Sometimes the whole tenor of an age can be discerned by comparing two events, one commanding fury and the other, silence.
To this extent, February has already been most enlightening. On the first day of the month, the conservative activist and writer Milo Yiannopoulos was due to speak at the University of California, Berkeley. To the surprise of absolutely no one, some of the new anti-free speech brigade attempted to prevent the event from happening. But to the surprise of almost everyone, the groups who wish to prevent everyone but themselves from speaking went farther even than they have tended to of late. Before the event could even start, Yiannopoulos was evacuated by security for his own safety. A mob of 150 people proceeded to riot, smash and set fire to the campus, causing more than $100,000 of damage and otherwise asserting their revised version of Voltaire's maxim: "I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to your death my right to shut you up."
When conservative activist and writer Milo Yiannopoulos was due to speak at the University of California, Berkeley on February 1, a mob of 150 people proceeded to riot, smash and set fire to the campus, causing more than $100,000 of damage. (Image source: RT video screenshot)
The riots at Berkeley caused national and international headlines. Mainstream media, including Newsweek, also attempted to do their bit for an event they would ordinarily deride as "fake news." Following a segment on CNN, Newsweek ran a piece by Robert Reich, the chancellor's professor of public policy at Berkeley and a former Clinton administration official, arguing that "Yiannopoulos and Brietbart [sic] were in cahoots with the agitators, in order to lay the groundwork for a Trump crackdown on universities and their federal funding." This conspiracy theory would involve Yiannopoulos arranging for 150 masked fanatics not merely to trash a campus on his orders, but to continue to remain silent about it in the days and weeks after the event.
In Newsweek, Reich wrote, "I don't want to add to the conspiratorial musings of so many about this very conspiratorial administration, but it strikes me there may be something worrying going on here. I wouldn't bet against it." And so, a tenured academic made an implausible as well as un-evidenced argument that his political opponents not merely bring violence on themselves but actually arrange violence against themselves.
All of the violence and all of these claims were made in February in the aftermath of a speech that never happened. But consider how little has been said and how little done about a speech that certainly did go ahead just one week later at another American university -- not by a visiting speaker but by a resident academic and teacher.
On February 7, at the University of Georgetown, Jonathan A.C. Brown, the director of the entirely impartial Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown, gave a 90-minute talk entitled "Islam and the Problem of Slavery". Except that the white convert to Islam, Jonathan Brown, apparently did not think that there is a particular problem with slavery -- at least not when it comes wrapped in Islam. During the talk (which Brown himself subsequently uploaded onto YouTube) the lecturer condemned slavery when it took place historically in America, Britain and other Western countries, but praised the practice of slavery in Muslim societies. Brown explained how Muslim slaves lived "a pretty good life", claimed that they were protected by "sharia" and claimed that it is "not immoral for one human to own another human." Regarding the vexed matter of whether it is right or wrong to have sex with one of your slaves, Brown said that "consent isn't necessary for lawful sex" and that marital rape is not a legitimate concept within Islam. Concepts such as "autonomy" and "consent", in the view of the Director of the Alwaleed Center at Georgetown, turned out to be Western "obsessions".
Of course, Jonathan Brown's views on Islam are by no means uncommon. One could easily demonstrate that they are all too common among experts in Islamic jurisprudence. Among such people, debates over where and when you can own a slave and what you can or cannot do with them are quite up to the minute, rather than Middle Ages, discussions to have. But until this moment, there have been no protests at Georgetown University. Under a certain amount of online pressure, from the few websites to have reported Brown's talk, Brown has attempted to clarify or even reverse some of his views. But no mob of anti-sharia people has gone to Georgetown, torn up telephone poles, set fire to things or smashed up the campus, as mobs did at Berkeley.
Here is a stranger thing. Nothing that Yiannopoulos ever said as a visitor speaking to a room full of people has ever come near the level of what Brown said to his ordinary class of credit-seeking students. Yiannopoulos has never argued that the Western system of slavery was benevolent and worthwhile, and that slaves in America had "a pretty good life". He has certainly spoken out vociferously against the claim that there is a "rape culture" on American universities. But he has never argued against consent being an important principle in sexual relations. If he had, then the riots at Berkeley would doubtless have been far worse than they were, and even more media companies and professors would have tried to argue that Yiannopoulos had "brought the violence upon himself" or even organized it himself.
The proximity of these two events, the difference in the arguments and the vast chasm of difference between the outrage and violence against one, and the great silence and complicity with the other, tells us much about what we need to know about the state of free speech -- and academia -- in America today.
Douglas Murray, British author, commentator and public affairs analyst, is based in London, England.