Are you uncomfortable yet?: How a call for equity becomes twisted

Hamza Mankor

 I believe in free speech.

I have to clarify this from the start because a dichotomy has been set up on this campus where to oppose the Chicago Statement being used to bring hateful speakers is to support censorship and stand in the way of education. It is a misframing of the debate that avoids grounding the Chicago Statement platform in realities of power, complicity and oppression to instead rest upon claims that are well-intended but naive and damaging. It remains convincing by veiling disparity with principle and philosophy. 

And it’s effective, because the misleading frame employs completely truthful fundamentals. Free speech is a tool of the oppressed to challenge the status quo. It defends access to education about natural truths, such as climate change or heredity, from those wishing to limit it due to personal belief and then allows the opportunity to engage non-believers. It prevents the advancement of an agenda by excluding no voice, as institutions are not meant to take stances on individual matters of inquiry. But the crux of the proposal is that it protects “uncomfortable learning” — that to truly expand knowledge, one must put their beliefs into question and make what they think they know vulnerable to dismantling by accepting discomfort. Their argument posits that controversial speakers are necessary because they hold supremacist views that pose a necessary challenge to the beliefs of students. The logic is that to learn about anti-semitism for class, you read Mein Kampf. And to clinch this, disinviting speakers grants them a notoriety that only proves influential in communicating their views.

But envisioning these principles in action raises questions. Disinvitation is tactically flawed, but look at the case of Milo Yiannopoulos — a cultural libertarian who profited off of racist and bigoted statements while touting free speech, until he finally crossed the line at endorsing pedophilia and was socially spurned from public speaking. If pedophilia cannot withstand the pretense of an academic guise, then why does Black inferiority? And so the points continue to fall: Free speech defends natural truths, but what truth is there in bigotry? Another — if it empowers the oppressed, why are the minoritized speaking out against the Statement? And why promote uncomfortable learning if only the oppressed minority of students are made “uncomfortable” by the “controversial” — both forgiving terms that downplay being forced again to reaffirm their identity and merits in an environment that constantly eats away at it — while the privileged learn at their expense? At a panel regarding the debate, no panelist could supply a clear answer to that last one. There is a clear contradiction being sidestepped in the argumentative rhetoric, where humanitarian principles are supplied to find academic virtue in hate speech.

This contradiction is rooted in those with privilege looking to understand prejudice but being unfamiliar with true discomfort. Jeopardizing comfort is an undeniable component of learning, and the challenge of facing controversial belief does negotiate that understanding, but underrepresented communities already understand prejudice. We make it to Williams in spite of it, and the challenge now forced upon us is pushing the boundaries of an educational system that rests on historical bedrock condemning our existence. Privilege can only exist with the deprivation of others, and being unable to claim deprivation but not actively attempting to forsake that power dynamic means maintaining an intellectual state of comfort, whether or not it is intent or complicity that defines one’s role in preservation. The Statement in practice allows students to examine a system that protects a possessive investment in whiteness without endangering their investment.

The real issue then is defining the fairest mode for education of the privileged. This means recognizing that a large and unspoken attraction of inviting discriminatory speakers is the shock value of flouting social convention and saying what no one dares to, and that there is privilege in finding the bigoted performance — for there is a perverse component of entertainment involved — outrageous but not painful. It also means taking advantage of avenues that forego the shock value of mutilating communities and build minoritized identities up instead of tearing them down, because it is strange how the focus is on streamlining the handing of institutional money to racists and not on improving Claiming Williams Day, where once a year Williams encourages schoolwide confrontations with socioeconomic inequality and white fragility. Are all of the students and faculty advocating for the unfettering of hateful speakers exercising their right to free speech and their commitment to discomfort by attending? I do not doubt that there is a sincerity in wanting to consider the flaws of hate speech, and yet I am concerned by the insistence for ways that avoid dispensing of privileged comfort.

Dismissing opposers of the Statement with straw man fallacies is an attempt to resolve the dissonance between (hopefully) not being overtly racist and seeing academic benefit in platforming views that stand antithetical to the progress that education should usher. The discourse around all of this is complicated because it asks how to have discourse and that clouds the nature of the debate, but the flaw with uncomfortable learning as of right now is that some students generally feel more comfortable than others here. No one is discounting that the nature of learning is to push the boundaries of belief. Those critical of the Chicago Statement are just calling out the hypocrisy of those not first being made uncomfortable of their privilege before they ask the minoritized to question their value to the campus. 

Are you uncomfortable yet?

Hamza Mankor ’22 is from Jersey City, N.J.