Killing diversity with diversity

885733_rainbow“I sat in my chair, stated my opinion and then I shut up,” said Aaron Malec from his office chair in the Veteran Office in Student Programs last December.  “I can pull up the email right now, she kicked me out of the class for basically exactly what I was saying earlier, telling someone that if you come to this country, and you become a citizen…this is your country, because nobody’s from here…Now this is your country.”

Apparently, such conversation is fast becoming off-limits territory in the classroom environment, where diversity of opinion is viewed as antithetical to the diversity universities and colleges nation-wide are promoting so vigorously. The email read: “If you act as disrespectfully again in class as you did today when you questioned a student’s contribution based on her ethnicity, I will ask you to leave.”  Regardless, whether the professor misinterpreted what Malec was saying, or if he had, in fact said, something that intimidated a student, what is clear is that he was forced to drop the class and switch to an independent study based on something that he said.

In a different scenario from two weeks ago, a video was uploaded onto YouTube entitled “Testimony,” which caught a verbal altercation between several people. According to Carlondo Dudley, an eyewitness from the video, the unidentified white male in his 40s walked in front of a black student who was looking down.  After bumping into each other, the man said something along the lines of “I’m an American, I walk on the right side of the road.” This speech, as it turns out, is also off-limits.

“Here’s my situation,” says Dudley to the man in the video. “This is an international environment. You can’t say things like ‘are you an American?’ because not everyone can say that.”  If that had been all, it might have simply been a gruff exchange of perspectives prompting no need for an opinion article, but many students felt that this speech was aggressive enough to justify seeking administrative help in punishing the man for his comments.  Given that a bias incident is “conduct, speech or behavior motivated by prejudice or bias towards another person that does not rise to the level of a crime,” a description which itself is determined by the victim’s perception, punitive action seems to be likely.

It’s difficult to imagine that great American whose life we celebrated yesterday would have been thought of as sensitive and respectful by the standards of his time, or, for that matter, by the standards of our time within campus boundaries. But historical speculation aside, the idea that certain speech is “off-limits” defeats the very purpose of protecting individual rights on campus.  In fact, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) gave Bellevue College a “red-light” rating, as a campus with policies that are in the words of its president Greg Lukianoff, “laughably unconstitutional.”

It’s worth pointing out that the reason FIRE became involved in BC in the first place was over the suspension of a math teacher in 2006 for putting a question on an exam that asked students to do some

calculations based on Condoleezza Rice dropping a watermelon off of a building.  While FIRE proudly announced victory for Free Speech at BC in February of 2007 (finally overturning the suspension more than five months after the event itself occurred), the voices that vilified the math professor haven’t become weaker; they’ve become enshrined in actual school policy.

This is not how a free-society works, and certainly not how students can experience the marketplace of ideas.  If BC students and staff value diversity as much as they say they do, they must be willing to value diversity of opinion, especially, in fact, of opinions they disagree with or find offensive.  True diversity of ideas is being killed on campus in the name of multiculturalism, and not only does it defeat the very purpose for which it was designed—to make students feel safe to be themselves—but also defeats the principles of education and our country’s constitution.  You simply do not have a right to not be offended.

This idea is fast losing support on campuses however, where the price of having a thin skin can include your own ideas and convictions.  Think “hate-speech” codes will protect your political views from criticism?  Ask a college Republican how easy it is to get support for speakers and events, whose views are often inaccurately called ‘fascist’ and ‘idiotic’ by their own teachers and very often don’t recieve as large budgets as their more liberal counterparts.  Confident school policy will keep others from insulting your faith, or at least your race?  Tufts University has banned the recitation of several verses of the Quran for inciting hatred and the same push for diversity has spawned Palestinian “apartheid wall” demonstrations in campuses across the country, often blatantly anti-semitic.

If we value diversity, we have to stand up for our ability to be who we are on campus, no matter our race, gender, ethnicity, religion, politics or opinions.  No idea, no conversation and no words can be “off-limits” in an institution designed to teach its students not only how to interact with other people coming from different worlds, but how to function as informed citizens in a democratic society.