Below is my column in the Hill Newspaper on growing concern about forced speech on our campus and on our streets.
Here is the column:
"silence is violence ”has everything you want in a slogan: alliteration. Brevity. Simplicity. It can also be daunting for some in academic and free speech.
At one level, it sends a strong message that people in good faith should not stay Quietly about great injustices. However, it can have a more threatening meaning to "prove the negative" – to ask that people prove they are not racist.
In a previous column, I warned of the thin line between voice codes and voice commands as people move away from forcing silence to a convincing speech: "As soon as all offensive statues are down and all offensive professors are killed, the appetite for collective oppression becomes a demand for collective expression."
The line between punitive speech and compulsory language is easily crossed when freedom of speech itself is seen as a threat. It is not just the many cases of journalists, academics, and others who have been fired to express dissent. Even expressing support in the wrong way can be a deadly crime, such as declaring "All life is important" rather than "Black Lives Matter," as in the dismissal of Leslie Neal-Boylan, Dean of Nursing from the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, or Tiffany Riley, director of Vermont. While most of us support Black Lives Matter, it has become an official position of many schools – and deviations will not be tolerated. It is not only about the establishment of orthodox values, but also about the forced recitation of these values.
We are now seeing the fear materialize.
This week a mob surrounded diners outside several Washington restaurants and shouted, “White silence is violence! "and request that guests raise a fist in support of Black Lives Matter. Various guests dutifully obeyed as protesters yelled just inches from their faces. One didn't – Lauren Victor, who later said she had been in for weeks Protests marched, but refused to be bullied. The mob surrounded them and Washington Post reporter Fredrick Kunkle identified a freelance journalist as one of the people yelling at Victor and saying, "What was inside you, you could do this do not do?"
It is the mantra of Orthodoxy: failure to say certain words, prayers, or promises is considered an admission of complicity or guilt.
That call for public confirmation was re-shown Thursday when Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) And his wife were threatened by a mob after leaving the final event of the Republican National Convention. The couple were ordered to “say their names,” referring to Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old paramedic who was shot dead by police in Louisville, Ky. In particular, some media outlets suggested that the mob didn't know who Paul was. They only required him to say the name if he wanted to pass on.
Forced speech can occur in several direct and indirect ways. University of Southern Maine President Glenn Cummings said, "We must never tire of explaining Black Lives Matter," and asked students and faculty to add their names to a public pledge against racism. Following objections, the school said it would not keep the list public. It was feared that some faculties and students may not support Black Lives Matters as an organization or have other disagreements with the promise. However, if they are not on the list, it means they are racist, or at least not sufficiently anti-racist.
The University of California has issued a "guide" urging students to oppose racism, sexism, xenophobia, and any hateful or intolerant speech, including a mandate that students prevent others from focusing on the "Chinese virus" or the "Wuhan Virus" to refer to. While the use of these terms is controversial, it is also heavily laden with political implications for people on both sides of the debate over the pandemic.
Syracuse University moved more directly, not just to block, but to encourage some forms of language. Professor Keith Alford, the university's diversity and inclusion officer, said students are being punished for merely witnessing "biased" incidents and "acts of hate". This was in response to a group of students calling for the expulsion of "those who witnessed the event or who were present but did not attend".
The transition from language codes to commands is based on the same notion of "language as harm". Just as language is viewed as harmful (and thus regulated), silence is now considered harmful. Savala Trepczynski, UC Berkeley law professor and executive director of the Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice, wrote, “White silence is incredibly powerful … it's not neutral. It works like a weapon. “It is certainly not inappropriate to call on others because they do not support important causes. In fact, I criticized the faculty for staying Quietly when colleagues were attacked or fired for expressing dissent on systemic racism, police abuse or other issues. But once both speech and silence considered equally harmful, individuals are subject to public statements of faith and loyalty schemes.
Even if you are not paying enough attention, it can lead to termination requests. Nearly 2,000 people signed a petition to fire Marymount Manhattan, professor of theater arts, Patricia Simon, after she appeared briefly asleep during an anti-racist meeting on Zoom. College student Caitlin Gagnon launched a petition accusing Simon of "ignoring the racist and glorious acts and words of the vocal coaches under their jurisdiction". The message seems clear: you cannot be woken if you are not awake.
The concern that voice codes would become voice commands would have been considered completely absurd just a few years ago. Now even demands for courtesy in dialogue have been condemned as racist dog whistles. Johnny Williams, a professor at Trinity College, condemned those who demand courtesy as "maintaining the heteropatriarchal capitalist power of the white supremacists". When MSNBC host Joe Scarborough criticized and urged courtesy people in restaurants, University of Mississippi Professor James Thomas condemned the courtesy, stating, "Don't just interrupt a Senator's meal. Put all your damn fingers in their salads."
It is the ultimate expression of the claim: people must either live up to your values or face public condemnation and threats. Your salad is no more sacrosanct than your speech. In a world where silence is violence and politeness is complicity, there is little room for real freedom of speech.