Editor’s note: This article was written and submitted before the events of Tuesday at Mizzou’s campus transpired.
Content warning: Racial violence
Yale University, University of Missouri and Wesleyan College have recently seen varying levels of national coverage for incidents concerning speech tolerance on their campuses. Social media and news savvy Phoenix readers (and if you read the Phoenix, you must read other publications too) should know right away what I am talking about. But if this is the first time you are picking up a newspaper since fall break, let me give you a short breakdown of current events.
At Yale, university administrators sent out a campus wide email asking students to be sensitive about what they wore for Halloween, not unlike the email we at Swarthmore received this year. As a result, a few students at a residential college named Silliman College expressed concern with the email’s pedantic tone to their two college Masters, who in turn wrote an email outlining those concerns. In effect, the two college Masters, Nicholas and Erika Christakis, who are also faculty members, wrote an email that questioned this top-down infantilizing way of encouraging nonetheless important sensitivities. I recommend everyone actually read the email. Google it.
This then exploded into controversy. Members of the student body have petitioned for the couple to resign. During a protest, a female student yelled at Nicholas Christakis, “Who the f**k hired you?! You should step down! If that is what you think about being a master you should step down! It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here. You are not doing that!” To this student, a home cannot exist as an intellectual space. To her, the Christakis, by introducing a topic of conversation that is contentious and uncomfortable, have done something so irrevocably harmful to the institution of a home that necessitates their resignation. Make sure to tell your parents that caring for you and providing for you is incompatible with disagreement with the things you say.
At Mizzou, reporters who were trying to document a protest against the university president’s disregard of horrendously racist acts on campus were physically pushed and threatened by the activists, one who is ironically a professor in the communications department. Apparently, the protesters believed the entirety of the media were out to get them, and that the very first amendment rights they are actively utilizing to occupy a public space to protest do not extend to reporters. While wanting to have a space to protest and share their grief, the protesters needlessly framed the usual agents of understanding and dialogue— reporters— as enemies to their tranquility.
Around two months ago, in a more comparable college to Swarthmore, Black Lives Matter activists in Wesleyan University tried to get their campus newspaper, The Argus, defunded because it publicized an Op-ed criticizing their movement. Unless, of course, the newspaper met a list of demands, many of which sought to limit the editorial freedom of the paper. Again, the intellectual space of debate that is the opinions section of a newspaper is pitted against the demands for a safe space.
These backlashes against speech have unsurprisingly inspired their own set of subsequent backlashes. Writers from the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic and even the usually leftist Slate have condemned the acts by the Yale and Mizzou activists as “intolerant” and “shocking.” Our friends in the Haverford Clerk warned against what happened in Wesleyan, telling the student population to always be “committed to respectful dialogue.”
In the midst of all these opinions, the original issues get lost in the storm— ignorance of racism, demeaning of culture, systematic abuse of black people in America. These are all issues of paramount importance, but if you attempt to look up these incidents now, the dialogue will be heavily focused on the insanity of campus activism. I find that troubling. Troubling because legitimate problems are being trivialized due to the perceived intolerance of their champions.
These campus activists have mistakenly identified their enemies. Their enemy is not the hallmark of classical liberalism that is free speech, and their enemy is definitely not intellectual debate. By pitting safe space against intellectual space, the activists are positioning themselves in direct opposition against that which created the possibility of their very existence— the possibility of dissent. Instead of finding a way to facilitate respectful dialogue that moves understanding forward, they risk alienating a large part of their campus population, most of whom came to college for the express purpose of enriching their intellectual lives. While this may sound abstract and hypothetical, there are simple ways to do this. If the Yalies in question spoke to the Christakis, they could have suggested a student led effort to communicate cultural sensitivities instead of a pedantic administration led one. Activists could have written counter opinion articles in The Argus at Wesleyan. If that doesn’t suffice, no one is stopping them from organizing protests to raise awareness of the problems that the black population face. All of these do not need to threaten the avenues of speech in order for them to be effective. As at Mizzou, the activists were right to ask the president to resign because he fundamentally failed to address student concerns, a key responsibility of his job. His resignation is necessitated by his incompetency more than anything else.
Oftentimes when we are hurt, our knee-jerk response is to demand an apology from the offending party, or else. Essentially, this type of response seeks the erasure of speech through aggression and threats of retribution. That is reasonable if the initial harm was intentionally harmful or aggressive, as in the case of the racist slurs and the swastika made of feces that first prompted the protests at Mizzou. But otherwise, if the statement is simply something we disagree with or find problematic, these threats of retribution are wholly unnecessary and can even be destructive. Especially since the tradition of debate and equal voice is what allowed for such demands for apologies to be heard in the first place. While this tradition is far from perfect and can be improved, the solution is not to dismantle and destroy them. There is a need for us to recognize the powers that this liberal tradition accord to minority populations. Imagine a place where organs of discourse are controlled, where an environment of dissent does not exist, and that what can be said or cannot be said is predetermined by a certain group of people. I can. I grew up in those places. I remember being a teenager in China and Singapore, where I was specifically told to respect my teachers and to never retort in fear of being caned. Reporters in Singapore are frequently “persuaded” by government workers to edit their articles, for the sake of “societal harmony.” Minorities and disenfranchised individuals such as systematically abused foreign workers are not allowed to protest in fear of being jailed or deported. While it may be nice to believe that we can have minorities protest but limit traditional avenues of discourse, such a view is both morally inconsistent and practically ambiguous. Activism can happen on the ground or in traditional media. By having any group of people determine what is “right” or “wrong”, we risk creating a power that is ripe for exploitation.
Safe spaces and intellectual spaces can co-exist peacefully alongside each other. In fact, these two seemingly oppositional ideas can be complementary and mutually informative. I am glad to have seen some of my fellow Swatties sharing and prompting discussion over the events that have transpired in these other schools. But these events affect us more deeply than the soundbites and witty one-liners on social media suggest. Many of us in Swarthmore are engaged in some sort of social activism. Let us keep in mind that creating a combative narrative between free speech and social justice is neither productive for our respective causes nor beneficial for the image of student activism as a whole.