Like everyone else, I’ve been thinking a lot about the events in Charlottesville last week, and President Trump’s comments about those events. I taught at UVA for 16 years and I lived a few blocks East of Emancipation Park (back when it was called “Lee Park”). I share in the horror felt by my friends and former neighbors that neo-Nazis, the KKK, terrorism, and death came to our lovely town.
I was also taken aback that President Trump found it so difficult to condemn the alt-right marchers—all of them. His August 15th press conference in Trump Tower, where he said that the marchers included some “very fine people” struck me as an act of national sacrilege. Yes, there was violence perpetrated by both sides. Antifa is a pro-violence organization, and it was not inappropriate to condemn violence on both sides. But the central task for Trump in all three of his main statements was not to figure out which side was more to blame. It was to condemn neo-Nazis and the KKK unequivocally. He only managed to do that in the second of his three statements, and he effectively undid his condemnation in his third statement. When he said that there were some “very fine people” on both sides, including the neo-Nazi side, this struck me as something new in modern American political history. Those three words seemed to me to be a potential turning point in Trump’s presidency.
To explain why I thought “very fine people” could be a turning point, I wrote an essay for The Atlantic in which I analyzed the whole affair through the lens of my research on moral psychology—specifically the psychology of sacredness, taboo, and contamination. I showed how the psychology of sacredness could explain why the alt-right would march to defend a statue, why UVA students would risk their lives to defend another statue, and why the President’s delays and equivocations in condemning white supremacists are likely to have longer-lasting effects than his previous taboo violations. Here’s a passage:
Taboo violations are contagious. They render the transgressor “polluted,” in the language of anthropology, and the moral stain rubs off on those who physically touch the transgressor, as well as on those who fail to distance themselves from the transgressor. When people march with Nazis and Klansmen, even if they keep their mouths closed when others are chanting, and even if they don’t personally carry swastika or Klan flags, they acquire the full moral stain of Nazis and Klansmen. By saying that some of these men were “very fine people,” the president has taken that stain upon himself.
I then discussed the “second order punishment effects” that are likely to damage Trump’s presidency for as long as he’s in office, and that can do great damage to him even if his core supporters never abandon him. Second order punishment is where people mobilize not just to punish the transgressor, but to punish anyone who fails to punish the transgressor. It helps to explain why so many people, even some people on the right, are making public statements to distance themselves from the President.
You can read the essay here.
What are the implications of Charlottesville for universities, and for those of us who believe that viewpoint diversity is a good thing, and who believe that we need more of it on many campuses? There are many, and its going to take us a while to work them all out. I have no time to write this week, but I just wanted to raise a few points briefly, as markers for future posts. I speak only for myself here. I hope others will chime in, in the comments, and in other posts.
1) Free Speech has now suffered from contagion. Anything Nazis support becomes stained. If Nazis said that carrots were their favorite vegetable, and they organized a march to promote carrots, many people would find carrots less desirable. Those of us who embrace the American tradition of free speech will now have a harder time promoting that tradition to students. This is likely to accelerate the long-term drop in support for free speech by each generation after the greatest generation. This is a shame all around, especially because, as Musa al-Gharbi and I argued in a recent Atlantic article, It’s Disadvantaged Groups That Suffer Most When Free Speech Is Curtailed on Campus.
2) We live in an age of outrage. Perceived atrocities by one’s enemies are used to justify atrocities by one’s own side. Everyone is immersed in high-quality outrage stories, delivered many times a day by social media. Here’s a two minute animation from an RSA talk I gave that illustrates our new national dynamic:
The net effect is that we get closer and closer to critical mass, or escape velocity—there are numerous metaphors from physics to describe a system that is on the verge of undergoing a radical change. Our rising polarization and the increasing endorsement of violence on both sides may be an existential threat to America. Recognizing this threat raises two immediate implications for universities:
A) Stronger moral passions will lead to stronger partisan sentiments and stronger confirmation biases. It will become even more difficult to do our work of discovering truth and educating students if discussions take place in the context of anger and activism rather than open-mindedness and curiosity.
B) In an age of outrage, universities should try even harder to remain politically neutral. To the extent that many elite universities are seen to be committed to helping one side in the culture war, universities may be making things worse, and they may pay a heavy price, particularly in red states. Adopting the Chicago Principles on Free Expression would be a powerful statement of institutional neutrality. (Students are free to be partisans, but the university should not take sides on issues being debated).
3) Focus on intimidation, rather than free speech. Even if “free speech” no longer inspires many students, everyone appreciates how awful it is to live in fear of saying what they believe. For a while the intimidation on campus came mostly from the left, in the form of “call out” culture, as described by this Smith student, and as confirmed by our own research using the Fearless Speech Index. But in the last year or two, the right has found a variety of new ways to intimidate and harass people on campus using news sites, “watch” sites, and social media, as I discussed in this blog post. Let’s focus on intimidation and do all we can to rid our schools of it, from all sources.
4) Don’t invite trolls, and don’t get angry so easily. Everyone on campus needs to understand the logic and culture of trolling: “The troll is a figure who skips across the web, saying whatever it takes to rile up unsuspecting targets, relishing the chaos in his wake and feasting on attention, good or bad.” Richard Spencer, Milo Yiannopoulos, and many on the alt-right are master trolls. I hope that right-leaning groups on campus will stop inviting trolls and provocateurs to speak on campus. It may be great fun to produce a campus crisis, but it does not help their cause, change people’s minds, or improve their universities. They are just throwing matches around dry forests. They should focus on inviting conservative and libertarian scholars and intellectuals, not performance artists. And when a conservative scholar comes to campus with provocative ideas, I hope that left-leaning students and campus groups will stop putting on angry protests, sometimes employing intimidation tactics. Just go to the talk and ask hard questions, or else ignore it. I agree that a Nazi march, a terrorist attack, and a president who is slow to condemn either one is a good reason to turn the outrage dial up to 11. Other campus speakers and events should be re-calibrated relative to that standard.
