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President Obama Calls Out Safe Space Culture. Weakly.

At Howard University’s commencement, President Obama defended free speech on college campuses. That’s good, but it could have been better.


President Obama is receiving a lot of positive media attention for his commencement address to Howard University graduates this weekend. And unlike many speeches that are routinely praised by the media, this one was actually good. You can read the text here. Or watch it here.

There’s a lot to chew on, including the president’s focus on how much life has improved for black Americans in recent decades. He argues that positive changes should inspire the students to achieve even greater success rather than make them complacent. He also critiques the anti-free speech zeitgeist on college campuses.

The left, which controls college campuses, has a tremendous problem with free speech, so Obama’s remarks in defense of it are welcome. As Jonathan Adler wrote, “Obama tells Howard graduates something more university students need to hear.” Hardly a day goes by without yet another example of college hostility to free speech. Sometimes that means disinviting speakers who have non-conforming views. Sometimes that means setting up rooms to protect students from even hearing ideas that they disagree with. Michael Bloomberg was booed when he told graduating University of Michigan students that an “open mind is the most valuable asset you can possess.”

Unfortunately, Obama’s defense of free speech could have been stronger. Let’s look at the top of the section on free speech:

Another Howard alum, Zora Neale Hurston, once said — this is a good quote here: “Nothing that God ever made is the same thing to more than one person.” Think about that. That’s why our democracy gives us a process designed for us to settle our disputes with argument and ideas and votes instead of violence and simple majority rule.

So don’t try to shut folks out, don’t try to shut them down, no matter how much you might disagree with them. There’s been a trend around the country of trying to get colleges to disinvite speakers with a different point of view, or disrupt a politician’s rally. Don’t do that — no matter how ridiculous or offensive you might find the things that come out of their mouths. Because as my grandmother used to tell me, every time a fool speaks, they are just advertising their own ignorance. Let them talk. Let them talk. If you don’t, you just make them a victim, and then they can avoid accountability.

I mean, I realize that college campuses are hostile to notions of liberty and that Bloomberg just got booed for actually calling on students to humble themselves in the face of new ideas, but that is weak sauce. Particularly for the president of the United States and particularly for a speech given to students.

Arguments in favor of listening to new ideas should emphasize the humility required for free speech to flourish, not the ability to make others look like clowns.

Arguments in favor of listening to new ideas should emphasize the humility required for free speech to flourish, not the ability to make others look like clowns. This is almost a complete inversion of that line: better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt. In that proverb, the burden (and benefit) of policing speech is on the speaker. In our world, all speech is to be uttered and the policing is done by the sensitive.

No, the reason why we seek a world where speech flourishes is for everyone’s education and benefit. On college campuses, debate is for the purpose of education. We debate to figure out what we believe by testing the boundaries of our arguments. This requires humility, and it requires the infusion of ideas and arguments. In a recent New Criterion essay on the anti-free speech movement flourishing on campus, the editors note:

It used to be that the very pattern of a liberal arts education was set by the figure of Socrates calling his interlocutors to debate about essential questions. What is the good life? What is virtue? Can it be taught? What is truth? How do we recognize it? How can one justify going to war? What is the best way to organize society?

Those were the sorts of questions that, once upon a time, those who were privileged enough to go to college paid good money to think about seriously. By acquainting one with the great debate conducted from the dawn of recorded history until the day before yesterday, a liberal education initiated one into a never-ending conversation. “Being educated” meant immersing oneself into the stream, if not the scrum, of that debate and understanding that one’s own position on the tiny lip of the present moment offered but a poor resource for understanding the important questions that confront us all as imperfect and mortal creatures.

Now, Obama did note in the next section of the speech, that you can learn from “the other side” if they have “a point.” This was nestled in a larger and necessary argument about how the world doesn’t protect you with puppies and hot chocolate and trigger-safe rooms as college campuses apparently do:

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t challenge them. Have the confidence to challenge them, the confidence in the rightness of your position. There will be times when you shouldn’t compromise your core values, your integrity, and you will have the responsibility to speak up in the face of injustice. But listen. Engage. If the other side has a point, learn from them. If they’re wrong, rebut them. Teach them. Beat them on the battlefield of ideas. And you might as well start practicing now, because one thing I can guarantee you — you will have to deal with ignorance, hatred, racism, foolishness, trifling folks. (Laughter.) I promise you, you will have to deal with all that at every stage of your life. That may not seem fair, but life has never been completely fair. Nobody promised you a crystal stair. And if you want to make life fair, then you’ve got to start with the world as it is.

A courageous speaker might warn people to guard against the ignorance, hatred, foolishness, etc., in one’s own heart, rather than play the victim and accuse nameless opponents of being motivated by these vices. But that understanding of human nature is at odds with progressivism, as the last line of the excerpt above hints at.

In any case, Obama’s comments in defense of free speech are most welcome. At a time when the left is caving to anti-free speech zealots, when even Democratic presidential candidates oppose Supreme Court decisions protecting political speech, his voice is important. So one cheer for Obama, and for those interested in reading more on free expression, here’s a good speech to chew on.