On February 3, Olympic-style posters appeared around the George Washington University campus critical of the Chinese government.
The artist, a Chinese
student at GWU artist from Australia, explains that the posters are intended to protest the Chinese Communist Party.
1. Oppression of the Tibetans
2. Uyghur genocide
3. The dismantling of HK democracy
4. The regime’s omnipresent surveillance systems
5. lack of transparency surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.
One might suppose that these very well crafted posters protesting obviously serious matters would be received with open arms. But they weren’t. The GWU China Students and Scholars Association branded them anti-China and racist, comparing them to Trump’s “China flu,” and demanded that the police identify the perpetrator of this “offensive” art.
And as is required by all campus cries of racism, GWU President Mark Wrighton issued a statement.
On its most basic level, there isn’t even a passing acknowledgement of free speech and expression from a university president, who both promises the removal of the offending posters and the capture of the perpetrator of political expression. But on a deeper, and more curious level, Wrighton expresses his personal offense at the posters.
Is Wrighton saying that he’s all in favor of the Uyghur genocide? Is he a big fan of oppression in Tibet? Does he cheer for the eradication of democracy in Hong Kong? While he clearly isn’t the sort of university president who cares for free speech (but then, who is?), since when did it become popular on campus to go pro-genocide?
Wrighton’s stunning display of obsequiousness is the natural dilemma caused by the untenable demands of identity politics. Can he do anything other than to condemn what Chinese students claim is offensive and racist? Once they put it on his plate, he couldn’t remain silent, as silence is complicity and anything shy of condemnation would have been approval of racism. A university president certainly can’t condone racism, and Wrighton certainly can’t dispute that it’s racist since Asian students say it is.
And yet, here is a university president saying that political protest art, posters, as singularly important free speech and expression as there can be, personally offended him. But genocide doesn’t?
There are five posters in this series. The central ideas expressed are not based on indisputable opinions but, on the contrary, on highly controversial political disputes. The three posters that were put up involving Tibet, Xinjiang, and the coronavirus caused widespread controversy. In the United States, everyone has the right to freedom of expression; however, incitement to racial hatred and ethnic tensions, regardless of national boundaries, is not tolerated. The posters involving the Tibetan issue and Xinjiang issue have elements of bloodiness and gun violence, which are inappropriate from the perspectives of students who love peace and advocate ethnic unity, should not be on campus. In addition, many Chinese students were personally offended by the artist’s messages expressed in these posters.
There was, of course, a teaching opportunity here, to correct the tragically misguided grasp of free speech that asserts that speech that hurts their feelings is, indeed, tolerated, and in fact protected by the First Amendment. Wrighton whiffed on that opportunity.
As scholars in higher education institutions, we expect the university community to have basic scientific awareness and preserve cultural diversity. This series of posters incites not only intra-ethnic hatred in China but also inter-ethnic hostility and inter-cultural contempt. We believe that George Washington University supports equality and inclusion and that students at George Washington University are friendly and united. Posters with such hateful messages are not only uncomfortable and provoke ethnic relations within the Chinese student body, but they also provoke friendships between Chinese international students and their peers from around the world. These posters fuel the prejudice and conspiracy theories about China that the world has had since the epidemic, adding fuel to the plight of Chinese students.
As the student artist argued, the posters condemned the CCP, not Chinese people, a distinction of some obvious relevance.* But the challenge to the expression was grounded in diversity and inclusion. The argument invokes pretty much every trope available, but the basic argument is that to attack China is to fuel antagonism against Chinese students. Of course, the alternative tack would have been for the Chinese students to similarly condemn the CCP for its actions, but that might cause some friction back home.
Living in 2022, we should have better moral standards and be able to stand up for the interests of our community or speak out for the rights of others. WE CAN DO BETTER.
The facility with which “morality” can be invoked to justify the silencing of free speech, the censorship of protest and the condemnation of genocide is quite illuminating. Rhetoric grounded in such vagaries as morality, justice and equity serve to fight any battle, as long as the racial identity of the speaker is higher on the identity hierarchy than the recipient, in this case Wrighton. And he took the bait, hook, line and sinker.
Was there a viable, principled way for a university president to handle this clash of principle and cries of identitarian offense? He could have responded that their feelings were nonsensical and childish, but that can’t happen as feelings of offense are beyond dispute. He could have explained that this was protected expression, contrary to their popular reimagination of free speech, but that would have been insensitive to their cries of racism. If something had to go, and something clearly had to go, it was the principle of free speech and the criticism of China’s Communist Party. After all, it’s not as if there were any Uyghurs on campus to grieve about the lack of opposition to their genocide.
Update: Wrighton backs down.
A steaming pile of bullshit? He didn’t say he was “concerned,” but “offended,” and “I want to be very clear,” he doesn’t give a damn about free speech — even when it offends people. How nice to have such a man of integrity and fortitude at the helm of GWU.
*Don’t bring up Israel as a comparison, because it’s not National Brotherhood Week.