When I was in second grade, I was sitting at my desk and a classmate came over to me excitedly. “Hey, Andrew – watch this!” He launched into a sing-song chant which I’d imagine a lot of Asian American kids are unfortunately familiar with:
“Chinese mother,” he said, pulling the corners of his eyelids up.
“Japanese father,” he continued, pulling his eyelids down.
“Mixed-up child!” Now one eyelid was up, the other one down. Hilarious.
I remember being angry, in a way I couldn’t yet identify. I remember yelling at my classmate. I didn’t have a good relationship with my second grade teacher (which is an absurd but true statement), so I’m guessing I probably got sent outside again. But the reason I remember that rhyme so clearly, I think, is that for the first time in my life I felt excluded based on my perceived race.
This schoolyard idiocy obviously wasn’t the last time someone’s words would prod my racial consciousness. As I got older, these moments grew both more petty and more threatening. There’s a pretty vast gulf, threat-level wise, between “That’s so Asian of you!” and “What’re you gonna do about it, you fucking chink?”, but ultimately they represent the two poles of a spectrum of experience Americans of color, and in particular, black Americans, have dealt with since childhood – the language of racial exclusion.
So when I read about the incidents which triggered the protests at Mizzou, and the emotional baggage which prompted the recent events at Yale, it feels familiar to me. Indeed, just after I graduated from it, my own alma mater, Williams College, experienced its own incident of violent racialized language.
This familiarity allows me to empathize with Alexis G. Dittaway and Dr. Cynthia M. Frisby, and the countless other African-Americans who experience this social violence in much worse ways than I ever have – often through the prism of state-sanctioned force, too often at the expense of their own lives. And I am proud that those at Mizzou and Yale who have experienced this racist language of exclusion at the hands of strangers, peers, and faculty are organizing, and protesting, and speaking up.
But in speaking up, we have to make sure that we aren’t shouting others down. We must be vigilant to make sure that in rallying against intimidating and threatening speech that we do not ourselves intimidate and threaten others into silence.
This morning, reports have proliferated detailing incidents where student protestors at Mizzou have used the language of “safe spaces” to forcibly exclude journalists (including one of their fellow students) from documenting the protests. This is both ironic, saddening, and personally, totally infuriating. It is baffling that activists who claim to be following in the footsteps of those who fought against slavery and Jim Crow, and who recently fought against the imposition of (theoretically) Christian moral hegemony on the rights of gay and lesbian Americans, have resorted to using the tactics of totalitarian regimes to get their way.
I believe it represents a deeply cynical philosophy of progress, where the ideals and principles of justice activists fight for is simultaneously pure, and true, and righteous, and yet so fragile that any dissent is intolerably harmful and must be removed through force. It is a philosophy which places minimal value on the dignity and worth of the individual because it makes the deadly, age-old assumption that “if they’re not with me, they must be against me.” It is incapable of recognizing that people who disagree with you can still be people of goodwill. Its sole measure of virtue is the rigidity of your adherence to the Truth.
Several writers have written intelligently and thoughtfully about the dire and ironic implications of 21st century activists using (1) community membership to (2) create areas of censorship which (3) silence others from speaking. Among them are Ken White over at Popehat:
In short, I support people creating “safe spaces” as a shield by exercising their freedom of association to organize themselves into mutually supporting communities, run according to their own norms. But not everyone imagines “safe spaces” like that. Some use the concept of “safe spaces” as a sword, wielded to annex public spaces and demand that people within those spaces conform to their private norms. That’s not freedom of association. That’s rank thuggery, a sort of ideological manifest destiny.1 It’s the difference between saying “I shouldn’t be forced to go to a talk by this controversial figure” and “this controversial figure should not be allowed to speak at my school.”
And Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic:
In the video of Tim Tai trying to carry out his ESPN assignment, I see the most vivid example yet of activists twisting the concept of “safe space” in a most confounding way. They have one lone student surrounded. They’re forcibly preventing him from exercising a civil right. At various points, they intimidate him. Ultimately, they physically push him. But all the while, they are operating on the premise, or carrying on the pretense, that he is making them unsafe.
It is as if they’ve weaponized the concept of “safe spaces.” … This behavior is a kind of safe-baiting: using intimidation or initiating physical aggression to violate someone’s rights, then acting like your target is making you unsafe.
And Jonathan Chait at New York Magazine:
It’s the expression of a political culture with consistent norms, and philosophical premises that happen to be incompatible with liberalism. The reason every Marxist government in the history of the world turned massively repressive is not because they all had the misfortune of being hijacked by murderous thugs. It’s that the ideology itself prioritizes class justice over individual rights and makes no allowance for legitimate disagreement. (For those inclined to defend p.c. on the grounds that racism and sexism are important, bear in mind that the forms of repression Marxist government set out to eradicate were hardly imaginary.)
Ironically, many 21st century activists will dispose of these concerns by claiming that the race or class or gender of these people inherently invalidates their perspective. Because they are white heterosexual (as far as I know) males of means, their opinions will be summarily dismissed as the drivel of the unexperienced and therefore unenlightened. “They don’t get it,” these activists will say, “because they don’t know what it’s like.”
