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Students Discuss Defending Democracy with “On Tyranny” Author

True communication is a kind of an art, writer/scholar Timothy Snyder told Emerson students and faculty members on Monday, and “art’s going to save us, or nothing is.”

“Without art, we’re not gonna make it,” Snyder said.

The author of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, was visiting Emerson College for the second time this academic year to talk about his book, a pocket-sized paperback, slim, at just over 100 pages, that outlines conditions that threaten our democracy, and how to resist them.

On Tyranny was distributed to students in all School of Communication departments this year, as part of a pilot initiative to get first-years and transfer students in particular across majors engaging around one book.

“One of the main points for us is finding new ways to connect with students and engage with students, and really form this sense of cohesiveness within the school, Dean Raul Reis said earlier in the semester.

Snyder walked the Bordy Theater audience through the main points of his book. His 20 lessons, all drawn from events and totalitarian regimes of the the last century, include sweeping prescriptions like “Don’t obey in advance” and “Defend institutions,” as well as ideas that sound on the surface like they’d be more at home in a business manual or self-help book: “Remember professional ethics,” and “Make eye contact and small talk.”

A number of Snyder’s lessons were encapsulated in last weekend’s March for Our Lives. In that event, prompted by the February 14 mass shooting that killed 17 in Parkland, Florida, more than a million youth and their allies in cities across the country protested gun violence in U.S. schools and elsewhere and the lax gun laws that allow it.

The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School itself represents a “wavering of the rule of law,” Snyder said. But the response, led by impassioned and articulate students from that school, demonstrates Lesson #9: “Be kind to language.” Marjory Stoneman Douglas is a quality public school that places an emphasis on arts and communication.

“Why do those kids have an audience?” Snyder said. “Because they know how to speak.

“All of our kids should be able to express themselves that way. [If that were the case,] this would be a much better country.”

The fact that data around gun violence is suppressed and difficult to gather shows the need for numbers 10 and 11 – “Believe in truth” and “Investigate.”

“We have to keep pounding away at the numbers,” Snyder said. “The numbers never win the argument alone, but it matters.”

Parkland also unleashed an army of Twitter bots designed to get the American people to react emotionally, rather than logically, he said. But it “helps to march,” because it creates a “spectacle of human beings to compete with other spectacles,” and it creates intersectionality of people across racial, class, gender, and other lines.

On Tyranny began as a simple list, written on a flight from Sweden to the U.S. in the days after the 2016 presidential election. Snyder said he “felt like there was a bus on [his] chest,” and in order to shake free of that bus, he needed to “just do something.”

Snyder ended up posting his list on Facebook, where it went viral, getting millions of reads. He noticed people taking his list and making their own addenda and notes and passing it around – which he thought was great. But he wanted to be sure the “original” list was preserved somewhere, so he asked his publisher to turn it into an ebook and charge the bare minimum, less than a dollar.

The publisher declined, but offered to print it as a paperback if Snyder, a professor at Yale University, put his list into a historical context.

Joseph Davide, a first-year Journalism major attending Snyder’s talk, said while he doesn’t “100 percent agree with everything in it,” he liked the book.

“Also, as a history minor, I respect a lot of the background information given to prove the point,” Davide said, pointing in particular to the chapter on making eye contact and small talk.

“When you see that disappear, I think that’s a big red flag,” he said.

Asking a large group of students to read one book is a “great idea,” Davide said.

“I think, especially with this book, it’s a good idea to have something for students to discuss with each other,” he said.

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