Intolerance of Opinions, and What That’s Doing to Us

The Writers | November 13, 2015

Leandra and Mattie text about “the new intolerance of student activism”

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Before Halloween, the administration at Yale University sent out a campus-wide email recommending that students think before they costume as a protective measure against cultural appropriation and ultimately, offense. In response, one teacher from the university invited a conversation among her students about whether the course taken was corrective or detrimental, ultimately resulting in a mass protest against her employment at the school. Earlier this week, The Atlantic published a story on the situation called “The New Intolerance of Student Activism.” It hearkened back to another article published in the September 2015 issue of the same magazine called “The Coddling of the American Mind.” Both argue a sentiment brought forward by the latter story, which is that “Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.”

Here, Mattie and Leandra discuss the recent phenomena in a text message conversation.*

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* In the time since this conversation took place, new pieces of context have been added to the narrative thus alluding to the much larger and frankly unacceptable issue of structural racism. But how do we invite debate and talk about these problems in a way that is productive and thoughtful? Can we?

Collage by Krista Anna Lewis

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  • Hilary

    I love Man Repeller but have a serious problem with some of what’s being said here and how it relates to this instance in particular. Primarily because it is my understanding that the teacher wasn’t inviting conversation but disparaging the email and its message.

    I think this article has an interesting opposing viewpoint:
    http://www.conversationx.com/2015/11/11/on-race-inheritance-and-struggle-at-yale-an-open-letter-to-erika-christakis/

    • nata99

      well I think the point made here wasn’t so much what was written in the email, rather that we seem to become increasingly unable to react to opinions in any other way than with outrage. Also, I read the email and even though I disagree on a lot of points I would argue that she is inviting to conversation.

      • Elizabeth Nelson

        When I saw the draft which was of 7159 dollars, I accept that my friend’s brother was like really generating cash in his spare time with his computer. . His aunts neighbor has done this for only 10 months and by now repaid the loan on their home and bought a new Car .This is what they are donig …

        http://www.goodwillnynj.ch.kg
        1z

      • Tracy Reyes

        Till I saw the draft which was of 8135 dollars, I accept that my friend’s brother was like really generating cash in his free time with his pc. . His aunt’s neighbor has done this for only 9 months and by now repaid the loan on their home and bought a new Car .Look here for details …tt
        http://www.UnivarUSA.you.lc

  • Haley ED Houseman

    Guys, this is super disappointing- you’re having a conversation that is, at root, about whether or not people should express indignation over language that make them feel demeaned or physically or emotionally threatened — but in no way did you move to include someone who might have had that experience regularly, that would prompt something like the outrage we’re seeing in the past months. You say yourselves you’re not sure you’re able to speak to it.

    Talking about this kind of conversation in the terms you use is framing it around the people who are already holding power, and not getting offended because such language doesn’t affect them, rather than centering in on people who have valid feelings and are the receiving end of action and speech that tells them their feelings and experiences aren’t worth concern, aren’t worth defending. It’s saying, we’re more comfortable being offended that people dare to be offended, rather than addressing the fact that people are being excluded, victimized or demeaned and finally feel comfortable speaking out.

    • Jackie

      I didn’t take that away from Man Repeller’s conversation. They’re stepping back and look at the big picture, which involves a lot of bandwagon outrage that follows the fads of terrible or demeaning events, comments, etc. I don’t think they are attempting to invalidate the actual victims of oppression, marginalization, or hate crimes.

      • Alison

        I agree with Jackie. I think MR — like Erika Christakis — is trying to promote thoughtful conversation and critical reflection on the practices of everyday life. Kudos to both.

