Safe Spaces and Milo Yiannopoulos
Thursday, April 21, started as many other days do when you’re a graduate student: I went to campus early in the morning, met with a student concerned about her final paper, and prepped for the discussion session I was running later in the afternoon. After weeks of lectures on globalization and modern imperialism, I was looking forward to running a breakout session with my students. In this particular session, I had planned to discuss a short op-ed in the New York Times by Ross Douthat entitled “Cracks in the Liberal Order.”
In the article, Douthat briefly ran through some of the challenges to the post–Cold War world order. He highlighted familiar topics ranging from the sudden success—at least in terms of popularity—of separatist movements in European states to the rise of ISIS and the subsequent migrant crisis. Perhaps most interesting, at least for my purposes, was the final section of the piece, in which he poignantly asserted that “were it not for Donald Trump the big story of the year would be the emergence of a new New Left . . .” Of the examples he cited of the consequences of the “new New Left,” the one I was planning to discuss was the “antics” of students on college campuses. Even as I prepped for this discussion, I wondered if I would have the courage to talk with students about the culture on college campuses. After months and months of conversations and lectures about war, genocide, religion, and slavery, it was the topic of free speech that worried me most. What if someone was offended?
Though the comparison may not seem readily actionable out of context, I planned to try and incorporate the discussion of free speech that is taking place on campuses today into a lesson about power in history, using a case study that we had previously discussed. An aspiring historian can be forgiven for such machinations. The spine of the comparison would have looked something like this:
The essential tool for Indian nationalists seeking to force the British out of India was nonviolent resistance. In 1948, only months after independence, the government banned nonviolent resistance as a form of political protest. Why?
In the 1960s, when liberal Americans largely lacked institutional power in universities and in the media, free speech was the preferred progressive tool of resistance. The Free Speech Movement was literally born on the campus of UC Berkeley, to this end. Yet, as quickly as liberals have taken control of universities and the media, censorship of dissenting points of view—aka conservatism—has largely become the modus operandi of the left. Why?
As it turns out, many of my students had not done the reading for the lecture—as it was the last class of the year, I could not take it personally—so I didn’t bother making the comparison or talking about the article beyond the more germane aspects of its depiction of globalization. Did I avoid the topic of free speech out of pragmatism or fear? I wonder this myself. In a twist of fate, I came to realize that the topic was even hotter than I had thought. A few hours after my afternoon class let out, Milo Yiannopoulos paid a visit to campus.
Footage of the Protests at American U
The "Dangerous Faggot"
Though I was aware of the “Dangerous Faggot” tour, as Yiannopoulos has dubbed his lecture circuit, I was unaware that he was coming to American University. I personally saw no signs, heard no announcements, and had no clue that he would be speaking on campus. Indeed, I only found out that Yiannopoulos had been on campus the following day by watching videos of the protest and by reading some articles. As a graduate student, it would be an understatement to say that I am out of touch with the student body as a whole. I’m not on campus as often as undergraduates are, I don’t live in a dorm, and I don’t have many conversations about culture or events on campus. Yet, despite my ignorance, plenty of students were familiar with the event. They formed both the audience and the body of protestors who have now been made internet-famous. Being familiar with the self-described provocateur, I was completely unsurprised by the reaction to Yiannopoulos’s appearance. Student unease about Yiannopoulos is exceptionally well documented, as is the more general fragility of the student body nationwide.
Although I personally have very little in common with Yiannopoulos in terms of politics, I must confess that I find him to be particularly acute in diagnosing the newest incarnation of the “culture war.” Unlike in recent memory, one’s political affiliation is no longer the most reliable indicator of how a person feels about social coercion designed to promote the “greater good.” Should video games be banned if they’re too violent or sexist? Should TV programs be boycotted if they are too risqué or morally objectionable? Are universities obligated to defend the rights of students to voice unpopular opinion? In today’s America you will find Democrats and Republicans on both sides of these sorts of questions. The new cultural war is largely bipartisan; it is being waged not along the left-right axiom but along authoritarian-libertarian lines.
