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When Is Censorship Okay?

Answer: never

By Shubhankar Chhokra

Counterintuitively, it’s the militant quality of the recent wave of activism across college campuses that has kept me from taking it too seriously. It’s the megaphones, the coordinated outfits, the phones gyrating through the air to capture incisive chants on Snapchat storiesall of which betray that maybe these protests are less the means and more the end. Related to the movement's militancy is its flamboyance. These protestors’ brand of activism intends to primarily express and invoke solidarity, and to that end, it chooses spectacle over substance. On Facebook this month, I was invited to not one, but two “solidarity photoshoots.” I’m still unsure of what that means.

But what happens when we get rid of this militancy, this flamboyance? What happens when we replace the high-strung, passionate atmosphere of the campus protest with the sober, more intellectually demanding lecture hall? Far scarier than any campus protest was my experience in class last week, when in light of the grievances of these student protestors, we discussed the limits that should be placed on disagreeable speech on campuses. We asked ourselves in all seriousness a question that, despite the irony, I believe is too dangerous to even entertain: When is censorship okay?

We’ve been asking that question a lot across campuses as of late, as, strangely, student activists seem to think the solution to their having been silenced for far too long others is silencing others. At Yale, it’s silencing leaders who dare make their residential communities intellectual spaces as opposed to homes—as if these functions are mutually exclusive or one is more important than the other. At Princeton, it’s silencing history—the self-indulgent belief that erasing the name of Woodrow Wilson on a program would also erase the racism of his time, that sanitizing history is somehow a healthier alternative to acknowledging the most harrowing realities of the past. Really, it’s this incongruence between the grievances of these student protestors (many of which are valid, I think) and these non-sequitur demands that bothers me the most.

If we dive into the diction of this new student activism—diction that some of the most vocal supporters of free speech restrictions used in my class ad nauseam last week—we may see some, albeit poor, rationalization of their demands. Disagreeable speech is no longer “offensive”; rather, it’s “hostile." It is no longer a violation of good taste, but a prima facie violation of the victim’s personhood and liberty. A student in my class claimed that repeated microaggressions pose a quantifiable threat to their victims’ lives, equal in severity to physical violence itself. This reframing of an argument about decorum to a patently false, histrionic one about something far more critical is how these calls for censorship may actually gain some traction.

To be fair, despite the smack of elitism, their argument that it’s the duty of the enlightened to silence disagreeable opinions is tempting. At the very least, it entices the platonic monarchist that I know is within all of us. But the implications of censorship, even in as trivial of a context as student life, bleeds into areas of higher learning and beyond that do carry import. Why couldn’t a public retraction of Yale housemaster Erika Christakis’ email be used to justify banning a debate on abortion because that environment could be “hostile” to victims of sexual assault? Why couldn’t the removal of Wilson’s name from Princeton serve as precedent for removing the names of comparably racist JFK from Harvard or founding fathers from our national ethos? Even though safe-space syndrome has only infected campus life so far, leaving the curriculum aside for now, what if the unruly id of the student activist finds a new prey? After all, why teach anti-Semite Marx, homophobe Dante, and especially that slavery-loving Aristotle in classrooms that are increasingly Jewish, gay, and black? To invoke your grade-school teacher, the slippery slope is very real.

More deadly than what the restriction of free speech on college campuses can lead to is the abandonment of the very purpose of higher education as soon as the first person says, “You can’t say that.” We come to college to engage in inquiry—to pursue veritas—not to mindlessly accept the empty verdicts of our peers to whom we wish not to be "hostile." This necessitates contrarianism, even if only to deliberately entertain the possibility that the premises that everyone seem to subscribe to may be wrong. For what it’s worth, Christakis’ email pushing back against popular opinion on cultural appropriation was not only crucial for its substance, but for its function in promoting critical thought by asking the question, “What if you’re wrong?” She merely entreated students to question their premises, not abandon them all together.

I predict that this strange new power dynamic emerging on college campuses, where students leverage mostly reasonable grievances for patently unreasonable ends, will weaken the university as the last remaining bastion of free speech—at risk of culturally appropriating a word from the activist community, the last remaining “safe space.” Unlike the office, the church, and even the Thanksgiving table, as last week’s episode of SNL pointed out, the campus has not been a place where we fear getting silenced. I pray it stays that way.

Shubhankar Chhokra ’18, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Eliot House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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