Hateful Campus Visitors and the Challenges of Empathy

Joel:

For a good portion of most of my days, I listen to hate speech, transcribing and analyzing it. I wouldn’t encourage anyone else to this kind of work; there is a risk of harm involved, of losing faith in humanity, of becoming too familiar with the basest language, of numbing out and forgetting that these words kill people’s spirits and contribute to violence.

But there is value in listening, too. We need to know—not merely so we never forget history but also so that we don’t deny the present state of things, which, right now in particular, is pretty hateful.

So you are right—when Heather MacDonald is invited to campus, she should speak and those who can learn from her should listen. Not merely because of the First Amendment but because we can learn from even very poor thinkers—not to mimic their thinking but to understand it. And, perhaps we can sometimes even appreciate the good work that often-hateful people do, as Tablet does in its “My Favorite Anti-Semite” column. Their stories remind us that good people can do bad things—a larger reminder to be on guard against our sense of our own goodness.

As a college educator, I want to be sure that my students are critically-minded enough to listen to MacDonald, if they chose to. If I’ve done my job well, they will be skeptical of her process and reject her conclusions, not because, as Betsy DeVos says, I’ve” indoctrinated” them but because they can listen across lines of difference with compassion and still see the weaknesses in her argument. And I hope that, when they do that, they respond by, first caring for those who are being harmed by her arguments, then by building better ones.

But this issue is only peripherally about MacDonald.  It’s perhaps more about universities—students, faculty, and administrators—who bring such figures to campus. As an African American student, how do you go to class the next day and sit by peers who cheer on someone who makes racist arguments? How do you entrust your education to professors who cheer on that position? (It’s very much akin to how I feel about Donald Trump voters. He’s bad enough. The fact that 60 million + people voted for him, in large part because they are racist, is what is really upsetting. That would be disheartening if he’d won or lost. And remember, from paragraph 1, that I study hate all day long. So it’s not like I’m not prepared for people to be awful.)

How do we ask black students or international students to learn alongside those who invited Richard “peaceful ethnic cleansing” Spencer to Auburn University? (Spencer’s invitation was rescinded after the university decided it could not insure the safety of campus. A federal court has weighed in, saying that Spencer has the right to speak on campus. Spencer plans on speaking on campus tonight and has said that he is prepared for potential violence.)

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A different story: Last week at Washington State University, students who were part of an anti-abortion group staked 300 pink crosses in the ground in a “Cemetery for the Unborn,” a display drawing attention to the 3000 abortion performed in the US each day, according to the WHO. Later in the day, a student passing by grew agitated by the display and began to dismantle it, and others joined in. Eventually, campus police were called to address the dispute. My gut response (as with the call to destroy Dana Schultz’s painting of Emmett Till) was a big “No, nope, nope.” The student who led the attempt to dismantle the display said his concern was for women who have had abortions who walked by it and were harmed by it. Another student who participated in vandalism of the display said, ““If I were a person that had an abortion and I saw this, I would be heartbroken.”

Their concern for their peers is real. Their empathy is admirable.

But empathy is at the heart of a lot of hateful activity, too. It’s why the content of speech would be a very bad way to decide if it deserves the protections of the First Amendment, as the Supreme Court, in Snyder v. Phelps and elsewhere, has noted. What one person hears as speakers advocating for inclusivity, respect, and kindness another will hear as an assault on religious freedom and the foundations of Western Civilization.To paraphrase the scholar Janice Radway, “listening is not eating“; we get to choose what we do with what we hear.

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