More Speech, Please: Activism, Censorship, and Whose Voices Get Heard

photo by Jonas Powell '18

photo by Jonas Powell ’18

Every few months, it seems, another one of those articles surfaces about how political correctness or trigger warnings or “social justice” is ruining the country or the educational system or everything. Our own President Roth reminded us a few weeks ago that “there is no right not to be offended.” These arguments typically suggest that because a few of us are so fragile and oversensitive, everyone is losing: words are banned, jokes are less funny, debates about important issues are diluted or even curtailed.

While I’m really not concerned if racist jokes lose their appeal, I agree that we need more, not less, conversation. Ignoring problems doesn’t make them go away, and indeed, often worsens them. If we can’t talk about the systems of oppression that plague our society–racism, heterosexism, misogyny, classism–we’re going to have a hard time dismantling them. Sometimes frustratingly, we have to be able to talk about these issues not only among our own identity and affinity groups, but with people whose ideas are vastly different from ours. So yes, I agree that trying to shut down conversations about sensitive topics is problematic. (Which is not the same, please note, as removing oneself from a conversation because of personal history or trauma.) More speech, please.

The thing is, though, the targets of these arguments–the oversensitive college student, the person who can’t take a joke, the “social justice warriors”–hardly ever seem to be asking for less speech. Perhaps there are exceptions, but I cannot think of a single anti-racist activist who wants people to stop talking about racism. When we ask that certain words not be used or that our histories be treated with understanding and respect, we are not questioning whether these conversations should happen, but how. To worry that such efforts are ruining free-spirited debate seems, to me, to be missing the point.

In a Vox article that went viral this summer, Edward Schlosser worried that students not only “refuse to countenance uncomfortable ideas — they refuse to engage them, period.” This is also, apparently, the problem with trigger warnings: they allow students to completely avoid things they might find traumatizing or even merely offensive. These tactics, the authors assure us, are not only damaging to intellectual tradition, but to ourselves, the very people we were trying to protect! The world is full of scary ideas and people who will offend us, better toughen up now. And yes, as Roxane Gay has pointed out, trigger warnings have their limits, trauma is incredibly personal, and far too often, the world isn’t a safe space. As I said earlier, anyone interested in dismantling oppressive systems will have to engage with uncomfortable and offensive ideas.

Okay. But: we know. If the intention behind arguing against hateful (not just hate) speech was to avoid it–and the sentiments behind it–entirely, we’d be doing an absolutely terrible job. Pointing out oppressive language or behavior opens one up to, at best, being accused of overreacting and far too often, slurs or even threats. We know we’ll have to engage scary ideas: in complaining about them, we’re already doing so. The most dedicated activists are almost always the most affected–people of color proclaiming their value even as the world around them ignores it, survivors of sexual violence confronting their trauma in the hope of preventing its reoccurrence. The concern that a desire for kinder words, for trigger warnings (not censorship) is going to create a generation of people unable to deal with the world they live in is, at the very least, understated. If the world is really so dangerous, perhaps the problem is larger than our trigger warnings.

It appears, then, that something else is going on. The authors I argue against often seem to worry that the age of trigger warnings and political correctness starts us down a slippery slope. Today, racism, sexual violence, but what next? Attempts to control how we talk about these issues will, they worry, enable a totalitarian reign of emotion, in which the “thin argument “I’m offended” becomes an unbeatable trump card.” Anyone’s whim will be grounds for censorship, free speech will be destroyed, intellectual inquiry as we know it will end.

Again, this seems far-fetched. There’s a significant difference between being the victim of systems of oppression and having an unpopular opinion, a difference between asking that my experiences as a mixed-race woman not be invalidated and wanting everyone to agree with my opinion about, say, the ideal system of government. (An example I use because many non-trivial discussions benefit from a wide variety of opinions.) I and many of my fellow activists don’t want calls to respect marginalized communities to be read as support for every allegation of offense having the force of law. Such a misunderstanding trivializes anti-oppression movements. It also overestimates the power any one individual–particularly someone marginalized–is likely to have.

The ubiquity of articles like the ones I’ve cited suggests that advocates of trigger warnings or “political correctness” are a long way from holding unbeatable trump cards. It does not feel “unacceptable” to question the legitimacy of our emotional responses, nor to infantilize us. If these prominent professors and journalists are in danger, it is not the danger of their voices being overridden by the unrealistic, over-emotional young adults they seem to fear.