5) The university should strive to remain a place apart from the rest of society. We need norms for speech that are different from those that prevail off-campus. I think this essay by Noah Feldman in the Chicago Tribune does a great job of articulating those differences and offering guidance to university presidents. Here are the key paragraphs; I have put some text in bold:
My own view is that universities, including public universities, would be well-advised to stand on their rights to limit the presence of nonuniversity speakers where possible and to stop their public spaces from becoming classic public forums. On the surface, it may seem that such limitations would run counter to the free academic exchange of ideas. But on closer examination, academic freedom and constitutional free speech are actually pretty different. In private universities, the act of creating a campus where academic freedom exists requires the creation of a community that shares certain scholarly norms. If students and teachers could shout each other down, free exchange of ideas on campus would quickly become impossible.
And in truth, public universities aren’t much different. To function as universities, they need to create an environment of communal commitment to exploring the truth. That includes, in my view, great latitude for expressing almost any imaginable viewpoint. But it does not include threats or harassment. And it does not allow for gross violations of civility.
The torch-led white supremacist march through the University of Virginia is a good example of where true public space differs from a university campus. I have no doubt as a First Amendment matter that such white supremacist speech, hateful as it is, must be permitted on public streets provided the marchers have a permit and proceed peacefully. But on a campus that is trying to shape a respectful environment for intellectual community, such a march by people unconnected to the university is wholly inappropriate. It bespeaks potential intimidation and is an invitation to raucousness that is unsuitable to what we might unironically call the groves of academe.
In short, the university is not the public square. Where the First Amendment requires it to be treated as such, it’s crucial for public university administrators to follow the law. But wherever possible, we should use all lawful means to distinguish the free-for-all of public argument from the structured, reasoned debate to which the university as an institution is supposed to be dedicated.
The events in Charlottesville and their aftermath have exacerbated America’s dangerous divide. These events are likely to reverberate across campus and influence discussions and policies throughout the coming academic year. The influence may be harmful, leading to multiple rounds of escalating outrage. But there’s a chance we can learn from these events and find ways to adapt to life and learning in the age of outrage. Building on Feldman’s essay above, I think a new focus on the creation of community may be our best way forward. In the absence of any sense of community, viewpoint diversity can easily lead to conflict and little learning. But within a cohesive and trusting community, united by a strong sense of school spirit, led by professors, deans, and presidents who model the art of civil and respectful disagreement, we can reap the benefits of viewpoint diversity even in this age of outrage.
Post Script: Response to commenters.
Thanks to the many commenters who noted problems or incompleteness in my post. I saw two main themes in the critical comments, which I respond to here:
Theme #1: There really was violence on the left in Charlottesville. Antifa endorses violence, Antifa has some very hateful beliefs and practices, the President was not wrong to point out the equivalence. [Many commenters noted various forms of equivalence, and therefore hypocrisy on the left]
My response: I agree. I am extremely alarmed by the growing endorsement of violence by extremists on both sides. And I am very concerned by the hypocrisy of some students who have a very expansive definition of violence for their opponents—which includes ideas put forth in a lecture—while having a very narrow definition of violence for their own side–which redescribes some physical violence as virtuous self-defense. My condemnation of Trump was NOT for pointing out the violence on “many sides.” That was a true statement, and it was not inappropriate as part of his larger statement. It was for the “very fine people” comment, and for what that whole press conference showed about how he really feels. The “very fine people” comment was the one that—I believe—broke new ground, and will trigger more second order punishment. Furthermore, the fact that there were SOME antifa, and hammer-and-sickle signs, does not stain the counter-protesters; practically none of them came out to support communism that morning. But those who chose to march for the right were agreeing to march under Nazi and KKK banners.
Theme #2: If Haidt agrees with Feldman that the University should have different norms, then its clear who will set those norms: the left, which will still allow trolls and provocateurs from the left, but will set such a high bar for the right that it will exclude scholars such as Charles Murray and Heather Mac Donald, and anyone else whose research and writing is deemed upsetting by the left.
My response: Again, I fully agree. This is likely to happen, and I should have noted this problem in my original post. I would favor a kind of grand bargain in which all acknowledge the need to bring viewpoint diversity to campus. The president of the university leads, makes it clear that he or she is committed to doing this, its going to be a feature of campus life henceforth. The president puts up money to make it happen, and guarantees security, as in the strong statement made a few days ago by the new chancellor of UC Berkeley. Then campus student leaders, from left and right, agree to focus on inviting people who bring ideas based on scholarship. That includes Murray and Mac Donald, along with many conservative politicians and journalists. All agree that there will be an absolute prohibition on intimidation and shout-downs. All agree that students who try to stop other students from hearing or attending will be punished severely, including expulsion for a second offense. If we are to create communities on campus that can benefit from viewpoint diversity, it will take strong leadership to counteract the influence of the majority.
Basically, I am in a state of near-despair about the trends on many university campuses. Things were bad enough last year, and they are likely to get worse in the coming year, as passions will be stronger in the wake of Charlottesville. I am searching for a new approach, one that is not just a direct demand that everyone embrace free speech. I don’t think that will work when passions are so high. I am searching for ways to lower passions, create a stronger sense of trust, reduce the omni-presence of virtue signaling and the endorsement of intimidation when it is done for what one thinks is a good cause. That is what I liked about Feldman’s essay. But I appreciate that my embrace of his proposal may have been premature; the implementation of such communities will be difficult.