Last week, student activists at Emory University protested pro-Donald Trump chalk messages that were written around the campus and demanded a response from the university administration. These chalk messages included words and phrases such as “Trump,” “Vote Trump” and “Trump 2016.”
Given the language and statements Trump has employed in his campaign, it is understandable that many students view the electoral success he has had with great fear and concern. Yet the response of the Emory student protestors is inappropriate and inconsistent with the values and principles of a liberal democratic society.
As reported by The Emory Wheel, the student protesters made several demands on university administrators. Some of the statements include: “You are not listening! Come speak to us, we are in pain,” “But this man is being supported by students on our campus and our administration shows that they, by their silence, support it as well … I don’t deserve to feel afraid at my school,” “How can you not [disavow Trump] when Trump’s platform and his values undermine Emory’s values that I believe are diversity and inclusivity when they are obviously not [something that Trump supports]” and “Banning Muslims? How is that something Emory supports?” Another student asked Emory to send an email to “decry the support for this fascist, racist candidate.”
The messages that have so disturbed these students are merely chalk writings expressing support for a political candidate.
Do students at universities no longer have the right to express support for the presidential candidate of their choice? Of course, Trump has made several outrageous, illiberal and prejudiced statements and students are right to be deeply worried by the support he is receiving. Yet the course of action these student protesters have taken is ill-suited to combat the threat posed by Donald Trump.
The students have called upon the university to disavow Donald Trump any support he may be receiving from Emory students. This view of the role of university administrators is one that is deeply troubling. College should be a place for students to meet others with diverse backgrounds, views and perspectives, a place to debate each other and a place to learn from our peers. It should be a place for rigorous discussion and intelligent argument.
Yet some Emory students want their administrators to condemn support for a particular political candidate in the strongest possible terms and believe silence from the administration implies support for that candidate.
This thinking is disturbing. College administrators should create an atmosphere for students to think critically, debate with each other and reach their own conclusions. College students (and all Americans) should be alarmed at the Trump movement in our country, but the proper response in a free society is to challenge these ideas with reasoned argument and manful determination. Liberal democratic societies rest on the faith of the people to vigorously and intelligently debate each other. If we believe calling on institutions to condemn ideas we deplore is the correct course rather than defeating those ideas with deliberate argument, we are unworthy of liberal democracy.
Strangely, these student protesters have one thing in common with Donald Trump and his supporters. They are both shockingly authoritarian in a country dedicated to human liberty. Rather than relying on their own argument to counter pro-Trump sentiment, they seek to use the authority of university administrators to impose their own beliefs. We should not seek to coopt university administrators, which are analogous to the State on college campuses, to use force against those we disagree with. The path advocated by the Emory protesters is authoritarianism in the service of a different purpose. The nobility of their purpose does not justify the abhorrence of their methods. If we wish to remain a free democratic society, the proper response for student activists worried by the threat of Donald Trump is to resist his ideas with strength, resolution and reasoned argument. Hysterical appeals to institutions of authority are unworthy of a free people. Frankly, this course of action smacks too much of the mobocracy that has often characterized Trump’s campaign itself.
Brian McCarty is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.