Tag Archives: Freedom of Speech

Another Reason Why American Students Should Protest Campus Speakers If They Want To

23 Jul

Protest(Image by Jorgen Carling used under CC 2.0 via)

 

Academics across the political spectrum are debating whether or not students should protest speaking events on their campuses by controversial figures like Charles Murray, Bill Maher or Milo Yiannopolous. Murray tried to prove in his bestseller The Bell Curve that black people are genetically predisposed to lower intelligence than white people. Maher has made no effort to differentiate between Muslim extremists and all Muslims in political discussions on his TV show Real Time. Yiannopolous is a professional Internet troll who says to anyone who finds his arguments upsetting, “Fuck feelings.”

Lisa Feldman Barrett argues in The New York Times that Yiannopolous should be protested and rejected by academia because “he is part of something noxious, a campaign of abuse. There is nothing to be gained from debating him, for debate is not what he is offering.” She puts Charles Murray, however, in a different category. Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff argue back in The Atlantic that any campus protest of any speaker is an attack on free speech and contributes to a dangerous culture of victimhood that coddles college students. Both articles make interesting points. Both articles miss the point as to why I primarily believe students should protest any or all of these speakers.  

Unlike students here in Germany, where higher education is free, college students in the U.S. are not mere pupils who have been accepted based on their academic performance with the purpose of engaging in profound discourse that benefits both themselves and the academic community. College students in the U.S. are customers that go into sometimes life-long debt in order to purchase the product that is their four-year education. UC Berkeley, where students protested Bill Maher as a commencement speaker, currently charges $29,784 for one year of tuition, room and board. A year at Middlebury College, where Charles Murray was met with violent protests, right now costs $63,917. Google why tuition in the U.S. has skyrocketed in the past four decades and you will find countless theories. But the fees are real as is the fact that guest speakers are not only invited but paid by these colleges. It is thus perfectly reasonable for students to express their opinion as to how their tuition money is being spent, just as it is perfectly reasonable for consumers to launch boycotts against companies that engage in unethical practices or belittle minorities.

Furthermore, these guest speakers demand exorbitant speaking fees. Charles Murray charges between $20,000 and $30,000 for a single speech. Bill Maher charges between $50,000 and $100,000 per event. I was told by a staff member at my alma mater that his  department could not afford one speech by a well-known theorist in the field of language. His fees were lower than Murray’s, let alone Maher’s.

My college education was invaluable. And academia confronts, examines and debates controversial ideas that can be deeply upsetting to many people every day: ideas like when does life begin and end, who can be considered human, is love or attractiveness quantifiable, should blasphemy be considered hate speech, should we breed shorter people to save energy, etc. But these debates alter when someone who has made a career out of arguing for one side is paid an enormous sum to give a speech about it. Aspiring teachers, social workers, and librarians have a right to say whether they are willing to go into life-long debt so that a celebrity can earn between $20,000 and $100,000 in one afternoon on campus by firing off some rants. They have a right to say whether the hosting professor should perhaps instead use college funds to pay $25 for one of Murray’s or Maher’s books and photocopy a chapter for his class, where the ideas can then be debated over a few days if not weeks.

That is precisely how I first encountered Murray’s argument that black people are genetically predisposed to a lower IQ. My genetics course culminated with analyzing The Bell Curve and discovering how scientifically flimsy Murray’s evidence is. This absolutely endowed me with a detailed understanding of how inane the colonial belief in separate races is and prepared me to confront those who still cling to it. I am very glad for that. But would I want the tens of thousands of dollars spent on my education to have helped contribute to the wealth Murray has accrued from reiterating this intellectually weak but attention-grabbing idea? The same class addressed the fact that the eugenics movement both resulted in the sterilization and deaths of thousands of disabled people but also contributed intellectually to the early stages of genetics as a science. As someone with achondroplastic dwarfism, I found it important to learn about that. But should I have stood idly by were the college to invite and pay a eugenicist to give a speech? How about a Neo-Nazi?

That is an ethical quandary at best. One that warrants debate. And peaceful protest is a form of debate, an exercising of the right to freedom of speech. 

