By Nicholas Riebel || Staff Writer
Several students have hung a Donald Trump banner from the window of one of the dorms of Thomas Hall, in full view of visitors, students, faculty, and staff alike. During the Diplomatic Congress’s weekly meeting on February 25, a leading member of DipCon expressed great concern at the banner, and were concerned about the message it sends to F&M students and workers (many of whom come from another nation) and everyone else. I think the banner also sends a message to prospective students as well about F&M’s inclusiveness (or lack thereof), when we have tried to both promote a more diverse and accepting image, and actually become a more diverse and accepting college.
It will likely not surprise the reader to know that the overwhelming majority, at least of those who spoke, on the Diplomatic Congress were opposed to taking any official action on the banner. These individuals claimed, with obvious justification, that they were concerned with the optics of banning freedom of expression on campus. The group did come to a consensus, though, that it would be possible for one of them, or another student, to go to the administration in an unofficial capacity and ask if displaying the banner violated college rules. What a brave, courageous act to combat bigotry on campus.
Several of those who spoke worried that if the Trump banner were forcibly removed it would set a troubling precedent. Surely, they argued, those with Clinton or Sanders banners would be forced to remove them as well! Now we’re getting into censorship, and as “liberal” or “progressive” college students, we don’t support that, right? We don’t want to tell people who or what they can or can’t support, right? Oh, surely not. What brilliant reasoning, there. This kind of thinking is what’s wrong with some modern day “progressives.”
If, instead of a Trump banner, those students at Thomas had a Confederate flag banner outside their window, I am almost 100 percent sure action would have been taken, and it would have been so fast that the Diplomatic Congress would not have had time to debate it. This is not a matter of freedom of speech or expression. It is not even a question of college policy: It is a question of whether the banner can be considered hate speech.
Some students at the meeting said, oh, well, the banner didn’t have any hateful words on it, right? So it can’t be hate speech. You do not need to actually have a banner or poster saying something hateful for it to be considered hate speech or hateful expression. It is known that Trump vilifies Mexicans, immigrants, Muslims, women, and others. It does not need to say on the banner “all Mexicans are rapists” for the viewer to know what is implicit there.
Again, I am disappointed in the facile reasoning of a majority of the Diplomatic Congress. Our college deserves better. And an absence of banners and posters promoting hate on student residences in public view will likely help in recruitment, if we truly want a more diverse, open, and welcoming campus. Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz have not been promoting violent rhetoric and hate speech towards groups of individuals. Trump has. It’s not hard to figure out. Those who fly banners supporting him, by implication, support that as well. And, for those seeing this, they understand the message. Some of those people include not just those who currently study or work here, but those who might in the future. College administration and admissions, I hope you read, and understand, what I say.
I know this article may appear that I am endorsing censorship or the suppression or oppression of dissent. But, let’s be clear: I have no problem with bringing in alternate voices. I don’t have problems with learning about other perspectives, even those I believe to be mistaken or wrong. After all, I could be mistaken or wrong, and the speaker could be right. Yet, I express concern that conservatives are upset, not that they feel concerned about voicing legitimate grievances, but that they do not want to hear other perspectives or are upset that they cannot voice views that may be controversial without fear of backlash (such as supporting Trump, homophobia, or other forms of bigotry).
The Diplomatic Congress decided that F&M should do much more to bring in different and diverse voices and speakers. After all, as at least one speaker said, we should make sure that EVERYONE (by implication liberals and progressives) also have their “feathers ruffled” or feel rattled, uncomfortable, shaken. I had no problem with this. But then, this enlightened majority turned around and said, yes, no one should feel uncomfortable or afraid about expressing their opinions on campus. This should be a comfort zone for us all to share what we feel, no matter how unpopular.
