A while back, I was profiled for the Atlantic by Conor Friedersdorf about my thoughts on the campus culture wars in a piece titled “Left Outside the Social-Justice Movement’s Small Tent.” In the piece, I called out some of the detrimental elements of the social justice scene in which I was formerly part of. Although I was an emphatic supporter of their movements and even identified as “deeply progressive,” I found myself having to persistently bite my tongue. Gradually, I began to express my true feelings about some of the illiberal, aggressive and outright boorish tendencies of my activists peers. As I had expected, it wasn’t well received. To make a long story short, I was excommunicated from social justice circles.
The feedback to the Atlantic article has been exceptionally positive. The minimal disagreements have been civil and pleasant. But now that I’ve matriculated into college, I have been thinking about the fractious debate over free speech, tolerance, civility and race — especially as a black immigrant student attending a predominantly white institution.
A few weeks ago, I attended a guest lecture by Mark Bray which was hosted by Ithaca College’s sociology department. (I’m currently a sophomore at Ithaca.) Bray talked about his new book, Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, in which he systematically describes the sudden resurgence of fascism and white supremacy in the United States.
Bray put forth an argument about free speech that is universally shared among students and faculty; the classical liberal understanding of free speech is a delusion. Because of the exceedingly unequal relationship between “advantaged” and “disadvantaged” groups, not everyone shares equal access to speak. Therefore, it makes perfect sense to curtail far-right voices since their ideas and ideologies, which tend to have enormous platforms, often infringe on the rights of “oppressed” groups. A related anti-free speech argument goes something along the lines of: racist and hateful speech is tantamount to literal violence, therefore, using violence as a response is entirely appropriate. Finally, there is the claim that hate speech — often times traditionally conservative beliefs — can induce psychological harm to minorities who are already disadvantaged. I want to tackle this last point.
The perception that minority students are so incompetent at formulating rebuttals against speech that is offensive or intolerant — read: conservative — that they need to be “protected” from it is beyond backward. It is both patronizing and paternalistic. I’m gay, black and an immigrant, and believe me, I’m more than capable of speaking up in defense of my values — especially in the face of those who despise my mere existence. As a minority student, I often encounter this kind of well-meaning, but deeply misguided dialogue that advocates for minorities by assuming their grievances.
This effectively misrepresents and reduces these alleged victim groups to the very stereotypes and misconceptions protesters want to draw attention to, and, in most cases, wish to censor. Furthermore, this argument implicitly assumes the bigoted and racist stereotype that racial and ethnic minorities “all think alike” simply because we happen to “all look alike.” Sure, there are certain challenges that minorities possibly have in common, such as racial animus, but that doesn’t mean we all hold the exact same beliefs when it comes to politically charged issues like freedom of speech.
In other words, I find it profoundly ironic that campus activists want to fight against racial stereotypes but relentlessly continue to engage in activities that simply further those stereotypes. I understand the impulse to protect students of color from repugnant and demeaning speech, such as those roundly expressed by conservative provocateurs Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter. By all means, issues surrounding race, gender, sexuality and other pathologies are understandably fraught. However, I don’t agree with the conclusion that advocates for restricting the expression of ideas because it betrays the academic mission of higher education.
College students’ attempting to repress and punish speech that is offensive to minorities may seem like a recent phenomenon, especially given the egregious events that have transpired at places like Middlebury, UC Berkeley, and Claremont Mckenna College where activists have either tried to, or successfully, shut down an event. But this type of wanton censoring, in fact, dates back to the 1980s and ’90s, when speech codes — university policies restricting expression protected by the First Amendment — proliferated across colleges and universities. The theoretical underpinnings for such punishments appeared mostly in the legal doctrines of critical race theorists who argued that racist speech needs to be severely penalized as a means of protecting minorities from both physical and mental violence. Due to their unconstitutionality, speech codes did not survive legal challenges and, in some cases, harmed their intended beneficiaries. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, 20 black students were charged by whites with “offensive speech.” Moreover, there is plenty evidence that marginalized groups are often times the first victims of anti-free speech campaigns.
As a result of my careful rumination on the issues, I’ve come to believe that the only way to legitimately further the social justice causes I still hold dear is to allow unfettered expression. Colleges and universities are supposed to be strongholds of academic exploration, robust intellectual inquiry, and freedom of expression. It’s within these establishments that your most cherished values should be challenged. These paramount values are now being subverted to uphold this unattainable — and, frankly, unworthy — goal of “safety.” And of course students today don’t mean safety in a physical sense, such as safety from physical or sexual assault. They mean safety from literature courses without trigger warnings, chalk messages supporting Donald Trump, and tequila-themed Cinco de Mayo parties.
In fairness, I back the broader aims of campus activists. I want equity for underrepresented groups on campus. I believe colleges should do more to recruit talented minorities. College administrators should also act swiftly and aggressively when egregiously racist incidents occur, like at Cornell University where a black student was beaten and called “nigger” by a white fraternity member. However, censorship — and vilifying those who voice criticism — is not the way forward. That is not how a healthy political movement works. That is not how a healthy society works.