A confession: I have been complicit in the encouragement of self-censorship and the silencing of unpopular ideas on Columbia’s campus. One particular incident a few weeks ago has made it clear to me, however, that I can no longer stay quiet on this front. Silence is violence, after all.
It seemed innocent enough at first, just another CC swap request on the Class of 2018 Facebook page. But something made this one different: the poster asked for a white person in a CC section taught by a professor of color to switch classes with her or another student of color. In reply, someone (also a person of color) posted a comment criticizing the request. The response was immediate and familiar to anyone who frequents internet comment sections: Supporters of the original post mocked and belittled the dissenter until she felt the need to delete her comment to avoid further public shaming. She then posted that “Your comments were very hurtful.” One of her original attackers replied, “Ummm…the truth hurts?”
I wasn’t planning on commenting on the post. I found the request problematic but not to the extent that I wanted to get swept up in what would undoubtedly be a lengthy and time-consuming debate. I had a midterm to study for, after all. But when I saw what had taken place, I couldn’t stay quiet. I can’t stand bullying, and what happened on that thread was textbook cyberbullying dressed up as moral superiority. It’s a phenomenon that is all too common on this campus, and one that I have pretended not to see for far too long.
It’s worth noting that I’m white. Most of the people who posted on the 100+ comment thread that followed, some agreeing with me and some disagreeing, are not. Throughout the course of the thread, I was personally attacked and accused of many things, mostly involving my perceived support for “AmeriKKKa” and its “white supremacist heteropatriarchal” values. These accusations came from both complete strangers and people I consider friends. People with whom I’ve gone to rallies, marched for #BlackLivesMatter, and flyered for die-ins. Mostly though, people refused to even engage with my ideas. I was told time and again to “stay in my lane”—essentially, that due to the color of my skin, I didn’t even have the right to participate in the conversation.
The thought behind “stay in your lane” is that people of color have been, and often continue to be, silenced during the course of such debates. Therefore, it is essential for white people to spend more time listening to, and less time talking over, people of color. I don’t deny this, and I think it’s important to keep in mind when discussing racial issues. But the solution to a situation in which one group is constantly disparaged and prevented from speaking is to stop disparaging them and listen when they speak. It is not to stop other people from speaking. We need to expand the circle of conversation, not transfer it over.
Another common criticism claimed that I was invalidating the experiences and opinions of people of color. This left them feeling dehumanized, they said. Let’s be very clear: Dissent does not equal invalidation. If anything, you validate someone by considering their opinion worthy of discussion. Ironically, those complaining about being invalidated were in fact the most likely (though not the only ones) to invalidate others in the thread. My opinions were worthless because I’m white; the people of color who agreed with me were simply suffering from a case of the old “colonized mind.”
I find it disturbing that my classmates are so ready to dismiss others’ opinions, to believe that they are the only ones who could have really thought through an issue. Underlying most of the comments criticizing my supporters and me was a sense of bewilderment that we would even care. “I don’t understand why you’re invested in this,” one person said. “If someone had said a certain time slot of cc would be better for their stress levels, would you…call it an affront to equality of the sections?” In response to my pointing out that the original poster shouldn’t have put something controversial on a public forum if she didn’t want a debate, someone replied, “[She] should not have ‘known’ that asking for a professor based on race would be starting something.” The assumption that, in a post Brown v. Board world, no one could possibly find anything questionable about the original request highlights a conflation of opinion with fact that strikes me as profoundly dangerous. Are we really so sure of our beliefs that we don’t even need to consider alternative views?
Above all, the thread revealed an extreme lack of respect for the viewpoints of others. Cruel words are intended to scare people into silence. Respectful phrasing invites the other person to continue explaining their thoughts. Asking for respectful dialogue is not the same thing as trying to enforce respectability politics. Respectability is the state or quality of being proper, correct, and socially acceptable. Respect, on the other hand, is due regard for the feelings, wishes, rights, or traditions of others. I don’t want anyone to conform to a certain dialect or way of being. I don’t care how you say what you say, as long as you’re respectful of the person you’re addressing. Quite honestly, I find it bizarre that this is considered controversial.
I came to college to learn. Not to have my beliefs affirmed or expanded upon but to really learn. I came to be challenged, to have everything I know thrown into question. If I believe something, I want to know for sure that that belief is based on extensive knowledge and even more extensive thought. I imagine that many of my peers came here for the same reason. I refuse to be robbed of that opportunity.
And that’s what this sort of petty fighting does: it robs of us of a chance to learn from one another. This means that when my classmate posts something about the “violent God of Islam” on the discussion board because she thinks no one but the professor will bother to read it, I don’t get a chance to debate her on it in class because she’s too afraid to bring it up. This means that when I post something political on Facebook, I get dozens of likes but no comments because we’ve learned to fear questioning leftist ideas. This means that we’ve learned to accept the idea that some people are more entitled to speak than others.
In the end, the original poster blocked me on Facebook (but not the people of color who agreed with me), so I could no longer see or comment on the post. Several people have stopped speaking to me. One of my best friends also blocked me on Facebook and moved out of our suite because she “no longer feels safe” living there. But I’ve also received many more messages of support from both friends and strangers. I’ve already noticed that people seem more willing to approach me to talk and more willing to disagree with me rather than abandon the conversation.
I’ve spent most of my time in college thus far vacillating between shouting and silence. On many (most) issues, I felt perfectly comfortable expressing my thoughts because I knew I’d have the weight of public opinion on my side. For a few, however, most noticeably on free speech, I was always afraid to speak up. I didn’t want to be labeled an immoral monster. I didn’t want my friends to think less of me because we disagreed. But I don’t think we should be afraid to disagree. From now on, I will speak my mind, respectfully, no matter how unpopular I think my opinion will be. I will listen carefully to those who disagree with me. If I hear something persuasive enough, I’ll change my mind and admit it out loud. If you do the same, I promise I’ll be there to defend your right to speak—and to argue with you if we disagree.
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