Indeed, it feels like arguments about the dangers of modern activism are often invoked not to protect all speech, but to quell some of it. Crying First Amendment is an easy way to dismiss charges against one’s speech. Sara Ahmed puts it better than I: “When you hear a challenge as an attempt at censorship you do not have to engage with the challenge. You do not even have to say anything of substance because you assume the challenge is without substance.” The debate becomes about free speech vs. censorship, reason vs. emotion, and the original issues–how words reinforce systems of oppression, whose voices are heard–are sidelined.

It is difficult to feel like one is being attacked, and I understand the urge to shift the blame. Referencing one’s right to say whatever one likes, however, feels like an excuse to ignore activists, to avoid self-reflection, to maintain the status quo. It only highlights the existing power structures–in which perceived threats to personal freedom of expression take priority over perceived threats to the safety and wellbeing of marginalized people. That efforts on the part of anti-oppression activists to ask for respect are so often met with accusations of over-reaction and censorship feels more like a trump card than anything a marginalized person can say or do.

I’m not saying there is no more to be said about free speech. I am prepared and willing to have more conversations; we need to have these conversations in order to give everyone’s speech a better chance to be heard. I request, however, that we examine how these conversations have been and continue to be conducted. I hope they move beyond the idea that requests for respect are attempts to hide from the big bad world. I hope more privileged participants recognize that there’s no need to prepare the marginalized for a reality they’re already dealing with. I hope we stop getting accused of shutting conversation down when we would just like our voices to be heard within it. I hope we stop being told to grow up. Keep talking, please, disagree, argue–but do so while affording us the respect we have asked for. Listen.


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9 thoughts on “More Speech, Please: Activism, Censorship, and Whose Voices Get Heard

  1. Ralphiec88

    You now have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. The “I’m Offended” crowd
    was indeed handed the power to decide not only how much, but how Argus
    will spend its budget in future. You all too easily glossed over actions such as destroying papers that are irrefutably censorship, and Argus’ vain attempts at appeasement such as lavish public apologies and submission to mandatory social justice training. The Middletown Press couldn’t find a student who would speak on record, and the unanimous vote of the student association speaks volumes about either universally poor judgement or a climate of fear that suppresses dissenting voices. Just as the Penn State scandal exposed to the country a desperately sick campus culture, recent events have exposed Wesleyan’s sickness to the nation, but whether the proverbial rock bottom has been hit and healing will begin remains to be seen. I’m not optimistic.

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  5. Wes '16

    I appreciate the fact that you wrote a constructive article rather than just holding the school newspaper hostage with a list of demands. However, trust me when I say that the activists are just as guilty of silencing people who are trying to have a constructive conversation too. I’m not arguing for racist/misogynistic jokes to be commonplace. I’m not arguing against people voicing their opinions. I’m not against having a discussion.

    What I am against though is people not acknowledging that the activists went too far this time. I would have supported a movement to require the Argus to fact check their articles, op-ed or not. What I cannot get behind is people stealing newspapers and “recycling” them until they get what they want. That’s not activism. That’s having a collective temper tantrum about words you didn’t like.

    And believe me, trigger warnings are becoming a slippery slope. I know people who refuse to read anything that brings up their trauma/is morally reprehensible to them. You want to see how asking for warnings/refusing to engage with content can lead to a closed minded world view? I suggest googling how Freshman at Duke refused to read Fun Home by Alison Bechdel because they found the book’s depictions of homosexuality “was insensitive to people with more conservative beliefs.” Or how students at Columbia refused to read Ovid on the grounds that “it contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom.” Or how students at UC Berkley walked out of a lecture on Marx because the professor had the gall to suggest that men and women are different biologically. It is important to acknowledge that certain class materials are offensive, but I don’t think that sequestering yourself helps you to advance your viewpoint. By reading opinions/foundational materials for the opposite belief, you’re better equipped to point out things those materials got wrong.

    I’m not saying that the IDEA of trigger warnings is bad, but refusing to participate in a discussion/read material you disagree with is a side effect that has to be addressed.

    I could honestly argue that today it is possible to use “I’m offended” as the “unbeatable trump card” you insisted was too farfetched to be reality. That’s literally what the activists on this campus were doing. Rather than articulate what was offending them in the article or pointing out it’s many factually incorrect statements, activists instead latched on to the idea that the author and by extension the Argus are racist. I’m happy to engage in a dialog about why it is/you think it is, but I’m honestly afraid to because of the death threats levied against the author. If I have an opinion somebody doesn’t agree with, I’m suddenly morally reprehensible and contributing to institution of systemic oppression.

    I wanted to engage with this conversation without bringing censorship into the equation, but I’m not just going to ignore the fact that people are attempting to silence a newspaper because they published something they disagreed with.

    I hope you realize that Wesleyan is a bubble, a sheltered environment. After you graduate, nobody is going to go out of their way to make you feel safe. I think it’s better to perhaps attempt to learn about why things are the way they are in a safe environment, but I’m telling you that Wesleyan isn’t as evil/insensitive of a place that it could be.

