One of the strengths of the American political system is the ability to deal with competing ideas especially when they are values held dear to the United States system of governance. The Constitution enshrines many of these ideas in the Bill of Rights. As the Founders worked to develop new legislation to replace the failed Articles of Confederation.
These first Ten Amendments of the Constitution contain many of most cherished rights and freedoms. Chief among these are the freedom of speech and freedom of association.
These protections can be found in the First Amendment. The potential clash of these cherished values does not occur often, but when they do clash, it creates a dilemma. The recent episode of book burning by students at Georgia State University last Wednesday illustrates the difficulties caused by the conflict between competing freedoms.
Jennine Capó Crucet, the author of the 2015 novel "Make Your Home Among Strangers," visited Georgia State University last week to discuss her novel with first-year students assigned to read her work as part of their First Year Experience course. As reported by numerous media outlets, several of the students expressed displeasure at the novel and its discussion of white privilege.
Peggy McIntosh’s essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” remains one of the most articulate considerations of this term though it had existed as far back as the Civil Rights Movement. Educator and author, Francis E. Kendall defines white privilege as “having greater access to power and resources than people of color [in the same situation] do.”
Anytime a particular group is singled out, it is natural to become defensive. While it is understandable to react this way, this certainly does not excuse the students who decided to respond by burning Crucet’s book.
The president of Georgia Southern University rightly stated the students' actions remain protected under the First Amendment, the fact remains that Crucet has Constitutional protections as well. She has the right to write novels about the presence of White privilege and the difficulties such privileges caused her during her own experience as a college student in predominantly White schools.
As a current university instructor who teaches courses on discourse and rhetoric, it is precisely these difficult conversations that require both sides to learn to explore their differences in a civilized fashion. I routinely warn my students we will read about controversial topics. In our exploration of these issues, we not only discuss the writings themselves, we will discuss the context and the rhetoric behind the arguments.
If you want to truly understand someone’s opinion that differs from your own, you must not only read the words, you must understand how they create their narratives and arguments. I can recall having to read works both in my undergraduate and graduate programs I did not agree with and some that I practically despised. Nevertheless, I cannot recall a time I contemplated burning any of these essays or books.
What I found most disturbing were the smiles of the students found on the video as they burned copies of Crucet’s books. I do feel the University academic departments have attempted to address these issues and will hopefully use this as a teaching moment.
The students need to understand the legacy of racism in the South and the disturbing legacy of book burning from Nazi Germany.
Nicolas Shump is a longtime educator and writer in northeast Kansas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.