Why are we so afraid of speech?

Principles are pretty easy to have. It doesn’t take much effort to say that you believe in things like free expression, multiculturalism, religious tolerance, a limited government, social justice or fiscal austerity. All it takes is a broad philosophical agreement with the tenets of those principles.

The problem, though, is that living out those principles is made quite difficult by our flawed, tribal, primate minds.

We all fall victim to the inherent need of human beings to create closed social units. An evolutionary holdover of 200,000 years of human development — we yearn for small, close-knit groups of us, that are distinct and better to the barbarians that are “them.”

Conservative political commentator Michelle Malkin greets supporters at the Sabattus Town Hall on Jan. 17. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal via AP)

This is why cliques form in high school. This is why many people join Greek organizations in college. This is why people become Rotarians or join Kiwanis. Its why we join message boards for our favorite sports teams, and participate in social media.

And yes, this is why people join political parties, and why it is so easy for them to view those who join rival parties a particularly reprehensible, destructive brand of “them.”

Man is a social creature, but he does not have a universal love of all his brothers. He craves a tribe.

So, when a person’s supposed principles come into conflict with their tribal allegiances, the caveman DNA emerges and demands loyalty to the tribe, above that of the principle.

And so, as we have seen lately, supposed advocates of free speech are quite happy to attempt to shut up people they don’t like. People that aren’t in their tribe.

For much of American history, there were brave groups of people that understood how important it was to place principle over tribe. There were those who were willing to set aside those tribal loyalties, in favor of the larger ideal.

The American Civil Liberties Union, for instance, rather famously defended the free speech rights of members of the Ku Klux Klan in the landmark Supreme Court case of Brandenburg v. Ohio. Due to their bold defense of what appears to most of us as the indefensible, they won the case in 1969 and guaranteed for all Americans protection from the government punishing inflammatory speech just because it was unpopular.

The American Founders understood this. “He that would make his own liberty secure,” Thomas Paine once wrote, “must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”

Last week, here in Maine, we saw just how far we have fallen from Paine’s ideal, and the ACLU’s example.

Michelle Malkin was invited to Maine to speak by the local chapter of the College Republicans at the University of Maine. She is a controversial speaker herself and has drawn fire from the left and the right for refusing to disavow America First nationalist Nick Fuentes for some of his more disgusting opinions. This was the reason cited for their faculty adviser, Amy Fried, withdrawing from the group, which decertified them with the university.

Then a maelstrom happened, whereby the group was forced to move the event not once, not twice, but three times, before finally settling at their fourth venue. The university says they did not pressure the venues to close the event, and after speaking with some of the venues in question myself, I actually believe that, even if I do find their role in this whole affair rather questionable.

Instead, the real problem was that in each instance, the venues were basically threatened with disruptions, review crashing, and in some cases even violence by a mob of outraged leftists. It was made clear to the venues that holding the event would be detrimental to their operations, and so they decided to cancel the events.

Look, Malkin has never really been my cup of tea, and I find Fuentes to be troubling and dangerous, and have no interest in associating myself with him. But if you really have that much of a problem with either, the solution to speech you find so reprehensible should never be to shut it down. That only inspires resentment, and makes people more curious about what could be so scary about a speech, and aids in the message being spread.

The solution to speech is more speech. Have a protest, but do not threaten businesses for allowing people to speak. Make a speech of your own. Use social media and make a better case for why they are wrong.

In the end, any attempt to shut someone up merely makes their voice that much bigger, and yours smaller. So ditch the tribe, and fight for a principle we should all believe in for once, no matter how uncomfortable that makes us.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.