Check Your Outrage

Safe Space Trigger at U of C

It’s been a while since I’ve posted. I’m in the throws of writing my paper/thesis, though I don’t know if that makes me inherently less likely to post out of time constraints or more likely due to procrastination.

The University of Chicago, where I work/study/serve-“the man”, published the following letter to its incoming Freshman class:

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The letter has drawn national attention, smug satisfaction from many of its alumni, and trepidation from the incoming students. There’s undoubtably a generational divide here, one that I find myself in the middle of. Adam Davidson put it well in the latest Slate Political Gabfest:

“I don’t know if college-age kids understand that people in their mid-40’s think of themselves as like, ‘oh, I just graduated from college’, but that is my continual experience, to remember that, ‘oh, I’ve been alive longer after college than before college’. And, so this whole world of trigger warnings and not allowing people on campus to disagree with you… […] This is when I feel like an old man and very confused and upset, and I was just proud of my alma mater, the University of Chicago, which sent a letter to the incoming class of 2020 saying ‘we’re not into that; we don’t do trigger warnings; we don’t shield you from complicated ideas. This is a place where we wrestle with complicated ideas, upsetting ideas, the world as it is.’, and I felt very proud of the University of Chicago. I also felt like, maybe this letter was written by a bunch of people just like me and were completely missing something really important we don’t understand.”

Perhaps as a 29-year-old, I can walk that generational divide. This letter and Adam’s response reminded me of this old Simpson’s clip:

Adam and the University of Chicago have taken a righteous stand, but nuance is important in preventing an adversarial or authoritarian environment and backlash from the students…

Take trigger warnings: If you are teaching a class, leading a discussion, or showing a video of an event that is likely to be a psychological trigger to traumatized students, it is compassionate to warn students of this beforehand. This is especially true in the case of sexual assault, since college students live under such threat and are far more likely to have been recently been survivors of rape.

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On the other hand, no one should be forced to give trigger warnings or even be censured for eschewing them. They can detract from many presentations and discussions, so should be used sparingly.

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Safe spaces provide a necessary escape from stressful environments. Whether it’s your dorm room or an exclusive club, they have value. I started a chapter of the Secular Student Alliance primarily to serve as a safe space for atheists to express themselves and form a community. The ability to temporarily retreat from the chaos and rigmarole is critical to student development.

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College itself is not inherently a safe space. On the contrary, it’s supposed to be ideologically challenging. Whatever ideological safety you impose infringes on the expression of others.

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The University of Chicago’s letter does not, as some have reported, limit or discourage protest. Protest is a form of expression that the letter specifically endorses.

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It should be news to no one that protest often takes the form of silencing others. Shouting down invited speakers, blocking entrances, and destroying property are anti-expression

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The best solution for bad speech is more speech, and neither I, nor this letter (for the most part…), says otherwise.

[Edit 8/30/2016]: A friend of a friend from U of C did a nice survey of reactions to the letter.

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Politics, Uncategorized

Living History: “We Beat Trump!”

No one knows how Donald Trump will be remembered decades from now, but what is clear is that he will be remembered. When Donald Trump plans a rally in my backyard at UIC, I have to witness history for myself.

I had friends who only attended the protests outside, but I wanted to see the event and the man himself. More importantly, I wanted to see his supporters and eavesdrop on their conversations. The plan was to stay quiet and blend in, at least until Trump started speaking. I didn’t plan on raising a ruckus, but I hadn’t ruled it out.

Who Goes To These Things?

My wife, Jenn, and I showed up very early, parked, and got in line. On occasion, silent protestors walked past the line holding anti-Trump signs. I did my best to subtly wink at them. It didn’t work as they had learned to avoid eye contact. A few people in line made little, derisive but light-hearted comments at them, but it was a beautiful day, and the Trump supporters we saw weren’t very worked up. They seemed to feel invincible, and thought the protestors were adorable.

Behind us was a group of wealthier, suburban women. Ahead of us was a group of 4-6, very bro-y men in their 30’s or 40’s. Their behavior and comments made me nervous. They hit on a couple of the younger protestors nearby, and laughed very loudly and derisively when they saw a “Bernie 2016” sign. They were trying to take pictures of some of the women who were protesting, and it was just a little creepy. They jeered at a protestor walking by, “Awwwee raciiiismmm, waah waah waah!”

