Why you should care
Journalist and broadcaster Katie Couric’s show, America Inside Out, focuses on bridging the country’s great divide.
Katie Couric has traveled nationwide in recent months to put her finger on the pulse of America. In her new show on National Geographic, America Inside Out, Couric explores the issues dividing Americans today — everything from Confederate statues and political correctness to gender inequality and racism. Tonight’s episode, airing at 10 p.m. ET, focuses on “The Age of Outrage,” a close look at campus protests, safe spaces, microaggressions and the fostering of ideal learning environments.
Fascinated by this project, we asked Katie Couric what she has learned from the filming of this series. She wrote her responses below.
Do you think the environment on college campuses is healthier now than it was when you were in school? Or do you fear, like you suggested to the students at Hillel when you mentioned the opposite viewpoint, that safe spaces are creating an unrealistic cocoon for today’s youth?
Katie Couric: I think colleges across the country are trying to create a positive and inclusive learning environment for all of their students, which of course is a very important thing for higher ed institutions. Morty Schapiro, the president of Northwestern, believes students have to be comfortable to engage in uncomfortable learning. Some of the students told me that a safe space allows them to learn to listen, argue and wrestle with their ideas and opinions, which can help them formulate their positions without judgment. Ideally, a classroom should be a place where these uncomfortable conversations take place without judgment or animosity, but I think it speaks to our increasing tendency to call out people with whom we don’t agree, or those whose opinions we find offensive, intentionally or not.
As long as spirited debate and discourse is still encouraged in academic settings, I think it’s healthy for people to find their intellectual footing in environments where they feel safe to explore their values and positions. Sometimes these things have been taken out of context and weaponized by opponents. Trigger warnings, for example, are a courtesy that I believe should be afforded to students. One young African-American woman at Northwestern told me her professor let her know that they were going to be discussing blackface in class and wanted to give her a heads-up. That is simply being thoughtful and considerate of your students. Like anything, trigger warnings can be taken too far, but I think generally they are an appropriate practice.
Or is it even worse, like Robert Zimmer, the president of the University of Chicago, says — is this sensitivity push doing more harm than good and hurting opportunities to learn? What surprised you most about the viewpoints you heard from students at Northwestern versus the University of Chicago?
Couric: Robert Zimmer has taken a very strong position on this at the University of Chicago. A dean told incoming students in a letter in 2016 that “we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial and we do not condone the creation of intellectual safe spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” Of course, this is the concern, that free speech will be inhibited and students won’t be exposed to different points of view and required to learn how to develop a robust defense of their positions.
In a poll taken by the University of Chicago newspaper, 76.8 percent of students agreed that the campus should allow all speech even if it’s deemed offensive or biased because an open learning environment was paramount in importance. Van Jones told students at Chicago in 2017, “I don’t want you to be safe, ideologically. I don’t want you to be safe, emotionally. I want you to be strong. That’s different. I’m not going to pave the jungle for you. Put on some boots and learn how to deal with adversity. You are creating a kind of liberalism that the minute it crosses the street into the real world is not just useless, but obnoxious and dangerous. I want you to be offended every single day on this campus. I want you to be deeply aggrieved and offended and upset, and then learn how to speak back. Because that is what we need from you.”
I think Van has a point and, like many people, is worried that protecting students too much from ideas that are offensive will leave them ill-equipped to handle themselves outside the walls of universities. It’s something to be on guard against and be aware of. We should be wary of narrow-minded ideologues from all political backgrounds who are intolerant of different points of view. At the same time we have to make sure we strike an appropriate balance — acknowledging there are some positions that are universally regarded as repugnant and unacceptable and need to be called out. It’s not just universities but lots of institutions that are grappling with the question of where to draw the line. Look at cities like Charlottesville, Virginia, which has to weigh whether to issue rally permits to groups that attract white nationalists in the aftermath of a violent attack there during last year’s Unite the Right rally. Or Google, which decided that its employee James Damore crossed a line in a manifesto about gender bias and essentially fired him for it, and television producers like the creators of The Simpsons who have to contend with objections to their caricature of South Asians.
We encountered the tension over this question of line drawing and whether sensitivity is becoming censorship over and over again in the course of filming — not just this latest episode but the entire America Inside Out series. It’s one of the great questions of our times: What defines us as Americans — our tolerance of every perspective, even those that harm people? Or our insistence on treating everyone with dignity and respect? There aren’t easy answers, and it’s a real balancing act.
