Outrage over T-shirts Trumps Free Expression

KyleKyle Jacobson is a senior biology major and a resident advisor in Lone Mountain Residence Hall.

Early this year, an emergency meeting of SHaRE student leadership and senior staff was called as a response to a student who had placed a Trump poster in the window of his dorm room. In this four hour long meeting, a series of tearful resident advisors appealed to senior staff to forcibly ban all mentions of the bigoted presidential candidate from campus whether satirical or otherwise. Citing a damaged sense of community as a result of the poster, sections of our student leadership criticized the fact that it wasn’t immediately removed by the housing department and stated that allowing for the poster to remain in the window was equivalent to USF openly endorsing anti-immigration policy. What if, they said, a student had hung a Nazi or confederate flag in the window? Eventually the student voluntarily took the sign down after his floor’s Resident Advisor opened a dialogue with him about the impact his poster was having on campus. As a result of the incident, additional one on one time with the Resident Directors was provided for students that were especially affected.

A similar scenario occurred more recently over T-shirts designed for a student organized bar hopping event meant for graduating seniors. The organizers of the event were to have the shirt act as a ticket for free drinks and pizza the night of the event. When the shirt design was first released with a play on Trump’s campaign slogan written on it that stated “Make Geary Bars Great Again,” it gathered one hundred and forty Facebook comments within two hours. Some students expressed disbelief at the play on words, calling for it to be altered and stating that anyone who purchased the shirt was legitimizing the Trump campaign and subsequently supporting his ideology. Others posted that they saw humor in the slogan being parodied, replying that forcing everybody to take Trump’s campaign seriously was more legitimizing than any attempt at making fun of it. Soon a second Facebook group was created with the purpose of designing an alternate shirt, and the original students that planned the event agreed to allow both designs to act in the same capacity at the event.

The extreme rhetoric being tossed around this election season naturally leads to extreme reactions. When candidates like Trump decide their route to power lies in pandering to the most uneducated, hateful portion of the American populace it is easy to see why people feel threatened. Comparisons between Trump and some of the most evil people in history are not a new thing; however his demagoguery is widely recognized and understood. Especially in San Francisco County, where according to the California Secretary of State only eight percent of voters are registered republicans. The fact is that in the Bay Area and on college campuses throughout the United States it is extremely difficult to experience what America is actually like, especially within areas of the country where racial resentment is very real and very present. This reality within hubs of liberalism seems to manifest feedback loops that allow individuals to become so comfortable that they never learn the ability to deal with encountering aspects of reality that trouble them. Without these mechanisms, dialogue is shut down in favor of the slippery slope of censorship. If the overall goal is learning within the university context, the question remains whether censorship for the sake of existing comfortably is the correct response. How do you ensure individuals feel accepted on campus while still preparing them to deal with real world experiences?

In September, President Obama spoke critically about the growing trend of dialogue suppression on college campuses. His criticisms highlighted universities who have rescinded invitations to speakers after protests from students who disagreed with their organization or viewpoint, as well as institutions that have passed policies restricting free expression. At one point Obama disagreed with the idea that “when you become students at colleges, you have to be coddled and protected from different points of view,” stating that “anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with them, but you shouldn’t silence them by saying you can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.” This idea, that the best strategy for advancing understanding is to meet in the middle, is one that unfortunately seems to fly over the heads of individuals who, when triggered, immediately jump to vilification and censorship; an approach that only works to build resentment and frustration.

There is a problem when the response to social injustice is not to work towards equality, but to push discrimination full force in the opposite direction. While social empowerment of marginalized groups is one of the most important aspects of social justice, the promotion of the right to vilify and censor groups that an individual disagrees with is not. Encouraging dialogue by being willing to listen to opposing viewpoints is how learning and understanding is advanced. It is important to recognize that hate is always hate regardless of directionality, and that censorship never leads to progress.

Photo courtesy of Wesley Lu/Facebook

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