They’re right in that sense – I nor any of these writers knows what it’s truly like to grow up as a black youth in America today. This is where the language of “privilege” identifies an important insight – when talking about experiences of race foreign to our ancestry, we should be humble, and make real and genuine efforts to empathize and listen and trust.
But like all forms of trust, the recognition of “privilege” and openness to lived experience can be abused. As above, it can be used to silence critics, choke speech, and regulate belief through force. And when that abuse happens, all those who value freedom of speech not just as a protection against government but as an ideal to protect citizens from one another have an obligation to speak up, too.
Now I want to get to why all this makes me incredibly angry.
After spending the morning pondering exactly why this morning’s headlines absolutely infuriated me, I think I’ve come to the answer. It’s really a twofold issue for me – ideological, and practical.
The ideological concerns are more or less laid out above. I was raised by my parents and taught by the Jesuits to believe that every human life has individual dignity and worth – that God loves all of us equally and unconditionally to an extent that we can’t really comprehend. The sinner and the saint, the murderer and the nun, the white police officer and the black unarmed citizen are all equally beloved. We must love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us, because only God knows the true character of a man’s heart, and no human being is beyond redemption.
Two of the core insights we can gain from this belief are as follows:
- First, we must be humble in our claims to truth. The unconditional love of God for each person shows us our own imperfection and forces us to recognize the mistakes we all make (even my own anger, perhaps, as I write about it). And because we are all imperfect, we must be willing to recognize that no matter how Right we believe we are, history or circumstance can always prove us wrong.
- Second, that because God loves each of us in the same, unimaginable way, we should emulate that love in how we interact with our fellow human beings. We should respond to intolerance and oppression with love, because we believe in the power of dignity’s self-evidence. By treating our “enemies” with the care and respect we treat ourselves and our friends, we recognize our common humanity and can scale the barriers of ideology which divide us.
This is what I mean about modern-day activism being deeply cynical – because it ultimately doesn’t believe, or refuses to recognize, in the dignity and worth of every individual, especially its enemies. It is a toxic belief which not only alienates people of goodwill who might disagree, but also divides those on the same “side” who would seek progress amongst themselves. And ultimately, there is no end-game with this sort of cynicism that results in real peace. If the enemy is irredeemable, “peace” can only come through the use of force. And it is this idea, the idea that societal progress and peace must be brought about through the imposition of one side’s will upon another, which is fundamentally illberal, inhuman, un-Christian, and repugnant to me.
The practical concerns stem from the beliefs outlined above. Put simply, political capital is a thing. There is only so much time, media attention, and political will to get things done. I am a public interest attorney* (waiting on bar exam results in ten days – yikes). My job is to listen to my clients, help them with what I can, and on a broader level work to create a society which corrects the injustices inflicted upon them.
In particular, the vast majority of my clients are young people of color. Homeless, runaway, gay, lesbian, transgender, abused, neglected, drug-addicted, mentally ill young people who live day-to-day, meal-to-meal, with the constant threat of mortal violence at the hands of law enforcement or another person on the street hanging over them. My fights are to dispute thousands of dollars in unjust ticket debt, to force a school district to give a teenager an education, to find a way to make sure someone with no safety net has a safe place to stay, something good to eat, a friendly face to talk to, and a hand to pull them up if they fall. A phone number to call if they feel unsafe. A job, a home, a future. I had a client yesterday with a black eye come in and ask us to help her figure out how to escape from a boyfriend who chokes and beats her, and then threatens suicide when she threatens to leave. I had another client last week who got arrested and thrown in jail after asserting his right to reasonable suspicion for stepping into the street to avoid a homeless person camping on the sidewalk.
I guess my point is that in the fight for racial justice, in the fight against poverty, we have limited time and resources to accomplish the things we want to accomplish. So when I hear activists talking about how one professor’s alleged insensitivity to Halloween cultural appropriation is causing their friends to have breakdowns; when I see so-called progressives threatening and shoving journalists for covering their story; when I hear friends describe “conservatives” and “Republicans” like Hutus would refer to Tutsis, I see a swiftly emptying hourglass of attention for progressive issues.
Some have already started arguing that castigating individuals for their behavior is a smokescreen to avoid progress (links here and here). This is cowardice by abdication of responsibility. In a social movement for progress, tactics are oftentimes just as important as belief. Conversations about tactics, including arguments about whether certain individuals did harm to a movement through their behavior, are critically important to actually achieving the progress we seek. There will be disagreement – there may even be schism in some cases. But without that dialogue, including listening to the voices of critics and “enemies”, true progress can never happen. People of goodwill will turn away, unscrupulous critics will, in fact, use activist malfeasance as a smokescreen, and, ultimately, humanity will continue to divide, and divide, until we’re all a bunch of ideologues throwing nuts at each other out of separate trees.
As of this morning, the students camping in protest at Mizzou are now welcoming media, and the signs telling them to stay out because it’s a “safe space” are coming down.
— Reuben Faloughi (@Big_Reub) November 10, 2015
This is good, and I’m hopeful that positive things can still come out of their efforts. But I see stuff like yesterday’s garbage too often – it has to stop.
When my clients are out there struggling, I don’t have time for this bullshit. And neither should any person of goodwill working for justice.