Silence is Golden But Free Speech is Calcium Carbonate

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Tue, Apr 5 - 6:06 pm EDT | 2 years ago by
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The “spiral of silence” is a theory that posits that people tend to remain silent when they feel that their views are in opposition to the majority perspective on certain topics. This self censorship is typically the result of fear of social isolation, and is one that I have personally witnessed in action given the rapid rise in demand of “politically correct” language and “socially responsible” comedy. People are more likely to bite their tongues and stifle themselves than to risk being ostracized, or worse, labeled the new trendy “-ist” or “-phobe.”

Despite the fact that ideas are being bulk-stifled, students at colleges and universities across the United States have been involved in widespread protests over the past few months – a topic I’ve dedicated a significant amount of writing to. The argument from the protesters is that they are fighting for a more “inclusive” educational experience, with “demand lists” including things like the specific recruitment of black professors and students, specialized endowments for students who are racial minorities, the condemnation of “free speech” posters, and the implementation of “safe spaces” for black students. In many cases, it was demanded that new centers be built for the purpose of these safe spaces. In order to filter out the minority of stragglers who still exercise their first amendment rights, the protesters are in search of a dedicated, physical space that will protect them from encountering these people, and the things that they might say. Through their mission to secure an inclusive environment, they have actually demanded the opposite.

When thinking of a “safe space” prior to the protests, I most commonly thought of a place in which people were physically safe. Somewhere with security, perhaps. Somewhere where people could exist without the concern for a threat to their wellbeing. This is, in fact, what the new “safe spaces” strive to be – however, the aim is to protect students from being emotionally threatened. These “threats” are not limited to attacks, but rather things like “disagreement” and “satire” and “jokes” and “microaggressions.” They are not places where people are able to express their opinions in a safe environment, but rather one where they are able to shield themselves from such opinions. “Safe spaces” are organized environments in which free speech takes a backseat to popular speech. At Bowdoin College in Maine, students were offered safe spaces and counseling after a “tequila party” on campus included some students wearing sombreros. Recently Imogen Wilson, a student at the University of Edinburgh, was accused of violating the campus’ safe space policy when she raised her hand to protest a statement during a student council meeting.

Other students are, however, fighting back. I am by no means a supporter of Donald Trump – a fact I have never shied away from – although I do admire the impact he has had on our country. Win or lose, Donald Trump’s greatest legacy will not be public office, nor will it be his businesses. Rather, it will be his uncanny ability to exploit the frustration that Americans have with the two party system. He has also, without trying, become the face of a new free speech movement. Students at a number of campuses have taken to writing messages in support of Trump with chalk. This was met with accusations that the chalk graffiti proclaiming “Trump for President” and “Trump 2016” somehow carried a racist and anti-diversity subtext, with some students to say that they are “afraid.” It is unlikely that chalk itself makes them afraid – so clearly, it is the exposure to different ideas that is causing them fear.

“I’m supposed to feel comfortable and safe [here],” one student told the student newspaper, the Emory Wheel. “But this man [Trump] is being supported by students on our campus and our administration shows that they, by their silence, support it as well . . . I don’t deserve to feel afraid at my school.” Another student compared the chalk statements to a 2014 instance where swastikas were spray painted on a fraternity building. Another stated that the faculty was “supporting this rhetoric by not ending it,” and that “people of color are struggling academically because they are so focused on trying to have a safe community and focus on these issues [related to having safe spaces on campus].” When asked if he would send out a  University-wide email to “decry the support for this fascist, racist candidate,” Emory’s president James Wagner said “No, we will not.”

Wagner did pen a statement, however, writing: “As an academic community, we must value and encourage the expression of ideas, vigorous debate, speech, dissent and protest. At the same time, our commitment to respect, civility and inclusion calls us to provide a safe environment that inspires and supports courageous inquiry.”

He was then filmed writing, in chalk: “Emory stands for free expression!”

Many of these proclamations likely had less to do with an overwhelming desire to publicly pen their support of Donald Trump and more to do with the desire to provoke a reaction. And – dare I say it? – that’s a good thing. Several of my own acquaintances who share my distaste for Trump have stated that they would participate in this new movement, publicly proclaiming support for a candidate who they would hate to actually see win. I can’t say I wouldn’t join them as well. You don’t have to be a fan of Donald Trump to be moved by this support of free speech and free expression. The spiral of silence is slowing, and we have chalk and some ballsy college students to thank for it.

Top photo by Amazing Dream/Getty Images

Liz Finnegan is a soulless ginger with no political leanings. Pun enthusiast. Self-proclaimed “World’s Okayest Person.” Retro gaming contributor for The Escapist.

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