Hosting a presidential candidate’s rally, even a candidate merely aiming for the presidential nomination, is a feather in a university’s cap. It’s a media coup: a chance for administrators, faculty, and students to see their institution on a national stage. Think of the beaming administrators at George Washington University in 2009 when they introduced President-elect Obama. Hosting a candidate is usually like that. But this year, our university is not hosting Obama. Not even close.
What obligation does a university have to host a political figure whose platform and ideals run directly against its stated academic mission, when his or her successful candidacy would actually jeopardize public education? We’re talking about a candidate who is explicitly anti-intellectual, who has promised to wipe out the Department of Education. When Donald Trump comes to the Tsongas Arena at the University of Massachusetts Lowell for a campaign event on Jan. 4, do we have an obligation to open our doors?
The answer is a qualified yes.
Our university is not actually hosting or endorsing Trump, but merely renting out its space for a private event. But thousands of members of the university community have signed a petition (a petition started by one of our freshman honors students) that argues that Trump’s politics of hate have no place on the campus of our public university.
Although we agree with the sentiments motivating this petition, we believe the university should provide Trump with an opportunity to express himself. But we should also avail ourselves of the opportunity to speak. And, insofar as we believe that what he is saying is hateful — sexist, racist, able-ist, and xenophobic — we have the duty to decry his message.
Trump’s visit provides us the opportunity to reflect on the longstanding tension between equality and liberty in a liberal democracy. If we prioritize the ideal of equality, we should care most about making sure that Trump’s rhetoric is not permitted to further threaten the life prospects of the already vulnerable members of society that he seems hell-bent on marginalizing further. If we prioritize the ideal of liberty, we should care most about freedom of speech, no matter how retrograde. When Trump calls for America to be “great again,” we wonder exactly what time he is harkening back to. The time of segregation? The time of slavery? The time before women had the right to vote?
These are not silly questions to most voters living in Massachusetts. Most of us regard Trump’s rhetoric as noxious, even dangerous. But liberal democracies have always been forced to face this danger: Liberalism’s core ideal of freedom requires it to permit illiberal sentiments to enter its public marketplace of ideas. Vulnerability is a prerequisite of a diverse, inclusive, and open culture.
If we close our doors to Trump and his ilk, then his supporters have every right to accuse us of being the close-minded dogmatists hiding behind the shroud of lefty politics that they think we are. That being said, we should consider the possibility that in a Venn diagram, Trump’s political platform and genuine hate speech overlap in significant ways.
This is the claim expressed in a letter signed by prominent intellectuals from Mexico, Latin America, and Spain — including Nobel Prize-winning author Mario Vargas Llosa — that explains the ways that Trump’s attacks on immigrants, particularly Mexicans, are “not based on data and corroborated facts but rather on his very personal and unfounded opinion,” and that this opinion, amplified by a voice trained in the American media and entertainment circuit, constitutes hate speech. To be clear, if the Trump rally was explicitly allied with the KKK, UMass Lowell wouldn’t be renting space to them.
But many have argued, quite convincingly, that the difference between Trump and the Klan is one of degree, not of kind. So we should be on the lookout: Being a liberal means being tolerant, not being a chump.
In the end, we let quacks talk on our campus all the time — the jerks who misconstrue Bible verses and tell us we’re all going to hell, the jerks who use pictures of the Cambodian genocide to protest abortion (when our campus sits squarely in the middle of one of the largest and most vibrant Cambodian communities in the country). But there’s an upside to letting jerks speak: When you let them speak, their true colors show themselves pretty quickly.
And the beauty of free speech means that we get to air our beliefs as well. We’ll see you at the counter-demonstration.Carol Hay and John Kaag are both associate professors of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.