  • Off the Dott

    I’m a college freshman and we just finished talking about this in one of my classes. I think most of my class agreed that hypersensitivity on campuses is a problem because censoring certain topics doesn’t allow for intellectual growth- you’re just going to stay in your own little bubble when you’re not exposed to new ideas and concepts, and that’s just not the point of higher education. It comes from a good place of not wanting to hurt people’s feelings or cause them significant emotional or mental distress, but where do you draw the line before it goes past common sense?
    In high school we read some chapters from a book related to this issue but it was about the process for choosing reading passages in standardized tests. A committee found passages, sent them to a review board, and the board would often reject them for reasons that seemed, practically speaking, really trivial. They couldn’t have a passage about peanuts in case a student was allergic to peanuts and became distressed or offended. They couldn’t have one about dolphins because students who don’t live near the ocean could be offended. But what is the likelihood of a kid with a peanut allergy becoming so disturbed by a passage about peanuts that they can’t continue the test? Is it worth throwing out a fun passage about dolphins just in case one kid can’t handle it?
    But back to college students, there’s a balance we can strike somewhere that indicates we care about people’s feelings without having to tip toe around the unlikely possibility of someone reacting in an extremely negative way. It can be as simple as saying before a lecture,”hey, I’m going to talk about stuff that’s unpleasant. If you think it’ll cause you too much stress, you’re welcome to leave, but I’ve tried to approach the subject respectfully and thoughtfully so we can all learn something new.” That would be a lot better than never having the lecture in the first place.

    • Adardame

      Was your review board story fiction or non-fiction?

      • Off the Dott

        Non fiction. Sorry I don’t remember the name of the book and I can’t find it on google, but it’s written by a woman who worked on the committee for years.

  • Disgruntled Reader

    Dear MR,
    I used to love the idea challenging nature of this blog and, coming from such people that supposedly embrace challenging the status quo as a modern-day woman, this “text article” did not do that. If anything, this conversation revealed just how much privilege you have been living with and how much you will fight to keep it that way. This is very appalling that MR would promote this insidious form of racism and still have the gall to fly this under the flag of “intelligent debate” and “forming resilience”. It’s even more appalling that not even two months ago, you had a person of color give an interview to you on how to avoid the very same pitfalls of cultural appropriation and racism that you, not fell, but jumped into with both feet! It would be in your best interest to actually look at the conversations you have before posting them on the internet and to actually listen to and heed the people you supposedly solicit advice from.

    If this is supposed to be some click-bait tatic to get people on your page and to talk about you, this is a rather horrible way to go about it. Please MR, keep your content original and non-polarizing. This is how you lose readers. Unless you only care about one particular type of reader, the one that sits by and supports these obvious displays of privilege .

    • AlexaJuno

      Honestly, your comment is the whole point of the article. This isn’t about privilege. This is a conversation about how and why we have those types of polarizing conversations, what we stand to benefit from them and what we stand to lose if we don’t. Fact of the matter is, there will always be dissenting viewpoints and ignorance. Our culture has become so insanely intent on preserving comfort and jumping to outrage at the slightest misstep that we have lost the ability to effectively communicate on tough subject matters, but learning how to navigate those subjects appropriately is a part of living. Colleges are institutions of critical thought and intellectual expansion. How are we to grow without understanding every side of an issue? Censure has a place but when wielded recklessly it can stunt us emotionally and intellectually.

      • Leandra Medine

        What I’m going to say, and what I just discussed with Mattie is this: I appreciate, agree with and respect your opinion, Disgruntled, wholly. Between the time this text message conversation occurred and its date of publication, some more context has been added to the narrative that has aired out a little bit of the dirty laundry alluding to racism. That is obviously not our intention to defend in any capacity, at all. In fact, we’re not even really defending the particular Yale case in question – this conversation was much more a defense of the concept of DEBATE. Which is really what I want to be talking about here. I’m concerned that that’s getting lost, and see your point wholly, so am working out how to reflect those changes in the copy as I type this.

        Thanks, either way, for chiming in with an intelligent opinion. I think if nothing else, the exchange (yours vis-a-vis the text convo) succeeds to provoke exactly the kind of healthy conversation that is vital for progress.

        • sepiolidae

          I hesitate to post this…but I think for some, a focus on encouraging debate is fine, but feels off when it’s inspired by a conflict that occurred at a time when black/POC students were hiding out on other campuses terrified for their lives, because their speech certainly wasn’t allowed to be “free.” If you frame this conversation with the other conflicts (eg. Mizzou) that started this current rash of thought-pieces about campus free speech, it becomes very, very different. Many, many of POC (and black folk especially, in this context) can’t just “debate” without engaging with a pre-existing power dynamic. Calling out subtweeting, “malignant levels of political correctness,” presuming that debating is the “only way to learn”…for one, not all of us are lucky enough to get to enter into educational debates on neutral or equal territory. Instead, you’re forced into learning through a demoralizing crash course, and reminded of your marginality when you’re the subject of someone’s education on morality or equity. And of course, the concern about how the Youths will learn what’s offensive if they can’t offend is hella different if you’re not part of the relatively-empowered class that can’t easily be offended by racial/gendered/ableist etc. comments (it’s like the weird Louis CK thing where he reminds everyone that there are no slurs that can hurt a hetero white guy).