The Debate in a Nutshell
Do students benefit from censoring uncomfortable speech?
On Friday, when I learned that Yiannopoulos was on campus, I also discovered that one of my old students was involved in organizing LGBT and Black Lives Matter demonstrators against him. I immediately felt a sort of shame for thinking that those who chose to spend their afternoon seeking out disagreement and silencing the speech of others had anything to answer for. Surely, a student who I did not know particularly well but who seemed nice enough, was driven to behave this way by the existential threat of Yiannopoulos speaking in a room that they were not in. This student was standing up for what they believed in. Shame on me for not seeing this. Shame on me for not taking the side of those who were oppressed.
But on Saturday, I made a second, more startling discovery: Another of my former students was involved in this dustup. But he was not among the protestors; rather, he is a member of Young Americans for Liberty, the group that hosted Yiannopoulos in a university-sanctioned event. Not an offensive person, nor someone who had ever displayed prejudice or bigotry—he was simply a student with the same rights and ambitions as any other. Here was a student, making the most of his time on campus by participating in the political process in addition to his studies. And here I was, ready to condemn him and all of the others with him to second-class status by not defending his right to free association and free speech. In my haste to empathize with one marginalized student, it never occurred to me that I could be marginalizing another.
The Scene at American
Milo at the podium
In the unceasing discussion of privilege occurring on campus, I must wonder: Who did I really fail by failing to speak my mind about what I witnessed on the campus where I study? Which privilege did I fail to check when I failed to condemn a clear attempt at censorship on campus? Whose rights were really being infringed upon? In what universe can a journalist be qualified to ask questions of Josh Earnest at the White House but not to speak to students on a college campus? Who is more traumatized—the bullies or the bullied?
Yes, it is time to check our privilege: liberal privilege. The kind of privilege that lets white men like Nathan Lean make absurdly racist comments and keep his job on the board of an antiracism organization while receiving funding from Georgetown University. It’s the kind of privilege invoked in the idea that you can crash everyone else’s rallies while simultaneously demanding a safe space for yourself. It’s the kind of privilege that lets you yell in someone’s face while claiming to be the victim of their existence. It’s the kind of privilege that allows a person to fail to distinguish between hate speech and speech they hate. It’s the privilege of thinking that my thoughts are academic and yours are clinical. It’s the kind of privilege born of thinking that anyone who disagrees with anything you say is a racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, capitalist apologist while you are just a really good person. This, by the way, is precisely the sort of word salad that every liberal once knew how to laugh at when they were being called a communist, socialist, fascist in the same breath, yet now wields with the sort of childish enthusiasm and pomp that would make the Christian right blush.
Student at Amherst interrupting Christina Hoff Summers and Milo
Students at Rutgers cover themselves in fake blood to protest Milo
I cannot claim any sort of expertize in my understanding of political identity or the experiences of others. Yet, in both oral history and in personal experience, I can say with certainty that the least socially acceptable and thus most marginalized group on college campuses today is conservatives. Counterintuitive as it may seem, it is precisely my own liberalism that demands I notice. Yes, we all need to check our privilege—even those privileged enough to make demands of others.
In universities, we are socially accustomed to reflect on our privilege—especially if we’re heterosexual cisgender white men, which I must confess to being. Having been born with these original sins, it is especially important to be sensitive to points of view that are not my own, and I like to think that my empathy is sincere if not always effective. Alas, there is a greater privilege that I’ve only begun to try and account for: institutional political privilege. The simple truth is that however much I may disagree with a point of view I hear on campus, whether in class or in my cubicle, the odds are that the speaker is a liberal who is much closer to my own politics than nearly any conservative. I have never feared voicing criticisms of whiteness, masculinity, America, or the wealthy. Indeed, the only times I have never felt social unease are the times when I knew my comments failed to neatly align with liberal orthodoxy. It is in this context that I chose to write this public reflection.
Are we who have power wielding it ethically? Are we providing safe spaces for everyone, or only for those we fear will complain? Of course, these final questions are more for myself and the faculty than for the students.