Masking Oppression as “Free Speech”: An Anarchist Take

Out of necessity as much as out of conviction, anarchists in the United States have long been champions of the right to freely express uncomfortable and controversial ideas. At the same time, while championing the right to express unconventional ideas, anarchists have not allowed a liberal notion of free speech as an excuse to sit idly by while fascists spew hate speech. The Spanish anarchist Buenaventura Durruti – who died while serving in an anti-fascist militia in the 1930s – famously said, “Fascism is not to be debated, it is to be destroyed.” This reflects a sensibility that not all ideas are merely “points of view” that deserve respect or space. There is a difference between speech that is “offensive” and speech that is “oppressive.” For example, during the Jim Crow era in US history; newspaper articles, songs, books, plays, political cartoons, and speeches that characterized Black men as hypersexual and violent beasts were far more than merely offensive. Such expressions reinforced and perpetuated a violent white supremacist system, justifying and fueling legal oppression such as Jim Crow laws and extralegal oppression such as lynching.

In the present-day United States, a shallow idea of “free speech” is often wielded by the privileged as a way to direct attention away from critiques of existing conditions and systems; particularly critiques of capitalism, imperialism, white supremacy, and patriarchy. For example, two years ago when UC Berkeley students organized to keep comedian Bill Maher from speaking on their campus, leading media outlets framed it as a controversy about free speech rather than engaging with the much deeper critiques the students had about Maher’s perpetuation of US imperialist, Orientalist discourse which fuels militarism abroad and racist violence at home.[1]

Yet, while students who protest imperialist discourse are characterized as a threat to free speech, the actual threat to free speech in academia goes unchallenged by leading media outlets.[2] October 8, 2015, at the Community College of Philadelphia, English professor Divya Nair spoke at a rally organized by students in protest of police recruiters on campus. The students and Professor Nair drew connections between colonialism and modern US policing; particularly the police tactic of recruiting poor people of color to act as the capitalist state’s foot-soldiers to control poor Black and Brown communities. Later that day, school authorities suspended Professor Nair without pay, and they have since suspended three student group members who are facing disciplinary hearings. In the past few years there has been a noticeable campus crackdown on anti-colonialist expression.

Last year the American Indian Studies Program at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign hired Professor Steven Salaita, known for his comparative studies of US settler colonialism in the Americas and Israeli settler colonialism in Palestine. Under pressure from wealthy donors, Israel lobby groups, and establishment politicians, the Chancellor and the Board of Trustees stepped in – against the wishes of the American Indian Studies Program – and “unhired” Salaita, citing the supposedly “uncivil” tweets he posted criticizing Israel’s indiscriminate killing of civilians – including over 500 children – in Gaza last year. Several law-makers, Israel lobbyists, and campus authorities have likewise been working to silence the growing BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement against Israeli apartheid. Anti-colonialist students have also faced silencing and punishment. For example, earlier this semester at Cal State Sacramento, sophomore Chiitaanibah Johnson (Navajo/Maidu) was belittled and told by her professor that she was expelled from his US history course after she quite correctly challenged his assertion that the United States did not carry out genocidal anti-Indian policies.

All of these cases and many other similar ones resonate with my own experience. Ten years ago, when I was an undergraduate at George Mason University, I was violently attacked by vigilantes and police for protesting military recruiters on campus. Right-wing students called me a “pussy” and a “faggot,” and ripped the anti-militarist sign off of my chest. Vigilantes held me down to “assist” the officers in brutalizing and handcuffing me. When the police saw my foreign name, they decided I was a terrorist. One officer blamed me for 9-11. Another officer yelled at me, “You people are the most violent people in the world.” An officer threatened to hang me upside-down from the ceiling in my jail cell for “running my mouth.” Even though I was a student at the university, the police charged me with trespassing and disorderly conduct. At first, University officials defended the police’s actions by saying I “was considered to be distributing literature.”

In spite of the fact that the most egregious violations of free speech and academic freedom are committed in service to right-wing and establishment interests higher on the social hierarchy than students and professors, there is a highly problematic narrative proliferating in the United States; that today’s college students are “oversensitive” or “too politically correct” and that this supposed oversensitivity is leading to a crackdown on free speech and academic freedom. Both conservatives and liberals have perpetuated this false narrative. Conservative columnist George Will complained that the right of thin-skinned liberals “to never be annoyed” has become “a new campus entitlement.” In a popular Vox article titled “I’m a Liberal Professor, and my Liberal Students Terrify Me,” a college professor using the pseudonym Edward Schlosser complained about a climate of fear in academia caused by an overemphasis on the “safety and comfort” of students from historically marginalized groups.

The September issue of The Atlantic featured the article “The Coddling of the American Mind,” which argued that “A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.” The piece lamented what a shame it is that students on some campuses led campaigns to disinvite former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde from campus speaking engagements. Its authors, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt argued that instead of protesting such speakers, women and Black students should look up to Rice and Lagarde as role models. The irony of two white men condescendingly determining who women and people of color should look to as role models did not occur to the authors. Shortly following the publication of the Atlantic article, President Obama echoed its sentiments at an education town hall in Des Moines. He said:

“I’ve heard of some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative, or they don’t want to read a book if it had language that is offensive to African Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women. I’ve got to tell you, I don’t agree…that when you become students at colleges, you have to be coddled and protected from different points of view.”

