Cowardly Silence (Update)

At Wesleyan University, a fellow named Brian Stascavage wrote an op-ed entitled “Why Black Lives Matter Isn’t What You Think” for the Wesleyan Argus. The content of the op-ed is irrelevant, and won’t be mentioned at all. The reaction to it, on the other hand, is what prompts this post.

The school supported Stascavage’s right to express an opinion, no matter how unpopular it was with those who disagree with him.  The editors of the student newspaper caved in to popular pressure.  They were physically confronted by the reaction, with half their newspapers stolen and destroyed to prevent eyes from seeing Stascavage’s words. The staff of the Ankh, apparently an alternative newspaper for people of color, shows up at the Argus to make demands.  The editors of the Argus acceded to the demands, doing what had never been done before in reparation, a front page editorial disavowing Stascavage’s op-ed.

The destruction of papers was an awful response. The demand for speech contrary to Stascavage’s was entirely fair. It was up to the editors of the Argus to decide whether to agree to their demands, and they did. It was hardly a proud moment of journalistic integrity, but that’s a reflection on the editors, not speech. One guy expressed his views. Other people expressed theirs. Destroyed papers is not acceptable. More speech is.

But the message of what was wrong with Stascavage’s op-ed, the cries of burn the witch when words are uttered that fail to conform with deeply-held beliefs, is significant.

The biggest problem with treating this as a freedom of speech issue is that this speech actively silences other speech. 

This is a core argument for censorship. It’s the same point made by Daneille Citron in her Cyber Civil Rights claims, that the fragile are too easily scared away from their desire to express their opinion without other voices disagreeing in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable or hurts their feelings. When their feelings are hurt, they fall silent rather than face up to disagreement that’s too harsh for their sensibilities.

This is the Teacup’s Veto, the twisted logic that speech that causes the most fragile to make the choice of remaining silent lest their feelings be hurt by unpleasant words must be silenced.  It’s the opposite twin of the Heckler’s Veto, shouting over, or threatening violence, to prevent speech someone finds offensive.

Then how do you combat ideas rooted in bigotry in a liberal arts institution? . . . The students have been respecting the student’s freedom of speech and the Argus’ freedom of press; but how much do we need to tolerate before it starts to offend other people?

The reason why students and alums are frustrated with the recent argus op-ed piece is . . . because of the Argus’ inability to censor articles rooted in ignorance and hate. 

To argue, from the administration’s point of view, that the argus did the right thing by simply stating that the school promotes diversity in perspectives and the protection of a freedom of speech is nothing but a coward approach to appease the controversy surrounding this issue.

The author of the op-ed had a plenty of opportunities to educate himself on what BLM movement is and why it is important on campus. And it is not the poc community’s responsibility to explain to the author why his article was hurtful; rather, he should educate himself. The student body shouldn’t tolerate hateful ignorance on campus, and so shouldn’t the school.

It doesn’t matter whether Stascavage’s op-ed is characterized by someone who is passionate about her view of the world as “ignorance and hate.”  It matters that she calls for censorship as the solution to views with which she disagrees, whether rightly or wrongly.

As Ken White notes in a recap of the past week of speech, a battle for the hearts and minds of people whose belief in social justice is so narrow and certain that they are absolutely certain that no nonconforming idea should ever be permitted,

The child soldiers — young people devoted to using official power to punish ideas they don’t like — are terrifying because they seem so divorced from core American values like liberty, freedom of conscience and expression, and individual responsibility. Let’s not forget that’s our own damned fault.

It’s not sufficient that these passionate believers express their views of what constitutes the winning thought in the marketplace of ideas.  It’s that they are incapable of tolerating ideas that differ.  It’s that they demand speech be silenced because it’s WRONG!

Discussions with true believers are, by their nature, frustrating. They are so certain in the propriety of their ideas that they can’t conceive of how any reasonable person can disagree with them. Indeed, they can’t comprehend how their feelings are controversial at all, since they are so obvious to them and so clearly rooted in their feelings.

These aren’t stupid people. These aren’t ignorant people. They are passionate people, and there is nothing that forecloses thought more than passion.  There is no arguing with a passionate person, as arguments entail reason and reason has no place in feelings. It’s a lost cause.

We all tend to believe our views are right. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t hold them, or at least want to play on the team that holds those views to enjoy their company and validation.  But if we were truly secure in the rightness of our views, why then would we demand censorship of speech that challenges them?

Fear. Whether rooted in the secret doubt that our views are nonsense, or in the fear that the “stupid” people will believe wrong views and act upon them, giving rise to laws, rules, norms that are contrary to what we believe ought to happen.

And there is nothing wrong with speaking out to challenge views with which we disagree, just as those who disagree with us are equally entitled to challenge ours.  Maybe the wrong view will prevail, despite our best efforts to persuade others to see it our way.

Maybe there will be speech that offends us to our core because it’s so ignorant and hateful from our perspective.  So speak up against them all you want, but if you’re too afraid to do so, then blame no one but yourself.  Demanding that others be silenced is the coward’s approach.

Update:  A petition has been tendered to the Wesleyan Student Assembly to defund the student newspaper, the Argus.

“The undersigned agree to boycott the Argus, recognizing that the paper has historically failed to be an inclusive representation of the voices of the student body,” the petition reads. “Most specifically, it neglects to provide a safe space for the voices of students of color and we are doubtful that it will in the future.”

A “safe space” for voices? And they plan to “dispose” of Argus newspapers in the meantime. No word on whether there will be a Wesleyan bonfire as well.

9 thoughts on “Cowardly Silence (Update)

  1. Bruce Godfrey

    Better header for the original piece: “Grade 9 Draftsmanship from Sophomoric Sophomore.”

    Noted to show that this the censorious scolds have fallen from “Eek, a mouse” to “Eek, a mite.”

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  3. losingtrader

    “Burn the witch?”
    I thought we’d fired up the witch-crushing machine in a prior post. The latter is so much more inventive,

  4. Mort

    recognizing that the paper has historically failed to be an inclusive representation of the voices of the student body

    By which they mean “only include those views we agree with.”

    God I hate the young.

  5. Nigel Declan

    What this sort of intellectual isolationism will lead to, which many of the students involved in it won’t realize until it’s too late, is the rest of the world deciding to move on without them. If you vow to not only kill the messenger who delivers news that offends or otherwise displeases you, but to pillage and raze his village and put his head on a spike for all to see, then you don’t eliminate the existence of messages you dislike, you simply stop getting messages, regardless how important they might be.

  6. Andrew Cook

    This may be my privilege talking, but…

    “…recognizing that [Argus] has historically failed to be an inclusive representation of the voices of the student body…”
    “Each semester the Ankh presents a publication composed and compiled *entirely* by students of color. ”

    Couldn’t the lack-of-inclusiveness argument be applied to them as well? Why do they want to sabotage themselves like that?

  7. Osama bin Pimpin

    Not sure I care about this sort of thing anymore. Wesleyan is a proud Snowflake U., they truthfully advertise, you choose to attend or teach here (or Oberlin, Sarah Lawrence or whatever), you freely consent to put up with this bullshit.

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