Opinion

In defense of the offensive

As most Mac students know, Facebook has recently become the preferred forum for Macalester dialogue. Between the resurgence of Mac Confessions and the Meatless Mondays controversy, social media has housed more open political discourse than my poli sci class during the last few months. Earlier this week, one of these arguments began over a meme that a Mac student posted on their personal Facebook page. It satirized the prevalence of white Adidas sneakers among women who claim not to conform to societal norms. The meme immediately sparked controversy, and claims of sexism and misogyny flew freely through the comment section. This call-out heavy brand of online discourse has become commonplace at Mac in the last few months. But it was largely contained to the Internet… until yesterday.

Less than 24 hours after the meme was posted, the original poster (a Mac Radio staff member) went to his WMCN staff meeting as usual. One of the commenters on the meme decided to make a speech calling him misogynistic, racist and homophobic. The speech was met with applause, and much of the WMCN staff agreed that his offensive behavior did not represent the culture of WMCN. He was not offered a chance to respond but rather asked to think about his actions for a week.

A later comment on the original post read: “you don’t get to decide what’s offensive to other people—if it’s offensive to them, that’s it. You don’t get to critique that fact.” This ‘fact’ is particularly what makes offense so messy. No one knows exactly what will offend others. It’s an ongoing dialogue. Macalester students, in their haste to eliminate every suggestion that may be perceived as offensive, missed the opportunity for this dialogue. I don’t personally believe that the poster had malintent, but even if he did, is calling him a racist/misogynist/homophobe really the best way to make your point? Too often, liberal Millennials believe they can end a conversation by calling out someone’s “isms.” Yes, these claims are powerful, but that is precisely why they must be backed by context, logic, and most of all, truth.

I recall my elementary school science teacher’s story of when a Neo-Nazi gave a speech at UC Berkeley in the mid-60s. It was her first year there, and she was unsure what to make of the atmosphere. Around 250 Berkeley students and community members listened carefully as the Nazi spoke. As a Jew whose family had recently fled Europe because of anti-Semitism, the talk was shocking. But she stayed and listened politely like the other students. After the talk was over, the audience did not rush the stage, chant or even call the man names. They were even more devastating. They asked questions using logic and history, confusing and confounding the unabashed racist. They made him look like a fool. Somewhere along the way, the bulk of college progressives abandoned this method of dealing with people with whom we disagree.

I know my example is extreme. You may justifiably say it’s unreasonable to expect students to be respectful of those promoting genocide, but the targets of political censorship in 2017 are not limited to Neo-Nazis, or even alt-right trolls. Middlebury students silenced social scientist Charles Murray by shouting “Racist, sexist, anti-gay. Charles Murray, go away” before destroying his car. Berkeley students attempted to cancel a speech by liberal comedian Bill Maher because of his comments criticizing radical Islam. If we have the intellectual tools to debate these people on a level ground, it should be unnecessary to silence them. Macalester students have the privilege of getting one of the greatest educations in the history of mankind. It is counterproductive to deprive ourselves of conversations that might make us uncomfortable. These conversations are as rewarding as they are difficult, but they require us to talk to those who offend us, instead of isolating and humiliating them. As Victorian novelist Goerge Eliot put it, “the last refuge of intolerance is in not tolerating the intolerant.”

If Mac students cannot maintain civility in a disagreement over the implications of a Facebook post, I question our ability to debate those with whom the disagreements run deeper. While more aggressive tactics may be necessary when open dialogue is not possible, there is no more equal playing field than a civilized conversation between intelligent people. You may use your speech any way you want, but it doesn’t further your cause to infringe on someone else’s.

April 21, 2017

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