In 1644, John Milton made the case for a “Marketplace of Ideas” in his poem “Areopagitica,” and hundreds of years later, we still struggle to put it into practice. This theory, expounded upon in Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ opinion of the 1917 Supreme Court case Abrams v. United States, avers that all ideas should be given equal representation in debate – even those we find odious and shameful. When he wrote his opinion, with World War I in full swing, anti-Semitic posters pasted around a college campus were probably the last of his worries.
Close to a week ago, posters from a white nationalist group, Vanguard America, were found in four locations around campus. These posters expressed hateful, exclusionary views toward non-white persons, particularly jews. We find these views repugnant and wish to see them extirpated from our collective cultural memory, but ironically, allowing their expression is the best way to end them.
In no uncertain terms, we condemn anti-Semitism and all those who subscribe to it, but condemnation alone will not achieve the desired result. These controversial viewpoints should be aired for the purposes of argument.
When hateful ideologies like those espoused by Vanguard America circulate under the surface of public discourse, it allows them to spread by feeding on people’s fears and prejudices. But when these ideas are made public, it allows for sensible people to raise their concerns and denounce those ideologies.
During a 1965 speech in Selma, Alabama, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” At the time, King saw how segregation and racism had been normalized in certain parts of America. People knew what was going on, and they knew it was wrong, but they didn’t stand up to fight it because it was ingrained in the very fabrication of their culture. However, King took a stand. He realized that if he could expose the racially divided culture of his time for the evil that it truly was, then it could be defeated.
These posters were inappropriately placed; no student should have to see them when walking around campus. But in a moderated, controlled atmosphere, giving those ideas a chance to stand on their own false merits before subjecting them to examination and criticism could effectively stop incidents like this from happening again.
This ideological guerrilla attack was designed to make students angry, and it has succeeded in that sense – but if we, the campus community, can use this incident to start a reasoned debate, the anti-Semitic arguments will fall apart. What they are looking for is an emotional reaction – something to vindicate their prejudices. But a measured, cogent response from the campus would show them we mean business.
If our community is really committed to stamping out prejudice on campus, we must act maturely, even with these provocateurs. That means no shouting them down, no disrespectful or violent behavior and no public shaming, although derision behind closed doors is an individual prerogative.
It is difficult to confront these unsightly prejudices on our own campus, but the power of civility and conscientious objection should not be underestimated. When confronting these threats, it is essential that we remember not to stoop to the level of those whom we seek to condemn. These antagonists use hateful, vitriolic language to target certain groups which they have singled out.
Specifically, Vanguard America has targeted Jews, saying that campuses are “typically the domain of our Jewish enemies.” It is unfortunate and concerning that these people hold so much hatred in their hearts for such a large body of people, especially on our own campus which is home to the nation’s third largest Jewish student population, according to Hillel International.
There is no logical explanation as to why one may hold these views, nor is there any justification for the actions of hate speech which have been carried out recently on this campus. But if we are to successfully combat these actions, we must do so without employing the same type of vitriolic language that white nationalist groups thrive on. Instead, the emergence of these posters allows these hateful ideologies to be thrust from darkness into the daylight of a public forum, where their senseless ideas will face judgment.