Op-ed: A Green perspective on nonviolence and free speech

Collegiate Times
By Ryan Wesdock, Greens at Virginia Tech chairman
February 8, 2017

As the chair of the Green Party here at Virginia Tech, I believe strongly in the values of free speech and nonviolence. I must, then, denounce the recent turn to violence and speech codes of some on the left. I know, the media, perpetually searching for conflict, will play up the violence of the Occupy Inauguration protesters and the “riots” at UC Berkeley. I know it will treat Richard Spencer, a neo-Nazi, being punched and a few windows being broken as a catastrophe while it ignores the rubber bullets and tear gas shot at the peaceful protesters at Standing Rock.

I sympathize with those who feel threatened by the current administration; there is no other way to feel when one’s family has been banned or might be deported, when people’s land and water are being forcibly taken from them or polluted, when it seems like the social accomplishments of past generations are being decimated one by one. But, there can be no excuse made for violence, no matter how negligible, and none for the disrespect of free expression, no matter how deplorable.

Photo: posttraditionalbuddhism.com

Our narratives of free speech are almost certainly wrong. I do not think a clearheaded individual can hold seriously the notion espoused by John Stuart Mill that people freely discussing a subject will move toward truth and through the process of elimination weed out bad ideas.

Psychological research that demonstrates motivated reasoning and echo chambers shows we are not neutral arbiters of truth. Political science research has shown, through works like Noam Chomsky’s “Manufacturing Consent,” that our views are strongly shaped by certain powers that exist, whether corporate or governmental.

History is against this view as well; slavery was not ended, after all, through congressional debate. We might suggest that over time, the good ideas win out, that even though temporarily forces of slavery, oppression and ignorance might claim the upper hand, on the whole our cultural discussions aim toward truth.

Yet even this seems naive. Heavily biased research on climate change and the dangers of tobacco has shown itself to be resilient in the face of constant fact-checking. America still has flat-earthers, creationists and climate change skeptics. We cannot view free speech, then, as something protected because of the truth that it might lead to.

We must ask ourselves instead, is the condition of free speech better than that under which the government decides what can be spoken or not? I do not think a clearheaded individual could look at the current administration and say with confidence that he or she knows what ought to be said. We have free speech then, with all the trolls its coattails carry.

As for nonviolence, I encourage you to consider the empirical evidence. Nonviolence is not the purview of naive hippies in drum circles; it is the most effective and ethical means of changing a government or its policies.

Those of us who demand a better society, in which the needs of all individuals are met and in which everyone attains self-actualization, take it as axiomatic that nonviolence is a good thing. A society in which all thrive is inherently a society in which the physically strong are not allowed to bully others for their own limited interests.

Yet, social science research has suggested that nonviolence is effective as well. It enables many people, women, children, the disabled or those of us who have too much work and not enough time to participate in a movement. A nonviolent group can appeal to people across the aisle. It can offer its members opportunities to do something small, that does not involve charging the police or firing a Kalashnikov. Nonviolence, then, ought to be our method of operation.

It is not easy to promote free speech and nonviolence. It takes dedication and a moral core to resist the taunting of right-wing trolls, but flaming trolls cannot be met with flaming trash cans; you cannot defeat them with petty slogans and retweets. Defeating them requires moral discipline, civil disobedience and an eternal optimism that justice will be had.

I am proud to be a part of the Green Party because despite its flaws, I have found within it exactly these qualities. I have seen people fighting for its platform of grassroots democracy, environmental responsibility, social justice and nonviolence in every administration and in every state.

When former President Obama was bombing countries in the Middle East, the Green Party was protesting him. Now that President Trump has banned people from many of these countries from coming in, the Green Party has been protesting him as well.

It is that dedication to speaking our minds no matter how much we are shut out of the mainstream media, and that dedication to peace no matter who is in power, that has inspired me today to stand here for free speech and nonviolence. I hope it will inspire you.