I’m disappointed that Heather Mac Donald’s appearance on Emory’s campus last week drew a crowd of over 100 Emory students. For comparison, a comparable controversial appearance in 2017 by former Georgia state Rep. Earl Erhart (R-Powder Springs) drew similar numbers of attendees at Emory, while recent Emory speakers like Democratic U.S. Senate Candidates, a White House correspondent and a foreign ambassador each drew only a fraction of this crowd.
Why do Emory students continue showing up for racist or victim-blaming speakers? Obviously, some were interested in Mac Donald’s stances or ideas. However, most of the students I know who attended the lecture were disgusted and outraged by MacDonald’s views before she even opened her mouth. If you know a speaker will only enrage or disgust you, why spend your limited time and energy at the event?
High attendance gives both the speaker and her sponsors a reason to congratulate themselves. Even if you make your opposition to the speaker known with interjections, shirts or signs, you are giving them the power of an audience if you attend their event.
Low attendance is common at many noncontroversial on-campus events, so minimal turnout for offensive speakers would not prove Emory students are overly sensitive or anti-free speech; instead it would convey that the speaker’s ideas are not compelling and that we have better things to do. I agree that some speakers are so offensive or damaging that you must engage, but there are many options for reacting to a speaker without tacitly validating their presence. Kudos to all those who contributed to no-platforming, holding simultaneous counter-protests in another location or watching by live-stream, instead of attending the event. However, these actions may play into conservative narratives of over-sensitive and anti-free speech college liberal, so match your response to the extremity of a particular speaker.
Conservative speakers are not ashamed or saddened to anger a large group of college liberals with what they say. Imagine the reverse: wouldn’t most progressives love the chance to lecture and outrage over 100 right-wing faithfuls? Provocation is both fun and simple, especially when preselected questions and a relatively respectful audience preserve control of the dialogue throughout. Moreover, stirring up controversy helps Mac Donald generate free publicity and market herself and her books to conservatives.
I congratulate the Young Federalists, Emory College Republicans and Mac Donald; judging by attendance and the resulting discourse, your event was a resounding success, surely meriting similar programming in the future.
As for Emory students displeased by Mac Donald’s appearance, any activist will speak to the power of showing up. Are you showing up for your values?
Charlotte Selton (20C) is from Sacramento, Calif.