Last November, the Black Students of Emory University (BSEU) published a list of demands for Emory’s administration. Since then, many non-Black students and Emory faculty have written op-eds debating the evidential claims, goals and tactics of Black activists on campus. Many of these op-eds have been frustrating, and it would be useful for those of us who are not Black to reevaluate how we talk about the demands and the activism surrounding them.

In the most recent op-ed, “A Chilling Silence,” Emory senior Alex Reibman criticized the demand to block Yik Yak from Emory’s campus. He argues that anonymous speech is an essential part of our conversations about race, free speech and democracy. Reibman claims that the BSEU represent “political correctness.” He also claims the demands infringe on others’ rights and are counter-productive to improving the status of minorities in our society.

Reibman assumes that Yik Yak is an app for uncensored free speech that can provide a useful platform for fighting racism (and other forms of oppression), but this assumption falls apart under scrutiny. One of Yik Yak’s core mechanics is that users can up-vote or down-vote posts they read, which generates a rating for each post (the number of up-votes minus the number of down-votes). If at any point a post has a rating of negative five, it is permanently removed. If one of the fundamental components of free speech is protecting unpopular opinions and giving individuals who hold minority opinions a chance to express themselves without fear of censorship, the whole concept of removing unpopular comments completely undermines Yik Yak’s ability to provide a space for free speech. It is essentially censorship by majority rule.

Further, Reibman claims that we can’t “convince others of the faults of racism if there is no debate.” But convincing “others of the faults of racism” is only one approach. Many prefer to focus on changing systems; for example, most of BSEU’s demands focus on reallocating institutional resources in a way that better addresses the needs of the Black students, faculty and staff at Emory. The idea that Yik Yak is a useful platform for fighting racism is undermined by the way in which the app removes unpopular opinions because it is easy to down-vote and eliminate accusations of racism without fully engaging them.

I would further question the supposed centrality of free speech and intellectual discourse in combatting oppression and bigotry. Too often, “debate” is merely smokescreen. For example, there exists an overwhelming consensus among climate scientists and the international community that climate change is caused by humans. Despite this general agreement, the U.S. continues to “debate” (really, deny) this fact. This is not a debate in which all sides are seeking to move towards the truth. This is a debate constructed because massive corporate interests will cling onto the idea that climate change isn’t real for as long as possible. The debate is merely for show. On the individual level, the problem with bigots who use slurs (or commit other acts of oppression) isn’t that they haven’t heard a good argument about why using slurs is wrong. The problem is, in spite of hearing those arguments and the continuous requests of marginalized groups, they don’t care. And if people don’t care whether or not they’re a bigot, what’s the point in arguing with them?

This is not to say free speech is unimportant or that it does not play some role in the struggle against oppression, but — especially in academia — we have a misguided tendency to view intellectual discussion and debate as the answer to all of our problems. Too often, we are guided by our attachments to certain ideas such as “free speech” to the extent of seriously neglecting the experiences of the oppressed. Focusing on rationality, debate and traditional Western concepts like free speech can tie us to established ideologies and numb us to the pain of those around us. It can easily be a way, consciously or subconsciously, of imposing the will of the powerful upon the oppressed. The fight against anti-Black sentiments must begin with, and remain centered on Black people and their experiences, desires and political vision. An attempt by white people to ignore the work and will of Black people and set the terms for the fight against racism is still an attempt to keep structural power in white hands. Essentially, it is just a rebranding of racism.

There are a multitude of ways we could talk about free speech on campus and the way in which it often does not exist for those seeking to fight oppression. One of BSEU’s demands is greater protection for Black faculty and administrators who choose to speak out about racism on campus rather than forcing them to stand by racist colleagues or face sanctions. Last year, when I put up a display as part of Emory Students for Justice in Palestine on the ways in which Israel violates Palestinians’ human rights, it was torn down within three hours. Additionally, workers at Emory have historically not been in a position to talk freely about how they are they are treated or about the difficulty of unionizing due to threats of punishment if they organize. These abuses were well documented under Sodexo, Emory’s food service provider until last spring, and we need to have a serious conversation about whether anything has changed. These are examples of free speech being violated, hindering the pursuit of justice in much more direct and substantial ways than a ban on Yik Yak ever could.

Instead of beginning our conversations with ideological allegiances to concepts like free speech, and employing those concepts to defend the status quo, we must start centering and caring about the people who are suffering most. We must respect their decisions and let our ideologies grow from there. If we define free speech in a way that would defend Yik Yak, in spite of the immense harm it has caused Black students, then I’m not interested in free speech. If, however, we understand free speech in a way that is actually about defending the views of the oppressed, pushing our campus to seek greater justice and moving towards being an inclusive community that cared for all of its members, then I support free speech completely.

Anaïs Hussung is a College junior from Jackson City, Tennessee. 

  • Smugglers

    “If we define free speech in a way that would defend Yik Yak, in spite of the immense harm it has caused Black students, then I’m not interested in free speech.”

