Ah, the Arbor. We all know it: That insufferable gambit of individuals, clubs and organizations who set up their tents and shove fliers in our face. Some of us have even been on the other side of the shoving — I know I have. But there is one thing that binds all of these groups together: they are all in the Arbor to promote their cause using the freedom of speech afforded to them by the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, as well as the university policy which designates that zone as a 100 percent free-speech zone.
Now, every so often, the groups that set up shop in the Arbor will be from camps that we as individuals disagree with. For example, recently the pro-life group “Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust,” as well as a particular self-labeled preacher, have taken it upon themselves to share their messages and causes with the student body of our lovely campus. One group did so by showing graphic depictions of abortions, while the other by shouting words contrary to what this university as a whole generally believes to be empirically-supported fact.
And how did our university’s community respond? Well, an assistant professor and at least two of hir (sex omitted for lack of relevance) students forcibly stole a pro-life sign which was later found in tattered ruins (there is currently no proof to link the professor to the destruction of the sign), and a large gathering of students surrounded this visiting preacher to listen to and hurl insults at him.
If you were to stop reading here, you might believe me to be an apologist for these two groups, but I promise you that is not my desire. I am writing this instead to raise the question of what is the appropriate response to an opposing opinion. Should we as a community encourage taking away an individual or organization’s ability to voice their perspective? Should we create an environment where it’s acceptable to antagonize someone who voices an opinion that, while unsubstantiated by any empirical evidence, is completely within their right as a citizen to hold? I am careful to say “antagonize” and not “debate,” because I believe that positive, respectful and productive debate can and should be held over these topics. However, this is not the response that I have personally witnessed.
The reason I single out these two groups over the many others that have visited this campus in my time here as both a student and a staff member is because of their religious motivations. Religious extremists from any particular belief view personal attacks as a form of martyrdom. We fan the flame that motivates these extreme groups when we react at all, let alone when we react negatively. A crowd draws a crowd, and when you sit and poke fun at a group you disagree with, some of your friends might join in and soon enough you have amassed a large circle of people who are there to see what’s going on. At this point, the protester has won because they managed to amass a group of people to listen to their cause. Whether those people agree or not, they feel as though they have accomplished what they came to do.
I have seen individuals like this traveling pastor and pro-life group visit this campus repeatedly for the past four years and they get a strong reaction from the community every time. To those who feel they are “fighting the good fight” by arguing visibly and loudly with these individuals, it doesn’t appear to be doing anything. You cannot reason with someone who refuses to (or is unable to) use valid reason.
So next time you see someone with a book in hand, shouting things that any sane person would dismiss as nonsense, if you can’t approach them in an effort to create a healthy debate, maybe you should just keep on walking; let’s not help to build the pulpit this person is hoping to preach from.
Alex Johnson graduated from UCSB in 2013 with a B.A. in sociology and currently works on campus.