In all honesty, the initial intention of this article was to focus on Military Sexual Trauma (MST), and the progresses of late to raise awareness for the epidemic. Upon reflection, however, some more pressing matters have caught my attention since the election of the U.S’ new President on Tuesday.
President-elect Trump will be inaugurated on January 20th, 2017. Holy crap. Donald Trump will be our new President. How did this happen?
It is easy to make projections about how he will serve the U.S, whether or not he will succeed or fail. It is less easy, however to remain hopeful about his four year-term.In the past two days alone, we have seen repeated civil protests all over the nation against the future Trump Presidency. Celebrities have taken to social media to encourage citizens to take action against hate and bigotry. Students and social activists alike are now starting riots all across the nation. What exactly is happening to the state of America?
The division of the United States will mean the destruction of a society that has over three hundred years of history. The breakdown of our democracy and republic society will mean a loss of three hundred years of riots, civil liberties and unimaginable sacrifice. We must not forget those who have sacrificed everything to give us our freedoms. Today is an important day in America. Veteran’s Day means appreciating the sacrifice and honor of those who have served in our nation’s military, those who have devoted their lives to our safety.
If we continue to protest the inauguration of our future President with such dishonor, we are essentially sending a message that it is OK to use violence to achieve our goals. We are blatantly disrespecting the freedoms given to us by others, are ignoring the sanctity of our nation.
Since the beginning of the Black Lives Matter Movement, citizens have take drastic measures to have their voices heard. Measures that include, burning the American Flag, vandalizing private property, and even assaulting authority figures. This is not the image that our forefathers had in mind when they signed the Constitution. They imagined a society built upon equality, freedom of speech, justice, and honor. This is not to say that the U.S exists without faults, as we obviously have room for improvement, but we have always been a great nation and will continue to be one. Violent-free protest is possible.
We must choose to rise above the mentality that our future leader is encouraging. We must choose love against hate, especially in the darkest of times. We must fight against racism, bigotry and exclusion, and remember to promote equality, love and inclusivity. America has always been great, we must not forget this. We will prevail, not because of our leader, but because of who we are together. We are stronger together, and our nation is not doomed.
As a straight, white, non-American studying in the United States, I understand it is much easier for me to comment on the post-election climate from a removed stance. I do not pretend to fully appreciate how numerous minority groups are feeling at this point in time, in light of this imminent threat to their rights and identities. I realise my emotional response to the election is largely that of a third party seeing how this decision affects my classmates and friends, rather than that of a direct victim. I completely respect the varied ways in which those close to me are dealing with the events of the last couple of days, as it is a frightening and distressing time for many.
However, I write purely as a fellow student at Columbia University as I am extremely concerned by the way in which many of my peers have reacted to the election result. In person, I have heard of Trump supporters being ostracised in conversations pertaining to the outcome of the election. Scrolling down my newsfeed, I have seen numerous statuses insisting Trump supporters delete my classmates on Facebook or do not talk to them again, as well as many other silencing statements of this nature. I do not intend to defend Trump or rationalise the thought process of those who voted for him, but such encouragements of intellectual polarisation and dismissal greatly threaten the ability to ensure a political decision of this kind does not happen in future. Whilst I understand that the idea of interacting with voters who have, directly or indirectly, supported the election of a man who intends to oppress them, no doubt evokes an understandably emotional response from many students, these early stage reactions in the aftermath of the election have the potential to cause irreparable damage to intellectual communities, such as the one we have here at Columbia.
Open dialogue and interactions with those who hold different views from ourselves are invaluable to our progress both as students and voters, even if such views are deplorable by every standard of our personal moral codes. Encouraging such silencing of contrary voices results in an ushering of these voices into the intellectual shadows, where they will remain until the next election or the next emergence of a figurehead who represents these values. It is impossible to deal with our opponents if we do not know them, so rather than pushing them away, we must address them head on and force them to re-examine their views by making them a part of our political discussions. To silence such opinions is to deny their existence, and a state of denial is not conducive to change. As John Stuart Mill says, in a text familiar to most Columbia College students, enlightenment can only come from a liberty of discussion which allows us to address and, hopefully shape, the views of others whilst examining our own.
