We just had a weird moment in American politics.
What was weird wasn’t what happened, but what was said.
Here’s what happened. This weekend, Donald Trump called on the Broadway cast of “Hamilton” to apologize for “harassing” his vice-president-elect, Mike Pence, by imploring him — in a scripted, post-performance entreaty written by the show’s creator — to “uphold our American values and to . . . govern for all Americans.”
There should be nothing odd at this point about Donald Trump’s puerile, thin-skinned behavior: grinding everything to a halt to settle the score — via Twitter — with anyone who subjects him (or his surrogate) to the slightest criticism — particularly in public.
But here’s what was weird. In his tweet, Mr. Trump alleged that the performers, in addressing Mr. Pence inside the theater, had violated “a safe and special place.” This phrase’s word choice and offended tone echoes a favorite phrase of American college activists: the “safe space” — which has been satirized in the press as Play-Doh and crayon-filled rooms where wounded rich college kids can have their feelings soothed after dangerous encounters with terrifying things, like new ideas, or conservative speakers.
For Mr. Trump — sometimes characterized as the Republican party’s Id — to turn the safe space concept back on this bastion of liberal diversity was truly bizarre, and I couldn’t help but read it as the Left’s identity politics coming home to roost. While I was patently appalled by Trump’s mischaracterization of the actors’ plea, I’d be lying if I said I haven’t been somewhat taken aback by the striking wave of intolerance — denoted fairly or unfairly by “safe spaces” — that has been breaking over the shores of American colleges for the last two years.
I first noticed something was awry in 2014 when University of Oklahoma president David Boren expelled two students caught singing a racist song on secret video tape. Perhaps you remember this video: a bunch of loathsome, drunken frat-boys — the kind I’d have rather seen transferred to, say, Tanzania back when I was in school — singing a thoroughly racist and probably long-cherished fraternity song celebrating lynching. What would I have liked to have done? To slightly misquote the ignorant know-nothings (probably some of the same ilk as those bus-singers) who voted for Donald Trump: lock ’em up! Kick them out!
But of course I wouldn’t have, because that’s not right. Because THAT’s some Donald Trump bullshit. We don’t do that in America. We have the First Amendment. It’s not illegal to be a racist. It’s not illegal to say racist things. It is illegal to practice discriminatory hiring, or to make direct threats, or to incite violence. But it’s not illegal to say racist nonsense on a bus with your equally ignorant, entitled, preppy, asshole friends. There’s nothing illegal about that and we definitely don’t expel people from college for that. Not in the United States.
Except they did! David Boren — a former DEMOCRATIC senator, no less — wasted no time doing so! Although both withdrew before disciplinary hearings could proceed, the message behind Boren’s decision was clear as Windex: hold certain beliefs, say certain things, and you will be expelled from the University of Oklahoma.
And everyone was fine with this! The public loved it. The fraternity was shut down, people picketed outside the boys’ houses, and everyone thought all was well and good in our progressive America. We’re stamping out the racists, tossing them off of campus. Out with the old ways, in with the new, modern, post-racial America. All was well.
But was it?
Of course not! That moment represented a major blow to free speech — and it didn’t come from some evil, Steve Bannon-type; it came from a former Democratic senator and from well-meaning and liberal college students. Again, I found the content of what these boys said thoroughly loathsome (although hardly surprising — why do we always pretend there are no racists in America?) Yet as a teacher myself, I feel strongly that the cure for ignorance isn’t censorship or expulsion; it’s education. Put those idiots in a classroom and make them take a hard look at themselves and their history. Make them read Beloved. Make them study redlining. More importantly, I feel strongly that the cure for hate speech isn’t censorship or legal protection from it — the cure is what it has always been: more speech. You don’t expel people; you make them walk around with everyone criticizing them all the time.
It’s a hard balance — as anyone who has run a classroom knows: to embrace the right to free speech, yet to ensure that nobody is unreasonably offended. This is particularly tricky on increasingly diverse college campuses which for years have been dominated by white students and white professors. It’s also true that campuses and classrooms should be “safe spaces” — in the sense that everyone should feel a modicum of inclusion to participate.
But on the other hand, it’s possible to take this too far, and I worry that this is what many colleges, judging by the news stories that we’re reading every week, have come perilously close to doing. After all, we live in a vast, brawling country — capable of incredible tolerance and understanding, but of enormous bigotry and hatred as well. That has never been more apparent than since Mr. Trump’s election to president.
