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.

Jon Lovett put it best when he described "the culture of shut up" which permeates campus (and society at large):
The right to free speech may begin and end with the First Amendment, but there is a vast middle where our freedom of speech is protected by us—by our capacity to listen and accept that people disagree, often strongly, that there are fools, some of them columnists and elected officials and, yes, even reality-show patriarchs, that there are people who believe stupid, irrational, hateful things about other people and it’s okay to let those words in our ears sometimes without rolling out the guillotines.
For those who think I have yet to provide enough evidence of the problem, allow me to provide more examples from last spring. Maddy Jasper, one of Macalester's few Christian conservative students, wrote in the Mac Weekly about the response from classmates after she expressed her viewpoint on gay marriage in class:
It seemed to take days for the hour to pass. These comments were no different than the last and their responses and comments were relatively the same, but they still stung. “And your family agrees with you?” “I think you’re missing the point here.” “You should reread the article, you sound ignorant.” “You must be Christian.”
The attack, as I like to describe it, continued until all I could do was sit with my head bowed, eyes on my own clammy, folded hands. Even after I refused to respond, the insults kept flying. “You’re insensitive to the situation.” “I’m sure this is how you were brought up, but it isn’t right to think that way.”
Now, I don't agree with Jasper on gay marriage or with Christian conservative beliefs in general. But the fact that Macalester students responded to her opinion (solicited in class by a professor!) by insulting her religion and family while a Macalester professor allowed it to go on in their classroom appalled me.

I waited for some kind of response, assuming that perhaps these comments were out of context, exaggerated or misunderstood. But nobody else who was in the classroom with Ms. Jasper ever weighed in to dispute the facts. Instead, the only two public responses defended the people who insulted Ms. Jasper as being entirely appropriate in their actions:
That’s what us “politically correct warriors” are really getting at: not trying to repress anyone’s freedom of speech, religion or expression, but pushing people to step into someone else’s shoes, recognizing that their thoughts, experiences and oppressions are as valid as our own and that what we say can hurt them.
When someone says something that threatens the safety I associate with multiculturalism, I get angry. Sometimes I get mean and feel like I need to attack someone’s character in order to feel safe. The mutual hurt that goes on is obviously not ideal, but contextualized, the exchange makes sense.
In these students' minds, personally attacking someone's family simply because they hold a controversial opinion is completely acceptable. They don't want to explain to Ms. Jasper why she's wrong - they actually think it's perfectly OK to demand she never express her viewpoint.

And they aren't alone: over the spring semester students wrote in to the campus newspaper to demand warnings for a graphic playdemand a play not be showndeclare a Muslim cultural event "problematic"criticize an ad campaign featuring scantily clad women, and attack J.K. Rowling. Oddly enough, I'm sure I could find many Christian conservatives who would agree with all those causes (albeit surely for different reasons than the ones Mac students give).

In the most extreme example I have come across, I was physically threatened by a fellow Macalester student for expressing my personal political views on Facebook (something I try to do less and less these days). Last spring, my fellow student (now the proud holder of a Macalester diploma) told me I had "a very large target" on my back, threatened to "unleash hell" upon me, come to my house, and "jump" me on campus - all over disagreements about drug policy.

The proud recipient of a "liberal arts" education.
I reported that student to the administration, and they were ordered not to contact me anymore.

Once upon a time, I would have dismissed the possibility of actual physical violence on campus being used to suppress a person's political views. But since I was actually personally threatened with it, I sometimes wonder: where will we end up? Will we end up like University of California Santa Barbara, where professors lead mobs of students to attack 16-year old anti-abortion protesters?

I feel obligated to add that I don't defend Ms. Jasper because I agree with her. Quite the opposite. I defend her because I came to Macalester sold on the idea of the liberal arts experience as being good for me and for my future. As President Rosenberg wrote in defense of the liberal arts:
[M]any employers place the highest premium on skills such as critical thinking, creativity, and the ability to work cooperatively, in which a liberal arts education has been shown to provide especially good training;
If I am to be a functioning adult in society, and one capable of defending my own viewpoint, I'll need to be able to interact with people who hold Ms. Jasper's views without getting mad and insulting them. As a practical matter, some 40% of Americans share them. Unless I am to avoid any employment or living situation where I might deal with my disfavored four-tenths of America, I'm going to have to learn to live with people who disagree about gay marriage and plenty of other things. I'm not worried: in the free exchange of ideas, those who oppose gay marriage are losing the argument and continue to lose with each passing year - there's no need to forcibly cut off debate, so why try?

In my mind, liberalism is a philosophy that expands the range of subjects that are acceptable to discuss and explore, not restricts them. Michelle Goldberg, a critic of "the anti-liberal left", argues convincingly that if leftists continue along a path of political and cultural intolerance the cure will be unpleasant:
When the right takes power, the left usually discovers the importance of unfettered speech. In the 1980s, with conservatives leading a crusade against the National Endowment for the Arts for funding projects deemed anti-Christian and pornographic, tolerance no longer seemed quite so repressively bourgeois. The same was true during the Bush administration, when opposition to the Iraq War got Phil Donahue fired from MSNBC and the Dixie Chicks pulled off radio playlists nationwide. That’s why the Colbert Report was so cathartic when it first appeared—his relentless mockery cut through the bombastic jingoism, the right wing political correctness, that was stifling us....
Some day president Paul Ryan or Ted Cruz or Rand Paul is going to be sworn in, and an ascendant, empowered conservatism will once again try to curtail dissent in pop culture and academia, just as it always does. Public art won’t be taken down because it’s considered triggering—it will be taken down (or covered up) because it’s considered indecent.
I hope the Class of 2018 takes the advice of Justice Brandeis from the top of this post, because without a true spirit of free inquiry on campus the core promise of the liberal arts education - that you will learn critical thought - becomes impossible to keep. After all, if nobody dares to express a differing opinion on campus, who is left to criticize?

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