Freedom of Speech in the Age of Trump

A couple weeks ago, posters from the newly-formed Republican club were torn down in the loggia, and ended up sparking some charged conversations. On the Class of 2020 Facebook page several students weren’t quick to sympathize with the club, as anti-fascist art had also been torn down on campus. One person said: “It’s not ok when protest art is being destroyed but our campus only cares about making republicans feel comfortable!!” The raw emotion jumped off my screen at me as I read it. Beneath that post was: “Grinnell College Campus Republicans, when you host a Republicans Against Trump action i’ll care abt your group. until then i’m not about to waste my energy carving out a space for you on this campus for the sake of ‘political diversity’.”

The feeling behind their words seemed to be clear. “They tore down our anti-fascist art, something opposed only by fascists. And now we’re supposed to be upset that posters of the party that got Trump elected, a party filled with fascists, are being torn down?” Some of the heat seemed, to me, to stem from an assumption that members of the republican club had done the tearing, as well as a fear that fascists may be lurking among them. Repeated calls on the thread for the club to publically denounce Trump echoed this. The responses on the thread were mixed. The dialogue that followed was sometimes reasonable, but more often vehement.

My comment was one of the many posted in the thread, and it reflected the frustration I felt as I watched this debate unfold. Grinnell prides itself on being a place of safety and freedom, and here we were, saying quite explicitly that students who were simply getting together to discuss their views weren’t welcome among us. They haven’t issued any controversial statements, or made a big deal about their presence. All they’ve done is form a club and advertised its existence like every other club on campus. But their existence is barely tolerated? They need to release a statement before they’re allowed to remain?

It’s moments like this that I think Trump has won. When I think that America really is fucked. That the idealism of the dreamers who founded this country, the ideas that people have died for, are all relics of the past. Yes, we live in a messed up, neoliberal, capitalist country. Yes, our country was founded on slavery, and colonialism. I understand all that. But show me a piece of land on this earth that isn’t stained with blood. Show me a country that doesn’t play a role in selling our planet off at the auction block. Show me a person in history who wasn’t blinded in some ways by the societal norms of their time. As I get older, the more I think the only thing that matters are the dreams, and ideas, and the hopes of people who want to create a better world. And the people who founded our country had that in spades. They wanted to create a place where people could say the things they wanted, and believe the things they wanted, without having to apologize for a single fucking thing. And live together under one banner while doing it. That’s a dream I can get behind.

Now, have we ever managed to fully realize that dream? This election tells us the answer is no. Partly because it is very clear that Muslim people aren’t welcome among many in this country. Partly because immigrants aren’t either, even though they founded it. And partly because it still sucks to be a person of color, after all these years. And that really hurts. But it’s also because we’ve become so damn intolerant of ideas and perspectives that we don’t agree with. This is something that liberals are particularly guilty of. I’m not talking about Trump’s perspective, or the alt-right perspective. I’m talking about the perspectives of good, wellmeaning people who have lived a very different life than us, been exposed to completely different elements, and may not have had the same education as us. When people feel their voice isn’t heard, when they feel like they’re being silenced, they start to go a little crazy. Oppression breeds radicalization. When you silence someone, not only do you cut off the opportunity for meaningful dialogue, you make the other person more set in their beliefs, and more keen to seek out others who will share their views and make them feel understood. These perspectives matter, and when we invalidate them, we land one more strike upon the chisel that’s splitting our country apart.

If someone’s doing their best to make the world a better place and respecting others while they’re doing it, they deserve our respect, no matter what their agenda is. There’s just not enough selfless people in the world for us to toss out all the ones we don’t agree with. But beyond that, when we start deciding who does and who doesn’t have the right to do what, we inch further and further away from the idea of this country. Notice how eager Trump is silence the media and sue people who speak against him into submission? A country without freedom of expression is scary, isn’t it? As long as we turn on each other like rabid animals, as long as we resort to oppression and intimidation to get what we want, he’s winning.

The Grinnell Republicans have every right to be here and exercise their freedoms, just like we do. But they’re not burdens that we need to tolerate, like a lot of liberals on campus seem to believe. They’re an invaluable asset for our campus. We all know what an echo chamber Grinnell can be. We’ve all had those conversations where we just sit around and affirm how woke we are to each other, how wise our understanding of the world is. The fact is, Grinnell Republicans actively break the Grinnell bubble. Try talking to one. You might find not all of their beliefs are wrong. You might realize some of the issues you thought were open and shut actually have excellent counterpoints. You might realize, like I have in the past, that when everyone around you has the same ideology, your understanding of the world is very narrow. Their presence here and the assertion of their beliefs causes us to critically examine our own, and learn how to deal with people who don’t immediately agree with us. This is an incredibly important aspect of our development, particularly for us activists.

I have a lot of respect for the republicans on campus. They willingly chose to come to a campus they knew was overwhelmingly liberal, a place where their beliefs would be in the minority. As a city boy coming from Georgia, I can tell you, it can be really intimidating to be surrounded by people you know will disagree with everything you say. I most likely don’t agree with them on a lot of things, and I’m happy to tell them as much, respectfully. But just because we may not see eye-to-eye doesn’t mean that their presence here isn’t just as merited as my own.

4 Comments

  1. ‘If someone’s doing their best to make the world a better place and respecting others while they’re doing it, they deserve our respect, no matter what their agenda is.’

    You are missing the point. People are angry because what the republican party stands for today is far from respecting others. A party that is widely considered to be against LGBT, immigrant and worker rights is NOT respecting a lot of people for things that they cannot control. Some agendas are objectively oppressive and reactionary, and the republican party is sadly the breeding ground for many in 2017.

    While most people don’t agree with their posters getting taken down, you should understand that just calling republicans out for their oppressive bullshit is not against freedom of speech.

    • Wow I just saw these comments here a month later and got really excited people considered my article long enough to respond. Anon, I see what you’re saying and I’d actually agree. I don’t believe that anti LGBT sentiment should be tolerated under the banner of “freedom of speech.” That shit’s just fucked up, and shouldn’t be tolerated. Similarly, a party that advocates these things over and over again should not be treated with the same level of respect as a party that is much more tolerant.

      However, I think there’s a huge difference between the party’s beliefs and your average day-to-day republicans. Although they do support the party, they do not embody the party, in the same way that I don’t agree with everything that every democrat says ever. Yet this fact (that the party and supporters are not one and the same) is something that I think people often forget, and it leads to some nasty demonization, and in turn, a refusal to hear their story as humans.

      This breakdown in dialogue, this failure to work with people we don’t completely agree with, is what destroys democracies in the way our country is being destroyed now.

  2. Amen, brother

  3. dialectical materialism

    February 27, 2017 at 6:37 PM

    “If someone’s doing their best to make the world a better place and respecting others while they’re doing it, they deserve our respect, no matter what their agenda is.”

    any political party with a primary goal of upward wealth/power distribution is actively making the world worse. the values of the gop are antithetical to any form of social progress and they should be opposed at all times.

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