Academia, for centuries, has been an institution in which new ideas and innovative thinking may thrive. After all, what is the purpose of higher education if not to sharpen the wits and broaden world views?
However, in recent events around the nation, the constant need to be politically correct, to tread meticulously around certain topics hinders this need for growth.
When several members of U.C. Irvine’s legislative board made the controversial decision to remove the U.S. flag from its lobby, much of the country was in an uproar. The students were met with blatant racism, accusations of anti-patriotism and even death threats.
In making this dubious vote, ASUCI had hoped to create an inclusive environment for its members, free of the nationalism that often accompanies flag-flying. The violent, unreasonably shrill responses to the board’s decision depicts the very facets of nationalism the decision was aspiring to eliminate: blatant racism, intimidation and xenophobia.
Despite this severe backlash, faculty and alumni of the college created a petition defending the board’s decision. The petition, which gathered nearly 2,000 signatures, called for the college to “respect [the students] political position and meet its obligation to protect and promote their safety.”
The decision in practice, the petition read, has “drawn admiration nationally from much of the academic community.”
These educators recognize the important of forward thinking, even if controversial.
Because if there were a time and place for safety nets, adolescence and college are not it. To evoke change, we must also embrace discomfort. If our eyes are shielded and ears muffed, no progress will be made.
In October of last year, president of Smith College Kathleen McCartney apologized for not objecting to a racial statement made by her colleague and fellow panel member at a New York event. Wendy Kaminer, the offender at the center of the criticism, was speaking against the use of the euphemism “the n-word,” claiming that to defend free speech, we must also tolerate hate speech. In her remarks, she uttered the word, sparking outrage amongst audience members.
Smith College’s Student Government Association wrote a letter in response to Kaminer’s response: “If Smith is unsafe for one student, it is unsafe for all students,” the letter read.
In response to the backlash she received, Kaminer wrote in an email: “It’s amazing to me that [the audience and students] can’t distinguish between racist speech and speech about racist speech, between racism and discussions of racism.”
This inability to make the distinction is very telling.
The brash response to Kaminer’s argument goes to show that if we are to shrink away from sensitive topics completely, we will never cultivate the open mindset necessary to practice empathy in our off-campus lives. By censoring college discussions for the sake of “safety,” we are not doing anyone any good.
As Smith College’s SGA President Greta Stacy said, “If you can create a space where people can feel uncomfortable and be OK with that, and not be actually afraid [of] the conversation, then you can create a productive learning environment for change.”