Universities should be a safe place to express ideas

Berating someone for wearing a Donald Trump hat takes us too far along the road to political correctness and endangers honest debate

safe places universities ideasCALGARY, Alta. Sept. 30, 2016/ Troy Media/ – The American election campaign has sloshed across the border and washed up on the campus of Calgary’s Mount Royal University (MRU), raising issues of political correctness and free speech.

The occasion was a confrontation between a female student who strongly disapproved of a male student sporting a baseball cap bearing the Donald Trump slogan: Make America Great Again.

A friend of the hat-wearer videoed the confrontation and it’s available online. A friend of the hat-objector snatched away the offending hat and made off with it. The video does not record whether it was returned. Replacements, however, are available for US$4.69 with free shipping from China Post.

The confrontation has been cast in the media as a regrettable example of political correctness. To the hat-objector the slogan represents “racism, bigotry, and exclusion of sexual and cultural diversity.”

It “could make some people afraid,” she said, and that was wrong: “a university should be a safe space.” For this reason, she told the hat-wearer, “you have to take the hat off. You’re not allowed to cheer hate language.” If the hat didn’t come off, she said she would report him to David Docherty, the MRU president.

The hat-wearer, a political science student, said he had been following the U.S. election campaign and was a Trump supporter. He said the slogan referred to economics “and was not hateful at all.”

This was a teachable moment. In my introductory course on political ideologies, we began the year looking at and discussing political correctness. Students at the University of Calgary, no less than at MRU, understand full well that a central element in Trump’s presidential campaign has been to embrace political incorrectness.

For Trump, the election is not about policies at all. It’s about the more basic theme of whether the Americans want to be great (again). Rhetorical tactics aside, his framing of the issue may be entirely bogus but it’s brilliantly effective.

My students understood that. They also understood the obvious problem: the objector never attempted to engage the hat-wearer in conversation about what the slogan meant to him. As Docherty later said, “students can express differing opinions in a respectful way to increase understanding of each other’s views.”

Before the event faded away, the consequences were equally apparent: the objector was criticized and disrespected on social media. My students were not surprised. As one said, “What did she expect?”

The U of C has had its own problems with political correctness over the years, but mostly because of oversensitive administrators rather than students. More recently, in fact, there have been some positive stories involving students.

A case in point is the U of C Firearms Association.

Now in its third year, the firearms club has more than 200 members. They are ethnically diverse, with members from rural and urban backgrounds, and from a wide range of faculties. About one-third of the members are women. The purpose of the club is to introduce new members to shooting sports and train them in the safe use of guns, to help them acquire a Possession and Acquisition Licence, and provide a “safe space” for hunters, target-shooters, shotgunners and other enthusiasts to meet, socialize and discuss their interests.

The club arranges discounts at shooting events and subsidies for members to take courses given by the Alberta Hunter Education Instructors’ Association, arguably the best gun- and hunter-training outfit on the continent.

Interestingly enough, the club is not controversial. They have even proposed an outreach program to their fellow students at MRU. Let’s wish them luck, and a fair hearing on that campus.

Barry Cooper teaches political science at the University of Calgary.

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