The activists on the K-State campus are well-intended. They want the best. They just happen to be doing almost exactly the wrong things, over and over again. The racists, on the other hand, are working the system like geniuses.
The most recent case has developed in the past week, after some juvenile Stormtrooper wrote inflammatory comments on a whiteboard in the university’s new multicultural center. The comments mocked Black History Month, including an exclamation that the way to celebrate it would be to donate to “white national causes.”
That last part clearly crosses the line into racism. And let me be clear: Racism is evil, and in many ways lies at the root of our country’s biggest problems. I condemn it in the strongest possible terms, and in that sense I am aligned with the activists.
Here’s the problem: Writing or saying something racist is not, in and of itself, illegal. And a university, of all places, simply cannot punish people for what they say. So what the activists are doing is exactly wrong.
The activists, at a virtual forum earlier this week with university administrators, demanded (again) that the university do something about this sort of thing; they said they would call for the resignation of President Richard Myers unless they get what they want. This is an ongoing point of contention over the past few years, most prominently when one former student wrote inflammatory comments on Twitter about George Floyd, the black man killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis.
The deviant manipulators like that guy — and whoever scrawled on the whiteboard in the recent case — are doing something tactically smart: They’re getting a whole lot of attention, and they’re setting a trap that the good guys almost can’t help but step in.
By calling for punishment against inflammatory speech, the activists are pressuring the university to do exactly the wrong thing. As I’ve said before, this is the old Phelps family trick: They parade around with signs so revolting — “God Hates Fags” or “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” — that local government entities or other organizations are drawn into attempts to restrict them. Then the Phelps Stormtroopers sue, on the grounds that their First Amendment rights have been violated, and they win. The punitive damages they collect help finance their operation. It’s devilishly clever.
The best way to handle moments like these is to not take the bait. All they want is attention. If you don’t give it to them, they wither.
The counter-argument to what I’m saying was stated well at the virtual forum by a sophomore theater major named Nikela Reed, “Words are weapons that fuel individuals to act in horrendous ways.”
True enough. The IDEAS expressed in racist messages have to be confronted, day by day, interaction by interaction, so in that sense they can’t be ignored. But what we have here, I might remind you, is something somebody scrawled on a whiteboard. It’s bathroom graffiti; it’s high-school classroom chalkboard nonsense.
Combat ideas with ideas. Combat speech with speech.
One more point. Ms. Reed, one of the activists, also went on to express outrage over the fact that the “dehumanizing statements” had violated students’ “safe space.”
That’s a dangerous idea. A university campus is a place for a free exchange of ideas, even bad ones. There is no space — not in America anyway — where you’re “safe” from bad ideas or speech that offends you. Every place, to use the terminology of the moment, is a “free speech zone.” K-State’s policy on this has long been exemplary.
If you’re offended by something, then attempt to make a persuasive counter-argument. Or if it’s purely ridiculous, scrawled on a whiteboard, maybe just erase it. But don’t go demanding that the government shut it down. That’s the best way imaginable to give it more power.