O Where, O Where Have My Protestors Gone?

On Thursday, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson hosted the School of Media and Journalism’s annual Roy H. Park Distinguished Lecture speaker. The Triad Foundation has invited a distinguished media professional to deliver a free speech for UNC students since 1999. The event’s announcement on Twitter in February prompted an immediate backlash and numerous articles in The Daily Tarheel. Many online slander conservatives like Carlson as fascists or neo-Nazis. The ubiquity of responses like these prepared me for the speech to be protested. I expected to write a piece about the ridiculousness of the protestors. When they didn’t show, I sort of missed them.

There was no disruption of the speech in the theater or outside of it. This absence might be due to North Carolina’s recent free speech bill which prevents student protests which “materially and substantially disrupt the functioning of the constituent institution.” The master of ceremonies informed the audience ahead of time that, in accordance with NC law, anyone who disrupts the presentation would be subject to disciplinary action by the school and possibly arrested. As a result, those in attendance really fell into two categories: older community members and younger conservative students. The atmosphere was convivial, and Tucker worked the crowd expertly. Topics included journalistic skepticism, Trump, sexual harassment, and immigration.  The overall experience, though, felt self-affirming. It makes me nervous when a big group of people get together to agree with each other. As a skeptic and an individualist, the lack of vocal opposition was unsettling. Perhaps it indicates a new willingness to consider conservative opinions. More likely is the possibility that the recent crackdown on student protest discouraged attendance among left-leaning students. It is vital that we listen to people we disagree with, so I would have actually been comforted by the presence of dissenters in the crowd.

Tucker touched on this divide when speaking about the last election. He asked why anyone would vote for Trump in the first place. He referenced the president as a “giant orange middle finger” and asked toward whom the finger was directed and why we should care. Neglect of the middle class, diversity ideology, and poor leadership all helped form the country that elected Trump in November. But raising those points are now unfortunately outside what is in policy circles called the “window of discourse.” Thus, some students find it necessary to materially impede speech they deem inappropriate for civil dialogue. If support for and identification with the Trump movement weren’t so abnormal, perhaps they wouldn’t need to protest. Furthermore, maybe we wouldn’t need the measures recently enacted by the Board of Governors.

The “window of discourse” is a concept first theorized by policy expert Joseph C. Overton. It describes the range of socially acceptable ideas on any given public issue. A politician who endorses a view outside of the window would be branded as radical. Overton’s theory applies to everyone from celebrities to college students. No one could argue that there hasn’t been a reactionary movement in response to political developments enacted by Trump. Political polarization on college campuses has significantly shifted the level of discourse to exclude those with more traditionally conservative opinions. Before 2008, no Democratic candidate endorsed gay marriage, free college, or single payer healthcare. Today, those policies are considered mainstream. Likewise, opposing gay marriage, for example, is an opinion deemed unthinkable to many college students. The recent adoption of left-wing fringe policies into the mainstream has inevitably cleaved traditional conservative ideas into the category of the absurd.

Conservative commentators like Carlson now face the dilemma of falling outside the window of discourse. Traditionally conservative opinions are dubbed fascist or white supremacist.

This phenomenon is extremely dangerous for the future of the country. College students who are ostracized for opposing gay marriage or open borders are now put into the same category as genuine neo-Nazis and white supremacists.  These people who are voted off the island of ordinary conversation are left with two options; they either must become a powerless minority, or find common cause with actual radicals. Many who have been identified with the “Alt-right” since 2017 have chosen the latter. It is evident that this upsurge is only a preview of the future to come if we wish to censor those who hold beliefs deemed beyond the pale in a given moment, despite the reasoned and philosophical lineage of those ideas.

Life in a world constituted by conflict entails two means of dealing with others: negotiation or violence. Negotiation is dialogue meant to generate consonance between different desires or abstract models of the world around us. If two people want a banana, they can either fight over it or negotiate cutting it in half. If I’m for gay marriage and you’re against it, we can either fight over it or arrange some sort of compromise.

We don’t even have to fundamentally agree on the issue to reach a peaceful settlement. Catholics and Protestants don’t agree about the question of transubstantiation, but they aren’t (any longer) killing each other over it. There isn’t any sort of resolution on this issue, but competing parties have negotiated a settlement agreeable to both.

Branding those outside the window of discourse Nazis or white supremacists disincentivizes them from negotiating a settlement. If we can’t settle our differences, then the only way to act out our separate models of the world is through violence. This is not a functional model for society.

So, whether you’re a die-hard socialist, a center-left Obama/Clinton voter, intersectional feminist scholar, or all of the above, I implore you to attend the next conservative speech on campus. By all means, question what you hear. But come and hear it even if you don’t agree.

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