There is nothing safe about democracy

Recently my university has gotten caught up in a brouhaha about a supposed chalk controversy, with many Latino and Muslim students taken aback by “Trump 16” chalkings across campus and, supposedly, the university caving in to their fear and terror over political sloganeering. The dichotomy being portrayed is democracy versus “safe spaces.”

There is some truth to students wanting Emory to be a Trump-free zone, given that Trump regularly demonizes and literally wants to extrude many of those living here, which would include a significant portion of our student body.  Who wouldn’t be a bit terrorized by that? And, yes, these students did march to the president’s office requesting some response from the university to address their concerns about the climate and policies on campus. Yes.

And, yes, the president did respond to their concerns in an email to the whole Emory community,

As an academic community, we must value and encourage the expression of ideas, vigorous debate, speech, dissent, and protest. At the same time, our commitment to respect, civility, and inclusion calls us to provide a safe environment that inspires and supports courageous inquiry. It is important that we recognize, listen to, and honor the concerns of these students, as well as faculty and staff who may feel similarly.

Many in the press are claiming that the Emory administration is caving into “coddled” students demands, but I don’t see a trade-off between free speech and creating a good culture for open inquiry. Students are free to express their concerns. The university is free to help foster open inquiry.

But the aim for a “safe” environment is misbegotten. There is nothing safe about democracy. In fact, as we’re finding now in these days of Trump, democracy can be horrifying: what if the mass of people make a disastrous and unjust choice? Yes, that’s always a possibility.  At least we’ve got a bill of rights, however weak, to do some protection against demagogues.

But the search for safety runs right up against and contradicts the search for rule by the people. Democracy always teeters on the unknown and it can never tether itself to the certain and true, for these words are meaningless when “what is to be done” is “whatever the people decide.” Yes, this is frightening. No safe space will help. Instead we all need to be more courageous and step up, even if in the short run that means aiming a waterhose at the Trump chalkings, and the next day holding a rally about why you did so.