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Guy Benson event provokes student criticism

Event sparks discussion about free speech, communication in context of political correctness

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, February 15, 2018

In the face of student pushback and criticism, Guy Benson, conservative journalist and author, argued that “weaponized political correctness” has stifled free speech in the Petteruti Lounge Tuesday during a discussion titled “The Millennial Conservative: A Conversation with Guy Benson.” The event was hosted by the Brown Republicans and co-sponsored by the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, the Young America’s Foundation and the Brown chapter of the American Enterprise Institute.

During the event, Benson said liberals use claims of micro-aggressions and privilege as well as trigger warnings to squash productive conversations with conservatives. “I want to talk about why they’re legitimate and why there’s a kernel of truth (in these tactics) and why we think it’s maybe been pushed a bit too far,” he said.

Benson went on to discuss situations in which he felt that these tactics were overused. Citing the study of an unnamed Ivy League professor who found micro-aggressions sometimes involved “insults so slight and subtle that neither party fully understood what just happened,” Benson said he could loosely define micro-aggressions as  “anything that offends anyone for any reason.”

Benson said that “rolling your eyes at overexpanded micro-aggression hypersensitivity” is not rude; however, in general, conservatives  “should still be nice to people and treat them nicely even if you think they’re too sensitive.”

The discussion then shifted to the “overuse” of trigger warnings, which Benson said had “mutated into something weird and damaging.” Benson referenced an incident in a North Carolina bar where a DJ was fired after refusing to comply with a woman’s request to stop playing the song “Blurred Lines.” The song was subject to intense criticism and controversy for containing lyrics with undertones of sexual violence, the Guardian previously reported. Benson said the woman was worried because the song could have been triggering for guests at the bar. “A DJ fired for playing the number one song in America, … not because someone was triggered, but because some might have been triggered,” he said.

Benson then qualified his original statement, adding that he acknowledged the existence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder among “people coming back from war (and) people … who are survivors of sexual assault.”

“This is a real psychological phenomenon that we should be sensitive to,” Benson said.

In the discussion, Benson also accused liberals of using claims of privilege to exclude white, cisgender men from conversations. It’s important to “recognize that white, cisgender men have enjoyed a position of immense privilege in our society (for) basically forever (and) … sometimes at the subjugation of other people,” he said. But Benson is concerned “when privilege hierarchy and privilege scolding turns a corner into ‘your type has had your say, so shut up,’” he said. 

The discussion also included an opportunity for attendees to direct questions toward Benson. One attendee questioned Benson’s depiction of micro-aggressions by pointing out the “power dynamics” and the “systems of oppression” at work within such acts. In his response, Benson referenced the golden rule and that ultimately “a lot of it does come down to … trying to treat people with respect and dignity and keep in mind that their worldview and their experience might be different than yours,” he said.

“Some people are wanting to be offended by things, and this is not only on the left … just jumping down peoples’ throats for saying things slightly wrong or micro-aggressing,” he added.

Several Department of Public Safety officers were present at the event. While the event unfolded smoothly, the Brown Republicans received criticism and pushback from members of the Brown community before the discussion, said Ethan Shire ’19, president of the Brown Republicans .

On the day of the event, a student collective published an open letter on the website of Bluestockings Magazine, condemning the University’s decision to host Benson. In the letter, students wrote that they predicted Benson would “make arguments in support of the freedom of any person to make hateful, oppressive or damaging remarks based on their constitutionally-protected right to free speech.”

“So often, popular conversations around free speech focus on the right of people with power or who hold privileged identities to espouse hateful rhetoric which actively makes others less safe. Rarely do these mainstream conversations on free speech consider the urgent need for people of color and other marginalized people to speak back against systems of oppression for their own self-preservation,” according to the letter.

Chiara Wadsworth Arellano ’20, one of the letter’s signatories, said that she believes that freedom of speech and allowing different perspectives to come forward is important. But Benson’s politics of free speech “supports structural violence,” she said.

One of the event’s co-sponsors, the Young America’s Foundation, has also received criticism over the past year for sending incendiary conservative speakers to liberal college campuses and has been questioned for sponsoring events that are “cynically intended to provoke reaction,” the New York Times previously reported. Last year YAF sponsored conservative pundit Ben Shapiro’s visit to the University of California at Berkeley. 

“Since Brown University refuses to fund conservative speakers or support ideological diversity, YAF stepped in to help the conservative students at Brown host an event with Guy so students could hear, for once, an articulation of conservative ideas,” wrote Spencer Brown, the spokesperson for YAF, in an email to The Herald.

However, the University contests YAF’s view. “Members of the campus community are free to invite any speakers,” said Brian Clark, director of news and editorial development. “The assertion that Brown does not host speakers from a wide diversity of views is just patently false.”

“If you look at the line-up of events on campus for just about any week during the semester that is abundantly clear. … Members of the community are allowed to express a wide range of perspectives and they grapple with some of the most challenging issues that we’re all facing today in society,” he added.

Addressing the accusations levelled at YAF, Shire said the criticism was “blatantly unfair.” “It’s more that they’re bringing speakers who embody conservative values who come and then they spark protest. … I know they have some speakers that are probably more fiery and antagonistic, but (Benson) doesn’t really fall under that,” he added.