With this, Obama further reinforced the harmful notion that racist and misogynist speech is simply a “point of view” equal with all other “points of view,” as well as the notion that “oversensitive” students are stifling free expression.

More recently, I was surprised to find in my alma mater’s newspaper that Atlantic authors Lukianoff and Haidt were using the experience that I went through ten years ago to further the narrative that colleges are choosing “political correctness over freedom of expression.” “Oversensitivity” and “political correctness” had absolutely nothing to do with what happened to me. I immediately wrote a letter to the Fourth Estate, George Mason University’s newspaper saying, in part:

“Was Salaita targeted because he was not “politically correct?” Was he targeted for being “offensive?” Was the campaign against him triggered by students who are uncomfortable with controversy? The answer to all three questions is no. Plenty of professors at UIUC have used swear words on social media with no repercussions, it was not liberals with supposed hypersensitivity about political correctness who raised their eyebrows about Salaita, and it was the student activist Left – the people who are supposedly policing uncomfortable language, according to Lukianoff and Haidt – who most boldly came to Salaita’s defense. The campaign against Salaita came not from below, but from above, from rich and powerful establishment interests.

Was the repression against me at GMU ten years ago caused by a culture of hypersensitive “political correctness?” Again, no… The first people to come to my defense, and to the defense of free speech, were leftist students and professors, LGBT students, South Asian and Arab students, the very people who the right would have us believe are too “politically correct” to tolerate free speech. It was the local right wing, the people who complain that society is “offended” too easily – fascist groups such as Free Republic, which later merged with other similar groups to become the Tea Party movement – who reveled in my arrest and called for more repression of students like me.”

Likewise, Professor Divya Nair, the students at the Community College of Philadelphia, students such as Chiitaanibah Johnson at Cal State, and the student-led BDS movement are not being targeted for offending supposedly “PC” sensibilities. They are being targeted specifically for their anti-colonialist/anti-imperialist positions. In all of the hand-wringing in mainstream and conservative discourse about colleges violating principles of free expression, one looks in vain for any discussion of these kinds of examples. Indeed, the hand-wringers are more concerned that rich imperialist war-mongers such as Condoleeza Rice are being protested off of campuses than they are that actual students and professors are being threatened, suspended, expelled, fired, or are facing disciplinary hearings for criticizing the policies and worldview of people like Rice.

Blaming something like Condoleeza Rice being disinvited from a speaking engagement on student “oversensitivity” and inability to hear uncomfortable speech misdirects public attention from the real anti-imperialist critique that student protestors have for why they don’t want a war-monger propagandizing on their campus. To refer to such students as “afraid of controversy” is more than a stretch. Chiitaanibah Johnson, for example, charged the United States with genocide. The anti-police students in Philadelphia carried a banner calling for a “Pig Free CCP.” Steven Salaita, who has been championed by the student Left was targeted by the establishment for statements such as “At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised?” These are hardly what one can call the “PC” positions of coddled students.

The flawed notion that overly-sensitive “PC” students are shutting down free speech is harmful. Student initiatives on campuses to challenge things such as racial or gender micro-aggressions are not challenges to free speech and they are not based on the idea that micro-aggressions are “offensive.” Micro-aggressions must be challenged because they are oppressive, not because they are offensive. Racist speech leads to an environment that is conducive to racist violence. It marginalizes students of color and makes the university not “uncomfortable,” but unsafe. Anti-LGBT speech makes campus unsafe, not merely “uncomfortable” for LGBT students. Misogynist speech creates an environment that is conducive to sexual assault. Any decent social scientist knows this. It is not about people being “uncomfortable” or “offended.” It is about people being unsafe and oppressed. White frat boys would have us believe that they are being unfairly “silenced” because women and people of color don’t laugh at their misogynistic or racist jokes, meanwhile anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist students and professors face actual repression from law-makers, wealthy donors, campus administrators, police, and vigilantes. The same foolish people who boycott stores for saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Lord Jesus God Almighty and the Bible Christmas!” complain that Black students fighting against actually-existing racial violence are “oversensitive.”

The threat to campus free speech and academic freedom is not anti-racist or feminist students. The threat to free expression in academia is real, and it is coming down the social hierarchy from rich and powerful establishment interests, not upward from “coddled” students. The beautiful ideal of free expression is cheapened when oppression is allowed to go unchecked under the guise of a disingenuous notion of “free speech.”

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[1] The term “Orientalism” refers to a lens through which “the West” perceives of “the East.” Further, it is a cultural framework through which Western historically imperialist nations such as France, England, and the United States have constructed themselves as “civilized” by constructing an enemy “other” – particularly in the Middle-East and South Asia – as savage, backward, static, in need of saving, or in need of destroying, superstitious, incapable of democracy, and inherently tyrannical. For more on this concept see Edward Said’s book Culture & Imperialism.

[2] By the term “imperialist discourse” in this instance I am referring to discourse that reinforces the logic of coercive US military, political, and economic intervention in the Middle East and South Asia: for example, notions of Islam as more irrational and violent than other religions, and notions that reduce the Middle East and South Asia to a monolith characterized by US stereotypes of “those people.”

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Tariq Khan lives in Champaign, Illinois with his partner and their three children. He is currently teaching an undergraduate US History course and working toward a PhD in History. He co-organizes a radical reading group, a local anarchist collective, and supports a few other local anti-racist and anti-colonial projects. He is also a member of the Industrial Workers of the World and the Graduate Employees’ Organization.

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