Book Burning As “Symbolic Speech”

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.”

A Time Magazine report about the episode had this added–chilling–information:

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.


  1. “It Can’t Happen Here” a Nobel by Sinclair Lewis. It’s worth reading for the first time or fourth time. However, if your experience is like mine, have some antacid nearby.

  2. Very good issue, Sheila, for discussion. I was curious when opening the website for Georgia Southern University to get some glimmer behind the story as example to your point. The university has a 52 pp. fully articulated student code of conduct with an administrative office and authorized personnel focused on adherence. There is a clause in the code addressing threats. Despite written intent in the culture of the university, the administration seems a little soft on addressing a clear threat and disruption of a legitimate sponsored subject matter expert invited by an institution of higher education. There seems to be more to the story as you suggest. In another ‘era’, perhaps the university administration would have more confidence to enforce the written rules fully accessible to everyone and the matter would be over with no further consequences. But something is lurking like an insidious black cloud that raises more questions of caution for authorities to enforce written code. What is the fear? Is it so pervasive otherwise right minded people even in a highly resourced institution such as Georgia Southern University, a reluctant toss of a softball will do for now?

  3. One issue I have never seen connected to “book burning” anywhere is; who owned the books which were burned? While burning someone else’s words can be considered protected as free speech; stealing anyone else’s property and destroying it has to be against some level of law even if it is a misdemeanor.

    “Last week, students at Georgia Southern University burned books written by a Latina author who spoke about white privilege.”

    Were these specific books owned by Georgia Southern University; if so, they would be destroying university property. Or was the students’ hatred so deep they would purchase copies of the book to burn? A minor detail to be sure but a fact that seems to be overlooked just as the current Trump administration overlooks the words of democracy, Rule of Law and the Constitution as if they never existed. The fact that the Republican party considers the vast number of times of Trump ignoring common decency as his right to free speech; his speaking out to remove our troops from Kurdish territory has led to an increasing number of loss of lives. Remember the Civil Right Movement involving colleges; what will the book burning at this university lead to?

    It IS happening here NOW!

  4. Whenever I hear about acts such as book burning I am consumed by sadness and anger. Why, O why must be behave this way? We are rotting from the core and I am at a loss for ways to turn it around.

  5. Peggy,

    The history is there and it was taught at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara, California during the time of the Civil Rights Movement in the 60s. One of the professors there was Milton Mayer who was earlier at the University of Chicago.

    Read his book: “They Thought They Were Free.” The most important chapter has been online for years. It explains what happened in Germany from the mouths of those who let it happen with the idea that, MAYBE, we wouldn’t repeat the same disastrous outcome here in the U.S.

  6. This may be the initial cracking open of a festering wound that finally burst open from a boiling pus filled infection that had not been treated with the proper disinfectant medicine.

    A lot more pus may ooze out of this sore before it calms down.

  7. The recent book burning and gutless reaction from school administrators shows the confluence of ignorance, white privilege, hate and open-carry gun laws. If the “authorities” have to cancel free expression because of the fear of gun violence, we are moving rapidly toward that dystopia that Sinclair Lewis indeed described in “It Can’t Happen Here”.

    Well done, conservatives. You really know how to make America a better place and our Constitution more meaningful every day. I’m glad I’m old.

  8. Nancy,

    “….. a boiling pus filled infection that had not been treated with the proper disinfectant medicine.”

    As pointed out in “They Thought They Were Free,” the answer lies with the ability to TRACK from the beginning of the outbreak of the disease. Especially, when the ONLY medicine [vaccine] is the TRUTH [accumulated].

  9. Is there no legal standard for speech promoting actions that threaten the rights of others? Does the law assume that what we hear is benign to how we act and therefore only we determine our behavior?

  10. According to online resources, GA Southern’s Latino population is approximately 6.0%. It is 62% white and 26% black.

    I’d say the author was invited on campus to speak about white privilege because they have relative issues regarding the same. Imagine that in Georgia where a majority of students are white.

    The students aren’t born intolerant — this is learned behavior from racist parents who pass along their hate to their children. Sadly, trying to teach a 19-year-old about diversity is a difficult task if they’ve spent their lives hearing hate speech from their one or two role models.

    And yes, Trump has given these white people an opportunity to vent openly with his rhetoric but it is good that we are seeing it first hand. In years past, it was kept below the surface because it wasn’t politically correct. But our first black president in the white house was too much for the haters to deal with.

    Is it any wonder that a white racist rode the wave of white populism to the White House after he openly challenged the birth of our first black president?

    The United States has had a serious race problem since its inception. Just because SCOTUS and Washington gave equal rights to all citizens in the 1960s doesn’t mean white people stopped discriminating. It was systemic and widespread.

    If we truly want a diverse culture in this country, we’ll have to start teaching it long before these kids reach college. Think about the rich white neighborhoods surrounding Indianapolis where those kids live with privilege their whole lives going to a college where 50% of the population is of color. Culture shock!

    Our economic system was built upon the backs of slave labor. Don’t you think we still have remnants of that in our current system? 😉

    And if it’s built into our economic system, then it’s built into other systems/institutions as well.

    By the way, the author is a Cuban-American living in Hialeah/Miami and went to college at Cornell University. Her book was based on her own personal experience with white privilege.

  11. The question that set things off was:

    “I noticed that you made a lot of generalizations about the majority of white people being privileged,” the student asked, according to GSU student newspaper The George-Anne. “What makes you believe that it’s okay to come to a college campus, like this, when we are supposed to be promoting diversity on this campus, which is what we’re taught. I don’t understand what the purpose of this was.”

    GSU is 62% White, 26% African American, 5% Hispanic and 2% Asian.