    I’m disappointed that pointing out that the activists took things a step too far is enough to make you think that I don’t want to engage in a broader conversation about this. However, I will not engage with people who do not want a two way dialog. And making threats against someone who voiced their opinion (no matter how racist it is), is refusing to make this campus a safe space to have such a dialog.

    1. kitab

      I didn’t bring up the petition about the Argus for a few reasons, mostly because I hoped–naïvely, I think–that the sentiments I express could stand at least somewhat apart from current events. That being said, the petition and the response to it did influence my writing of this piece, and I think I should address it specifically.

      I should say, I’m not on campus this semester, and I haven’t been following what’s happening all that closely. When I first heard about the petition, I didn’t think it a particularly good response to Bryan Stascavage’s article. I then learned that losing its WSA funding wouldn’t prevent the Argus from publishing, and was somewhat less concerned. Right now, I’m not really sure how I feel: I don’t think there’s much point to destroying copies of the Argus, but I also don’t think collective action need always have a “point.” As someone who will never be the victim of anti-black racism, I recognize the possibility that I am missing something, that the perspectives of black students need to be given priority.

      I say this not to distance myself from the students responsible for the petition, but to emphasize that I think it’s okay to disagree with them. What’s not okay, though–what I addressed in my piece–is dismissing them, and unfortunately, I feel that your comment is guilty of that. Saying that the petition is “not activism,” is a “collective temper tantrum” is dismissive and infantilizing. Appreciating my “constructive article” as compared to a “hostage” situation (really?) is tone-policing. Yes, I think there is value in engaging in discussions that follow current norms of respectability and productivity–it’s why I am attempting to do so. I see that value as strategic, though, not inherent: following conventions of rational discourse increases the chances that the people I’d like to be heard by will actually listen. I get to make that choice, but it’s just as legitimate to adopt other strategies. Activists adopting other strategies deserves just as much respect as I do.

      I wrote this piece in the hopes that people would examine how they respond to views and movements they disagree with, and how those responses are expressed. That means we have to look even at the phrases we use, and their implications. The idea that the activists “went too far” is a turn of phrase, yes, but it has messed up implications. It trivializes the issue, it suggests that anti-racist activism is permissible up to a point, but not once it challenges our institutions. You may not have meant this–I hope you didn’t mean this–but it’s what I heard, and what I imagine others might hear. These types of suggestions, intentional or not, definitely discourage me from engaging in the type of dialogue I think both you and I are hoping for. They make it hard to believe that anything I say will be truly heard. This burden isn’t entirely on you–I am clearly capable of setting aside that frustration, continuing the conversation. It’s not fair to expect others to always do the same, though. Disagreement has to be accompanied with respect, and demonstrating that respect requires care.

      A final point, on the trump card: I’m sure there are people who would like “I’m offended” to work as an unbeatable trump card. (There are situations in which I would like it work that way, depending on the content of the offending action or statement.) Whether or not it actually works that way, though, depends not on the individuals saying they’re offended, but on the society and structures around them. From what I can tell is happening on campus, and certainly what is happening on a national level, the students expressing the offense taken at the article/Argus coverage in general aren’t being given decision-making power, or even really being heard–they’re constantly having their perspectives questioned, belittled, or dismissed outright. It is the response, not the allegation, that determines how much power such an allegation has.

  6. White Girl '13

    Asking for more speech is asking for more ignorant/wrong/insensitive speech. There are many more voices of those of us who have all the privilege in the world, but have never been taught how to act with privilege in ways that are sensitive to the needs of people who have different life experiences than us. If you want more voices, you’ll get more marginalized voices and more of us middle class white folk. And I don’t think most of us are trying to be assholes, we literally just don’t know any better. We say and write things that are wrong and when people challenge us, we learn. But taking away the spaces for people to have their ignorant beliefs challenged and corrected (see: recent call to defund the Arugs) is not going to help.
    I’ve seen things on facebook or heard the argument, “It’s not the marginalized group’s job to educate the privileged folks.” Yes. It is probably frustrating and exhausting for those people. But tell me then where do I learn?? The internet? I can try, but then they tell me that one marginalized person’s opinion is not always representative of the group’s. I physically can’t have the experiences that would make me knowledgeable. Because of this, I feel like the right thing to do is just to sit and watch and keep quiet while the marginalized groups with first hand knowledge do all the talking. So when you say more voices, here’s mine, but I assume it’s not the one you wanted.

  7. confused

    How can you write this entire article and not once mention the activism aimed at defunding the Argus?

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