Imagine a world where your ideas, preferences, and perspectives were universal; where disagreement was unacceptable; and where conformity is mandatory. If you’re thinking this sounds Orwellian…or Russian…you’re not far off. Except, these problems are permeating the United States on both ends of the political spectrum – both resulting from the growth of populism.
On the populist right, the Trump Administration has adopted a policy of obstruction and deceit, dodging and limiting questions from the press, banning recordings of press conferences, denigrating the press and reporters, and refusing to concede to any errors or miscalculations. Its positions and preferences can change in an instant, yet no such shift is acknowledged. For those who might attempt to make this obfuscation a partisan issue, note that the Obama Administration literally refused questions from conservative news organizations for years, or remember that the (George W.) Bush Administration had a reputation of being very open to the press, even when press coverage was decidedly negative. Violations of the spirit of the First Amendment take no political refuge, yet no full-throated attack on this core value of such a magnitude has been advanced by a Presidential administration since at least World War II.
This growing desire for conformity of vision does not exist in a vacuum. On the populist far left, “safe spaces”, first conceived as a way to provide an open dialogue about complex issues without fear of hate speech or violence (specifically for LGBT students at universities), have blossomed (in many places) into full-fledged political action that explicitly demands uniformity, denying the free exchange of ideas. This was embodied last weekend in Chicago by an LGBT marcher in Chicago’s Pride Parade who was forced to leave a sub-march called “Dyke March Chicago” because she sought to represent her Judaism and her sexual orientation at once. This is what the far left calls “intersectionality”, and yet the group could not accept this. And rather than simply telling her that they were anti-Semitic and didn’t want her there or actually annoucing some intent to march for the destruction of Israel or whatever their exact agenda was, they told her only that this was a “safe space” where her ideas weren’t welcome. When she objected, they forcibly removed her. Mind you, this wasn’t private property but a public park, where free thought, free ideas, and free political expression should be most welcome in a free democracy. This person, seen as an agitator by this group, was in fact a very liberal Jewish woman who sought to support both Pride and liberal causes. And yet, that wasn’t good enough. She did not perfectly conform to the beliefs of the group and was subsequently removed. Even in a large group, apparently she alone made the group unsafe. Perhaps a more accurate term for “safe space” is “restricted speech zone”. If people in a park can’t handle the complexities of the world – can’t confront the reality that their perfect utopian vision isn’t shared by all others, then perhaps its time they seek some help rather than denying the rights of others.
Trump, meanwhile, is also creating his own “safe space”: a place where his ideas aren’t challenged, where even those viewpoints only trivially different than his own are not allowed, where his own version of reality supersedes all others, and where new information that could impact a rational person’s belief structures are undoubtedly propagated by the opposition, seeking to tear him down. Trump’s “safe space” is one in which facts don’t exist. Rather, conformity rules all. This is what happens when the world is viewed through a polar yet unstable lens; when there are no foundations from which to discuss and debate the merits of data and information. Statistics become hand-picked (i.e., meaningless) rather than trend-based (i.e., meaningful). Truth becomes an absolutism. The viewpoints of all others become completely invalid, less a dissolution of perfect conformity. The “safe space” advocates on the far left may disagree with Donald Trump on nearly every issue, and yet their approach is the same: buy in or get out. This, too, is the essence of populism. Confused? Read 1984. Read The Fountainhead. Read The Plot Against America. (You could even just watch The Sound of Music.) Then you too will understand the dangers of populism.
When I lived in Philadelphia, each Friday a group of mostly Jewish men and women would stand on a street corner and rally for Israel. On the opposite street corner, a group of mostly Muslim men and women would rally for Palestine. At least once, a third group – a group advocating for a compromise solution between the Israelis and the Palestinians – stood at another corner of this intersection and chanted their own message. Generally it was cordial – sometimes there would be some yelling – but mostly each group respected the other’s right to exist; to protest; to object. This was a real safe space. A space where all voices could be heard. A space where the majority opinion didn’t simply force the minority out of the way.
Such freedoms still exist. Come to Washington and see a protest and counter-protest almost any day of the week. Look for a rally in your community, see how many political opinions are present. Such diversities of ideas permeate our nation, and for good reason: they are the lifeblood of our Constitution and the basis of our freedom. Our founders did all they could to eliminate “safe spaces” by creating freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom from tyranny, freedom from oppression, freedom from overactive government, democratic elections, and an independent judiciary. They worked to ensure that the ruling class would never have total control over public opinion, speech, and expression. Therefore, protecting our Constitution means rejecting “safe spaces” and encouraging dialogue, debate, discussion, and disagreement – all core tenants of American liberty, justice, democracy, and freedom.