Hey, so I went to Occidental College. Just like Mr. Obama (Emily Post says the title of "President" ends with the end of the term of office - yes, I checked). Two differences stand out between us, I think. I graduated. And he's more famous. Oh, plus I never inhaled.
So I mention Occidental College because I received correspondence from my alma mater today that struck me immediately as insipid and deeply troubling. Here's what the e-mail said:
To the Occidental Community,
n Charlottesville last weekend, we saw the ugly face of racism and hate, naked and unadorned. White supremacy in all of its manifestations is an assault on the fundamental values of Occidental, the community of scholars of which we are a part, and the kind of country we want to be. Love of knowledge, intellectual rigor and mutual respect are essential in creating the kind of just, inclusive and loving community we all want to be a part of. As we welcome the Class of 2021 to campus next week, and throughout the coming months, let’s embrace these values as we continue our effort to create such a community here at Oxy.
A few questions came to mind immediately. The first thing I asked myself was whether the current crop of incoming students needs to be told that white supremacists are bad. It never came up when I was there, but I'm really confident that had I conducted a poll, 100% of my classmates would have, without hesitation, said, "Bad." (A few might have first asked if it was some sort of trick.) This would have been the easiest quiz, with the highest average score in the history of Occidental.
But, today, not so much. The school has to tell them it's bad. Here's my first tip to the admissions committee at Occidental: if you think you need to tell incoming freshmen this, raise your standards. You are diluting the value of my degree. Maybe there's a class action there. Kidding. Probably. No, kidding for sure.
The second thing I asked myself was why the President of Occidental didn't think to make any mention of the fact that Occidental also abhors the use of violence to silence even reprehensible hate speech. I've heard quite a few political commentators in recent months suggesting that the First Amendment doesn't protect "hate speech." Go check with a colleague that practices First Amendment law and see if they concur. Surely it must be the case that as much as hateful viewpoints like white supremacy, misogyny, or other bigoted beliefs are contrary to fundamental values of Occidental, so, too, are any attempts to forcibly silence even unpleasant ideas. However, as I am sure that President Veitch did not issue this letter without substantial thought and input, I have to wonder whether the omission of any warning to new students that violent suppression of speech will not be tolerated was intentional.
I can't say it isn't tempting to be sympathetic, for a moment, when a nutter white supremacist is receiving a beat down with a club. But I would caution everyone to remember Neimoller's words:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
You can't send a message that criticizes what is, fortunately, a viewpoint considered by a vast majority of Americans as reprehensible while tacitly condoning vigilantism to silence that idea (if you actually doubt that, consider that a little more than 100 years ago, the KKK had membership in the millions, but a century later the membership was believed to be under 10,000). Violent repression of speech won't stop at the white supremacists. It's already moved past that. Recall riots at Berkley, the birthplace of contrary viewpoint expression, to silence a speaker. If thuggish retaliation against speech is allowed to build up a head of steam, it will be hard to stop.
Occidental's alumni should be very disappointed by the absence of a strong message renouncing violence to limit speech and encouraging civil dialog between members of the Occidental community at all times (with at least an implied reminder that anyone acting contrary to that principle will need to find themselves a new college to attend in short order).
I would note, in closing, that Occidental's website does a far better job of recognizing that dialog can often be challenging, but open discussion and critical thinking are central to the educational mission. Why doesn't the President of Occidental know that?