    If you can’t support the right to speech whose content you disagree with, or even find abhorrent, you are not AT ALL for free speech, and you may wish to drop remaining pretense to the contrary. You wish to censor those who offend you. That is the very opposite of free speech.

    • danzig138

      Pretty much, yeah. People who think they’re ready to talk about free speech should really examine whether or not they *want* free speech. This author pretty clearly does *not* want free speech. Like so many, they simply want speech that *they approve of*.

  • RoastBeefIsPoison

    On the one hand, disagreement with “overwhelming consensus among climate scientists” is bad and can only be explained by corporate cronyism. On the other hand, we should block Yik Yak because the site is too majoritarian and deletes unpopular comments. The majority is good if I agree with majority! The minority is good if I agree with the minority!

    Here’s the simplified version of this editorial: The author believes that people who disagree with her narratives on climate change, Israel, race, etc., can only do so if they’re irrational bigots or corporate shills. Irrational bigots and corporate shills are illogical. Therefore, free speech and open debate could not possibly convince them to come around to the “correct” positions. They might even *gasp” subvert free speech by convincing other people that they’re right! And finally we arrive at the author’s precooked conclusion, which is that free speech is only good if she agrees with its content.

    Yay, fascism!

  • herbcaen

    The editorial was so convoluted the author tripped over his own feet and fell

  • Shane Richmond

    The ignorance and poor writing skills of this editorial has caused me physical pain.

  • Chili Dogg

    The student who wrote this piece is a budding totalitarian who wants to suppress views that she (he?) does not agree with. She is but one of many college students who want to do the same. I have to ask, why are colleges, including Emory, producing students who put “free speech” in quotes, criticize debate and reason, and accept as free speech only views that they approve of.

    Hussung does not seem to see the contradiction in criticizing Yik Yak for its limitations on free speech, then calling for it to be banned completely. The cure for limitations on free speech is banning free speech? Huh?

    Given the support by many college students (and college administrators) on the Left for banning any speech that they don’t like, I am not hopeful for the future of the 1st Amendment.

    Part of the problem is that such self-righteous students think they know everything and that anyone who disagrees with them is not just wrong, but immoral. Hopefully, Hussung will realize someday that she doesn’t know everything and could learn a lot from listening to others’ free speech. Until then, I’m reminded of the joke that we should elect a college student as President, while they still know everything!

    • WarGamer2016

      When you are 18 you know everything and can solve all the worlds problems in an hour over a late. If you are not a liberal at that point you have no heart.

      When you are 30, you realize that you know nothing and that no matter how long you live you will never know everything you think you should. You start to recognize the that there are a boat load of unknown unknowns you will never come to grips with.

      By the time you are 40 you are (or should be) wise enough to recognize that there are very few absolutes and that every decision or action has unintended consequences and you are not afraid to admit it. If you are not a conservative, you are dead broke.

      The difference between intelligence and wisdom is that you can be born with intelligence and you can work hard to to take advantage of it through education, WISDOM only comes from failure and getting your teeth kicked in a few times.

  • Jason Zhou

    Anais, recently here have been efforts by some university administrator to ban speech critical of Israel on the grounds that it often constitutes racism (antisemitism).

    The administrators essentially adopted your policy proposal with respect to free speech and applied it in a way that they thought was just.

    Doesn’t that make you just a tiny bit worried about the ramifications of your position on free speech?

    A more structural critique: if existing power structures are systematically racist (including universities), then why would you trust existing power structures with more censorial power over speech? Structurally, how could that possibly advance ANTI-racism?

  • WarGamer2016

    This dude is scary.

    This is the road to fascism.

    What a moron.

    This is what comes of political correctness in the bubble that is academia.

    It is childish clowns like this that ultimately prove to be the most dangerous. This is so because they actually have the brains and the linguistic skills to make themselves seem reasonable.

    We have actually reached a point where these lunatics are OPENLY advocating for the elimination of Free Speech to avoid people having their feelings hurt.

    My GOD….GROW UP. The LAST right we should curb is the right to free speech.

    GROW up….act like God gave you a pair and stop cowering. Do the HARD work of standing up and countering the words and deeds you disagree with. Counter the arguments. Counter the emotions. Counter all of it with you logic and your voice. That is noble even if I disagree with you I can respect you for how you do it.

    This guy wants the EASY route. He wants the lazy route to change. He wants to use the power of the state or the administration to IMPOSE his views by eliminating the ability of those who disagree with him from speaking their minds.

    IT is exactly the kind of logic this kid is showing that allowed the Soviet State to control its people. It is the kind of logic that the Chinese polit bureau uses to maintain control. It is the kind of logic that allowed the Saudi government to impose 1000 lashes and 10 years in prison on a blogger.

    This is DANGEROUS thinking and any member of the faculty or the administration that supports this attitude is a dangerous to have in an academic setting and should be fired.