Last month I picked on students at Wesleyan. Today, it's the turn of students at Brown.
A few weeks ago the Brown Daily Herald published a rather odd and meandering column by M. Dzali Maier '17 entitled "The White Privilege of Cows" that pondered whether some cultures thrived more than others because of circumstance or because of biological differences. For example:
Thus, whenever I see a white college student, reeking of privilege, I recall the coincidence (or causal relationship) between white physical features and animal agriculture. It is still a question whether or not evolution endowed Eurasians with skills utilized to capitalize on the good luck of livestock animals, or whether Eurasian features just happen to be a poor man’s clue to agricultural history.
Um. Okay. "White People: Naturally Good With Livestock?" I see a series of awkward meetings with a thesis adviser in Maier's future.
I'm generally uninterested in investing much time or effort into exploring whether human ethnic groups have innate biological differences that contribute to "success." I start out very skeptical, since it's a field that is historically so driven by junk science and bigotry. Now? Well, to paraphrase the Simpsons, even though the subject may not be inherently racist, it's #1 with racists. Ultimately I don't see it changing how I treat people, or how the law should treat them, whatever the outcome of the inquiry.
But it's a concept that the marketplace of ideas can deal with very handily. College juniors asserting in student newspapers that white folks may be naturally good with cows does not strike me as an event requiring official intervention.
I'm not sure that's the prevailing sentiment of modern students, or of faculty.
To the extent that anything at Brown is notable, the angry reaction to Maier's column was. The paper added a cringing apology at the start of the column.
We initially made the decision to publish the column, as we generally edit opinions columns for style and clarity alone, giving our columnists great leeway in making their argument as part of our commitment to freedom of expression. We regret that decision and believe it’s clear that this column crossed the line from an opinion we merely disagree with to one that has no place in our paper. The Herald is committed to an accurate and thoughtful opinions section, and we are taking steps to prevent similar issues in the future.
Students and recent graduates called openly for censorship of speech like Maier's. Students demanded that the paper apologize and commit to ill-defined ideological boundaries. An English professor opined that speech can cause physical and emotional harm. Notably, students attacked not only the column, but the sentiment that the paper ought to be free to publish it. Take Alex Seoh '14:
When you defend harmful speech, you are not just a bystander. You are a barrier to social change. Whether you ultimately delay the realization of civil rights and gender equity by weeks, months or years, you are delaying our progress, and you will be on the wrong side of history. Freedom of speech should be valued but not when it infringes upon the freedom of others. It is clear how “The white privilege of cows” infringed upon the rights of people of color here at Brown.
Students Liam Dean-Johnson '16, Aidan Dunbar '16, Anastasiya Gorodilova '16, Nico Sedivy '17, and Madison Shiver '17 resorted to the familiar argument that free speech for some inhibits the rights of others whose feelings are hurt. Though they tried to frame their argument as being about the paper's editorial standards, ultimately their point is that the concept of free speech should serve a particular ideological point of view:
Censorship has a particular meaning that has been lost in these debates. Censorship is the exercise of power to suppress challenges to the status quo. People of color calling attention to racism does not constitute an overbearing power structure that will limit free speech. The oppressed by definition cannot censor their oppressor.
It probably doesn't occur to those students to question what constitutes the status quo, and what constitutes power, on a particular college campus. Fish don't know they're swimming.
Some faculty in the Brown community pushed back and supported Maier's right to write the column and the paper's right to run it. So did some students. But like the Wesleyan incident, Brown's tumult reflects that an appetite for censorship is common and mainstream, not an outlier.
Should student newspapers exercise some editorial control in deciding which opinion columns to run? Sure. Most papers aren't going to run an editorial arguing that the moon landing was faked or that the sun revolves around the Earth. Could a student paper have declined to run Maier's column on the grounds that, scientifically, it's gibberish? Maybe. But would that paper be subjecting every opinion column to intellectual rigor, or just the opinion columns that fell outside a range of popular viewpoints? Public clamor for censorship — and demands that papers apologize for publishing offensive viewpoints — do not create an environment where student journalists can make such decisions.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
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