Back when I was maybe 25-ish and was the program director at a conservative talk radio station, I was contacted by an interfaith group of community religious activists who wanted to meet with me about one of the nationally-syndicated programs we carried on our station. Their request was that we take it off of the air. Anti-Islam; bad for America.
I took the meeting. They were nice people, but persistent in their belief that he practiced hate speech. I towed the expected line about our station allowing controversial speech on the airwaves, belief in free speech, and letting the market decide. Blah, blah, blah.
The truth is, I was kind of pissed that they decided to push the issue when they did. I wasn't a fan of the show, and was about to start pressing my case that the guy was too nuts for our station. Their efforts to force it off the air were a detriment to that.
You see, this was one of those shows that had not really a huge following, but a rabidly loyal following. Now, if the station decided on its own to take it off the air, it's end of story, right? Maybe people would call and complain or threaten to never listen again or whatever, but there is no story there beyond that if you just let the station do it.
Activist pressure is another story. If these activists decide to protest it, now what? If the station takes it off the air, after public protest, then the conservative radio station caved to public pressure from a liberal group. Listeners revolt. Now the show is elevated. The show this group found disgusting, but not many people really listened to, is now a show that everyone is talking about. He either goes back on my station more popular than ever, or he lands on a competitor more popular than ever.
Believe it or not, I was a bit more cocky then than I am now. The meeting had the veiled threat of an advertiser boycott, and I just told them flat out why that wouldn't work for reasons noted above. They left respectfully, but not happy, but I'll be damned if they didn't listen to me and didn't make a public stink about the show.
Life goes on. Other things came up. I left the radio station and that show has outlasted me in the eleven years since I walked away. The guy is still a nut, and you would know the name if I gave it to you, but chances are most likely that no matter what your political persuasion, you don't listen to him.
I can understand if someone reads this and says, "You should have done the right thing and pulled that show if you thought it was too much." I don't disagree with you. But politics and nuances are a tricky thing, even at the lowest-of-the-low political levels of local talk radio programming.
I tell you this whole story to relate it to another controversial figure in American politics today: Milo Yiannopoulos. In his day job, he's a senior editor with the right-wing Breitbart News. He's also popular on the college speaking circuit.
Chances are you've heard of him not because of his job at Breitbart, nor even the speeches that he gives, but simply because of the controversy that surrounds him. The campus protests you watched on the news in Berkeley were organized to pressure the university into cancelling his appearance because many believe he engages against hate speech.
If a cancelled speech is the ultimate goal, then I suppose the protesters achieved what they set out to do. Indeed, the violence from those protests caused his event to be cancelled.
But how many people know about Milo Yiannopoulos today who didn't know about him a week ago? How many people asked themselves, "I wonder what he has to say?" How many more people will spew his talking points when engaging in debate with liberals? How many people will be pushed over to "his side" because "the other side" engaged in violent protests?
I have no data to back it up, but I'll bet those numbers will be higher than the few hundred who would have attended his speech.
There's a lot of vile speech out there. I won't defend the content of it, but I really do believe the 1st Amendment is the most vital American right we have.
The best way to counter a bad idea is not by suppressing it, but by promoting a better idea of your own. Elevating the creator of the bad idea to prominence only gets it out there more.
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