    While not defending the students action, are we sure they were acting in fear of a loss of white privilege or simply attacking “white privilege” as divisive hate speech?

    Big difference.

  12. “As Martin Luther King noted in 1963: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the ABSENCE OF TENSION to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of DIRECT ACTION. Reckoning with Fear, American style demands a more honest accounting of liberalism’s contradictory inheritance and a greater skepticism toward some of its dearest faiths. I say this neither to discredit liberalism nor to recommend that we discard it. The protections it affords are real and not to be dismissed….A meditation on this DOUBLENESS OF AMERICAN LIFE, in which liberalism and fear are so closely tethered, need not be taken as a sign of illiberalism or anti-Americanism. It is instead, it seems to me, the merest prerequisite of maturity, of the wisdom that should come to a nation after several centuries of constitutional rule.

    “Fear: The History of a Political Idea” by Corey Robin (Oxford University Press, New York, 2004) pp. 264-5.

    I’ve had a copy of this book since attending “A Conference on Fear” at The New School in New York in 2004 where Professor Robin was one of the participants.

  13. As stated by MLK, our problem is the failure to take DIRECT ACTION. How can you take DIRECT ACTION without any meaningful, intelligence capability whatsoever?

    It comes from an INTELLIGENCE GAP created by the efforts of the Far Right/Religious Right OLIGARCHY in the late 60s. And the GAP has been widening ever since and thus successful DIRECT ACTION is an impossibility without PLUGGING THE GAP.

    That’s why we continue to be “Up Shit’s Creek Without a Paddle.”

  14. And by the way, the ubiquitous and indiscriminate attribution of “white privilege” is racially and politically divisive.

    Ms. Kennedy once correctly wrote “We either overcome our innate tribalism and learn to live amicably together, or this experiment we call America is over.”

  15. Sheila: Thanks! This forum helps to pump life into whatever we call hope.

    Marv: Thanks! The incident at Georgia Southern is just one reason I’m glad you have returned to us here.

    Peggy: Thanks! Your comments are always short and always insightful.

    All: I think it’s beginning to dawn on us (and even some in the other camp) just what kind of trouble we’re in. It’s real. It’s big. The insensitive language from a president, the book-burning, and so much more. Vote as if your life depends on it…it does! You stay home and you have no one else to blame.

  16. I must say, I get uncomfortable when ever, I hear about or see a speaker being shouted down. This even applies to Reactionary Right Speakers.

    That said the White Students at Georgia Southern University and White people in general had opportunities in their generational past that people of color did not have. People of color have been playing catch-up over these generations.

    What the effects of reparations would have meant to the newly freed slaves is a story of Henrietta Wood in the September Edition of the Smithsonian Magazine:

  17. Betty,

    Much of our commonality comes from our Southern Heritage, it differs in many respects from Midwest Heritage, which is overwhelmingly represented on this blog. I should understand Georgia Southern as my maternal grandparents migrated to Jacksonville, around the turn of the Twentieth Century, from Dublin, another South Georgia town, like Statesboro, not far from the North Florida border, where Jacksonville is the largest city. Statesboro is closer to Jacksonville than Atlanta.

    Believe me, when I say I’m not surprised at all by the unfortunate situation at Georgia Southern since it is just representative of the majority viewpoint of, I suggest, the white folks in that area.

    Jacksonville hasn’t changed. In 1964, MLK was afraid to come here and went to St. Augustine, 25 miles south of here. It was a smart move. It kept him alive for a few more valuable years.

  18. >Todd Smekens: “If we truly want a diverse culture in this country, we’ll have to start teaching it long before these kids reach college.”

    As a former information officer I am especially sensitive to inadvertent dog whistles, for instance…

    Want? We should not “want” a diverse culture, nor should we refuse a diverse culture. Society should be NEUTRAL on that subject but fully prepared to accept a diverse culture when it happens; and that is what should be taught.

    I am afraid that so many “liberal”, “learned” individuals speaking (and teaching) of WANTING a diverse society instead of ACCEPTING a diverse society is precisely the carelessness of speech that whistles an alarm to the people who are moved to oppose diversity.

    In the word “want”, the anti-diversity ghouls–from perhaps connotative waves that we, in our passion to vent, fail to detect–are hearing us say that our goal is to create, to cause, to build, to encourage a diverse society, and from our passion they deduce we will not shy away from any means to achieving that diverse society.

    To the ears of frightened people, expressing desire for a diverse society is much more malignant than arguing the virtues of a diverse society.

  19. Sheila, here is a future topic for you concerning our Family Values State of Indiana:

    Indiana has one of the worst rates for childbirth-related death.

    Now of course Indiana wants to impose “Work Requirements” to receive Medicaid. To keep health coverage, an estimated 72,000 people will need to report hours of work or other activity to the state. These new requirements start at 20 hours a month but ramp up to 80 hours a month by July 2020.

  20. You’ve got to be taught
    To hate
    And fear
    You’ve got to be taught
    From year
    To year
    Its got to
    Be drummed in your dear little ear
    You’ve got to
    Be carefully
    You’ve got to be taught
    To be
    Of people
    Who’s eyes are oddly made
    And people who’s skin is a different shade
    You’ve got to
    Be carefully
    You’ve got to be taught
    Before it’s too late
    Before you are six
    Or seven
    Or eight
    To hate all the people
    Your relatives hate
    You’ve got to
    Be carefully taught
    You’ve got to
    Be carefully taught

  21. I returned to read dialogue in response to Sheila’s thought provoking post from before sunrise this morning. I have benefitted from the insight and truth sayings of others who posted later in the day. I am grateful for this community of integrity of mutual respect and open civil discourse on heart wrenching timely issues.

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