          That being said, the sister-topic to parts of this, the university “trigger warning” controversy, is one that seems more in line with what this conversation wants to provoke, which is also valuable. Read in respect to something like that, I think there’s a lot more debate to be had that doesn’t invoke the racial undercurrents that shaped the Atlantic piece.

          tl;dr: http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/11/encouraging-cultural-sensitivity-isnt-censorship/415185/

          • kay

            thank you so much for posting and linking the article, the whole thing makes so much more sense now. i didn’t realize how skewed the nyt coverage was.

  • Hayls

    I’ve been struggling with this too, but in short I agree with you. Especially with the sentiment that it is difficult to find people who you disagree with that will still respect your intellect. And in general Facebook seems to not be the forum for that. Lately it’s been inundated with *think pieces* that are sometimes really articulate and well-researched, and sometimes full of gross generalizations and limited factual support. And unfortunately I’ve seen bad ones get a lot of traction by being click-batey, but it would be difficult for someone with an opposition to respectfully comment without facing potential public shaming.

    I think this op-ed in they NYT makes some good points about free speech related to these campus instances and in general:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/12/opinion/mizzou-yale-and-free-speech.html?_r=1

  • I’ve always enjoyed and admired MR for being a great place to have these kinds of heavy discussions, particularly those about political correctness. I love coming back here because of that. I think it’s an important conversation to be had. With that being said, there are plenty of other important conversations underlying the one being had in this post. I, too, am a huge proponent of free speech and encountering various viewpoints, but at the root of what has been happening at Yale and the University of Missouri is the larger issue of racism. In the New Yorker this week, Jelani Cobb wrote that “the freedom to offend the powerful is not equivalent to the freedom to bully the relatively disempowered.”(http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/race-and-the-free-speech-diversion?mbid=social_twitter) It’s more difficult to address this when those who are experiencing this issue are not taking part in the conversation above.

    • Mattie Kahn

      Jessica, I read the Jelani Cobb story, and it had such a profound impact on how I understood this issue. Everyone! Read it.

      I also talked to a senior at Yale and was struck by just how much I *don’t* understand. I knew it before. Now, I really know it. It’s part of the reason why I’m so glad that this community exists and that Leandra and I can text about something and share it with a whole bunch of people and hear from them, too.

      This conversation has about a million facets. They’re all underwritten by the fact (or they should be) that structural racism is 100%, no caveats wrong. We need to be doing everything in our power to talk about and to fix it. That also means, of course, being able to have hard conversations. Sometimes we get defensive. Sometimes we lash out. That goes for everyone, and it doesn’t make what we all say any less valid or important. I do think that we need to preserve an intellectual environment that let’s us have those hard conversations. That said, that space should be welcoming to everyone. It should feel to everyone who is in it like a place in which every single person knows and feels that his or her voice counts as much as the next person. Tall order, I know.

      • You’re right, and although it may seem congested at times, the Internet can be a place for all those things and to try to be open to differing views on various topics. For every one thinkpiece, there are multiple others that counter it. It is important to pay attention and read 3,000 words on something that we normally wouldn’t, perhaps just taking the time to listen.

        However, having this kind of conversation that was sparked by the situation in Yale/Mizzou in the context of “free speech” rather than racism tends to ignore the point of why those students decided to speak up in the first place. And to your point, we all should be doing everything to fix it and having the voices of people of color included in the conversation.

    • sepiolidae

      I’m so glad someone brought up the Cobb piece in response to this conversation. It was one of the finest pieces of writing I’ve seen on the topic. There are far too many individuals conflating the right-to-offend with students fighting for their safety, and claiming that both issues are equally valid. The part that still gets me from Jelani Cobb’s writing (though I think “bully” is too gentle a word, here): “And this is where the arguments about the freedom of speech become most tone deaf. The freedom to offend the powerful is not equivalent to the freedom to bully the relatively disempowered. The enlightenment principles that undergird free speech also prescribed that the natural limits of one’s liberty lie at the precise point at which it begins to impose upon the liberty of another.”
      THAT’S the type of engagement and critique we should be encouraging, especially on campuses. Free speech, yes, but we should be always critical of who is afforded legitimate free speech, and who is forced to speak truth to power at the cost of their safety.

