Last week Van Jones offered the most perfect combination of strong reasons and intuitively compelling metaphors I have ever seen to explain why current campus trends regarding political diversity are bad for students and bad for the American left more generally.
Jones was a guest at David Axelrod’s Institute of Politics, at the University of Chicago. During their 80 minute discussion, with S. E. Cupp, Axelrod mentioned that he had hosted Corey Lewandowski (Trump’s former campaign manager) the previous week, which had led many students to protest the event, arguing that merely to have him on the Chicago campus would “normalize” the Trump administration. Axelrod noted that he disagrees with that thinking, and then asked Jones for his own thoughts on the question: what is the proper response when someone associated with Trump or supportive of Trump is brought onto a college campus and given an opportunity to speak publicly? What should college students do?
You have to watch Jones’ response to get the full power and passion of his remarks. But afterward you might want to see them written out, in order to quote them or tweet them or just meditate on their brilliance. I was not able to find a full and neat transcript online, so I had the staff at Heterodox Academy transcribe the clip and I post it below the video, with a closing comment.
David Axelrod: We had Corey Lewandowski here last week. That engendered a protest outside the meeting—also part of our democracy. There’s a lot of anger and a lot of rage about what this administration is doing and the sense that [you should not have] anybody associated with him because then you’re normalizing the [Trump] administration. I have a different view but I am interested in yours.
Van Jones: I don’t like bigots and bullies. I just want to point that out… But I got tough talk for my liberal colleagues on these campuses. They don’t tend to like it but I think they like me so I get away with it. I want to push this.
There are two ideas about safe spaces: One is a very good idea and one is a terrible idea. The idea of being physically safe on a campus—not being subjected to sexual harassment and physical abuse, or being targeted specifically, personally, for some kind of hate speech—“you are an n-word,” or whatever—I am perfectly fine with that.
But there’s another view that is now I think ascendant, which I think is just a horrible view, which is that “I need to be safe ideologically. I need to be safe emotionally I just need to feel good all the time, and if someone says something that I don’t like, that’s a problem for everybody else including the administration.”
I think that is a terrible idea for the following reason: I don’t want you to be safe, ideologically. I don’t want you to be safe, emotionally. I want you to be strong. That’s different.
I’m not going to pave the jungle for you. Put on some boots, and learn how to deal with adversity. I’m not going to take all the weights out of the gym; that’s the whole point of the gym. This is the gym. You can’t live on a campus where people say stuff you don’t like?! And these people can’t fire you, they can’t arrest you, they can’t beat you up, they can just say stuff you don’t like- and you get to say stuff back- and this you cannot bear?! [audience applause]
This is ridiculous BS liberals! My parents, and Monica Elizabeth Peak’s parents [points to someone in the audience and greets her] were marched, they dealt with fire hoses! They dealt with dogs! They dealt with beatings! You can’t deal with a mean tweet?! You are creating a kind of liberalism that the minute it crosses the street into the real world is not just useless, but obnoxious and dangerous. I want you to be offended every single day on this campus. I want you to be deeply aggrieved and offended and upset, and then to learn how to speak back. Because that is what we need from you in these communities. [applause]
David Axelrod: You should see him when he gets passionate!
My Comment: Jones’ argument and his metaphors are based on the idea that young people are “anti-fragile.” They need exposure to challenges, irritants, and stressors in order to grow strong. If you treat them as though they are fragile by “paving the jungle” for them, or “taking the weights out of the gym,” you may think you are helping them, but you are harming them. You are actually making them fragile, which will set them up for lives of increased anxiety and decreased political effectiveness once they leave campus and encounter a jungle of ideological diversity, much of it far more threatening than anything Lewandowsky would say. (Granted, the Chicago students were talking about “normalization” rather than “safety.” Chicago students are tougher than most. But the net effect of banning politically unpopular views from campus is the same regardless of the motive.)
The idea of “anti-fragility” is developed at length, and with a great deal of evidence, in Nassim Taleb’s book Antifragile. This idea was at the core of my essay with Greg Lukianoff, The Coddling of the American Mind. Jones adds the argument that many universities, by granting demands for ideological safety and purity on campus, are doing things that strengthen the political right (by creating a kind of liberalism that offends many people beyond the campus) and that weaken the future leaders and activists of left.
Jones thereby makes the strongest case I have yet seen for why–in the wake of the unexpected Trump victory–progressive students should be asking for more exposure to political diversity (as Harvard students have), and for why progressive professors should join Heterodox Academy to improve the educational effectiveness and intellectual vibrancy of universities.