Not all protests on college campuses are on the right side of the issue. The dumbest demonstration I ever witnessed in my student days was against the ban on smoking in the cafeteria. This migraine-sufferer was ever so grateful to see the fumes disappear. But I wasn’t enraged at the idea of the smokers voicing their dissent. I walked by their protest without bothering to comment and later mentioned my disagreement when asked. 

I was sympathetic the following year when students held a peaceful but angry protest of the new performing arts center, which was designed by Frank Gehry and cost $62 million. Some of my friends on campus were there in part thanks to scholarships but nevertheless had to work 65+ hours a week in the summer to cover the rest of tuition. They showed up at the protests, arguing that the $62 million should have instead been spent on scholarships. Despite what many like to think of most campus protesters, they were not spoiled children shielded from dissent and far too used to getting exactly what they want in they life. They were more aware than most of the way money works in the world – a world their college claimed to be preparing them for.      

 

 

What’s Censorship?

27 Jan

Banned Books Display At the Lacey Library(Image by the Timberland Regional Library used under CC via)

 

Eeeny, meeny, miny, moe, catch a tiger by the toe.  If he hollers let him go…  That’s the version I learned.  My British friends caught a fishy by the toe.  My mother’s generation caught a n***** by the toe.  Were they wrong to alter it for us? 

Last week I applauded The Observer’s decision to remove a childish, poorly argued opinion piece from its website on the grounds that it did not meet their standards for style, while others hollered, “Censorship!”  This week, the German media is abuzz with its own debate over publishing standards as Thienemann Verlag has announced its decision to replace racist terms—such as “die Neger-Prinzessin”—in certain classic children’s books.  To which some are saying, Finally, while others are saying, Censorship!  And some are saying, The N-word isn’t racist!

This debate is older than the civil rights movement.  Pull up reviews of The Five Chinese Brothers on GoodReads and you’ll find nostalgic fans shouting, “Book burners!” at anyone who criticizes the illustrations.  The problem with this debate is that it usually attracts extreme narrow-mindedness on both sides. 

Some progressive activists do mistake witch hunting for spreading diversity awareness.  A few years ago feminist author Chris Lynch drew angry reactions from some women’s rights groups who demanded he change the name of his young adult series The He-Man Women-Haters Club.  But the books pick apart the machismo boys learn from pop culture and their fathers.  The mentality adopted by Lynch’s critics was so blunt that they couldn’t tell an opponent from an ally.  If the equality debate ends at what words are okay and which aren’t, regardless of context, it has failed.  Miserably.

But too many activists opposed to censorship demonstrate none of the openness and subtlety that are the building blocks of free thought and artistic integrity, which they purport to defend.  After reading Fahrenheit 451, an unparalleled tribute to the majesty of books, I got snagged in the inanity of Ray Bradbury’s hysterical afterword.  He begins by citing an editor who asked if he could put more female characters in The Martian Chronicles:

A few years before that I got a certain amount of mail concerning the same Martian book complaining the blacks in the book were Uncle Toms and why didn’t I ‘do them over’?  …  How did I react to all of the above? …  By ticketing the assembly of idiots to the far reaches of hell.  The point is obvious.  There is more than one way to burn a book.  Every minority… feels it has the will, the reason, the right to douse the kerosene, light the fuse…  For it is a mad world and it will get madder if we allow the minorities, be they dwarf or giant, orangutan or dolphin, nuclear-head or water conversationalist, pro-computerologist or Neo-Luddite, simpleton or sage to interfere with aesthetics.  The real world is the playing ground for each and every group to make or unmake laws.  But the tip of the nose of my book or stories or poems is where their rights end and my territorial imperatives begin, run and rule.  If Mormons do not like my play, let them write their own.  If the Irish hate my Dublin stories, let them rent typewriters.

That he dared them to back off and write their own books was a productive challenge, but his arrogance in damning them all to hell did not suggest he ever intended to read what they wrote.  (If he truly believed all art should be borne out of one person’s imagination alone, unscathed by anyone’s suggestions for improvement along the way, then he was probably the only writer in human history who never once accepted advice.)  This is not dialogue.  This is not open debate.  This is accusing your opponents of oppression in order to silence them.  This is failing to discern between book-burning and social critique.

