Within the UConn student community, a battle is seemingly being waged over the freedom of expression.
As if prompted by the color of the wind, some of our concerned peers brought legislation to the Undergraduate Student Government urging them to commit to the Chicago Statement, a manifesto on the importance of preserving free speech in our current academic ecosystem. The backlash to this legislation, augmented by a recent act of racist vandalism on campus, lit a controversy highlighting how unfettered speech leads to hate speech — which I might define as the tacit or explicit endorsement of, or apology for white supremacist, transmisogynistic, ableist and other forms of oppression.
Most parties agree that the freedom to safely express one’s own thoughts and ideas is a central pillar to the culture that we as a student body would like to build; there exists a contingent of free speech hard-liners, however, who maintain that, in a healthy democracy, practically all speech must be protected —and that, furthermore, we are living in an age dominated by illiberal anti-intellectualisms colloquially known as “wokeness” or “cancel culture” that suppress controversial ideas in favor of the comfort of select groups.
This critique of the contemporary intellectual environment is certainly not a fringe position; it adorns support from left-wing thinkers like Noam Chomsky to right-wing talking heads such as Bill Maher and Tucker Carlson. While each figure may adopt this ideal for their own reasons, it stems from that same ethos that a free society must uphold the free exchange of ideas.
Frolicking around this idealist realm, however, will soon bring to light a sobering conclusion: The freedom of speech, when evoked by groups carried by centuries of racial capitalism and patriarchy (see: white cis men), is a euphemism. It does not represent a commitment to the liberties of their broader, multicultural community, but a call to a lost love — the ability to apologize for racism, transmisogyny, ableism and other social ills with impunity. Furthermore, it is ignorance to the fact that what reactionaries critique as “wokeness” has no institutional power. Politicians and capitalists are not waging a culture war when they deny food, housing and healthcare to poor BIPOC, women and queer and trans people, nor do they exercise “wokescolding” when they exploit and terrorize the Global South.
What many perceive as the tyranny of cancel culture is simply a heightening of solidarity and social consciousness; offense to bigotry is not the symptom of a softening society, but of a more cohesive body politic increasingly refusing of those quotidian degradations to the dignity of Black, non-white, queer and transgender and disabled life; a widespread initiative to eradicate bigotry from our institutions. In denigrating these attempts to nominally construct an anti-racist, anti-patriarchal and accessible state of affairs, fearmongers of wokeness are simply articulating their fear of accountability, whether it be for having racist friends or an outright bigoted worldview.
What free speech warriors fail to understand is that “controversial” views posed in the public sphere — such as scrutiny toward our identities as queer and trans people or toward the lived experiences of Black and Indigenous community members with police — are disagreeable for a reason: they are misguided, often factually unsubstantiated, and echo social paradigms responsible for the debasing of and violence toward marginalized communities.
So too do they fail to understand that our sociopolitical discourse is not a soup made more flavorful by adding as many ingredients one can forage for. As a matter of fact, the soup is spoiled; it has been spoiled for a long time, and our goal is to cook something new. The prevailing social order for the past five centuries has centered the perspectives of white, abled, largely male philosophers, historians, authors and political figures. The fruits of these perspectives led to the “rational” institution of African slavery, the “rational” genocide of Indigenous nations in the Americas, the “rational” subjugation of women and other sexual minorities. These ideas exist today in the form of ahistorical dismissals of white supremacy in our economic and political life and frankly unscientific tirades against the objective complexity of gender and sex.
These ingredients spoiled the soup — we do not need them to cook something better.
So what is the solution to this predicament? According to authors of the free speech legislation, it is to ensure that the university maintain a radical commitment to the freedom of speech, barring any university body from engaging in anything readable as “censorship.”
Naturally, the consequence of this legislation, if adopted on a school-wide scale, would be forcing students to tolerate bigoted speech in their student government, in their learning environment and in campus life.
The implications are clear and present. Has a student senator expressed antisemitism during their tenure in a position of power? We could not censure them in solidarity with the Jewish student community. Is a cisgender student harassing a transgender classmate with inaccurate talking points about the effects of hormone therapy? They must be tolerated. Is an anti-Black or Islamophobic speaker being invited to campus, using infrastructure and servers paid for by our tuition money? You must suffer it for the sanctity of free speech.
The obsequious allegiance to free speech quickly turns the freedom expression into a freedom of platform; it is forcing the student body to tolerate and entertain ideas echoed constantly by established politicians and economists to justify the modern outcrops of historical anti-blackness, settler-colonialism, patriarchy and eugenics. There has been concern by many individuals featured on the newly-minted Instagram account “@uconnforfreespeech” that social minorities will never learn if they are not challenged by new ideas; as someone of a gender-oppressed background, I can firmly say that this idea is condescending nonsense. Colonized and oppressed people are born into challenging ideas. They live debating structural violence and rebuttal through survival, resistance, and crafting of new, better social scientific ideas and cultural paradigms. Defending colonial and reactionary narratives is good for nothing but discouraging marginalized students whose lived experience confronts them daily away from academic spaces — a profoundly anti-democratic end.
Free, unregulated speech only serves to make space for those who already have social, political and economic capital to suppress new, innovative and liberating scholarship. This is why the billionaire-funded Prager University enjoys unlimited publicity on YouTube while queer and trans BIPOC with novel, undershared experiences and analyses struggle to make their voices heard past the algorithmic cement wall, and why contemporary studies on race and gender seldom enjoy recognition outside of academia. “Free” speech is the problem — equitable speech is the solution.
This is all not to say that white, abled, cisgender and heterosexual students do not deserve a voice in our community; I simply put forth that this slate of perspectives has been dominant for far too long, inhibiting the prospect of a collective understanding of the world around us. Now, it is time for a counternarrative. For a healthy academic environment to flourish, historically underrepresented perspectives such as those coming out of Black studies, Women, Gender and Sexuality studies, and disability scholarship must be empowered. On the other hand, ideas apologizing for everyday material and cultural harm against our marginalized peers must be challenged by our university community, not given a special theater box in the academic theater.