To the students of color at Mizzou, we, student allies at Stanford, stand with you in solidarity. To those who would threaten your sense of safety, we are watching. #ConcernedStudent1950 #InSolidarityWithMizzou
Tensions over race, free speech, and student safety have erupted on college campuses – Mizzou and Yale, in particular – over the last several days. Following the national uproar, students across the country have stood in solidarity with Mizzou and broader social justice movements.
It is unacceptable to sit in silence when there are death threats against African Americans on our community Yik Yak feed. Given the calls to action across the country, emotionally strenuous periods like this often inform future policy decisions. As a community, we must discuss how the framing of such periods impacts the ways universities change thereafter.
ASSU President John-Lancaster Finley sent an all-campus email in the early hours of Wednesday morning to Stanford undergraduates, declaring a state of “racial crisis” at colleges across the country. Finley repeatedly emphasized that universities “are supposed to be safe.” Is there such a thing as too safe? A perfectly ‘safe’ Stanford would lock its students in their dorms to stop them from offending each other; a perfectly ‘free’ Stanford would have neither CAPS nor police. Neither extreme fulfils a university’s purpose: to open its students’ minds to new experiences and perspectives. But there is a middle ground between total isolation and the unacceptable situation students of color are faced with at Mizzou; we must decide where the balance lies.Students’ emotions have taken center stage to justify action at schools like Mizzou, Yale, and Stanford. Emotions cannot be neglected: pain and fear stem both from objectively dangerous circumstances and situations many would not register as troubling. In either case, we must balance emotion and free discourse; neither can determine policy on its own.
Notions of “offense” and “hurt” need to be understood as subjective feelings, not objective wrongs. This does not mean people should not speak up about how they feel; rather, they must justify the rational basis for an emotion when using the emotion to argue for policy change such as a racial awareness curriculum,a demand of the Mizzou activists. It is impossible to weigh different emotions without considering the sources from which they stem – and discussing those sources freely – yet often people refuse to move beyond the first stage of registering feeling. The assertion in last night’s email – “it is important that we acknowledge the validity of this pain – before we jump into attempts to debate whether it’s justified” – bears uncanny resemblance to the words of the Yale protester who verbally assaulted Nicholas Christakis: “I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain.”
Yale’s students reacted to Christakis’ wife’s muted email on cultural appropriation – she contended that “I don’t, actually, trust myself to foist my Halloweenish standards […] onto others” – with verbal attacks and a mass petition for her resignations, which were almost universally condemned by the media. If individuals’ emotion truly is the basis for protests’ legitimacy, however, then these attacks are as justified as the protests against systemic racism at Mizzou.
Free speech is a necessary precondition of discussions in order to allow people to arbitrate between different emotional and rational considerations. Instead of alleviating fear, moreover, reliance on emotional narratives can compound it. In the dark uncertainty surrounding the Yik Yak threats, Mizzou Student Body President Payton Head incorrectly posted on Facebook that “the KKK has been confirmed to be sighted on campus.” Though he soon retracted his false statement, environments of escalating trauma and ‘catastrophization’ spread these apparent confirmations of the worst when people are most vulnerable. At Yale, the escalation of emotional issues – to the point where students contend they “cannot bear to live in the college anymore” alongside their academic directors – means professors are screamed at without being given a chance to respond and students are spat on. This is unlikely to lead to the policy changes these students desire.
The week has been deeply traumatic for two campuses. This trauma deserves to recognized, contemplated, and discussed. Yet Finley’s assertion that “[t]his is not a time for politics” runs counter to the way in which protests develop. The way we discuss injustice naturally shapes how we decide to resolve it. When these discussions are dominated by fear and grieving, policy change is all the more difficult. Compromise is inhibited by people with irrefutable emotions, and rhetoric becomes focussed on the problem that exists, rather than solutions. In this one-sided environment, considerations for an open academic climate or other objectives are thrown out of the window in the name of dispensing justice. Students should work thoughtfully to heal the rifts created across campuses, laying the groundwork for constructive action, and allowing us to forge ahead more aware and engaged than before.