There was plenty of security, and they looked stressed out. Most were apparently outside contractors. Protestors were behind barricades, far on the other side of the street, and we could only hear snippets of things from a megaphone. The entrance was run by police and TSA agents. (Yes, TSA agents. No idea why) There wasn’t much of a police presence in the venue. I had heard stories of screening for Trump supporters, and Jenn and I had our pro-Trump characters at the ready, but there was no such screening. We also got a sign…

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We sat a few rows back from the floor on the lower deck. To our left was a guy who looked like a heavier Ted Cruz. He was wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat and eating wings. That image brought me intense joy. Fortunately, Jenn caught him in a selfie:

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Both these guys are just art

The people sitting behind us were the most fabulous characters. There was a guy directly behind me holding court with his friends, and he was exactly what you would expect from an avid Trump supporter. Here were some quotes from him and his friends:

“There’s a bunch of orientals here”

“Look, there’s women here. I thought Trump was sexist? Baahahah!”

“It’s really cool to see a diverse crowd, like all the oriental people”

“There’s more people on welfare in Illinois than have jobs”

“You know, people on welfare get over $40,000 in benefits”

“This is going to be civil war, because shit’s getting out of hand. The plan is for me, my two ex-wives, and two ex-mother’s in laws to come to my house, but if they’re going to live under my roof and eat my food and water, they’re going to learn how to defend it. I’ve got a bunch of guns, because the people I have to protect don’t have guns. I’ve got two AR-14’s, a bunch of shotguns, and 9 handguns. I’m in Naperville, but it’s the city that’ll be hell which is why the police all learn urban warfare…”

“All those protestors should just get a job.”

“I heard a joke that Monica sucks better than Hillary because Hillary doesn’t suck at all. It’s been confirmed that Hillary is into girls anyway.”

“Look at all the orientals!”

There was a hispanic family that made matching shirts. The mom’s said “women for Trump”. The dad’s said “All lives matter”. A couple young women wore “Make Donald Drumpf again” shirts. There were a significant number of more racially diverse people who were clearly there to observe. They weren’t Trump supporters, but they weren’t causing problems. My guess is that it was probably 50/50 between supporters and non-supporters. I saw several women wearing hijabs, and I did not see them harassed.

Trump was supposed to speak at 6pm. At 5:30, the 10,000 seat venue was about 2/3 full, and every 5min or so, a protestor was ushered out to loud chants of “USA! USA!”. I thought that these protestors were foolish not to wait for Trump to arrive to start protesting. Later, a few BLM protestors began chanting in the back, but refused to leave when security came. It was then that I noticed that two whole sections in the back were packed with students. They chanted as one, “LET HIM STAY! LET HIM STAY!” on behalf of the BLM protestor. A few Trump supporters started shouting back, and ~20 police officers filtered in. When a cop confronted a shouty Trump supporter, it was amazing to see the student section’s chant turn on a dime to “KICK HIM OUT! KICK HIM OUT!”. So much for principles. Jenn caught video of these early scenes. The cheering is from Trump supporters.

A voice over the PA made a statement about how to deal with protestors. Paraphrased, he said, “Donald Trump is a strong supporter of freedom of speech, but this is a private event. Some people have abused Mr. Trump’s hospitality and attempted to use his rallies to promote their own agenda. If you notice a protestor nearby, raise your sign high in the air to notify police of the protestor’s location and chant “Trump! Trump! Trump!” until the protestor is removed”

Until about 6:30pm, there were periodic group chants by small bunches of students and distant shouting between Trump supporters and protestors. It took a while for police to kick out everyone they wanted, but it didn’t seem to make a dent in the population of anti-Trump students. All in all, there were several significant, but isolated incidents.

Shit Gets Cray

At ~6:40pm, there was a significant lull in the energy of the room. Trump was very late. Protests had stopped. An unknown man came to the microphone. Here is the announcement, and a bunch of shots of the ensuing chaos.

As soon as he said the word “postponed”, the place. went. nuts. The students erupted. Fists shot into the air from every section. My jaw dropped. People jumped the railing and streamed onto the open floor where people were running around screaming and celebrating.

The reaction of most Trump supporters was to stand in shock, and rather quietly, turn to leave. The invincibility that Trump supporters had previously conveyed was shattered. It looked and felt like pure victory for the protestors and pure defeat for Trump and his supporters. The cheering coming from previously silent people all around the venue was a shock to the Trumpeters. My neighbors looked aghast and stared when Jenn and I, who had previously been silent, started cheering with them.

I had been texting the whole evening with a friend who was protesting outside. According to her, the protestors had advanced on the streets, blocking intersections. When I told her that the event had been cancelled, she was shocked. It became apparent later that this news took a long time to reach the protestors outside.

Inside the venue, the next hour was filled with joy and a sense of witnessing important history. The entire venue was switching between the following chants:

“WE BEAT TRUMP!”, “BERNIE! BERNIE!”, “STOP THE HATE!”, “FEEL THE BERN!”, and “SI, SE PUEDE!”

It was abundantly clear from the crowd, the signs, and the homogeneous chants, that there was perfect overlap with the anti-Trump and pro-Bernie crowd. I can’t stress enough that this was almost as much of a pro-Bernie protest as an anti-Trump one. The pro-Bernie sentiment added an extra bit of joy to the protests. This also was not an isolated celebration. The venue was packed with raucous, anti-Trump people long after the announcement. Here’s a collection of videos that we captured that includes some of the chants, my one encounter with a couple Trump supporters itching for a fight, and a shot of the protestors outside:

Jenn and I wandered over closer to the student section, hanging out at the rail. We could see ~10ft in front of us on the floor, where there were serious confrontations between protestors and Trump supporters, but I saw no actual violence. It was mostly people walking with signs and shouting at the crowd or at each other. Many of the protestors linked arms in long chains so that they couldn’t be kicked out. None of the protestors were leaving, and it didn’t take long for us to be >80% of the crowd.

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We were even on TV!

The young guy next to me was wearing a white, pro-Trump shirt. He was very mild mannered and asked me if I knew when the rally would be rescheduled. I said that I doubted it would, and he was disappointed. I agreed that I had wanted to hear from Trump. He told me that he hadn’t decided if he would support Hillary or Trump, and you can imagine my surprise. We spoke for a few minutes about Bernie, and he wasn’t interested in a “socialist” or any of my explanations. (Meanwhile, joy and chaos surrounded us) When it came to the violence that Trump advocated, he said, “maybe that’s what we need”. “Violence?”, I said. He agreed. I said, “Then I will be standing opposed to you.” No, it wasn’t witty. I just was simply done with that conversation.

I stood watching and chanting along with the crowd, joyous tears welling in my eyes. When a man came on the PA asking us to disperse, Jenn and I did. I wanted to see the protests outside.

As we left, the crowd was extremely dense, and felt a lot like leaving a ballpark after the home team had beaten a rival. The differences were that no alcohol was involved, tempers were much more intense, and the losers were not really shouting back because the numbers were so against them.

The protest outside was unusual because you had anti-Trump supporters behind barricades, instinctively castigating people that left the venue. (almost all anti-Trump as well) On the street were many mounted police and many more on foot, separating two raucus crowds behind barricades… that, ironically, were protesting the same thing. It turns out to be very difficult to communicate with protestors 30 feet away from you that you agree with them.

We found a few trashed boxes of mass-arrest forms and zip-ties, so I got myself a souvenir…

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The parking garage was completely blocked by protestors, so we spent an hour walking around the protest on both sides of the street. They appeared to be almost entirely UIC students. The feeling was of immense joy at the victory, pro-Bernie fervor, and the occasional person arguing with police. I also witnessed a few people thanking officers for what they did. From what I saw, police seemed to handle the situation admirably.

Reflections, what does it all mean…

Sure, it’s momentous. Sure, it’s historic and may be a turning point in this historic election. However, it’s not necessarily a clear, ethical win.

The spin from Trump is that the protestors suppressed his freedom of speech. Maybe. There is certainly a troubling culture of threatening and stifling speech on college campuses. We need to do away with the dogma that college is inherently a “home” or “safe space” where students should be free from disturbing ideas. Students have the right to protest, to speak out, but it is against our values of freedom of expression to shut down or even shout down a guest speaker.

On the other hand, Trump wasn’t really a guest speaker. He wasn’t giving a lecture on a controversial set of ideas. It was explicitly a political rally, a venue for emotion, encouragement, and the voicing of passions. Passions were voiced, but they weren’t the one’s that Trump wanted to win the day. A principled leader would have showed up and dared to confront a hostile crowd with speech, as he was free to do.

On the other hand, it depends on the nature and goals of the protests outside. If the sheer numbers and intensity were what kept Trump away, then he simply, cowardly bowed to pressure. If the protestors were literally blocking access to the venue, or made explicit threats to him if he came, then the protestors have clearly infringed upon his freedom of expression. I hope that’s not the case, and that this isn’t another triumph of the illiberal left to stifle speech.

On the other hand, a little common sense is due, as Donald Trump is not wanting for attention. This is a win for nonviolence. This is a win for love over hate. This is a loss for Donald Trump. He looked weak, which is why he lied and said that the Chicago Police told him that the venue wasn’t safe. The Chicago Police quickly released that they were not consulted, and thought that the situation was under control, good to go.

This is a win for Bernie Sanders. This is what a political revolution looks like. It starts with young people, at colleges like UIC, standing up for what they believe in. Protests can work, and they can drive change. It’s up to the rest of us to decide if we keep it moving.

Oh yea, VOTE! ELECTION DAY in ILLINOIS is TUESDAY, MARCH 15! VOTE early, VOTE often! FUCKING VOTE!!!

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