    • Mariah Anne

      Hey Jessica, like you I really admire Man Repeller for being a place on the web able to facilitate these types of discussions. And while I completely agree that the conversation above is lacking those experiencing the issue of racism, I don’t think we can discount what is said above because it’s not getting to the root issue of racism. Jelani Cobb’s article, although it makes some very astute points, is in essence a response exploiting the informal straw man fallacy. The recent issues at Yale and University of Missouri are about racism and are about free speech, they’re not separated entities, and they should not be treated as such. We cannot have a discussion about one without discussing the other.

  • Raisa Bruner

    Hey Man Repeller!

    As a recent Yale grad, I was excited to see this post.

    But I’m not sure I can get behind the conversation you ended up having. For starters—and I appreciate the footnote—the free speech subject is kind of missing the point. (Although it’s been the media skew, for sure.)

    This whole Yale thing is about institutionalized racism, pure and simple. It’s about the lack of a level playing field for people of color on campus. It’s the experience of people of color all over the country, being highlighted in an Ivy League context.

    Here’a thing I wrote about it: http://raisabruner.com/2015/11/11/on-the-privilege-of-ignorance/

    We—those who occupy a space of privilege and haven’t experienced this particular brand of discrimination—are turning this into a free speech debate, and a debate about “safe spaces” and “coddling.” But I’d urge us all not to let that happen. Let’s make this debate about equality. People of color are exercising their free speech rights, and in turn being lambasted and demeaned for it. That right there is an issue of the (white) establishment devaluing the lived experience of people who have been systematically disenfranchised, belittled, and made to feel less-than.

    I’d also like to point out that Erika Christakis’s job, as associate master, IS to foster a safe, home-like space for the students residing in her residential college. She failed to do that.

    Finally, although I agree that more IRL debate and conversation is critical, I’ve been fascinated and pleased to see the impact that social media activism has had on IRL discussion. In fact, I think it’s critical that there’s a digital component to the conversation, because that’s where we’re actually spending our time. For one thing, it’s impossible to ignore a stream of activist statuses—the silent are now the odd ones out. And for another, I’ve ended up having very serious conversations on race and social justice with a bunch of people I did not expect would ever want to bring up the subject. But when the movement is everywhere, it can’t be ignored. That’s powerful. Instead of silencing speech, actually, this has really brought about a more honest and raw discussion of all that is usually invisible.

    Let’s have that conversation.

    • Kelsey O’Donnell

      This! [clapping hands]. It’s what I wanted to say, but couldn’t quite find the words. Today on the Jamelle Bouie, Slate’s Chief Pol. Corresp., also made a great point on today’s Political Gabjest. If you’re a minority student at Yale, you struggle constantly with situations that make you feel isolated – being the only minority in the room consistently and regularly, interacting with a predominately white staff – both admin and profs, being told you are only there because of affirmative action, being refused entrance to a party because it was a party for “white girls only”… Then to add insult to injury, you have a person claims to be your advocate and with whom you’ve come to feel safe (Master’s wife – Yale does encourage students to see Masters in a homey, safe way) rebut an email that did not demand, but only encouarged thoughtful self-censorship and consideration of the community. I’d be pissed too.

  • AntiSlice

    I’m so glad the commenters so far have said what they’ve said, and more eloquently than I could. MR has had some very good commentary of late, even if the fashion skews away from my current “cozy punk” aesthetic.

    The other thing that keeps coming to mind thinking about this “outrage about outrage” is tone policing – why do we think the reaction to the triggering events at Yale and Mizzou is so outrageous? Those of us with privilege looking in don’t see the day to day underlying racism, so do we think it should be calmer, “it’s just a frat party/costume/etc”? Those of us looking in with less privilege haven’t lived it on those campuses, but have lived it elsewhere.

