Last semester in my Political Science 202, World Politics class, we engaged in a debate about the 1999 war in Kosovo. Was it, as some members of the class alleged, a “racist” war? Did we intervene in the bitter ethnic savagery of the Balkans because the Kosovars were white, while leaving other cases of genocide alone – specifically, Rwanda in 1994 – because its victims and perpetrators weren’t Caucasian? A class member even said, without pointing to any examples, that much of American policy was indeed “racist.” Leaving aside what I feel is the obvious ridiculousness of these questions and that debate – a subject for another column and another day – the overuse of the word “racist” and of accusations of racism on the Williams campus are the most striking things I pulled away from that particular day of class. Racism, in some ways, has become a word rendered nearly meaningless, just another part of the give-and-take of campus debate.
In many respects, discrimination and prejudice based on race have an undeniable place in the pantheon of problems that face Williams. I am not the first to say it, but the fact that minorities on campus often feel uncomfortable or uneasy is something that should make the entire College feel equally uneasy. However, this does not justify the increasingly universal, and in some cases increasingly deleterious and inane, use of “racism” to signify a ghostly boogeyman in Williams – and American – life.
In a Record opinion piece several weeks ago, Dan Elsea ’02 showed some of the ways in which this is done, with a touch of hypocrisy thrown in for flavor. Elsea says “in a global context, on the subject of justice for the Palestinian people, it is American public opinion that is generally considered to be on the extremist, if not racist, fringe.” Elsea goes on to decry, rightly, the often automatic branding of pro-Palestinian Americans as anti-Semitic. Being in favor of a Palestinian state clearly does not make someone an anti-Semite. But doesn’t Elsea see that his (justified) resentment at charges of anti-Semitism being hurled at supporters of the Palestinian cause is in direct variance with his own words, when he charges the American public with being “racist” in their support for Israel? Just as pro-Palestinian Americans should be able to avoid charges of anti-Semitism for their beliefs, so ought pro-Israeli Americans be able to avoid accusations of racism and of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim discrimination, simply because of their convictions.
Moreover, while Elsea declares that those supporting the Palestinians do so out of a concern for “freedom and justice,” the only explanation he can offer up for those on the pro-Israeli side is the glancing reference to “extremist, if not racist” public opinion. Is belief in a sense of shared values extremist and racist? Of course not. But this belief, for me and many other Americans, is what motivates my support for Israel – not hatred of the Arab and Islamic Palestinians, but a belief in the democratic values Israel and the United States share and which the Palestinian Authority most decidedly does not. This doesn’t translate as a rejection of the basic human rights – self-determination, free expression, etc. – of the Palestinian people, but rather as a rejection of the extremism and despotism of their government, the Palestinian Authority, under whose power the Intifada is directed.
I do not mean to pick on Elsea, nor do I mean to focus so exclusively on the situation in the Middle East. The hypocrisy of demanding that those who believe the Palestinians are in the right not be labeled anti-Semitic while at the same time (almost) calling the American public racist for supporting Israel goes beyond Elsea and the Middle East – it is a reflection of campus culture, both here at Williams and across the country.
This culture, I am not the first to observe, restricts free expression when it might cause offense to some members of the community. Debate on issues of race, religion, ethnicity and sexuality have been effectively muzzled, so that the conversation flows in just one direction. This is hardly a healthy intellectual climate for an institution that espouses liberalism and that hopes to produce tolerance of the opinions, ideas and speech of others. Criticism of minority groups has been effectively smothered; to make such criticism risks the accusation of racism, sexism or homophobia.
The Mad Cow incident provides an example of this kind of elimination of “offensive” speech (it would be instructive to remember that most of history’s innovations and important ideas were – in some cases still are – offensive to some if not most sections of society). The Mad Cow, for the three of you who don’t know the story, published articles that, unsurprisingly, were deemed “racist” because of their criticism of some aspects of minority culture here on campus. Never mind that one of the articles criticized the lack of a minority voice on the College Council; satire was apparently lost in the shuffle of racial politics, and the articles were protested. The Mad Cow was censored, and the humor magazine was punished for attempting those two things it is expressly intended to do: make light of the world around us and satirize it to point out its problems. But at least “offensive” speech was prohibited, as though the prohibition of speech is something to be celebrated.
This is a trend we should reverse at Williams. A letter in last week’s Record criticized a “culture of politeness” on this campus. It’s more than that, though: it’s a culture that believes wholeheartedly in free expression – or, it does until someone’s feelings are hurt or someone becomes uncomfortable.
I have news for this culture: no debate or exchange of ideas, no true embodiment of the profoundly democratic ideal of free speech, should be limited to avoid the politically correct and ill-thought out idea of “offensiveness.” To do so not only reduces discussion to a farcical repetition of the same worn-out platitudes, but also stands at direct variance to the intent of a liberal arts institution, and to the core values of our society.