Just over one week ago, the University of Chicago Institute of Politics posted to social media an image of Evita Duffy, a second-year in the College, holding a whiteboard captioned, “I vote because the Coronavirus won’t destroy America, but Socialism will.” Dozens turned the image into a popular meme format, many more posted anonymously about the incident on the UChicago Crushes page, hundreds commented, and untold multitudes discussed the incident on campus. The tone of responses ranged from earnest to hurt to mocking to threatening. Duffy wrote a Maroon op-ed that was shared on social media to the combined millions of followers of former U.N. Ambassador and South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, U.S. House Representative Adam Kinzinger, The View co-host Meghan McCain, National Chairman of the Young Americans for Freedom Board Grant Strobl, and Duffy’s parents Fox News contributor Rachel Campos-Duffy and CNN contributor Sean Duffy. The story was reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, The Federalist, World Tribune, and TheBlaze. Institute of Politics Director David Axelrod also issued a statement.
Whether you believe Duffy was acting in good faith or bad, the scale and nature of much of the response has been counterproductive to the progressive goals espoused by her critics.
Duffy is a member of our campus community, and extending neighbors the benefit of the doubt, until they give us reason not to, is surely the best practice. With that in mind, I would like to assume good faith and dig deeper into Duffy’s message. Consider the following interpretation of her whiteboard: Americans overexaggerate immediate and often-sensationalized threats like diseases (e.g., Ebola in 2014) while underestimating the normalization of potentially dangerous ideologies. While I do not fully agree with this claim, it has merit and could well have been put forward with good faith, even if in a regrettably insensitive manner. In this case, the commenters who responded with civil concern and disagreement were doing the right thing: They wrote in hopes of changing minds.
Many Asian-American and international students—and their allies—rightly and thoughtfully responded to the insensitivity of using the coronavirus, an ongoing cause of collective trauma, to advance one’s political views. My critique of the general “response” to Duffy’s post is in no way meant to discredit these meaningful contributions to discourse. Indeed, they are models of engaging in good faith.
Perhaps you find my presumption of Duffy’s good faith naïve and are convinced she acted in bad faith. Surely, then, she was “asking for it” and whatever dogpiling ensued can be excused in the name of discourse?
Even if nobody had said that Duffy was entitled “to a brick wall,” she was the subject of mockery liked by thousands. Tens of crude memes depicting her holding whiteboards insulting her own intelligence and using crass words like “cum,” “shit,” “pee pee,” and “poo poo” have been posted to the University meme page and liked by thousands. It is not my place, or anybody else’s, to question whether Duffy is justified in feeling harassed; the Bloombergian alternative is to minimize her experience as simply not liking the jokes that were told.
The question is not whether any single vitriolic response to Duffy was out of line, but whether the scale of the response was. Eleven words written by one student were met with an avalanche from thousands that has subsumed this campus for a week and now risen to national media. The magnitude of those numbers creates a power dynamic that could understandably make any individual, let alone a college student at risk of additional prejudice due to her gender and Hispanic identity, uncomfortable. The numbers also suggest something else: the utter redundancy of “dunks.” Many commenters repeated refrains that had already been given dozens of times, contributing little new to the discourse than another body on the dogpile.
If Duffy did write those 11 words in bad faith, we would have to assume she did so to gain publicity, a platform, and the credibility those bring. Campus progressives have delivered her all three.
Duffy is founding a campus chapter of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), an affiliate of the Young America’s Foundation whose projects include “the fight for free speech on college campuses” and “campus activism.” The organization’s speakers justify its mission with the narrative of intolerant college progressive mobs unwilling to treat conservatives with civility and fairness. Conservative “warriors” who face campus backlash are given write-ups on the organization’s website, as well as social media and television exposure.
Death threats and crass memes aren’t exactly “civil.” But are they fair? At least four memes on the meme page, each now with hundreds of likes, repeated the insensitive invocation of coronavirus from Duffy’s initial post but with ostensibly progressive replacements to “Socialism” destroying America. None were met with backlash or scrutiny.
In their response to the whiteboard incident, UChicago progressives reified the YAF narrative and presented a conservative voice with a much larger platform and a story that could easily find itself in a future campaign stump speech.
Last week, Darcy Kuang wrote in The Maroon that Duffy made provocative comments to “launch [herself] into a segment on Fox News.” It would not be outside the realm of possibility. Whatever future publicity this brings her, it will not have been Duffy’s caption but the online hordes that launched her to it.
If you disagree with this op-ed but believe I have written it in good faith, I welcome your thoughtful responses. If you believe I have snarkily written it in bad faith, I implore you to ignore it. However, should you dunk on it en masse, know that you will deliver me the sweet satisfaction of vindication.
Devin Haas is a second-year in the College.