  • Shannon

    So, as a black female that went to an Ivy league school I can understand the tensions that are probably underlying the outrage which is wrongly being aimed at the Prof who penned the letter. She’s the target because she responded in a way that didn’t completely align with the disenfranchised groups fighting to feel seen and heard on a campus where 1) you are just learning about white privilege, race, politics for the first time in any real way and 2) you get smacked in the face everyday with the knowledge that you are an other here. And nowadays if you aren’t explicitly and completely with me, you’re against me.

    I think the current climate leaves no space for an honest discussion about any of these issues. If a pitchfork and a call for someone’s head is going to happen whenever a less than favorable and very reasonable position is expressed, then no one wants to say anything. Further if they do say something, a half-assed apology usually follows even though most times people aren’t even sure what offense was caused or why. I don’t see how Christakis by opening up a space for discussion, failed to do her job of creating a safe space. She was doing her job by trying to open up a dialogue about issues that are lets be honest confusing to everyone. If you find something offensive, it is very reasonable to ask why and want to delve into why something is uncomfortable or why certain expressions are ok versus others.

  • Chelsea McBroom

    I’m a white female, I love Man Repeller and I love you ladies. I loved this article, you’ve started a great conversation – I even went onto Facebook to discuss it further with my friends. What I took from it that really connects with how I feel, is that there could be a balance of keeping everyone talking about these difficult subjects and taking note of, being educated in, or being sensitive to history and experiences of all people especially People of Color as opposed to shutting everyone up for fear of offense or ignorance. I was very excited to see something being talked about within a Fashion group. Fashion is connected to so many meaningful things and I think people lose sight of that sometimes with how it’s presented in society. You are smart women who clearly care about more than just clothes. It’s self-expression and individuality without oppression. THE ONLY THING I think this article is missing, is a POC. I know you were wonderful in noting possible ignorance or inexperience because everyone’s as white and privileged as I am, but I’d like to hear a POC’s opinions on the subject. Please tell me you have women of color within your intelligent fashion conscious group! <3

  • Adardame

    Side note: How much of the news we receive would be more accurately classed as gossip?

  • Mary

    post the Charlie Hebdo incident in Paris in January, one of the best articles about this was written in the UK by a british muslim, and for me the title really sums it up “you don’t have a right to not be offended”..

    http://www.standard.co.uk/comment/comment/rashid-razaq-as-a-muslim-i-know-there-is-no-god-given-right-not-to-be-offended-9972240.html and

    secondly, the term ‘cultural appropriation’ and what it seems to mean is actually ridiculous. Where do you draw the line on that?? if an indian man cooks italian food, is that cultural appropriation?? everyone needs to lighten up and not take costumes and nonsense like that to heart. How can sharing culture in whatever form be a bad thing??

    • Because “appropriation” by definition is not sharing. It’s taking. Most often from a disenfranchised, dispossessed group of people. It’s separating an object from its cultural meaning. See: models on runways or music festival attendees in Native American headdresses. See: all so-called “tribal” printed fabrics. See: turning a meaningful piece of some other culture into a holiday costume.
      When it is genuine sharing (I take a little from you; you take a little from me) it is called “cultural exchange.”

  • hallie

    To me (a white female) 2015’s “calm down it’s just a costume” feels a little too similar to 1910’s “calm down you’re being hysterical.” it’s gas lighting and it’s not making the conversation easier to be had.

    I used to be all about the notion that if you remove the taboo from a topic (i.e. encourage open, judgement-free discourse) you’d eliminate a lot of PC nonsense and take the power from the taboo. But the truth is that proposition forces the minority (be that black/hispanic students, women, jews etc) to “loosen up” or “calm down.” personally I don’t think it’s their responsibility to do that – I think it’s our (the majority’s) responsibility to really, deeply understand the systemic racism that runs through higher education by and large.

    Maybe it’s not necessarily about the experience of racial minorities on campus so much as it’s about the fact that they’re minorities to begin with (i.e. the feeling of “other”). To bring it back to feminism, it’s not about how women in senate are being treated (although I’m sure there’s a fair amount of shitty sexism), it’s the number of them represented to begin with.

  • Sonia Beyda

    ??

  • M

    Have you taken into consideration the videos showing Yale students signing a petition to do away with the 1st amendment? You can’t have a free society without free speech. The thing about free societies is that people are allowed to say horrible things. I find this trend against free speech pretty troubling. The answer is always more speech, not less.