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Columns

Stalinists in Our Midst

The attempted censorship of the Wesleyan Argus

By Idrees M. Kahloon

Something is rotten in the state of Connecticut. It all started one month ago, when the Wesleyan Argus had the audacity to publish an op-ed critical of the Black Lives Matter movement. Soon came the wrath of that new breed of student, incapable of confronting opposing opinion and quick to call for radical intervention, who filed a petition to defund the Argus unless their demands were met.

Among them: that editors attend a mandatory social justice training every semester and that a dedicated space be provided on every front page exclusively for marginalized groups. Until then, boycotters of the paper have pledged to destroy copies of the paper on campus.

Read that again. Weep.

Intolerance of counterrevolutionary messaging, mandatory reeducation of its practitioners, and burning the books of dissidents—sheer totalitarianism. Brazen attempted censorship of this sort cannot be called anything else.

This disturbingly illiberal tendency springs from their unshaking belief in their ideology’s infallibility. Not only that, but that their project is so righteous that it must be imposed upon the unwilling, who could only be acting out of selfishness and ignorance. They who know not what they do, and who must not be forgiven.

Consider the claims of the students clamoring for the newspaper’s dissolution—that “the Argus chose to give this man somewhere to share his disrespectful opinion…a silent agreement with its content, and a silent agreement to the all too prevalent belief that black [and] brown people do not deserve a voice.” Disregard for a moment the assertion that a concept as subjective and ill-defined as respectability trumps a person’s freedom to speak, or what that might logically entail in Iran, and examine the alleged secretly racist intentions of the newspaper:

The offending op-ed, a neither-here-nor-there piece that would have been safely disregarded in less scandal-hungry times, actually took pains to be measured—repeatedly emphasizing that his objection lied with extremists and not the movement itself. But no matter. Were it twice as strident, it would still have a place in a campus newspaper.

Let’s establish what the op-ed was not: It was not racist and it did not create an unsafe space in any reasonable construal of the concept of safety. Yet an anonymous “group of concerned and unapologetic students of color” wrote an open letter pronouncing that “the debate has become whether members of our community even deserve, not only to exist on this campus, but simply to live.” If anyone has any idea how this statement even approximates logic, I’d appreciate knowing—I’m baffled.

The very next sentence in the letter gives me a sense of the response I would get: “By focusing on the freedom of speech instead of students’ lives and ability to safely exist on this campus, you are practicing censorship and you are partaking in racism.”

Oh, well. Let’s carry on.

Apparently censorship isn’t the literal attack and attempted dismantling of newspapers that challenge the official narrative, as any fair reading of the word might suggest. No, it is the dissent from orthodoxy that is labeled censorship in this newest of Orwellianisms.

Opinion pages aren’t echo chambers. In the best of worlds, they publish original ideas, factually supported and logically structured, on any topic—especially those deemed unpopular to most. Rather than cater to the demands of the most vocal activists of the day or the values of the silent majority of their readership, opinions pages present arguments and viewpoints that uplift, depress, excite, and enrage us—not to comfort us in the righteousness of our own beliefs, but to confront them, their messy contradictions and shaky assumptions, head-on.

All that is to say that the sins of the op-ed, or whatever you hallucinate the sins of the op-ed to be, do not redound upon the newspaper. To shy away from opposing ideas and discomforting questioning may be a personal preference, but foisting one’s inflexibility on the rest of us is an entirely different matter.

It’s disappointing then that the Argus editors have largely acquiesced to the criticism, rather than forcefully denouncing its wrongheadedness. A front-page editorial apologized “for the distress the piece caused the student body” and its “position of power on campus.”

“We failed the community on Tuesday in many ways.” They promise to publish a “Black Out issue” written entirely by students of color.

No. There was a chance there to stand for something, for the hard-fought gains of the free speech movement that are now threatened everywhere from Michigan to California, rather than kowtowing.

The newspaper only failed its community when it refused to stand up for itself. Those extremists who would shut down an entire paper rather than be challenged by a single article are just that—extremists.

The newly conjured right to avoid offense is inherently impossible to satisfy. And we shouldn’t try to either. No, mandatory “social justice trainings” won’t prevent you from ever being discomforted, and offering front-page space to people of color is a half-baked idea without any precedent in journalism.

The theory of separate spaces for people of color is predicated on the inaccessibility of traditional spaces to us, an assumption that doesn’t hold in the case of newspapers that, to my knowledge, do not limit applications to whites only. To sequester people of color into a designated section wrongly implies that they could not have been printed otherwise—and I’d rather publish this column under the same banner as my peers than in a separated special box.

On campuses across the country, the mantle of progressivism has been seized by the illiberal and illogical, by people whose philosophies are so shaky that they feel required to shut down and censor voices of dissent. And if that remains the case, if rightly-intended movements continue to be co-opted by Stalinist factions, then those movements will fail.

It’s as simple as that.


Idrees M. Kahloon ’16, a Crimson editorial executive, is an applied mathematics concentrator in Dunster House. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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