Censorship is a serious issue.  Berlin’s memorial to the Nazi book-burning of 1933 is a window into an empty library.  It bears a plaque that reads, “Those who are capable of burning books are capable of burning people.”  No one should ever call for legally prohibiting the publication, sale, or existence of any sort of text if speech is to remain truly free.  Libraries should offer the public all they can eat and more.  But every publisher of children’s books should also be free to reject or revise what they release based on their own educational theories.  No one on earth believes any child of any age should read absolutely anything.  Releasing less hurtful editions of a story—while maintaining the right to publish the original—is not always censorship.  Indeed, automatically assuming it is betrays the sort of narrow-mindedness typical of censors.    

The leave-greatness-untouched argument ignores how many well-known stories have been severely distorted over time.  In the unadulterated Cinderella, the ugly stepsisters chop off pieces of their own feet to force them into the glass slipper.  The prince is fooled until he notices the slipper overflowing with blood.  Snow White forces the Evil Queen to dance in a pair of hot-iron shoes at her wedding until she drops dead.  As for Sleeping Beauty, do you think the medieval prince only kissed her as she slept?  It makes old-fashioned Disney look like a flaming liberal.  These violent versions are still around, but a lack of demand has nudged them out of the spotlight.  I wish the same fate upon racist versions of old children’s books. 

Of course, context is everything, and certain words can have many meanings.  Mark Twain used the N-word in Huckleberry Finn to portray a complex, admirable character who discredits racism and slavery.  But the N-word as it is used by Otfried Preußler—and Astrid Lindgren, and so many other white storytellers of the early and mid-20th century—evokes the colonialist stereotype of the savage who is either happy-go-lucky or bloodthirsty.  (In the words of Cracked.com, “Lesson Learned: What’s the deal with Africans?  If they’re not trying to eat it or throw a spear at it, they’re worshiping it as some sort of tribal deity, am I right?”)  Of course it’s absurd to think that every kid will automatically turn racist from reading this, but it’s also naïve to think such caricatures have no influence.  If childhood stories had no bearing on readers’ perceptions of minorities, then no one would ever promote children’s books that celebrate diversity.    

While I don’t object to students seeing racism or sexism or ableism in books, I strongly object to their being subjected to it before they’ve had any other exposure to more realistic depictions of the people these ideas dehumanize.  Psychologist Hartmut Kasten argues in the left-leaning newspaper Die Zeit that children ages four and up can read and should “learn that there are people with different skin colors, learn what we used to call them, what we call them today, and that there is such a thing as prejudice.”  But is it necessary when first introducing a child to someone who looks different to immediately hand them all the historical baggage of racism, too?  Doesn’t that suggest to them that people with different skin colors are always controversial?  Prejudice can spring from seeing a minority constantly portrayed either as a stereotype or as a victim of stereotyping. 

Prof. Kasten argues that expunging orientalism and other exotic tropes from children’s literature “destroys the imagination.”  But must the exotic always be colonialist just because that’s our tradition?  It is traditional in the Netherlands for St. Nicholas to be accompanied by a mischievous African man named Black Pete.  Some say he is supposed to be St. Nicholas’s servant, others say he is his slave.  For decades, white performers have donned blackface to portray him.  In recent years, some have replaced the blackface with multi-colored face paints, renaming the character “Rainbow Pete.”  This approach has long been popular in Suriname, a former Dutch colony with predominantly black citizenry.  Many are appalled to see an old tradition changed, but the St. Nicholas/Santa Claus/Kris Kringle/Father Christmas/Father Frost myth has been constantly evolving over time, forever an amalgam of various cultural influences.  Our nostalgia does not like us to admit this, but as said before, nostalgia is rarely honest, often revisionist.  And could Prof. Kasten argue that rainbow people are less imaginative than black slaves?         

