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By Ella Mitchell, Contributing News Editor • June 14, 2024

GW YAF should have known better than to bring Michael Knowles to campus

A week after GW hosted youth climate activist Greta Thunberg, GW’s chapter of Young America’s Foundation brought the right-wing provocateur who called her a “mentally ill Swedish child” to campus.

GW YAF has claimed to be a “targeted group” on campus, saying members aim to foster productive instead of combative conversation. But hosting Michael Knowles, a conservative podcast host who has made a career out of targeting groups with hateful rhetoric, takes the organization’s intentions back a step. Giving him a platform not only allows him to offend people but crowds out real political debate and discussion meant to advance YAF’s goals of fostering productive dialogue.

If YAF wants to be taken seriously, it should know better than to bring Knowles to campus.

Knowles has a history of incendiary comments. His speaking tour is called “Men Are Not Women, And Other Uncomfortable Truths” – an unambiguous attempt to disregard the existence of transgender people. He recently received condemnation for deriding Thunberg on Fox News as “a mentally ill Swedish child.” His attack on Thunberg, who is diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, was a barb against those with mental disabilities. The comments were so offensive that Fox News apologized to Thunberg and indefinitely banned Knowles from the network. To give hate speech a platform, as YAF did, is to condone and propagate it.

During the event on campus, Knowles mocked students who are offended by the Colonials moniker and said protestors should not make a case for changing the nickname while occupying previously Native American land. Knowles’ rhetoric is not a genuine attempt to foster good-faith debate but merely offends people and takes away any chance at productive debate. Speakers whose rhetoric obstructs actual dialogue have no place at a YAF event, especially as the organization tries to foster productive conversation from all political perspectives.

YAF has not shied away from inflammatory rhetoric in the past. They have hosted conservative talk-show host Ben Shapiro and attorney and conservative commentator Phyllis Schlafly. After the event with Knowles, members of YAF captioned a video of the protesters at the event with, “Hey Alexa, what does it look like to be raised in a household with no consequences?” Several more mocking tweets followed.

But at the same time, YAF members themselves have said they felt targeted and offended by events on campus. Any organization that strives to be taken seriously and enact a political agenda – a stated goal of YAF – should avoid descending to that same level of mudslinging that they say bothers them. It is both wrong and counterproductive.

Any political organization purporting to convince people of a set of beliefs should balk at Knowles. While YAF may seem to only provoke, it’s not the centerpiece of everything they do – its website advertises that YAF and the GW College Republicans are co-hosting an upcoming “Pizza and Policy” discussion with John Tamny, an influential conservative economist. Productive policy discussions encourage real dialogue. Deliberately outraging people does not.

YAF seems torn between efforts to broaden its coalition through dialogue and efforts to provoke fellow students. On one hand, YAF is collaborating with the College Republicans on policy discussions. On the other hand, there are in-your-face provocations like hosting Knowles on campus. The conflicting events call into question whether or not YAF would truly rather engage in real dialogue than intentionally bring someone to campus who sparks outrage.

Ideological debate is important to a healthy democracy and public discourse, but it cannot exist when participants prioritize eliciting anger over engaging in good faith. YAF’s decision to elevate and amplify the voice of Knowles both condones his intolerant rhetoric and damages the prospect of actual debate. If constructive dialogue is what YAF truly wants, then the organization should know better.

Andrew Sugrue, a sophomore majoring in political science, is a columnist.

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