I wanted to burst out laughing at the meeting, at how immediately and blindly they immediately came to a consensus to contradict what they had just agreed on. So, conservatives, they just agreed, should be safe to say what they want on campus, and have the speakers they want, even if they make liberals and others uncomfortable. We should have people feeling uncomfortable and have their “feathers ruffled.” Yet, they also agreed that we should make sure, that in dialogue and discussion on campus, everyone feels comfortable. But you can’t have it both ways! And at least one person there recognized this, but he or she was drowned out by a bipartisan compromise and consensus on this issue.
I agree that people should feel uncomfortable on campus, in that they should have their core beliefs and values questioned. But, you cannot turn around and say, but we should make sure everyone is comfortable. Perhaps I misunderstood, but I think it is more likely that the Diplomatic Congress did not understand the implications of their two agreements: everyone should feel comfortable to voice any opinion or idea, however unpopular or however it makes others feel and everyone should feel comfortable on campus, we should not let conservatives feel bad about being oppressed for believing in “traditional moral values” or “traditional marriage” or “Donald Trump.”
So, I actually think that freedom of speech should win the day here, as long as it is not hate speech (which I do not think should be promoted by the College) or any speech will could cause violence (which often ends up being hate speech). This is a very complicated topic, and I am disappointed that the Diplomatic Congress, for the most part, became confused on such a relatively simple part of it. If they were right, that people should feel free to speak without fear of any retribution, they cannot also assert that everyone should feel comfortable about their beliefs and speaking them on campus. What makes freedom of speech, and belief, and discussion work is that everyone’s beliefs can be questioned, challenged, praised, and condemned. Freedom of speech is about communicating different ideas, or opinions, or thoughts to others. Hate speech, which Donald Trump’s campaign is largely predicated on, is not about this. It is about oppressing, discriminating against, and violating the rights of another group or groups of people.
So, let’s be careful when we say that we want all voices heard with no exceptions, that conservatives or right-leaning people are “oppressed” or feel “under siege” that they cannot express certain opinions, and that clearly the problem is that liberals and progressives just have such a stranglehold over the domain of ideas (at least here) that others cannot break through. If you are a conservative, or a moderate, or anyone else, feel free to express your opinion. Do not fear retribution or condemnation, if you offer it in good faith, and with the intent of your speech not violating the right of others to feel safe, not having their own rights violated, and being able to study or work here themselves without retribution, because of what you said or expressed.
Again, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of belief, are all serious and difficult issues. I just wish that a majority of the Diplomatic Congress had more than a rudimentary understanding of them, and perhaps actually were brave or proactive enough to ensure both these rights, and the rights of others not to be the victims of potential hate speech. In effect, by not taking action on the Trump banner, the Diplomatic Congress has set a precedent in implicitly allowing hate speech. Regardless of whether hate speech should be allowed in the United States it should not be allowed in the college setting for extremely obvious, practical reasons.
Donald Trump is a hateful man, running a campaign based in large part on hate speech. We have seen violence at his rallies: hate speech can cause violence. We need leaders who are brave and responsible enough to take appropriate action, whether it is acting in an official capacity to stop hate speech or ensuring that free speech is allowed on campus, and that it applies to everyone, not a progressive majority, or a conservative minority, or another applicable group.
Progressives and liberals, I believe, usually have it right. They are usually right to support those freedoms. But, I’ve been told, your mind shouldn’t be so open that your brain falls out. You should support freedom, but your freedom ends when it imposes upon the freedom of another. Speech and expression are fine, until someone is threatened or potentially threatened by it, particularly if F&M would desperately like to improve its image in terms of diversity, acceptance, and openness.
This is common sense. This applies to all of us. And, as a student here, you may serve on Diplomatic Congress, you have a friend or friends who do, or you are represented by at least one of these individuals. Let your own voice be heard. After all, that is what it is all about in the end, isn’t it? You have your freedom. You are free to use it. This is not a theoretical government class exercise on human rights or the state of nature or Lockean philosophy. You can use the power you have by right to make sure your leaders do what is right.
And, when you think about it, I’m not just talking about for the Diplomatic Congress, am I?
Junior Nicholas Riebel is a staff writer. His email is nriebel@fandm.