How do we talk about speech on campus?

The argument seems never-ending. Every news-conscious college student in the country, or maybe even the world, knows about the issue of campus free speech. Countless publications, professional and amateur, have offered their opinions on the issue of campus speech codes, threatened academic careers, PTSD, cultural appropriation, insensitive jokes, post-colonialism. It must be quite overwhelming for anyone who came to college to just get a degree and get the hell out. But sorry, you are at Swarthmore and you have to care. If you don’t comment on your friends’ shared articles about another disciplined professor or a withdrawn school judiciary sentence, get ready to lose some Facebook friends.

I’m joking (maybe not for some of you). But this joke is a good example of a kind of speech restriction that gets free speech advocates hot and bothered. Social pressure in a school environment is very real, and at Swarthmore, where everyone knows about everyone else. Your political leanings are public knowledge, especially if you are not on the left side of the Swarthmore spectrum. To avoid ostracization in an environment like this, one might be pressured to either concede to the opinions of others or to keep absolutely quiet. I have had personal experiences with this, often shying away from complex and emotionally heated issues such as racial violence and immigration for fear of social retribution. These issues are then framed in a one-sided manner by the interested parties, limiting opportunities for nuanced thought. Anyone who does not agree with them is labeled as “against us”, “bigoted”, and my favorite — “wrong”. As an opinionated member of the campus community, this has proved rather frustrating for me.

Yet, beyond this frustration, I realize that societal pressure isn’t something that any one person can effectively control. The only thing that can remove social pushback against certain types of speech is a cultural shift. We can be part of this cultural shift, either at Swarthmore or beyond, but we can never plausibly protect free speech completely from the clout of public opinion. For free speech advocates who feel discouraged by this, at least you can feel safe with the knowledge that, at Swarthmore, no one will be allowed to inflict physical harm on you just because of what you said. Still, there exist many people at Swarthmore who are open to discussing controversial issues. You just have to learn to find them.

However, there is one element, one that has been largely ignored by the existing commentary on the issue, that we have to keep in mind during our discourses — bias. This may seem strange, since biases are usually some of the first things we pick up on when reading opinion articles. A brilliant exception to this is a recent article by Nikita Redkar in xojane (My Indian parents are fans of cultural appropriation) which shows why exploring the distinct biases of different groups are so important in this discussion. So, why are the inherent biases of these articles not closely examined by commentators? In discussions about colleges and higher education, there seems to be a tendency for the authors to be from those very sectors. Academic writers often write with evidence and detachedness (the article by “Edward Schlosser” on Vox is peppered with examples), and thus counter-opinions tend to engage existing arguments on those grounds. While that is perfectly valid, it may serve us well to look at the biases of the authors. In the aforementioned Vox article, this pseudonymous Professor Schlosser writes as a fearful educator. He is afraid of losing his job, his source of income, and most of all the justification for his intellectual passions.  He blames this on the hypersensitivity of his supposedly liberal students and their “stifling conception of social justice”, and his suggestions mostly center around these students. But that might not be the issue at hand here. What Professor Schlosser describes may be instead a flawed and vengeful school system, where subjective and often problematic student evaluations hold strong sway in employment outcomes, where punitive measures are the main tools of problem solving, and where a previously enthroned pedagogical hierarchy is upset by the extreme skewering to be ‘student-centric’. Maybe Schlosser should advocate for reforms to faculty employment and protection instead of telling (not teaching) students how to think.

While these article writers get the most attention, the real influencers in the issue of campus speech are the students. And, lest we forget, we have our biases as well. At Swarthmore, almost all of us are in some sort of social, cultural, or political club. We look out for our interests, and justifiably so. But by being so invested in these interests, we may be prone to knee-jerk responses and emotive gesturing.

As I write this column on campus speech, I too have my biases.  Even though I am an ethnically Chinese student, I am different from Chinese-Americans. Growing up as the majority race, I have never felt exploited culturally or socioeconomically. Living in Singapore, I have seen the adverse effects of the restriction of speech rather than that of unbridled free speech. Due to my personal preference towards cultural transformation, I tend to see free speech as culturally beneficial even in its more controversial forms. But as I hope to have demonstrated above, I try to appreciate the nuances of discussion, even when they go against my personal preferences.

As sure as the beer runs out during Pubnite, there will be another speech sensitivity issue on campus sometime this academic year. When an email apology is sent out or when another “disgusting” Instagram photo is posted, rest assured that this column will be here for you to disagree with.


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