Friday, September 19, 2014

An appeal for free expression

If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.
- Justice Louis Brandeis, 1927,  writing in Whitney v. California
Generally speaking, I've never been one to give a lot of credence to complaints about people being overly politically correct. Conservatives have a tendency to use the phrase "politically correct" or "PC" as a bludgeon with which they may attack any attempts to suggest or require cultural inclusiveness anywhere in the public sphere (see the annually scheduled Fox News hysteria about the "War on Christmas" for an example). But having attended this college for almost four years now, I have to say I now find the highly politically correct campus environment completely stifles free expression and academic inquiry more broadly.

Let 's start with a poster. Last year, Macalester College's Department of Multicultural Life (DML) designed and sponsored an on-campus campaign called "More Than Words", which is still ongoing. The campaign targeted words like "gay", that are often used in an offensive and anti-LGBTQ context. But it also targeted a number of other words, including "crazy", "lame", "illegal alien" and perhaps most mysteriously, "derp".

An actual MTW poster.
Anytime I step off campus, of course, I hear pretty much all the words targeted by the MTW campaign. Some of the terms are definitely offensive, some are just political (I'm sure many conservatives consider "illegal alien" perfectly acceptable). Some ("crazy") are a part of everyone's everyday vernacular. I thought Anish Krishnan's ('14) March Mac Weekly editorial (it's worth reading all of it) pretty much hit the nail on the head about what was wrong with pursuing the elimination of these words from campus:
Perhaps the greatest flaw in the “More Than Words” campaign lies in the fact that it does not teach our fellow students to be resilient, to understand that they are, in fact, more than these words.... The proposed counterargument is that we cannot transform society if we continuously prepare for others’ lack of progress. But one must be realistic and pragmatic, not just idealistic.
Put simply, the More Than Words campaign seeks to stifle speech ranging from the offensive to the politicized to the silly. It is also symbolic of what I see as a distinct lack of political tolerance (meaning tolerance for a wide variety of political viewpoints) at Macalester.

Campus political intolerance has made me rethink my participation in campus conversations, and on one occasion even resulted in a fellow student actually threatening to harm me. Worse still, it undermines the entire point of the liberal arts - how is anyone supposed to "learn how to think" or "think critically" when opinions that challenge existing ideas are shouted out of the conversation?

Of course as a private college, Mac doesn't have to allow free expression - but the student handbook does promise that we have it:
Macalester College exists for the transmission of knowledge and the pursuit of truth. Free inquiry, free expression and responsibly free activity are indispensable to the attainment of these goals.
One might ask why I care when so little speech is actually banned. After all, nobody has ever been expelled for saying something from a More Than Words poster. But I care because when Mac students cannot be exposed to controversial content without complaining about having to hear it and resorting to personal and hurtful insults, free speech is stifled just as surely as it would be if the administration enacted speech codes.