George Stephanopoulos: When you were a student, you spoke out, you protested the apartheid in South Africa. If you were on the campus of the University of Missouri today, would you be a protester?
President Obama: Without knowing all the facts, I’ve read enough to know that there is clearly a problem at the University of Missouri. And that’s not just coming from students; that’s coming from some faculty. And I think it is entirely appropriate for students in a thoughtful, peaceful way, to protest what they see as injustices or inattention to serious problems in their midst.
I want an activist student body just like I want an activist citizenry. And the issue is just making sure that, even as these young people are getting engaged, getting involved, speaking out, that they’re also listening. And, you know, I’d rather see them err on the side of activism than being passive. I think that what you saw with the University of Missouri football team and the coach standing up for something that they think is right harkens back to a powerful tradition that helped to bring about great change in this country. But I also want to make sure that they understand that being a good citizen, being an activist, involves hearing the other side—
George Stephanopoulos: That’s what I wanted to ask you about because—
President Obama: —and making sure that you are engaging in a dialogue because that’s also how change happens. The civil rights movement happened because there was civil disobedience, because people were willing to go to jail, because there were events like Bloody Sunday, but it was also because the leadership of the movement consistently stayed open to the possibility of reconciliation and sought to understand the views, even views that were appalling to them, of the other side.
George Stephanopoulos: ’Cause there does seem to be a strain on some of these campuses of a kind of militant political correctness, where you shut down the other side.
President Obama: And I disagree with that. And it’s interesting, you know; I’ve now got daughters who—one’s about to go to college. The other one’s going to be on her way in a few years. And then we talk about this at the dinner table. And I say to them, Listen, if you hear somebody using a racial epithet, if you hear somebody who’s anti-Semitic, if you see an injustice, I want you to speak out, and I want you to be firm and clear, and I want you to protect people who many not have voices themselves. I want you to be somebody who’s strong and sees themselves as somebody who’s looking out for the vulnerable.
But I tell them, I want you also to be able to listen. I don’t want you to think that a display of your strength is simply shutting other people up, and that part of your ability to bring about change is going to be by engagement and understanding the viewpoints and the arguments of the other side. And so when I hear, for example, folks on college campuses saying, “We’re not going to allow somebody to speak on our campus—”
George Stephanopoulos: “We need a safe space.”
President Obama: “—because we disagree with their ideas or we feel threatened by their ideas,” I think that’s a recipe for dogmatism and I think you’re not going to be as effective.
And so, look, I want to be clear here and it’s a tough issue, because there are two values that I care about. I care about civil rights and I care about kids not being discriminated against or having swastikas painted on their doors or nooses hung, thinking it’s a joke. I think it’s entirely appropriate for any institution, including universities to say, “Don’t walk around in blackface; it offends people. Don’t wear a headdress and beat your chest if Native American students have said, you know, this hurts us, this bothers us.” There’s nothing wrong with that.
But we also have these values of free speech. And it’s not free speech in the abstract. The purpose of that kind of free speech is to make sure that we are forced to use argument and reason and words in making our democracy work. And, you know, you don’t have to be fearful of somebody spouting bad ideas. Just out-argue them. Beat ’em. Make the case as to why they’re wrong. Win over adherents. That’s how things work in a democracy.
And I do worry if young people start getting trained to think that if somebody says something I don’t like, if somebody says something that hurts my feelings, that my only recourse is to shut them up, avoid them, push them away, call on a higher power to protect me from that. You know, and yes, does that put more of a burden on minority students, or gay students, or Jewish students, or others in a majority that may be blind to history and blind to their hurt? It may put a slightly higher burden on them. But you’re not going to make the kinds of deep changes in society that those students want without taking it on in a full and clear and courageous way.
And, you know, I tell you, I trust Malia in an argument. If a knucklehead on a college campus starts talking about her, I guarantee you she will give as good as she gets.
George Stephanopoulos: It sounds like you’ve been having some good dinner table conversations.