Last year there was an infamous incident at Emory University during the Republican primary. This incident was much-mocked by conservative commentators. It was dubbed “The Chalkening.” Here’s what happened: Emory students awoke one morning to find pro-Donald Trump messages chalked on campus sidewalks. They weren’t even awful. They said, “Trump 2016,” and “Accept the Inevitable” and “Build That Wall.” This was all common speech in the political arena at the time. Yet many of the students reacted — and this is where the media had a field day — as though these messages constituted an actual threat to their physical safety: “I’m supposed to feel comfortable and safe [here],” one student said. “But this man is being supported by students on our campus and our administration shows that they, by their silence, support it as well … I don’t deserve to feel afraid at my school,” she added.
Students called on administrators to banish chalking on campus, or at least to police it. They ordered administrators to find the chalkers and to punish them: “The University will review footage “up by the hospital [from] security cameras” to identify those who made the chalkings, (college President James) Wagner told the protesters. He also added that if they’re students, they will go through the conduct violation process, while if they are from outside of the University, trespassing charges will be pressed.”
And yet — here we are, six months later, with Donald Trump as our president. As badly as the college students (in Georgia, no less) wished to push Mr. Trump away — as badly as so many of us did, his supporters elected him President. Now he carries the potential not only to say offensive things, but to do truly awful things. We do our students and ourselves no good by pretending that unpopular ideas don’t exist. They do. And now Mr. Trump is using the Left’s own language back on them. American campuses have seemed to me on a quest for who can be the most sensitive, and the most offended. Now we have the most sensitive, thin-skinned president in history throwing the Left’s language back on it. We all want a safe space away from criticism: even our newest Bully-in-Chief.
There can be no doubt that the First Amendment faces grave danger under Mr. Trump. Throughout his campaign, Donald Trump attacked the media frequently and with vitriol. He called out individual reporters by name, like poor Katy Tur of NBC. He banned the Washington Post from covering his rallies. He tossed a Mexican-American reporter from a rally. His mocking of a disabled reporter became the subject of a national debate. Trump’s very ascendance shows a distrust and even hostility toward the institutions of a free press and of free speech.
Now more than ever it’s time for all of us to remember that the cure for hateful ideas isn’t to censor them, but to confront them. The best cure for hate speech, as our founders knew, isn’t creating restrictive speech codes about what’s right to say and what’s not. The cure is more speech. And the cure is education.
Of course, free speech is not to be confused with threatening speech — direct threats of violence or intimidation — which is in no way protected under the First Amendment. Nor is it to be confused with acts of real violence — which unfortunately have seen an uptick since Mr. Trump’s election. These problems are real and in no way permissible.
Yet now more than ever we must face up to the uncomfortable facts. Trump has been elected and soon the likes of Steve Bannon will be slithering into the West Wing. It seems to me that the time for being offended by small, perceived slights — a luxury on campuses during the Obama years — is one we can suddenly no longer afford. I once read that the Joseph McCarthy years were great ones for universities: suddenly there was a common enemy, and it was quite clear who the bad guys were and what they stood for. I believe that we’re entering that time again. If free speech is about anything, it’s about this: know your enemy. In order to progress as a society, in order to continue to form a more perfect union, we must allow all uncomfortable and unpalatable ideas their legal due, if only so that we can know most clearly who exactly the enemy is and what he wants. Only this way can we beat him back.
This post is not a plea for marginalized groups to shake hands and make nice with bigoted Trump supporters. This is a plea for all of us to remember that just because we don’t like an idea doesn’t make that idea a physical threat. This is also a plea for college students to stop disinviting controversial speakers and to start sitting in the front row, and listening. Don’t drown him out. Respect his free speech. Then — during the question period — debate the hell out of him. Disarm him, beat him down with logic, make him look like the petty little mean man that he is. Know your enemy. Above all, this is a plea to keep in mind the idea behind the First Amendment: just because we are offended by an idea doesn’t mean that the speaker has no right to say it. Because that’s ultimately the way to progress.
I truly believe that it is our president-elect who most needs to remember this lesson well. My guess is that he may need a few reminders.
And that is up to all of us.