A response to hyperactivism

Whatever can be said about an event that receives generous funding, commands the attention of national news media and unleashes a tidal wave of public and private conversations that dominate the College’s collective attention for more than a week, surely it is impossible to allege that the event’s organizers have in any way been “silenced.” Yet Harry Gilbert ’14 and Rhi Alyxander ’13, two among those responsible for Jiz Lee’s controversial appearance in the Purple Valley, took to these pages last week to articulate precisely that improbable complaint (“We will not be silenced,” May 2).

Outraged that Ephs with different opinions weighed in on a campus-wide controversy of their own deliberate making, the organizers’ insulting op-ed proclaims that any who feel uneasy about the College funding a graphic pornography screening are homophobic hypocrites. I am amused to learn that my mixed feelings on the issue stem from my “incredible ignorance” and “stubborn unwillingness to comprehend” why it is really a no-brainer that a summit on the social and political implications of vaginal fisting should make it through the financial gauntlet that two dining halls and the College’s linguistics faculty failed to survive.

If anyone at Williams had attempted to publicly marginalize, smear and slander the College’s queer community with the same toxic rhetoric that Gilbert and Alyxander used to attack everyone who was troubled by their event, I have little doubt the campus would already have been engulfed in an indignant uproar. Yet this time it was representatives of our self-styled activist community who found it easier to sling around insults than make a coherent argument – and so, there have been no rallies, no condemnations and not even a word of protest from those who are normally so quick to pounce on any attempt, real or imagined, to shut people up because of what they believe.

It was not so long ago that progressives strove for an open-minded society, a mutually respectful exchange in which different perspectives would be welcome. At Williams today, that laudable quest for pluralism too often mutates into a cruel threat: Everyone must either fall in line behind whatever social and sexual mores the hyper-activist class happens to favor today or prepare to be branded as a bigoted reactionary. So far from being suppressed themselves, it is these activists who are guilty of bullying others into silence: Wannabe radicals on this campus work to shut down dialogue, not promote it, by immunizing their opinions from criticism by burying anyone who defends any measure of traditionalism under a smoldering pile of ad hominem slurs.

These hyper-activists admit of no principled grounds on which one might object to shameless vulgarity and deny any rational basis on which intelligent, unbigoted, well-meaning Ephs might still like to speak up in support of the common sense principle that, in a decent and dignified society, some facets of the human experience are better explored in private. No – only prejudice, malice or “latent fear” can explain why anyone might object to their extreme worldviews.

While the hyper-activists chop away at centuries of moral and spiritual thought to make room for crass hedonism and empty relativism, we are told that we must either grab an axe and pitch in or simply keep quiet. But if anyone dares roll their eyes when discussing College-sponsored erotica, or – Heaven forbid – challenges the event’s merit in public, voicing those honest opinions is “poisonous discourse.” Even swallowing one’s objections may not be enough to prevent personal attacks, for staying politely silent has itself been deemed a sin: Any activist initiative that meets with insufficient applause is virtually guaranteed to elicit an op-ed or all-campus e-mail blasting our community as inadequate allies who propagate discrimination through cowardly quietude. These and other tired putdowns, designed to portray everyone who would rather not eradicate every last trace of traditional values as either evil or uneducated, have sadly become an enduring feature of campus discussions.

The vast majority of students mean well and are eager to avoid offending or upsetting any members of our community. Yet pursuing even this modest goal can be a dizzying undertaking: Sometimes students are permitted to operate on the commonsense notion that we ought to treat everyone equally and not accord differences in gender, race or orientation undue emphasis; other times, without warning, we are suddenly told that nothing is more offensive than minimizing these differences and that regarding everyone as the same is a disgraceful outgrowth of heteronormative “microaggression” or ethnic “privilege.” The only consistent demand, it seems, is that nobody hold beliefs that differ from those of our most vocal classmates.

The right to speak freely does not include a right to universal approval. Every student and organization at the College is entitled to advocate for his or her values in an open and respectful marketplace of ideas. But surely this does not entail an entitlement to become breathlessly offended whenever some people disagree with you and are unafraid to say so. And none, least of all those who claim to crusade for tolerance, have the right to chase others out of a discussion through the disgusting allegation that honest disagreement implies hatred or fear.

Homophobia is real and shamefully pervasive. Those seeking to end it would do better to focus their energies on real prejudice rather than using its specter to score cheap points by slandering all of us who dared question whether exalting smut ought to be a College priority. Any activists who cannot stomach public scrutiny without lashing out and embodying the hurtful intolerance against which they claim to struggle ought to heed Nietzsche: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.”


Andrew Quinn ’13 is a political science major from Lake Forest, Ill. He is participating in the Williams-Exeter Programme at Oxford.

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