And if children’s creativity is nurtured by stories from long ago in far off lands, why not make more of an effort to offer tales originating from those lands?  Indeed, in my workshops about teaching diversity awareness in pre-school, I promote translated folk tales and fairy tales such as Sense Pass King and Children of the Dragon to be read alongside Cinderella and Snow White.

 

The best way to combat uncreative stereotypes is to flood children’s libraries with beautiful stories that go deeper.  My hero Judy Blume agrees.  She is the most challenged author of all time in the United States.  Her brilliant books question everything from racism to religion to budding sexuality.  Most of her loudest critics usually argue that children under the age of 18 should never read about masturbation or wet dreams, despite how many 10-year-olds are already wise to it.  Blume wants parents who object to her stories to engage their children in discussions about them, which is a stance I support.  Passionately.  But is any child of any age old enough for such discussions?  Was it censorial of me to be stunned when I found Zehn kleine Negerlein lying around in a Berlin pre-school in 2010?

 

 
Die Zeit insists that if we revise anything that is in any way offensive, then we must revise everything.  (Which will lead to a ban on any disagreeable characters who are female or black or gay or disabled… )  This could be true if we were talking about bringing the law into it, but we’re not.  As far as the law is concerned, anyone is free to adapt any artwork once granted permission by the copyright holder.  Otfried Preußler’s publisher began replacing the N-word from his texts after receiving approval from the author’s daughter.  As hard as it may be for artists to swallow, artwork in the public domain is free to be toyed with as anyone sees fit.  Almost every generation releases the classics with new illustrations, whether it’s The Jungle Book or a children’s Bible. 

But to be fair, the modern illustrations bear the name of the modern illustrator, while a redacted version of an author’s text bears his.  Which feels somewhat mendacious.  Posthumous revisions would best be noted in an afterword discussing the original language and why the publisher does not wish to replicate it.   Alternatively, the cover could indicate that the story is a retelling.  Like so many of my friends, I grew up on abridged versions of Victorian classics such as Peter Pan, The Wizard of Oz, and Alice in Wonderland Only a handful of us went on to read the original texts when we were older.  Just as we went on to discover the original versions of “Eeeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe,” “Turkey in the Straw,” and the stanzas in the German national anthem that no one sings anymore.  

We should never seek to erase our xenophobic heritage – on the contrary, it is something we must own up to and learn from.  But it is no more appropriate for a young child to learn about Little Black Sambo than it is for them to learn about the rape version of Sleeping Beauty.  (Or the most graphic Mother Goose rhymes.  Or old television cartoons like these.)  She will be ready to hear it at some point.  Unfortunately, pinpointing the right point, the right moment, the right age will always be a problem.  Because racism is a problem.

 

 

Props to The Observer for (Finally) Doing the Right Thing

20 Jan

a bit of controversy surrounding the transgender flag: san francisco (2012)A little background: A while ago a British journalist named Suzanne Moore, who specializes in women’s rights, made an offhand transphobic comment in an article about body image:  “We [women] are angry with ourselves for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual.”  There was an ensuing backlash from many in the trans community, especially on Twitter.  Her friend and fellow writer Julie Burchill penned a column in her defense titled, “Transsexuals Should Cut It Out,” which appeared last week in The Observer.  Without ever saying what exactly the trans activists in question had said to Moore that was so horrific, Burchill just called them names: “A bunch of dicks in chick’s clothing… bed-wetters in bad wigs… trannies…  They’re lucky I’m not calling them ‘shemales.’  Or shims.”

(Oh, really?  They’re lucky you don’t use the most dehumanizing terms you can think of?  Even though you just kind of did…  But I guess every member of every minority really should feel grateful to anyone who refrains from attacking their freak qualities with the worst slurs.  And in that case, thank you, Julie Burchill.  Thank you for not referring to people with dwarfism as midgets or Paralympic athletes as cripples.  I know the temptation is always there to vomit in disgust at people who are physically different and it takes a will of iron to keep the insults from dribbling out.  You are truly strong.  Anyone less magnanimous than you would mouth off.  You have shown yourself to be the paragon of generosity.  I for one am now going to get up every morning and feel grateful there are people like you saintly enough to walk down the street and not spit at those of us who truly belong in the circus.)

