On Monday, October 30, alt-right media personality Mike Cernovich spoke at Columbia University at the invitation of the College Republicans. The invitation was an embarrassment. Cernovich has built a career on leveraging the power of social media to turn lies into likes—he came to mainstream prominence through his Twitter promotion of the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory alleging Democratic Party involvement in a child sex ring. He has claimed that “date rape does not exist.”
The Columbia University Democrats quickly published an editorial in the campus newspaper denouncing the decision to invite Cernovich. If they had followed the all-too-common campus script, they would then have called on students to shut down or shout down the talk, as has happened on campuses like Middlebury and Berkeley. But instead they urged a much wiser strategy: Don’t feed the trolls. “When students shout down extremists, these bigots are empowered rather than erased,” the editorial advised. “The bigots receive media coverage, and with it, legitimacy that they should never have.”
Instead of trying to prevent Cernovich from speaking, the CU Democrats announced that they would be countering Cernovich’s speech with speech of their own. They scheduled an event featuring speakers who would give an academic perspective on white nationalism at the same time as Cernovich’s talk.
They argued that bringing Cernovich to campus undermined, rather than strengthened, discourse: “If CUCR sought to represent conservative voices on campus, they would bring real Conservatives who can challenge liberal ideas and provide value to our campus. Instead, they’ve chosen to bring racist provocateurs, drowning any possibility of real discussion underneath their bile.”
Speakers like Cernovich really do erode the opportunity for discourse on campus, by polarizing students into opposing camps with speech designed to engage tribal emotion rather than reason. And extreme protest tactics really do make the problem worse—amplifying the trolls while turning off moderates who might otherwise be supportive of the protesters’ message.
It’s no secret that the campus left has done much to erode the quality of discourse at American universities. But the campus right has been happily playing along, often sharing the far-left’s desire to turn campuses into battlefields at the expense of our social fabric. Many campus conservatives have chosen shock value and viral attention over intellectual rigor—nothing else explains the presence of angry buffoons like Cernovich at places like Columbia University.
To be sure, there is an important normative difference between groups seeking to add more speech to the public square and groups seeking to silence speech. As a rule, the former is preferable to the latter, and our laws and university policies should reflect that. Columbia’s certainly do. But the left and right are participating in the same dialectic process, with the same end result: tribal warfare. This means our civic health depends on both camps choosing to reform themselves.
Conservative groups on campus would do well to look to the concept of “virtuous discourse,” which is central to the mission of an innovative cross-partisan network of college students called BridgeUSA. BridgeUSA isn’t about watering down the debate—its founder was responsible for inviting conservative firebrand Ann Coulter to the University of California Berkeley campus earlier this year (she ended up canceling due to the threat of violent protests). But it does demand what they call “virtuous discourse,” which acknowledges that free speech may bring no benefits to campus unless speakers honor certain responsibilities: to truth, to civility, to respect, to decorum. These words have a conservative valence, and a nobler mission—a community dedicated to the pursuit of truth and learning.
The Founding Fathers believed in “ordered liberty”—that freedom could not coexist without virtue. George Washington wrote that the “security of a free Constitution” depends on “teaching the people…to discriminate the spirit of liberty from that of licentiousness.” The Founders predicted that forgetting this lesson would lead to despotism, as men who could not rule themselves would come to be ruled by others.
The importance of self-restraint through virtue lies at the core of both America’s founding and conservative thought. Young conservatives should feel proud to own such a rich intellectual legacy—it was Edmund Burke who wrote that “the restraints on men, as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights.” In times such as ours, that idea is countercultural, and therefore powerful.
Even at the Columbia event, Cernovich and his fans demonstrated values completely opposed to this conservative ideal. A Cernovich supporter played a prank in which he gave protestors a banner that contained a pro-pedophilia message and photographed them with it—at which point Cernovich and other alt-right figures re-tweeted the photo as authentic. Such wanton lying is precisely the licentiousness that Washington warned us about.
It’s hard to abstain from the attention and spectacle that inviting trolls can bring—and it’s even harder to avoid confusing this attention with the feeling that you’re accomplishing something worthwhile. That’s every college student’s dream, on both the left and the right, but they must navigate that dream in an age of social media dominance that constantly equates attention with worthiness. The Milo Yiannopoulos playbook stokes this dangerous trend, Washington’s ordered liberty and Burke’s restraints challenge it.
Conservatives can live up to this legacy by inviting speakers that mount serious, academic challenges to the liberal orthodoxy that prevails on many campuses. Not only will they uphold the traditions that make universities special, they will be more effective at changing minds and advancing their cause. Far left hysteria over conservative speakers will look ridiculous instead of heroic if they’re protesting scholars instead of un-credentialed Twitter personalities. Fence-sitters will see that the far left is guided by quasi-religious dogmatism instead of legitimate critique. And conservatives will center their best ideas in the court of public opinion.
Nicholas Phillips is a Research Associate at Heterodox Academy and President of the NYU School of Law Federalist Society.