University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler struck a blow for intolerance when he defended as free speech the campus Young Republicans’ not-so-subtle attempt to denigrate all things Latin, when they painted a mural on the West Bank wall saying “Build the Wall.” The president chastised students who simply tried to paint over the insulting phrase, and he made it appear that the offended students were worse than the folks who created the xenophobic mural that in essence were saying “Mexicans go home.”
Liz Sawyer, of the local big business press the Star Tribune, tried to run to their defense as well, writing an article (editorial?) that said that the rebuke of the students who painted over the sign was a lesson in free speech. Only the dishonest can pretend that “build the wall” is anything other than hate speech. The statement is not borne out of the need for new policy when it comes to Mexico; it’s borne out of hatred and dislike for those who don’t have a European pedigree.
Every honest person knows its code for “Go back to Mexico.” It’s an anti-immigrant statement. Donald Trump advocated for building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico because he wanted to appeal to xenophobes. At bottom it is the language of proto-fascist thugs!
Of course the blatant irony in all this is, just about everybody trying to tell folks to go back to where they came from originally, came from somewhere else, and it wasn’t that long ago. Sawyer very un-objectively stated as fact the idea that students had learned a lesson in free speech, though no one she interviewed said so. It’s likely she thinks she struck a blow for the cause of free speech, but she would be as wrong as her analysis.
What they learned is that there are people on campus who are intolerant, xenophobic and narrow-minded. Latin students learned that there are some students on campus who would like to see them go back to where they came from, that they are in a hostile environment. They also learned that the administration isn’t going to defend their right to exist, but is going to coddle the intolerant, allowing them to hide their thuggish behavior behind the right to free speech.
Moreover, they learned that the Young Republicans are just young sniveling cowards, thugs who possess so little confidence in themselves and their position that instead of taking their perspective to the University square, testing their ideas against those of their peers, they took a cheap shot.
“The University of Minnesota supports a campus climate that welcomes all members of our community and our values of equity and diversity,” wrote President Kaler, “but that also ensures the free flow of ideas, even those that are offensive to some. People in our community may disagree with the sentiment expressed. However, while the University values free speech, the subsequent vandalism of the panel is not the way to advance a conversation.”
Scribbling hateful signs is advancing conversation? And murals implying some students should go home are welcoming?
Oddly, Kaler wasn’t as vigilant in defending the rights of the four Black football players recently suspended, apparently without due process, simply because they were accused of wrongdoing. And no, I don’t support them if they did, indeed, wrong someone.
A real leader would have used this as a teachable moment. A real leader would have pointed out that while you have the right to say what you want, you should also be willing to take responsibility for whatever harm your speech causes. A real leader would have organized a debate on immigration on campus, while pointing out that real free speech is that which adds to the pantheon of ideas and helps advance the ideas of human solidarity and unity.
The Young Republicans response is telling: “Our party’s nominee supports building a wall on the Mexican border to stop the flow of illegal immigrants into this country.” While free speech may be at the heart of a democracy, xenophobia and hate speech are central to fascism.
The mural was divisive, a pejorative, a provocation. It was like throwing an insult and then hiding under the president’s coat, or behind the Constitution.
Ideally, speech that’s accepted in the public square is civil speech. Civil speech unites rather divides, builds rather than destroys, and inspires rather than discourages.
Justice then peace.
Mel Reeves welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.
Mel Reeves was the community editor at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder until he passed away on January 6, 2022. He had a long and storied history working at the MSR.
Find more about Reeve’s life and legacy here: spokesman-recorder.com/category/remembering-mel-reeves.