The Observer received a barrage of emails and commentary from horrified readers and promptly demonstrated that a small group of thoughtful citizens can indeed change the world when it pulled the column from its website.  The editors have issued this apology (emphasis mine):

This clearly fell outside what we might consider reasonable. The piece should not have been published in that form. I don’t want the Observer to be conducting debates on those terms or with that language. It was offensive, needlessly. We made a misjudgment and we apologise for that.

A newspaper shouldn’t reject writing that merely argues against trans rights or any sort of human rights.  As awful as bigotry is, dialogue between opposing sides is the only way to change minds and spur progress.  But any publication looking to host productive debate should always be able to discriminate between substantive reasoning and a pointless list of pejoratives.  I wouldn’t oppose printing Burchill’s piece because her argument was chauvinistic, but because she failed to be civil and because she wasn’t even addressing the trans activists’ stance.  She was simply snarking about their bodies.  And I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: If you can’t make your point without trashing traits your opponent has no choice about—their gender identity, ethnicity, biology, sexuality, or class background—then your argument doesn’t have a leg to stand on.  At worst, it’s abuse, and doesn’t even belong in high school.  (Indeed, that’s what anti-bullying policies are all about.)  At best, it’s meaningless.  (Would anyone try to convince the world to depose Saddam Hussein by ranting about the ugliness of his moustache?)

Upon first discovering Burchill’s piece last week, I assumed the only reason the editors would publish such an uninhibited temper tantrum was because they’re a business and believe feuds sell papers.  It is a relief to see now that they do not want their readers thinking that’s the kind of business they’re running.

Unsurprisingly, The Telegraph and others have bellowed, “CENSORSHIP!” and—you can see it coming a mile away—“PC police!” and have joined up with Burchill in republishing her piece.  They apparently have no qualms about profiting from the attention a semi-famous writer’s bad manners will grab.  Which is why it is so important to commend The Observer.  A week ago, I was deeply depressed by their descent into yellow journalism.  Their current endeavors to wipe off the self-inflicted stains are better late than never.

 

(Via)

 

 

Degenerates, Nazis, & the U.N.

16 Dec

(Via)

 

A reaction to last week’s post about the U.N. Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities sparked a behind-the-scenes discussion about whether or not I should allow name-calling in the Painting On Scars comments section.  I like to engage with almost anyone who disagrees with me, but online I know I also tend to only comment on sites that have strict no-drama policies because discussions can become pointless and boring really, really fast when there’s nothing but insults and exclamation points.  I ultimately decided that, for now, any rude behavior speaks for itself: Commenters can name-call all they want regarding people they dislike or say absolutely nothing, because in both cases they’re not going change anyone’s mind.

That said, I will always tell any supporters if they adopt tactics I want to have nothing to do with.  And it’s important to call out invectives that are particularly malicious in a way some might not be aware of.  The comment in question last week referred to the U.N. as “a bunch of degenerates, throat cutters, and other trash.”  Using the word “degenerate” in a discussion about disability rights is exceptionally insensitive, if not mean-spirited.    

The first time I read the word out loud to a friend here in Germany, his eyes shot up and said, “Be very careful with that word.  It immediately makes everyone think of the Nazis.”  And by “Nazis,” he meant the actual, goose-stepping, genocidal nationalists who tried as best they could to make sure disabled people either died off or were killed off.  Not “Nazis” in the Internet-temper-tantrum sense of “anyone I disagree with.”  The word also evokes the brownshirt term “degenerate art.”  Modern German sensitivity to the term is the result of looking honestly at the nation’s history of ableism.

Action T-4 was the first genocide program ordered by the Nazis, calling for the extermination* of those deemed by doctors to be “incurably sick.”  Between 200,000 and 300,000 disabled people were killed, though many were used for scientific experiments first.  *And by the way, I DETEST any use of the term “euthanasia” in this context.  “Euthanasia” literally means ending life to end pain, and for this reason I find it applicable where patient consent has been given or where pets are concerned.  But to imply that what the Nazis did to disabled citizens was anything other than murder is to dehumanize the victims.

The forced sterilization programs of disabled people in Nazi Germany, meanwhile, were modeled after American laws.  The very first forced sterilization law in the world was introduced in Indiana in 1907, and 30 states followed suit.  The Supreme Court upheld Virginia’s eugenics program in 1927 and it remained on the books until 1974.  Oliver Wendell Holmes summarized the Supreme Court’s decision thusly:  

It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind…  Three generations of imbeciles are enough.

The Nazi poster featured above focused instead on the expense: “It costs the German people 60,000 Reichsmarks to keep this genetic defective alive.  Fellow German, that is your money!”  After World War II, the Nuremberg Doctors’ Trial and the resulting Nuremberg Code discouraged ableist politicians from openly promoting eugenics on either side of the Atlantic.  But it wasn’t until 1981, the year I was born, that the disability rights movement in West Germany came into full swing and sought to combat ableism head-on. 

Almost every human rights movement is said to have a trigger moment when oppression went a step too far and the people fought back.  For the American Civil Rights movement, it was the death of Emmett Till.  For the gay rights movement, it was the Stonewall Uprising.  For the German disability rights movement, it was the Frankfurt Travel Ruling of 1980, brought about by a woman suing her travel agency for booking her in a Greek hotel where a group of Swedish disabled guests were also vacationing.  She claimed that having to see and hear disabled people had ruined her trip and the judge agreed with her.  Protests exploded across the country and the next year, which the U.N. had declared the Year of the Disabled, several West German disability rights groups organized and formed agendas.  They used the U.N. events to draw attention to the dire situation of disabled citizens in the country.

Two years later, the Green Party entered the Bundestag for the first time and was the first to voice support for disability rights as a human rights issue.  The Greens were born out of the 60s student movement in West Germany.  The movement was famous for protesting what most young activists across the Western world opposed at the time: the Vietnam War (and war in general), traditional gender roles, consumerism, pollution, etc.  But first and foremost, the West German 68ers were young people demanding the nation come to terms with its dark past, decrying that an overwhelming number of the nation’s leaders and officials were former Nazis.  Their commitment to human rights was inspired by an unfaltering awareness of how horrific things can get.  Their actions led to the passing of anti-discrimination laws and an amendment to the German Constitution in 1995, modeled after the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Another result of the students growing up and entering the government came in 1983 when conscientious objectors to the draft were no longer required to argue their motivations before a board for approval. This made it far easier for young men to opt for a year of community service in lieu of military service.  By 1991, half of those drafted became conscientious objectors.  For over 30 years, scores of German 19 year-old boys worked with mentally ill children at the Red Cross, in nursing homes, as assistants for physically and mentally disabled teenagers, and for Meals on Wheels.  This has created generations of men who often speak fondly of the experience and who are usually less fazed by disabilities or dependence, demonstrating a tolerance and openness that seems extraordinary for their age. 

The draft was discontinued last year and since then the community service option has been suspended.  Military debates aside, I agree with conservative politicians who have called for preserving the community service requirement and expanding it to women because it is an excellent government tool for combating both ableism and social segregation on a personal level.  Ableism is still a tremendous problem here in Germany, but in three generations, the country has changed from one of the most ableist societies on earth to one of the least.   The word “degenerate” signifies humanity’s capacity for cruelty and sensitivity to the word signifies our commitment to never repeat it.

To be fair, the word in last week’s comment was not aimed directly at disabled people but at the U.N. members working for disability rights.  And frankly, I’m a little insulted.  Because if anyone’s a degenerate here, it’s me. 

I am scientifically a mutant by virtue of my fibroblast growth receptor gene 3.  (Yes, yes, my genetics professor explained that technically all of us are mutants, but mostly just in boring ways… )  I am a semi-invertebrate now that pieces of my backbone were removed six weeks ago.  And I don’t take the last empty seat on the subway and request my friends slow down to my pace when walking for nothing.  So if anyone’s gonna go calling the organization that sprang from the Nuremberg Trials and founded the Universal Declaration of Human Rights a bunch of degenerates, they gotta get through me first.  I’m a degenerate living in Germany and proud of it.