On the University of Chicago…

…after humans I love “like” statuses praising its stance against “so-called ‘trigger warnings,'” the cancellation of polarizing speakers, and “the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own,” I offer for perspective some experiences I’ve had since entering college:

An introductory literature course I am enrolled in reads, like every introductory course since the dawn of time and literature, Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” (my consistently poor academic performance up to this point has ensured my experience of multiple introductory literature courses). Caught up in describing the physical invasiveness of the medical procedure the story is dancing around (SPOILER ALERT: IT IS AN ABORTION. YOU ARE WELCOME. I HAVE FREED YOU, FUTURE LIT STUDENTS), my professor mimes a reaching in, a scraping, a pulling out. I freeze in my chair, hands shaking. Across the room, a woman younger than me has tears pouring down her face. At our fifteen-minute break halfway through the class period, she leaves and does not come back. 

I attend a rally for racial equality on campus, ending in the UW Law school, which has faced criticism for its treatment of minority students for quite some time. A student in my Language and Law class—a known precursor to law school applications—refers to the disruption this rally caused in an unfavorable light. He has no reflection on the issues being presented. He is white and male, and I sadly do not get a chance to ask him what he thinks of the statistics we learn regarding law school participation. At Harvard, “a male student was 32% more likely than a female to talk during a class meeting, and 50% more likely to talk voluntarily. Finally, men were 63% more likely to speak three or more times in a class meeting and 142% more likely to volunteer three or more times in a class meeting.” In our class the balance seems worse to me. A student group presentation on the linguistic technicalities of the George Zimmerman trial misses the forest—dubiously effective prosecution—for these trees—exploitation of linguistic coding—and it falls to the class’s only black student to ask why the presentation is amplifying, and not critiquing, the defense. It wasn’t their intention, the group says, surprised and on the spot. They’re just relating the case.

My final paper for this class discusses the legal issues of free speech allowances on campuses. What it seems to boil down to is, no one knows, but probably you can say whatever as long as it doesn’t threaten or involve cross-burning or swastikas. Individual colleges have individual codes, which have been subjected to various levels of legal scrutiny over time. Where you are matters. 

I participate in the 48 Hour Film Festival with some friends from school. In our screening group of ten films, I think I am not exaggerating when I say that only two had women in major production roles (by which I mean director or producer and went up to speak about the film after), and that out of the remaining films produced almost entirely by men, only the one I was in did not fridge and/or blatantly objectify and/or stereotype and/or enact violence against its female characters. (There were a couple of Girl Heroes, but also the Problem of Susan: with womanhood, Narnia is lost.) The friend sitting next to me becomes so uncomfortable that she leaves and stands outside for almost twenty minutes as I sit in a packed theatre with an audience consisting of Seattle filmmakers and their friends and family, and listen to them laugh and applaud, and realize suddenly why there aren’t more women present, because who would see what you’re apparently good for and then want to stick around? And sure this is one night of one project in one city, and sure the nature of the 48 Hour Film Festival requires a degree of shorthand to make a movie hang together in that time, and sure stereotypes are easy to use and easy to watch. They engage quickly. We’re all familiar with them, even if we shouldn’t be. But hey, there are great opportunities for women in movies! Not all films! Not all directors! #notallmen

And now, the opinions, which I know the University of Chicago won’t give two fucks about, but maybe the humans I love will:

I could never in good conscience advocate for the cancellation of speakers, for any reason, and this is coming from someone whose university appears to be hosting Milo Yiannopoulos in January (don’t worry, that link isn’t to his page. I wouldn’t do that to you). There is very little solid legal ground for that approach. There is solid legal ground for vocal protests, the invitation of countering viewpoints. There is solid legal ground for the already vulnerable (or the easily flustered, depending on your relative viewpoint/privilege/energy level/number of spoons to once again be called upon to expend energy they should be using to live instead attempting to make the willfully ignorant aware of their plight [or to show up and yell a lot and make it hard to read, depending on above]). 

Is this a perfect system? No. But the perfect system requires the dismantling of years of inequality, and, in the case of Yiannopoulos, the conscious choice to be an ass. And just as I disagreed with student activists contacting the University’s President to request a ban of pro-Trump rallies on campus under the grounds that they constituted hate speech (SPOILER ALERT: they do not), so do I disagree with any attempt to silence the airing of a legally-protected viewpoint, even if it’s by an ass.

You know what isn’t silencing? A content warning. A “safe space.” They’re little tiny markers in the college experience that say, simply, “I’m not an ass.” That content warning next to an assigned reading on the syllabus? It says, “Hey, prepare for this one. You’re still going to be graded on its content and your presence because I consider it important to your education and I am your professor so there is some trust implicit already in our relationship, but I am going to repay that trust by letting you know I really am looking out for you and maybe don’t read this right before a giant party. Maybe take a warm bath afterward. Brace yourself before class, because unlike the offhand comments people make at your job, the terrible jokes you hear simply moving through life, this time I can let you know what’s coming.” That safe space on campus, the one that can be dismantled in a heartbeat by a person in a position of both of privilege and power? It says, “Hey, we as a university want you to be able to think about your work for a bit and not about the ways your identity puts you at risk. We want you to feel surrounded by people who understand the difficulty of navigating a space in which you feel powerless, and we acknowledge that the university body as a whole might not be at that point of understanding yet. We want you to be able to pause your Otherness, which is not of your choosing, and eat your darn lunch.”

None of this has to do with retreat. You still have to do that content-warned reading. You still have to be on campus. It has to do with having the energy not to retreat, the energy to show up and be present and engaged and think critically and well about huge, world-altering issues.

Like, you know, you’re supposed to do in college.


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