Should We Shy Away from "Problematic" Discourse?
SAM SCHUMAN // MARCH 8, 2019
You eagle-eyed, sharp-minded Grape readers might have noticed an old “Point-Counterpoint” column reprinted in a recent issue. The topic? Affirmative Action. It’s easy to see why the Grape’s editors ran the column. It was a good, funny target—a chance for the “woke” among us to laugh at the state of Oberlin discourse as recently as a few years ago. Opposing Affirmative Action now? Good luck getting anyone to share a cigarette with you outside of Splitchers. Obviously, at a paper with a four-year institutional memory, it’s hard to say exactly why the point-counterpoint column disappeared. But its absence raises an important question: does a taboo against the “wrong” opinions enhance discourse, or discourage it?
I don’t have to tell you that Oberlin has specific politics. And they’re not bad politics; we start from a point where all of those fucked up -isms aren’t cool, and neither is defending them and/or their various manifestations. Without having to waste oxygen explaining why certain beliefs are bad—a task which often falls unfairly and uncomfortably on those with marginalized identities—we have more time to focus on our real goals: demolishing all those power structures Foucault wrote about (or at least loudly paying lip service to it on first floor Mudd).
Of course, there’s more nuance to it than that, because of the simple fact that we’re not all on the same page. It’s easy to write off anyone with “problematic” opinions as a reactionary white boy or big pharma trust fund kid taking issue with attacks on the systems that have given them a leg up. But should we just dismiss—or perhaps cancel—and move on? If we’re really committed to dismantling hierarchies that perpetuate power, privilege, and oppression, it isn’t enough to build an environment where everyone (allegedly) subscribes to the “right” opinions because the alternative is to be ostracized. There’s a very real danger in equating the silence of “fucked up” views with their absence.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t some “liberal arts colleges are destroying free speech” tirade. Some views are not only subjectively awful but objectively harmful and fallacious, and not all of them deserve to be amplified. What I’m saying is that there’s a balancing act going on here between the need to create a safe environment for students and the need to confront the views we claim to abhor. Point-counterpoint is one attempt to balance these needs: a formal and controlled space for open and direct dialogue in which both sides can present their best arguments while acknowledging opposing points. Of course, it’s not as simple as the Grape and the Review showing ~both sides~ of an issue. The for-and-against rhetorical structure is by nature reductive, and many of us already know where we stand. But it’s something, however imperfect. Preemptively silencing students doesn’t make us any more “woke” than it does them.
It’s comforting to be on a campus where we don’t often have to justify or defend our reflexive opposition to views we collectively deem “harmful,” “problematic,” “fucked up,” “antiquated,” etc. And we should insist on a learning and living environment where no student feels unsafe because of their identity. But those views aren’t nonexistent just because we don’t hear them. It’s easy to create a campus culture where certain opinions are taboo. But challenging those opinions? That takes work. Maybe this is a chance for all of us straight cis white guys to stop the Google Docs, Change.org petition activism and starting acting like the allies so many of us claim to be.