and incompetent to maintain a liberal polity.” If something like this is all it takes to get them to do their jobs, we’ll have done better than, frankly, I expect.

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