Sentiments on Steve
On January 28th, The Chicago Maroon announced that an invitation to Steve Bannon - founding member of Breitbart News, former White House Chief Strategist and close ally to President Trump - to speak at the university had been extended by professor Luigi Zingales of the Booth School of Business. Steve, the Maroon reported, had accepted.
On January 29th, 200 protestors gathered outside the business school chanting "Disinvite! Disinvite!" and "Say it loud and say it clear, stop inviting fascists here." The university responded with a statement claiming that "The University of Chicago is deeply committed to upholding the values of academic freedom, the free expression of ideas, and the ability of faculty and students to invite the speakers of their choice."
This sequence of events all feels rather predictable. It's the cause and effect scenario we've seen played out on college campuses throughout this period of heightened - or perhaps more visible - political, racial, and generally identity-based tension.
Yet, the fact that this form of reactionary discourse has become rather run of the mill doesn't mean we shouldn't be engaging in it. At a university that prides itself - in my view at times unjustly - on free speech, it's vital that we continue to question just what that means.
And this is a moment where I think the school could learn a thing or two from the fashion world.
This past year, we've witnessed the 'wokeness' of the industry. Black dresses, slogan tees and pink hats. It might feel superficial at times, but the design world has certainly been demonstrating its ability to make a statement. Yes, there have been missteps, but the trend towards positive change is quite startling. The creative willingness to challenge conventions and break norms is more relevant than ever.
But, at a university grounded in 'life of the mind,' a place that views itself as the bastion of learning for learning's sake, this kind of creative and critical thinking is not given the space it deserves.
When I think about Bannon coming to talk, I immediately go to the emotional. I think about his storied history of homophobia. I think about his long track record of sexist comments. And I think about his profound and overt racism. I also think about just how crucial free speech is - the importance of being willing to listen and discourse with those that hold different beliefs to our own. We need to be open to diving into discomfort and challenging those in power.
Yet those notions of discourse and disagreement are key. If Bannon speaks on campus, it cannot be framed in the context of his business acumen, and instead must be shaped around him being willing to answer tough questions and learn from those in front of him. I do not believe that a debate on the "economic benefits of globalization and immigration" fulfills these essential criteria. I also do not believe that Bannon has ever demonstrated a willingness to listen and learn.
With this in mind, his proposed talk on campus is immensely problematic. It is unlikely to provide members of the business school or the university as a whole with any useful insight. And it will ultimately serve to undermine minority's trust in the university itself, myself included.
It's all too tempting at a place like UChicago to step so far back into the abstract that we lose track of the real world. Yes, intellectually and theoretically a talk from Bannon could be interesting. But to discuss his coming to the university on solely academic grounds is to speak from an ignorant, privileged and selfish standpoint. We must take a page from the fashion industry's book and recognize the diversity of our environment. And then we must question the impact that the presence of a figure like Bannon could have on the many members of our community he has directly attacked, otherwise our campus is no community at all.
Feature image via.