Safe Spaces, Civility, etc

One member of the audience asked Jonathan Holloway, a civil-rights historian and the dean of Yale College, who has been at the center of the recent events, if he would remove Calhoun’s name from the college…..To understand the real complexities of these students’ situation, free-speech purists would have to grapple with what it means to live in a building named for a man who dedicated himself to the principle of white supremacy and to the ownership of your ancestors.

This is Jelani Cobb in The New Yorker, a generally smart and fair-minded writer, on what he calls the “free speech diversion” in the backlash to the recent events at Yale and Missouri. The real faultline, he says in defense of the Yale student who was videotaped shouting at the husband of the woman who wrote an email about Halloween costumes (you can read it here), is “between those who find intolerance objectionable and those who oppose intolerance of the intolerant.”

I’ve spent the last week saying that the smartest thing that an over-50 white man can do at the present juncture is to hold his peace (as I suspect the author of that Halloween email–which it seemed to me bent over backwards to be tolerant and respectful–now wishes she’d done), but as a free speech absolutist I can’t resist taking his bait. For me, there’s actually nothing to grapple with: I would remove Calhoun’s name in a heartbeat, and I wouldn’t worry that I was infringing on anyone’s freedom of speech. No one has a right to have a building or a college named after them. I would haul down the Confederate flag from public buildings too, and I would make it illegal to daub swastikas on the walls of mens rooms with shit (though I suspect there are already regulations on the books).

Would I remove every book that Calhoun authored from Yale’s library, or forbid anyone who likes Calhoun or dislikes black people from speaking at Yale?  Those are fundamentally different questions.

Here’s a thought experiment (and mind you, when I say this is a thought experiment, that’s exactly what I mean–I’m not claiming any equivalencies between the Jewish experience and the black experience, and I don’t for a minute believe that campus anti-Zionism and campus anti-Semitism are in any wise the same things). But suppose, just suppose, that you are a member of a religious/ethnic community that the Christian Bible accuses of betraying and murdering God, and whose laws, that same Bible says, are sterile and devoid of love. Suppose, furthermore, that news shouters and even presidential candidates are screaming that businesses that don’t formally acknowledge the Christian-ness of Christmas should be shamed and boycotted, that any attempt, no matter how muted, to include rather than exclude Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Janes, Hindus, Sikhs, atheists, and Christians who are offended by the commercialization of Christmas from the holiday spirit constitutes an act of war against the country’s majority. It would be a little alienating wouldn’t it?

Imagine the cultural dissonances you would experience just going to a concert hall to hear a masterwork like Bach’s St John’s Passion, with its full-throated choral denunciations of “the Jews,” or to a music appreciation class, where you’d learn that Wagner, the author of Jewishness and Music, is the greatest operatic composer who ever lived. Or maybe you’re assigned poems by Pound (“And the big Jew has rotted every nation he has wormed into” and Eliot (“the rats are underneath the piles/the jew is underneath the lot”) in English 1-2.

My point isn’t that Jews deserve special consideration or that students of color don’t–and it’s certainly not that minority students shouldn’t take offense or protest when they feel marginalized and disrespected. It’s more in the way of a mournful acknowledgement that there can be no safe spaces, at least where hate is concerned.  Which is why I tend to think that more public hate speech is preferable to less if less comes at the cost of someone being forcibly silenced. I’d rather have it out in the open so that everyone remains focused on hatred rather than diverted to an argument about free speech.

A couple of years ago, I covered a white nationalist event at Towson University for the SPLC. I kind of thought the university handled it well—let the racists come and talk if the sponsors ponied up the money for additional security, and let the protesters come and protest, as long as they didn’t interrupt the speakers. That way the issue that everyone was forced to argue about were the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, not the First. Obviously it’s a lot more complicated when the exercise of free speech might get someone killed, like the Mohamed cartoons, or if the speech is explicitly designed to get someone killed, like that fake Mohamed movie trailer. But if nobody gets silenced, then nobody gets to disingenuously stake out the higher ground. Of course that also means that the notion of “safe zones” (at least for speech) falls by the wayside, though you could always not attend the speech.


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