Most professors love their jobs. The books, the students, the quiet library corners, the freedom to pursue the most arcane and theoretical subjects: there is much to love about this life. But above all, academia, grounded in the deepest principles of political liberalism, provides something that we spend our lives longing for: a safe space.
Being a professor or a student comes with a certain existential security – the ability to walk to our offices and classrooms in the ivory tower without encountering the types of individuals who would like to burn them to the ground. These individuals – fascists, racists, sexists, bigots of all variety – are out there, but they are in general unwelcome on my campus, and in many cases, their presence is strictly prohibited by university regulations. If I taught in the UK, I would be even safer, guarded by a “no-platform” policy that states that universities shall not provide a platform for any form of hate speech. This was, until very recently, a policy that I wholeheartedly supported.
But then it was announced that Donald Trump will today be speaking at my campus.
Granted, he isn’t an invited lecturer and he isn’t giving the commencement speech (thankfully), but my university did agree to rent him space at our collegiate sports arena – enough room for his presidential campaign to come to town with its whole hateful three-ring circus. And it is a circus. Some 4,500 Trump supporters will pack into the Tsongas Center in Lowell Massachusetts to listen to him roar and splutter about how to make America great again: how to return to the halcyon days of xenophobia and sexism, when men were men and women knew their place.
When the announcement came last week notifying faculty that Trump was on his way, I was initially appalled. How could university administrators allow such asinine rhetoric? This was a man who promised to cut the Department of Education “way back”, to reduce the love of learning to the bottom line.
I knew that this was not enough to evoke the no-platform policy, but Trump is also the man who repeatedly insulted Mexican-Americans, African Americans and women – and our student body was full of them. In the course of three days, my “safe space” was to be transformed into a very dangerous one. And I was beside myself.
My students – a small, culturally diverse group from the introduction to philosophy course – were comparatively undisturbed. “Let him come,” one underclassman said. “Jerks are always going to be jerks.” At first, I thought that their nonchalance was a function of ignorance – maybe they didn’t know how disgusting the Trump rhetoric was. Or even worse, maybe they endorsed his views.
But after a minute of conversation before class, I realised that they did know enough about the candidate to completely reject his platform. Then the question remained: why entertain the buffoon?
Their answer had, to my surprise, little to do with high-minded ideals of free speech (that liberal democracies have a duty to allow most voices – save genuine hate speech – to be heard). Instead, they were happy to see Trump come to campus for a single, extremely practical reason: they were ready. One student had already created a petition with 2,500 names objecting to his visit. Another had organised a Bernie Sanders rally (the Democratic antithesis to Trump) to piggyback on the Trump show.
A third had organised a large group of students to buy up as many tickets to the rally as they could – and then not show up (nothing is more disturbing to an entertainer than an empty grandstand). A fourth was going to attend a counter-demonstration that was going to encircle the arena. They had a plan, and were, by my estimate, excited to carry it out.
I was, admittedly, more than a little surprised. I love my students, but they always struck me as politically detached, so busy with their own immediate lives that they couldn’t be bothered with national or international politics. This, like so many of my assumptions about teaching and students, was dead wrong. They were interested, even passionately involved, with the campaign, but in a way that did not necessarily involve their professors.
They didn’t need a “safe space”. And they didn’t need my protection. They were managing just fine on their own.
The no-platform policy is often criticised as coddling our students, as a way of avoiding offending their delicate liberal sensibilities. These critics might argue that students need to be exposed to the Trumps of the world in order to be toughened up. But there is a more useful criticism that should be levelled at the supporters of “no platform”. In “protecting” my students against objectionable speech, I was tacitly patronising them; I was assuming that they did not already have the critical faculties to deal with hate-mongers.
In the end, they did have these faculties, they just needed a space to exercise them.
I now think differently about my “safe space”. It isn’t a space free from threat, but rather one in which risk and threat have their say, but in a semi-controlled environment.
Having Trump on campus has occasioned a critical dialogue and galvanised the political will of a student body. It has allowed students to work with professors and community members to think through our visitor’s message and respond accordingly. In the midst of the discussion with my students, one of them said, quite rightly: “There are worse people than Donald Trump. Just think about the Ku Klux Klan.”
She was right. But maybe there is some wisdom to giving these sort of people a platform – after all, it gives our students some practice in tearing the platform down, in ways – of course – that a liberal democracy could condone.
John Kaag is associate professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell