The First Amendment protects the transmission of ideas–all ideas, good or bad–including messages conveyed through what the courts call “symbolic speech.” Flag burning and Nazi marches, among other examples, are offensive precisely because they send messages with which other people strongly disagree.
So much for legal analysis. Symbolic speech can also tell us a great deal about the health of a society and the nature and significance of its cultural conflicts .
In the 1930s, university students in college towns across Germany burned thousands of books they considered to be “un-German”–by which they meant inconsistent with the country’s growing Nazi ideology.
Last week, students at Georgia Southern University burned books written by a Latina author who spoke about white privilege. According to the Washington Post,
In response to Jennine Capó Crucet’s talk on the Statesboro, Ga., campus Wednesday, where she focused her discussion on white privilege, students gathered at a grill and torched her novel “Make Your Home Among Strangers” — about a first-generation Cuban American woman struggling to navigate a mostly white elite college.
Jennifer Wise, a university spokeswoman, issued a statement:
“While it’s within the students’ First Amendment rights, book burning does not align with Georgia Southern’s values nor does it encourage the civil discourse and debate of ideas.”
A subsequent event was canceled, according to Crucet, “because the administration said they could not guarantee my safety or the safety of its students on campus because of open-carry laws.”
The university decided to relocate Crucet to a different hotel outside of town after a crowd began to form outside her original lodging. Photos and videos of her book being burned also began to appear on social media, including by many who tagged Crucet in tweets. (Some of these messages have since been deleted.)
This is what happens when prominent people–like the President of the United States– trash the most basic norms of civility in furtherance of racial and religious intolerance, creating an environment in which denigrating the “other” replaces respectful debate, and unwelcome perspectives are met with rage and threats of violence rather than with contending arguments.
This is what happens when people fear the loss of hegemony and yes, privilege. It’s what happens when a President and his political party appeal to those fears and intentionally inflame racial animosities in order to win votes.
We don’t know how many of the students at Georgia Southern University participated in this orgy of resentment and anti-intellectualism. We can only hope they are not representative of either the institution’s student body or the population of Georgia.
I think it was the political philosopher Alexander Meiklejohn who said “People who are afraid of an idea–any idea–are unfit for self-government.” Meiklejohn was right.
I don’t remember who said “It can’t happen here,” but I’m very much afraid that whoever it was, was wrong.