I attended college from 2003 to 2009, earning two degrees and taking nearly every liberal art’s class available on the subject of gender, sexuality, race and social justice. Despite my leftist zeal for understanding and passionately championing the issues I learned about, I often found myself as the subject of criticism by the other students. In my Race and Gender studies class, I was shamed as a racist for questioning the notion that color-blindness was itself a racist symptom of white supremacy. In my gender studies course I was limited as a male voice. I maintained some level of authority as an openly gay man, but this simply did not compete against my far more aggressive marginalized counterparts. But something I learned in all of this was the value of being uncomfortable in debate and the pressure to articulate views with confidence and substance. Until I walked into those classrooms, I merely assumed my desire to advocate for equality and justice was sufficient. It took a lot of hard knocks to understand I also had to learn how to defend myself.
Today’s students seem to be less and less fortunate to experience difficult public conversations that challenge their assumptions and push them beyond their comfort zones. Writing for the LGBT website, Queerty, Joseph McAndrew, who describes himself as a, “…trans-masculine, non-binary Writing for Film and Television junior at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia”, makes the argument for why feminist icon Camille Paglia should not be allowed on his campus. He states, “Throughout my otherwise rewarding years here, I have dodged the classes she teaches because Paglia refuses to use pronouns preferred by her students and others. This everyone at the school acknowledges and few defend.” Discussing Paglia’s long history as both a feminist and queer advocate he notes, “Camille herself openly identifies as queer, which is awesome. I don’t question her sexuality and gender because her identity is valid, but it’s also exactly why she should not question and inveigh against the chosen identities of others.”
Paglia is a world-renowned professor and author who has spent her long career challenging every conceivable social norm. Known as a vocal feminist she is famous for criticizing modern feminism and other ideas of gender and sexuality. She is, as simply as can be stated, an iconic progressive voice. The British magazine Spiked, known for its stances on fighting modern speech laws in Europe, described her as such, “Silencing Camille Paglia is all but impossible. Anyone who has interviewed the academic and social critic, or just watched her in a debate, knows about her ability to catapult words and ideas at the listener. And as a long-time feminist and campaigner for gay rights, Paglia has used her unstoppable voice over the years to demand freedom for men and women.”
But to the students at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, she represents intolerable bigotry and danger. Citing her appeal to sexual assault victims to go to the police immediately rather than wait for several months and reveal their stories to the media and her continued questioning of gender queer and trans ideology McAndrew stated, “As a trans person, and survivor of sexual assault, I’m troubled that my school not only tolerates these comments but highlights her regularly to the public at large.” Discovering she would be speaking on campus he describes his actions, “I went directly to the higher-ups, asking that the event be moved off campus where it would not feel unsafe for LGBTQ students. While I felt that the faculty I spoke to heard what I had to say, no action was taken. I then twice proceeded to email David Yager, president of the university, to express my concerns, asking him to “move Camille Paglia’s lecture on next Tuesday to somewhere off campus… Moving her talk off campus will reassure students that the institution is actually listening to our concerns and triggers.”
He and others protested the event. He recalls, “This lecture was open to the public, which brought Paglia’s fans onto our campus. As a transgender person, that scared me. I didn’t feel safe knowing that there could be someone in the crowd who despised trans folk since those are the ones she encourages. That fear didn’t stop the 100 plus people who arrived to protest Paglia with signs, buttons, and t-shirts, from sitting calmly in protest on the lobby floor for an hour before the lecture started.” Sitting in the auditorium he says, “We were restless in our seats; we whispered, we groaned, we scoffed, but most importantly, we kept it peaceful and allowed her to finish her lecture without interruption. Then, after thirty painful minutes, the fire alarm went off. As the fire alarm sounded, the collective built up frustration busted out.” After some noise-making the students were escorted out and later attended a ’talk back’ session with several administrators and professors to express their concerns.
Strangely enough, the student argues that is it Paglia that is uninterested in civil discourse and hostile to differing opinions, based on the sole fact that she refuses to submit to their growing list of offense demands. Providing insight into how the students perceive events, “Students around the country are being called fascist simply because they have to fight to be heard. People tell students to debate their professors, but students have little to no room to flex their opinions because classrooms are built on power dynamics. For true debate in a classroom, professors should act as the mediator since they hold the power. When a student does challenge a professor, the professor is the active while the student is the passive. Students then are faced with either being walked over or taking a stand. We don’t want to protest to get our side across, but sometimes we have no choice because the higher-ups feel no responsibility to listen.” But as we can see from the first part of the argument, it is the students that hold the power and they choose to use it to silence what they believe to be ‘dangerous’ speech.
Arguing that he pays too much in tuition to “…attend this university to just sit idly by and allow injustices such as this go unnoticed.” He complains further, “I’m balancing classes, projects, work, rehearsals, and activism all at once, and I’m getting tired of being ignored, and I’m not the only one. Queer and POC students fight every day to be heard and respected because if we don’t make ourselves heard no one will listen.” He wildly contradicts himself arguing, “I understand and respect the fact that everyone has their own beliefs and views on everything, in and outside of academia. I think these differences make us unique and create mind-opening discussions, but when these opposing ideas are turned inside out and utilized to spread hate, that’s where I draw the line.” Finally underscoring the real moral of the story from his perspective, “People have the right to say what they want, but targeting someone’s gender identities, race, experiences, and traumas, is an attack on the person as a whole, and this isn’t debatable.”
What is upsetting Mr. McAndrew and his fellow students is not that the school is stifling open discussion, but that the school is allowing it to continue despite his objections. His standard is clear, as long as he approves of the message it should be widely heard and when he does not it is interfering with the safety of the student body. It is this very expectation of being uniquely special and uniquely burdened that breathes life into this argument. It is not enough that he can freely express who he is on campus and get a first-class education among famous intellectuals, he must control every aspect of his experience or he is otherwise being attacked. He wants people to ‘listen’ in a way that automatically assumes he won’t be further questioned.
I remember sitting in a classroom and my Race and Gender studies professor asking the class ‘Is being gay a choice?’ I immediately erupted in rage that it was viewed as acceptable for this question to be asked in the first place. An argument broke out and within it I challenged a skeptical student to answer what he would do if his son came out to him. When he responded he would ‘kick him out’, I burst into outraged tears and demanded he was committing the verbal equivalent of a hate crime against me. The professor told me to quiet down. In that moment I sat down, angry and frustrated, but I indeed quieted down. It took being exposed to views I found absolutely criminally offensive for me to learn how to quiet down long enough to answer back effectively. Unfortunately, it looks like Mr. McAndrew may need quite a few more life lessons to be able to understand what has helped me become an effective and patient social writer and advocate today. At least in this instance, the college administration stood by the side of open speech. It is unfortunate Mr. McAndrew and his fellow students took this rare and valuable moment to further validate their sense of being unfairly targeted and oppressed by views they assume they disagree with.