Of course, there are people whose xenophobic, racist and sexist values will never be shaken. Indeed, these people are immune to the profits of an intellectual community and are lost causes, content in their state of ignorance. However, they do not represent the entire body of Trump supporters. My classmates have every right to be hurt, bruised and disappointed in those who have threatened their various ways of life, but they owe it to the future of their country to give a voice to those people whose political and social opinions differ from their own. It will no doubt take time and patience to be able to give a platform to those peers whose ideas are so offensive to many of us at Columbia, but the ability to do so shows that we are better than those who intend to dwell in their state of political isolationism and dismiss their fellow citizens. Discourse is crucial for both social and political change, and in order to impact the political atmosphere itself, we must acknowledge the existence of opposing ideas and the people who hold such views. I would urge my classmates to, first and foremost, take care of themselves, but to look to maintain the open-mindedness and inclusivity that characterises them as fine students and voters, in order to shape the voters of tomorrow.
Despite the unprecedented media firestorm surrounding this year’s Trumpian Republican National convention, Milo Yiannopoulos, the most fabulous supervillain on the internet (his words, not mine) managed to tangentially squeeze his way into the headlines via Twitter kerfuffle with Leslie Jones of Ghostbusters (A Democratic National Convention sponsor) fame. For the benefit of those that missed the spectacle, Ms Jones was in the midst of dealing with a substantial and targeted trolling effort, laden with misogynistic and more prominently racist abuse (Comparisons to the late Harambe were a particular highlight of the campaign), when Milo butted in remarking that receiving hate mail was nothing out of the ordinary. This soon escalated to Milo leaving derogatory comments about her appearance and literacy, and shortly after @nero (Milo’s twitter handle) was no more.
What resulted was an uproar over freedom of speech, and specifically Twitter’s lack of transparency over how people are suspended. Much has been said in arguments over first principles between maintaining freedom of expression versus protection of people from harassment, and I can do little more than retread those debates as far as philosophical considerations go.
Instead what I take umbrage with in this latest incident is another instance of a clear left-wing bias present in social media platforms, and the more insidious threat to free speech this presents. Twitter’s official statement on the incident laid out their basis for suspending him stating: “…our rules prohibit inciting or engaging in the targeted abuse or harassment of others.” His insults, while certainly demeaning, would be exceedingly hard to present to a credulous person as genuine abuse, notably more so than for the various Harambe tweets. Other public figures regularly receive far more insulting comments than Milo’s puerile banter, and quite reasonably ignore them. Which leads us to the other non-kosher behaviour, incitement, an even greater logical stretch than engagement, seeing as he came into Ms Jones’ Twitter feed midway through the torrent of abuse, and nothing in his tweets even vaguely resembles a call to arms. The rationale behind his ban is tenuous at best, especially in comparison to the kinds of things Ms Jones herself has tweeted with impunity!
Lord have mercy…white people shit
— Leslie Jones (@Lesdoggg) February 9, 2015
While bans are the most obvious and conclusive examples of the specific censoriousness of Twitter and other social media platforms, they are sparingly used, for reasons clearly apparent with the uproar over the @Nero suspension. More distressing for me is their liberal use of stealthier mechanisms over the past months to snuff opinions they disagree with in the political sphere. Last March, Facebook caught fire from the Republican side of the aisle as former “news curators” confessed to suppressing conservative news sources in Facebook’s “Trending” tab, as well as artificially injecting certain topics into the feed at the instruction of their superiors. Loud objections from major conservatives were made, and apologies and personal invites to Facebook’s headquarters were proffered by Mark Zuckerberg, but it is not hard to imagine the practice would have persisted without those whistleblowers, and there not much to stop Facebook from doing so if they please.
More recently, Reddit has modified the algorithms for certain pro-Trump subreddits to ensure their enthusiastic communities are unable to push their threads onto the front page, and conservative Twitter users such as Lauren Southern (@Lauren_Southern) and Paul Joseph Watson (@PrisonPlanet) have found themselves “shadowbanned”, a kind of blacklist with some of their tweets being forbidden from being retweeted, and others being concealed in the reply chain, essentially breaking up the continuity of their twitter conversations to typical viewers.
With all this said, as influential as these social media firms are in shaping current affairs, they are private entities and are free to take any political leaning of their choosing, as many forums do. However, especially given the massive reach of our contemporary social media titans, I take umbrage with their public affirmations of the virtues of free speech and neutrality while silently undermining them in an invidious social engineering effort. As people ostensibly against censoriousness and manipulation of public opinion, I think we can do more in our position as consumers to demand adherence from our social media companies to their stated ideals, and keep a vigilant watch for suspect behaviour from them, regardless of our political leaning.
And as for Milo? This latest controversy has propelled him to even greater heights, netting him a CNN interview and guest appearances all over the political media circus, and pushing the hashtag #FreeMilo to trend globally. The absurdity of Twitter’s permanent suspension of his account and the smug liberal responses to it are red meat for him, and I am sure he is already delighting in fresh adversaries for his crusade. Suffice to say, this card-carrying member of the Patriarchy will not be going away from the public eye anytime soon.
