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The Sound of Silencing

By: Sophie Mann
December 16, 2015

e need to be less afraid of being called racists, classists, and ableists, and more afraid of actually being those things,” lamented one student at Scripps College’s BeHeard Forum. The subject we had gathered to discuss was Silencing and Tone Policing – two phrases I had never heard until the week prior, when several Facebook comment wars exploded over supposed racialized and transphobic event titles, descriptions, and surveys. People’s actions and intentions soon became irrelevant because only language, and those who got to wield it, mattered.

Such encounters do not come as a surprise. We live in a time when extreme political correctness and campus movements – started mostly by minority students in an effort to silence any speech that they find hurtful or offensive – are raging across the country. The BeHeard Forum, intended to be a forum for resolving differences, quickly became an opportunity for people identifying as “victims” to complain about their pain and suffering while stifling constructive discourse concerning what constitutes appropriate campus debate. The forum highlighted the desire of some campus groups to ensure that those individuals with whom they disagree not be heard at all.

This particular forum was held in response to a Scripps Voice poll. The writer asked, “Are you aware of any Scripps stereotypes? Do they affect you?” The stereotypes in question essentially boil down to “promiscuous student” or “earnest feminist.” Somehow, this too became an issue of race when students began questioning if “fitting in” to a Scripps stereotype meant belonging to a certain race.

And then there was the outrage over a feminist event which served cupcakes decorated with vulvas, at which a former employee of the Queer Resource Center became incensed, stating, “How dare you associate vulvas with being a woman. I feel so violated.” Despite apologies from the event organizer, the conversation devolved into accusations of insensitivity towards trans women.

Tone policing is defined as the process in which a white or otherwise “privileged” person focuses on how something is being said, particularly when it is driven by anger or other heightened emotions. Silencing is when a member of a “victim class” does not feel safe enough to speak because another person – typically an authority figure or a white classmate – imposes a status or set of assumptions which the victim does not share. For example, if a straight person casually asks a classmate, “Are you interested in any guys?” the speaker has made an assumption about someone’s sexual identity that may or may not be accurate. This assumption, victims argue, silences the other person, even though the bisexual or lesbian classmate could just say something like “I’m interested in girls” to clear up any confusion.

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Both silencing and tone policing occur mostly on social media and in classrooms. They typically happen when a person of color (POC) “calls out” a white person for saying something “racially inappropriate.” The POC then proceeds to scold the person for saying something that is deemed both incorrect and offensive to not only the person individually, but also the entire group the person represents. This accusation runs counter to the idea that a single person of a particular ethnic or racial group should not be assumed to be the voice of or the same as all other persons from that group.

So what happens when someone is actually called out? According to the group at the BeHeard Forum, an ideal response from the person who is being called out would be for that person to apologize, thank the person who has called her out for taking time out of her day to do so, which must have been hard to do because of the “wall of silence the offender has put up,” and then research how to improve her thinking. In this “conversation,” there is never any room for a defense from the accused. Should the allegedly insensitive student attempt to explain her intent, it will only be interpreted as further “verbal violence.”

Without knowing it, these aggrieved students have actually replicated the same type of forced apologies and self-abasement pioneered by hard line Maoists, in the infamous re-education camps of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. That process was invented to suppress any type of intellectual dissent.

Forcing an individual to apologize and then express gratitude to the person for calling her out is a violation of our academic and social codes of allowing students to act and speak freely. I asked if perhaps this was a tall order. I asked if some focus should be placed on the ways in which people are called out. Unsurprisingly, I was quickly shut down. A fellow student responded that she felt entirely comfortable calling out offenders on their privilege, publicly ridiculing them on social media outlets, and making them feel uncomfortable and attacked if it ultimately helps them to “become better.”

One thing that was clear was that facts were entirely irrelevant in the discussion of offensive speech. One student explained, “In this case, feelings are facts.” But, of course, feelings are not facts, nor will they ever be facts. You can debate facts. Feelings, in these cases, are just weapons. Not allowing someone to defend herself because you deem your feelings superior to that person’s ability to speak freely is selfish. Nowhere in this process is there room for conflicting opinions on any level, which is an intellectual travesty, especially at a liberal arts college.

This forum was a discouraging experience. I watched other students pat one another on the back for finding and taking down bits and pieces of racism that simply did not exist, while being outwardly hostile and rude to their classmates. On college campuses today, tone policing and silencing are one-way streets. Only “privileged” students can commit speech crimes. All of the victims are people of color, LGTBQ*, or those who feel oppressed in some manner.

The moral absolutism that so many of the offended students believed in was dismaying. As was the contempt for the value of free speech, without which there is no possibility of reaching a genuine understanding or meaningful co-existence in our community. Unfortunately, this self-indulgent distortion of basic academic and social freedoms seems all too common on American college campuses.