I was watching the internet talk past itself this week.
There were demonstrations across college campuses, but two really dominated the conversation—University of Missouri and Yale.
I got pretty fixated on Yale, because the visuals were so striking and because the issue seemed like such a non-issue. I read Erika Christakas letter that was sent in response to another letter that told people not to dress like bigots and it all made even less sense. To me, it Christakas’s letter was prompted by students who said that the initial letter was condescending, and who have the ability to make their own decisions and police themselves, but even all of that was couched in a lot of “but it’s not for me to say” type disclaimers. Now Christakas (and her husband) are supposed to be fired? Are these students arguing against their own authority? How can you decry an administration and in the same breath want to give it more power?
At this point, of course, knowledge of the thing and the reaction to the thing are learned about simultaneously, and it seemed to boil down to my friends who work in academia and describe themselves as Marxists praising the optics of a young black woman shouting at an old white man to shut the fuck up while he attempted to answer a direct question, and self-described adults behind their keyboards calling college students a bunch of coddled petulant babies who are being intolerant in the name of tolerance.
From a certain point of view, none of it made sense: people who tout the values of free speech are telling people practicing it to shut up; people who have been told they have power and agency using said power and agency to attempt to get the person who pointed that out fired. Pretty typical stuff.
The debates seemed at first to drag on in a predictable and discouraging way. I’ll be the first to admit don’t have anything to add to it, it has nothing to do with me, but over the course of the week I tried to read a lot (I really couldn’t help myself), and I had a chance to see a lot of my assumptions examined in public and I came away chastened and, I hope, better for it.
Checking all of my privilege boxes—white, straight, and male—and also all of my talking about something I know nothing about boxes—I’m not in college; I don’t speak to people who are—I’m one of those “Let everyone speak, and then speak back at them” free speech people, who thinks that’s how the world should work. Bring the Neo-Nazis to campus, there’s nothing to be afraid of. When I went to college they told us our ideas would be challenged and that we would be uncomfortable and that was the point of college and I thought of that as valuable.
What’s more, I think restrictions on free speech are almost always a bad idea, especially for people in marginalized groups, who—both on campus, but especially off—often are not popular. It’s not as though those in charge don’t know how to co-opt the language of the oppressed—watch the savvier people who think there’s a war on Christmas, or Men’s Rights Activists. People can use the language of creating safe spaces for women—a good thing!—to further marginalize trans* individuals—a bad thing.
Fighting for free speech, ideally, is fighting for everyone’s place at the table and the better ideas will, theoretically win out. This is the view from the top where I have a reasonable belief that people will listen, because people listen to me, and I’d like to think I listen to others.
I think for us white free speech types, one image of strong authoritarian hand on a college campus is National Guard soldiers at Kent State. Granted we aren’t talking about soldiers on campus now, but we are talking about how free speech laws create a space for redressing authorities. Without those laws, authority does what it will, Vietnam continues, and worse things happen. It’s better to be talking amongst ourselves than to put in some top down authority who might listen to you today, but absolute power’s absolutely going to corrupt, etc etc etc.
But there’s another image of the National Guard on campus from the same era that helped me see it all in a different light: when they were called out to get the segregationist governor of Alabama George Wallace out of the doorway at University of Alabama so black students could enroll.
And while the black students at University of Missouri and Yale aren’t being barred from registering for classes by a governor, they’ve made it clear that they face other barriers, other forms of discrimination and feel barred and threatened in other ways—ways that don’t require the National Guard, but do call for forms of intervention. They’ve gotten marginalized from places of authority but also from people whose authority is unaccountable, that which is afforded and denied by virtue of the color of one’s skin. It’s understandable then that they’d fight just to feel safe, just to feel like they belong—not because they want the comfort of “home” in lieu of an “intellectual environment,” but because only once your place is secure can you fully engage. If you listen to what the students are saying, they sound adamant about learning, but their ability to contribute to campus or get anything from it is being hampered. That’s something this week made clear to me and it grieves me to know that this is the experience of so many, past and present, and something that I blithely ignored as I cheerfully matriculated.
And the “college kids are babies” camp seem so confident pointing out how good these students have it—no governors at the door, after all—but I don’t know what makes CKABs so confident that these mostly black students (who they don’t know) going to a college (that they don’t go to) are being dishonest. What makes CKABs not believe someone when they say things hurt their ability to engage in the intellectual environment? It came to light, in a hateful meme, that the graduate student who went on a hunger strike at Missouri is the son of a vice president at Union Pacific who is worth $20 million, as if this delegitimizes what he’s saying. Look, if our sons of multimillionaires can still be made to feel threatened by our racists, then how on Earth do you not acknowledge that racism is still a huge problem?
I don’t know how to calculate when I should be content and when I should fight for more in my own life, so I’m not sure where anyone gets the authority to tell nearly 40 million people that this is as good as they can expect it to get. And before we people who have always had rights, not just on paper but in practice, say we think the best way is for everyone to have these rights, it’s important to remember how many minorities already have the rights on paper and how in practice there’s still a lot to be desired. That’s what I’ve been reading, anyway.
I’m in no position to really make any conclusions other than, yeah this is a blind spot I’ve had thanks to privilege. I guess that this is free speech working itself out. Also, man, if this is how people feel—at Yale!—we’ve got a long way to go.
It’s better to hear about it than go on ignoring it, but it’s also hella unfortunate that college students have to be further burdened by a national audience that’s so quick to chime in (Hello!). That’s really no way to have a conversation, or at least that’s how it looks from far outside, where we’re mostly standing.