Free speech is currently a topic of great debate at universities across the U.K. and the U.S., with many academic institutions taking measures to seemingly enable open forum discussion, whilst simultaneously infringing on students’ fundamental intellectual rights. Columbia College at Columbia University, in New York City, is yet another example of a school where fear of controversiality is so engrained in the learning environment that it threatens to undermine the very nature of academic discourse at the university.
The Columbia University Class of 2018 Facebook page has become notorious as the home of contention amongst students, so much so that it has become an in-joke of the Columbia community. Earlier in the academic year, a discussion broke out on the group, surrounding the validity of a student of colour’s view that they had more claim to a professor of colour than did their white peers. The events began with the student posting a request to switch into a professor of colour’s class for a required Columbia College course ‘Contemporary Civilisations’, which is already a source of controversy due to its white Euro-centric syllabus. The post generated hundreds of responses from students, sparking a debate over the importance of race in teacher-student relationships, particularly in the context of what is often viewed as a white-washed education system. However, what began as a potentially fruitful debate on the page, soon devolved into an irate comments section, filled with frustrated parties on either side. Discussion on the thread eventually became stagnant and faded away without any real progress. A similar situation took place in the graduating class’ Facebook group, where a prompt for discussion of feminine health services at the school devolved into yet another enraged forum. Talk of both online interactions became so wide-spread that the incidents even featured as punch-lines in the university’s annual satirical musical ‘The Varsity Show’, prompting laughter and applause from an audience all-too-familiar with such occurrences.
It is no mystery that debates situated on any form of social media rarely lead to intellectual enlightenment but this kind of stagnant back-and-forth is reminiscent of a YouTube comments section, not the discourse one would expect at one of the most selective schools in the U.S.. The acceptance rate for Columbia currently sits at 6%, admitting only the most academically elite students from around the globe. The intelligence of the students makes them highly capable of intellectual discussion, which is only added to by their richly diverse make-up providing a multitude of views.
However, rather than capitalising on this opportunity for varied intellectual stimulation, Columbia instead perpetuates an atmosphere where open discussion is a thing of myth and the same tired discussions are repeated with each incoming class year. The Facebook page events are not reflective of a discursive flaw in the students themselves but rather are a reflection of the school’s intellectually stifling environment, where students are forced into openly expressing their opinions only from behind the safety of their laptop screens. It is impossible for a positive intellectual community to flourish at Columbia when the only place students can freely vocalise their opinions is the void of social media. Important discussions, such as the ones outlined, should take place in the classroom on an interpersonal level, where they can be intellectually productive, not confined to a Facebook thread where they are destined for academic doom.
Columbia is fairly unique in that it requires students to take an orientation-week event ‘Under1Roof’. The program aims to help facilitate open dialogue from the onset of the students’ undergraduate careers by navigating differences in sexuality, race and economic status in order to create a positive learning environment. However, whilst Under1Roof outwardly seems to advocate for freedom of intellectual discourse in seminars, it soon becomes clear that, in reality, free speech in the classroom pertains only to selective areas of discussion. In Columbia’s academic environment, Under1Roof’s concept of navigating idealogical differences manifests itself as a general avoidance of such taboo topics of race, sexuality or gender, for fear of things getting ‘messy’ in the classroom or someone, God forbid, getting slightly rustled and having to defend their position. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule and some students are lucky enough to take a seminar with one of the rare gem Columbia professors who are unafraid of encouraging their class into precarious discursive territories. These select students can corroborate that it is the moments of heated dispute, in which they are genuinely invested in the subjects at hand, that spark positive intellectual discussion. However, the usual seminars students are subjected to at Columbia consist merely of two hours of professors checking off a list of pre-determined, non- controversial topics of conversation. This default resting place of intellectual plateau is certainly not going to shape the great minds of tomorrow. Columbia classrooms should be places where students are provoked and encouraged to constantly re-examine their views, not a belittling crèche for molly-coddled undergraduates.
It is the responsibility of Columbia’s professors and students to embrace contention and freedom of intellectual discourse, in order to avoid classrooms resorting to simulated debates where students speak mainly to guarantee their participation grade in the class, rather than out of a genuine desire for academic self-betterment. How can the sophomore class of Columbia College be required to discuss the concept of free speech in Mill’s ‘On Liberty’, when the students themselves are not permitted any kind of discursive freedom?