By Gwen Frost
Different exercises of free speech competed Friday afternoon, at a talk entitled “Censorship and Free Speech on College Campuses in the Age of Trump”, where Western hosted Jonathan Zimmerman, professor of history of education at the University of Pennsylvania, to talk on the subject of free speech on college campuses. Zimmerman is a published author and has been featured in the New York Times and the Washington Post.
After Zimmerman was introduced by Johann Neem, a Western history professor, protesters took to the front of the classroom, and began to give their own introduction.
Junior Emmaline Bigongiari began by acknowledging that they were on Lummi land, and introducing themselves and the five standing people as students and community members.
The protesters pointed out that Zimmerman has defended the free speech of Milo Yiannopoulos, who has outed a transgender student and called transgender people “terribly broken people.” Bigongiari also says Zimmerman peddles the repeated narrative of college students being “special snowflakes,” and mocks safe spaces.
Protesters said the event de-legitimizes the lived experiences of people in this community, and that Zimmerman (and others like him who Western’s campus has hosted) was here to speak on behalf of a group they are not from, a part of, or in solidarity with. The hosting of Naomi Grossman’s controversial talk at Western was mentioned as another example of Western’s housing of problematic events.
Where Zimmerman has equated students protesting Milo Yiannopoulos to Trump supporters, Bigongiari said that “drawing parallels between Trump and student activists is absurd. Trump’s policies keep people out of the U.S. because of their country of origin; these students aimed to keep Milo off their campus because of his bigotry and violence.”
The members talked about Zimmerman’s invalidation of the term “micro-aggression.” A question he frequently asks is “Who gets to decide what constitutes a microaggression or oppressive speech?”
Bigongiari read that “we must defer to the group or individuals who are most affected” and that “we must practice listening to and believing the experiences of marginalized communities.”
Protesters said he has called students of color overly-sensitive in the past, and emphasized that students of color should have a right to say that racist ideologies are not welcome on their campus.
Bigongiari quoted Zimmerman claiming that he thought it unfair to put Al Franken in the category of rapists, but she said “sexual harassment should not be minimized.” She described Zimmerman as someone who tries to “draw the line between monsters and ordinary men who just made a mistake,” and as someone who perpetuates a narrative of “a confused white male trying to do right.”
“His bigotry is well disguised,” fourth year student Lee Alder, told the room.
Protesters received interruptions and yells from the audience frequently throughout the twenty minutes the held the floor, among them: “go back to your safe space”, “hate speech is free speech” and “go home, shut up.”
The protesters filed out after reading through all of the statements they had brought and prepared for the event.
“I appreciate the challenge,” Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman began by saying he is not against psychology, but that he doesn’t think psychology and politics play well together.
This created a segue into trigger warnings, which Zimmerman informed the audience had emanated “from the feminist blogosphere.” He said, across the U.S., colleges had used trigger warning during classes referencing sex, addiction, suicide and bullying. Zimmerman deemed these regulations to be “feeling-rules”
He criticized the quality of teaching at universities, adding that the liberal stronghold in our education system prevents non-liberal opinions from being heard. He brought up an example of a student posting on Facebook that they wanted to go to a Trump rally, and then received “vilifying” messages from their peers because of their support of Trump.
He pointed out irony in this, and said that that name-calling someone a whitesplainer or a mansplainer was purely replicated Trump-ian logic, and repeatedly said “Don’t be like him!”
Zimmerman discussed safe-space rooms held for people who were traumatized by this election, and asked “would we have done that if the other side won?”
“We wouldn’t have needed them,” one audience member called out.
When talking about micro-aggressions, Zimmerman concluded that “this is madness.” He questioned the legitimacy of calling people out, and equated it to “saying that anyone who opposes marriage equality is a homophobe.”
He emphasized that people should be able to say what they feel without having to consider those effects on sensitive listeners. He argued that the problem at hand is the atmosphere of mutual vilification between politically polarized citizens and politicians.
Zimmerman presented an example of two sentences: “Asians are good at math,” and “humans are one race.” He said that these are both interpreted as “microaggressions,” that either you are enforcing a racial stereotype, or denying significance of the impact of being a racial minority. With these two definitions of a microaggression, Zimmerman indicated that deeming both statements unacceptable leads to the inability to present a politically-correct idea.
Zimmerman insisted that microaggressions “inhibit discussion” and don’t allow for a diversity of political opinions, especially in University settings.
After the talk, an audience member asked Zimmerman how he accounted for the role of power in free speech. Zimmerman brought up an example of a 13-year-old girl whose only power was free speech.
“Speech hurts. And that’s why you protect it,” Zimmerman said. He warned “if you want to be a censor, one day it will swing against you.”
After the talk, I asked Zimmerman if he thought students had a right to not be psychologically traumatized during class, to which he replied “my problem is not with trigger-warning as a concept, but the elasticity to which it has extended,” and that the concepts of trigger-warnings and microaggressions are applied beyond their applicability in our society.
After the event, Alex Eaves, a Junior majoring in Environmental Policy, said he thought the issues was that most people didn’t understand the philosophical underpinnings of our democracy and why freedom of speech is so integral to the bedrock of why it functions.
“We need to talk about these things more. We need to listen to each other, because so much meaning is lost in just assuming what other people think,” he said. “Prejudice inhibits conversation.”