It’s easy to stand up for free speech and to defend another’s civil rights if we agree with the statement and the cause. It requires more moral courage to defend the rights of those whose views we find repugnant.
And yet, if offensive speech isn’t protected and the rights of pariahs are trampled, then our freedoms are illusory. Enlightenment philosophers understood and wrote about this concept. To cite two examples:
– In “On Liberty,” John Stuart Mill said, “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”
– Voltaire has been attributed with the quote, “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
This issue burst into the national news this week after Georgetown University associate professor C. Christine Fair confronted and harassed alt-right leader Richard Spencer while he was working out at Sport and Health’s Old Town location.
Fair created a scene while confronting Spencer, disturbed fellow gym patrons and was forced to leave the premises by the manager on duty. Sport and Health later revoked Spencer’s membership card, but not Fair’s. Even an elementary school child knows this is wrong.
To be clear, we disavow Spencer and the often racist, anti-Semitic and anti-woman sentiments that are expressed on his website, AltRight.com. In our opinion, such sentiments are vile, hurtful and reflect a perverse view of America. But, and this is the crux, he has a right to hold those views – and he has a right to live where he chooses and to be left alone while he works out at a gym.
This treatment of Spencer is particularly galling given the self-congratulatory rush late last year to proclaim Alexandria a community of tolerance and kindness after the November presidential election and Spencer’s subsequent move of AltRight.com to the Port City.
A Statement of Inclusiveness passed by city council reads in part that “…There is no place for intolerance in our community…” and the city “…denounce(s) hate speech, hate crimes, harassment…” At the same time, signs were posted all over Alexandria reading “No vacancy for hate #InclusiveALX” and “Spread kindness, build community.” From where we sit, those sentiments look like the height of hypocrisy given that Spencer was harassed and treated in a decidedly hateful and intolerant manner. Fair, of course, does not speak for those who display such signs, nor for our city leaders. But her actions at Sport and Health – and the gym’s reaction of punishing the person being harassed rather than the harasser – make a mockery of this kindness campaign.
These actions send the message that tolerance and kindness extend only to those who hold views with which we agree. Revoking someone’s membership because of their political perspective sure looks from here like a violation of their civil rights.
Ultimately, the unintended consequence of this unfortunate encounter is to cast Spencer in a more sympathetic light. It bears remembering that when we take the low road, we not only forfeit our moral authority: We find ourselves covered in the same muck as those we condemn.