Political scientist Charles Murray classified what’s going on as a fascist attack on free speech. But Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan faced campus protests around the country in the early 1990s — is this just a continuation of that? Are students just prone to protest, whatever the generation, or is this really something altogether new and more fervent?
Couric: I think what we’re seeing today is absolutely new — and these protests do tend to be more intense than we’ve seen in recent decades. We know that some speech absolutely crosses the line, and we’ve seen students make strong cases that certain speech is so damaging it should not get the tacit endorsement that a platform on campus implies. However, what we are seeing now, and what Murray is talking about, are protests whose aim is to shut down any speakers whose position or work may fuel harmful behavior, targeting people on both sides of the political spectrum — from Frank Bruni to Robert Zimmer to Charles Murray. Are these protests fascist? That’s pretty strong language. But the fact that they are more intense is indisputable.
Part of that comes from the fact that we’re seeing demographic changes on college campuses, which make more members of marginalized groups — women, people of color — a bigger part of the conversation. Diversity brings with it new demands and new challenges. But empowering those voices is part and parcel of being a true democracy. Of course, it can be a slippery slope — if people who hold views that are offensive to the loudest voices can’t, in some way, both express those ideas and be challenged, it’s not helpful to have those views continue to circulate and be followed without being properly debated.
What can’t be overstated — and is a double-edged sword — is that a major difference today is the way ideas and protests can be amplified on social media. Social platforms really didn’t exist in the early ’90s, and they enhance the sense that these protesters are part of a larger movement. This in turn, I think, creates greater intensity and commitment that comes with a feeling that students are being heard and having an impact. Students are sharing information, opinions, grievances that can ricochet around the country in a matter of minutes. They don’t need the establishment to pay attention — they can demand and generate attention.
You saw how effective this can be not just with the Women’s March back in 2017, but also in the recent March for Our Lives, which was a coordinated nationwide protest that saw middle and high school students walking out of classrooms at the same exact moment as college students across the country. They didn’t need the mainstream media to get the word out about their plans, and having used social media to organize on a grand scale, they also covered it themselves — through Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, group texts. So a handful of kids in a small school in Idaho could feel and really be a part of a protest that included hundreds of thousands of people in their generation. Does that mean there is more intensity behind these protests? Yes, I think it does. And as with any powerful tool or weapon, it needs to be used carefully and thoughtfully.
When Morton Schapiro noted how people calling him generous would be classified by his son as an anti-Semitic remark, did this make you wonder about things you yourself have said that may have been misinterpreted?
Couric: Of course. This entire episode made me rethink and reexamine my own perspective of various groups and the way I see people and the way I move in the world in general. We are all products of our cultural conditioning, and while I think I’ve been raised to be a sensitive, empathetic person, I’m sure stereotypes and outdated attitudes have crept into my consciousness over the years. I’m even more acutely aware of these things having explored them in this series, and I have a deeper understanding of how hurtful uninformed perspectives can be. We’re living in such challenging times, times of tremendous demographic, geographic and cultural change, and the status quo is being upended in a myriad of ways. We are so polarized that the opportunity to have a measured, reasonable conversation about our preconceived notions has started to feel virtually impossible for a lot of us, because the default position seems to be to attack others and defend yourself.
Throughout this series, you’ve tackled some of the heaviest issues we see reflected in the news day to day, from white anger and anxiety to debates over washing away history. Having been all over the country, do you think America can overcome these divides? Or are we on a road to even more partisanship and divisiveness?
Couric: There was a moment in my episode “White Anxiety” where I was talking with three white EMS workers and asking for their response to certain hot-button issues like Colin Kaepernick or Black Lives Matter. Perhaps predictably, their response was along the lines of “All Lives Matter.” And almost on cue, Carlos, a Black EMS worker, walked into the room and joined the conversation. He began to tell his coworkers that these protests and conversations in the Black community were continuations of things they’ve long been fighting for, and the pushback to him meant people in the U.S. really aren’t comfortable with racial equality. When he finished, his coworkers admitted that they never wanted to talk to him about those issues previously because they didn’t want to make him uncomfortable, but that they understood why he felt the way he did.
And it’s these kinds of uncomfortable conversations that I think we need to be having more of in order to overcome these divides, and I’m hopeful that that’s beginning to happen. For me, the most important thing I learned is that humility is so important, because if we are humble it makes us realize there is always more to learn. And the more we learn, the deeper our understanding will be. These are tense times, but maybe by talking to each other instead of at each other, or past each other, we can bridge some divides … or at least begin paving the way. Hey, a girl can dream.