John McWhorter: Richard Spencer's speech is an opportunity for effective protest
Left's embrace of safe spaces hinders counterarguments against hate, he says
Editor’s Note: John McWhorter teaches linguistics, American studies, philosophy and music history at Columbia University and is the author of “The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
When I was in college in the early 1980s, one of the more peculiar events in the fall was a visit from “Brother Jed Smock.” Smock, a self-styled “confrontational evangelist,” would plant himself at some central outdoor location and confidently preach against, well, you name it.
With his wife Cindy and assorted assistants standing nearby as a kind of Greek chorus, Jed would rail against not just alcohol, drugs, fornication and rock ’n’ roll (seemingly just about anything that made life truly enjoyable) but also against homosexuals. I recall the old “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” line, and apparently he’s still at it today, using the “we can pray the gay away” canard.
To be sure, it was a sport among many students to circle Smock and jeer at him, get into goofy exchanges with him, and even interrupt him as much as possible. I, in fact, learned a lot from watching this – such as that people like Smock existed, for one thing, but more importantly what the handy arguments against them were. The Gay Alliance, at a time when such organizations were new to college campuses, was memorably articulate, I recall. They didn’t tell Smock to shut up or circulate petitions to bar him from campus. His being able to air his views to an extent was part of the educational process, in providing something to respond to amid the lively give and take of actual exchange. There was no notion that human dignity required the campus grounds be a space “safe” from the likes of his speech.
They argued back – eloquently.
I think back to Brother Jed’s statements against gays (not to mention women and other minority groups) in view of the fact that white nationalist Richard Spencer will be speaking at Texas A&M. He was invited by an alumnus, Preston Wiginton (who says Spencer’s message has “valid points”), and because the school is a public university, he can’t be barred from campus.
That, of course, hasn’t stopped university officials and students alike from reacting with anger and consternation and proactively disavowing Spencer’s white supremacist positions. However, there are some lessons to be learned from the fact of his being allowed to speak and how the campus community is responding to it; namely, that while I’d much rather be living in 2016 than 1983, those 1980s approaches to hateful rhetoric on campus – specifically, resolute counterarguments – are a throwback we need to embrace.
It is absolutely vital that faculty and students have organized “Aggies United,” various protests and counter-lectures to speak against Spencer’s rhetoric at Texas A&M. The administration has made clear that it neither solicited nor endorses Spencer’s presence. But as promising or productive as these protest activities may prove to be, one of their premises misses the point. No protest, however “inclusive,” should wall itself off from what it’s arguing against.
Certainly, the counteraction to Spencer should take the occasion to make clear the error in his arguments, and with healthy doses of asperity and ridicule. This is real life here – “civil” need not mean boring, which is usually ineffective. This should include not only at the events themselves, but also in campus newspaper editorials later this week, as well as in various online venues.
Spencer will be sure to make assorted callow, uninformed, potentially dangerous or just plain mean points, to which anyone opposed ought to respond by calling out their errors and flaws. But the students and faculty at Texas A&M won’t be able to do this; they will be elsewhere, holding what they’re calling a celebration of diversity. Why not show up to challenge Spencer first, then celebrate these laudable values?
There is an element of performance in all protest, necessarily. However, the “safe space” rhetoric has permeated so deeply that, unintentionally, the left is using a display of weakness as strength. That is, in order to create change, one is to indicate grievous injury on the basis of things which, in the not too distant past, even politically concerned people considered something to walk on by, or make fun of.
But as sociologist Todd Gitlin has noted, this kind of performed delicacy was alien to leftist protesters of the ‘60s and beyond. To resist influentially requires, at base, strength. It also shades into reproducing discrimination. To demand, as black college protesters did last year at Oberlin, a “safe space” from whites is damnedly close to responding to racism with intolerance, especially in as socially aware a context as a college campus.
To some, the approach I’m describing to noxious speakers like Spencer will still seem somehow insufficient. I fear, however, this is because many have come to think that someone like Spencer’s ability to speak freely makes it a foregone conclusion that he may infect the minds of students who go to listen to him.
Those objectors should keep two things in mind.
First, this betrays a certain pessimism toward the power of counterarguments. Why assume that Spencer has some kind of Messianic oratorical potency (especially when he doesn’t)? One thing is clear: If a student attends Spencer’s talk and then the only opposition they hear is claims that Spencer shouldn’t have been allowed in the students’ “safe space,” then that student cannot be blamed for finding the left’s position flimsy.
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Second, if a student is closed even to reasonable opposing views to Spencer’s, can we really say that they wouldn’t have had, and retained, the same views whether or not Spencer came to campus at all?
I know the deeper anxiety is that Donald Trump’s campaign, election and impending ascendancy threaten to normalize views like Spencer’s. But even there, it would be handy if the effective way of rising to the challenge was to just tell people to shut up. Too bad it isn’t.