Free Speech for Whom?

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” — Declaration of Independence, 1776

I graduated from Yale in 2009. As an anthropology major, I was trained to understand that maintaining objectivity when making cultural observations is near impossible. So, here are a few of my salient sociological markers: male, gay, Chinese, grew up in Hong Kong. I moved to the U.S. for college in 2005, and I’ve stayed because I love the forward-moving, adventurous, openness of American culture.

I love Yale and the promise it holds for its students and for thought leadership in global knowledge. Am I sad to see Yale face a few tough weeks of publicity? Yes. Do I know what it feels like to be Black in America? No. Do I know what it feels like to be White in America? No. But I know what it feels like to have a Yellow face in predominantly Chinese Hong Kong society, and never have to give my race a thought. And I know the ‘death by thousand paper cuts’ feeling of relatives repeatedly asking whether I have a girlfriend, and I know what it feels like to be sorted by race in America.

The Pierson (my Residential College) sun at Yale Graduation, 2009.

I took over the editorship of an Asian and Asian-American (the distinction was important to us) literary and arts magazine my junior year. It was called Yellow Pages. We thought it was cute, self-deprecating, mildly edgy. Tastefulness aside, we never seriously thought about the way our title marginalized South Asian identity. After all, we included articles about and voices from the region. But the name of the publication had a subtle but meaningful effect on potential writers and readers. When it was pointed out to us, we changed the name to Wrice.

What caught my attention

Amidst the campus protests, counter-threats, discussions, and barrage of outsider commentary of the last few weeks, what struck me most was noticing influential White liberal (or non-reflexively conservative) commentators, such as Jonathan Chait and Conor Friedersdorf, alternate between mocking the GOP candidates’ policy proposals and criticizing Black student protesters on Twitter. People who have fervently advocated for racial and social justice before seemed to be turning backwards! What explains this bifurcation in the liberal movement, I wondered. And assuming that the Black students as well as Chait, Friedersdorf, et al. are coming from places of good faith, what explains the disconnect between people who usually fight for the same cause?

This brings me to the Declaration of Independence. Well-meaning, White (male) liberals earnestly believed, and defiantly declared that “all men are created equal”. Most of these men owned Black slaves.

George Washington gave many of the Mount Vernon slaves freedom in his will.

If reasonable, just Founding Fathers were able to outline unalienable truths about humanity, and enshrined fundamental rights (including the First Amendment) while accepting slavery, perhaps there is a similar contemporary misconception amongst today’s White liberals about universal rights and who has access to them.

What speech?

Freedom of speech is vital for the expansion of human potential. Freedom of speech has often helped minority groups capture power against a hostile majority. I’m not saying that freedom of speech isn’t precious and noble, but I believe Chait’s and Friedersdorf’s conception of it may be inadequate. Just as the Founding Fathers’ conception of ‘equality’ was inadequate in 1776.

Last year’s self-evidently acceptable becomes yesterday’s distasteful becomes today’s abhorrent. If Erika Christakis had written an email suggesting that it’s up for reasonable disagreement whether gays should exhibit public displays of affection in her residential college in response to an email about LGBT-inclusivity, would as many jump to her defense? What if she said that instead of Yale having official policies on sexual harassment, female students might wear longer skirts to avoid unwanted attention? What if she said that Holocaust denial was a valid viewpoint that warranted intellectual debate?

Perhaps if what we consider ‘up for debate’ or merely distasteful in terms of race (especially re: Blackness) hasn’t evolved as fast as it has in terms of gender and sexuality, some soul-searching is needed.

Standards of decency at Yale and Jeddah are very different.

Remember (as a lawyer this distinction is important to me), we are largely addressing de facto and social policing of speech, not legal First Amendment restrictions such as immediate calls to violence. The student protestors aren’t calling for Christakis to be arrested, they are questioning her and her husband’s suitability for the Silliman Mastership, a role that in my experience at Yale is more about cultivating community and home than intellectual stimulation.

Self-Evidence

It seems obvious to say that free speech is a fundamental right and must be preserved at great cost. Everyone does admit that some speech can go too far. Black students are telling people to stop saying offensive things. Chait and Friedersdorf are telling Black students not to say that (too loudly?). But when White liberals spill more ink expounding on the speech-chilling effect of Black protest on campus climates instead of the speech-chilling effect of White threats of violence and murder, something smells fishy. The self-evident acceptability of Blacks as slaves in 1776 seems like the self-evident status quo of subordinate Black voices in 2015. We’re still operating with a disturbing baseline: when Black voices are silenced the fiction of free speech as a universal civil liberty is maintained.

In comparing today’s mainstream White liberals with yesterday’s Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin, I’m suggesting that enlightened, well-meaning people often cannot have an objective view of what universal freedoms are. Turning this battle for social justice into a debate about free speech assumes that we have an adequate definition for ‘free speech’. Unless we are confident that we are relatively more enlightened than Jefferson and Franklin were for their time, thinking we have an end-all understanding of civil liberties is intellectually arrogant. Mankind has often thought we’ve reached the end of knowledge and we’re always proven wrong.

Pushing the needle

Last year’s slaves become yesterday’s Selma marchers become today’s Black students burdened with justifying their presence on campus. Last year they were excluded from the idea of ‘all men’, yesterday they were blocked from voting despite the written law, and today they’re demeaned on college campuses. They’re tired of being advised that change comes slowly, of being told to listen and discuss.

If White liberals could perceive Blackface or live in Calhoun College as a Black student perceives and lives under these and other hostile conditions, perhaps they would see why social (not legal) censorship of these expressions is warranted on college campuses. Just like Holocaust denial or outright racism is de facto censored.

If I were a Black student who’s spent most of my teenage years with a Black man in the White House(!), then get to Yale (which is supposedly at the forefront of enlightened thought and social possibility), but still am expected to explain why Blackface is abhorrent, I imagine I’d be fed up and yes, furious. In my fury would I sometimes be impolite? Call for firings and swear at authority figures? Probably. But I’m not trying to stifle free thought and speech. I’m trying to shift the needle on what speech is considered so abhorrent and regressive that decent people wouldn’t even think to utter it. I’m trying to get us to tomorrow.

The President of their adolescence.

Framing this debate as a fight over free speech is misleading and reflects a narrow conception of what free speech really means in 2015. Who has access to the White liberal notion of free speech? How does our personal relationship with the ‘arc of the moral universe’ affect our understanding of what ‘freedom’, ‘equality’, or ‘rights’ means? Until we’ve arrived at a better ‘tomorrow’ the idea of ‘free speech’ is loaded. Let’s find a better way to talk about racial minorities asking for better treatment.

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