On Friday, Dec. 2, the Vassar Conservative Libertarian Union hosted a discussion in Rockefeller Hall on trigger warnings and their implications for free speech.
Before the presentation began, Treasurer of the VCLU Pietro Geraci ’18 gestured to a stack of pocket constitutions piled at the front of the room and recommended that all in attendance pick one up, either to reference over the course of the conversation or perhaps in other crusades on the First Amendment.
Geraci said of the event, “The main talking points centered around trigger warnings, safe spaces and their impact on free speech. The argument was, ‘Does it hinder it, does it promote it?’ It was a very healthy discussion.”
The conversation was facilitated by President of the Long Island University CW Post Young Americans for Liberty chapter and YAL New York State Chair Pooja Bachani.
Bachani screened a video clip lambasting the behavior of the proponents of trigger warnings at Brown University, which has come to symbolize the free speech debate for institutions of higher learning.
The premise of the video is that trigger warnings are akin to censorship, and as such, are an affront to First Amendment rights. It represents Brown students as unruly, rash and disrespectful. In response to sensitive topics, the video proposes that those who disagree with a subject, speaker or setting abstain from it/them.
Addressing these concerns after the video, students delved into the intricacies of censorship, and whether or not a trigger warning truly constitutes censorship. Some noted that trigger warnings already serve the purpose that the video suggested, but that the label itself prepares individuals for the information they’re consuming and then gives them the opportunity to process it.
Geraci said, “The general take-away, I would say, was… a little bit of both. Offensive ideas shouldn’t necessarily be silenced simply because they’re offensive, that’s what we generally agreed on, but by the same token a lot of people [said] that you should still be warned about these things, sensitive topics that could possibly, you know, trigger someone. But, free speech should still be respected.”
A phrase quoted in the video, “Education is the antithesis of comfort,” also seemed to resonate with the attendees, yet there was no one in attendance who readily dispelled the trigger warnings-as-coddling myth. It did, however, pave the way for a conversation regarding institutional priorities, rights and obligations. Should private institutions regulate speakers or events brought to campus, even if the motivation is to foster an environment that is both productive and safe?
Geraci responded, “I mentioned how we had Marc Theissen at Vassar a few years ago for the VCLU, and [how] people were complaining even before he came that he was Islamophobic and racist… But he was still able to come and give his lecture. You see at some schools, they boo the speaker off the stage, the whole event is canceled… We didn’t have that.
The event ran for its full time and people said that was right, that was the correct way to go about it, that he had every right to come here and give a speech, and the students have every right to criticize him for it. That was probably one of the more important things we took away, that offensive ideas shouldn’t be silenced.”
When asked about the message that Vassar or any institution sends by hosting a speaker whose actions and beliefs are perceived as toxic by the majority of the community, Geraci replied, “Vassar College is private, I believe in private property rights, I believe that the college can regulate speech and who they bring in—I don’t necessarily agree with it, but they do have that right and I respect it. If we were to bring in a racist, bigoted, or otherwise hateful speaker, does that say that the college itself is racist? I wouldn’t necessarily say so … maybe if they were brought in by the President’s Office you could make that connection, but if a student org brings them in…”
Even though the VCLU is funded by the VSA, Geraci maintains, “That doesn’t necessarily mean that our events are sponsored by the VSA. They can issue a statement saying that [they] don’t agree with this and that [it] conflicts with their viewpoints. I think that would suffice. I wouldn’t say necessarily that the college would take on a racist or hateful image.”
He continued. “As far as bringing someone in—I wouldn’t be very inclined to bring in one of those speakers, but say an org brought in such a speaker—I still think there’s an educational benefit to it, because you can go there and debate him, and pry into the inner workings of his or her thinking. You can challenge those ideas, and if they really flounder, maybe you’re slowly getting through to them.”
Sophomore Sevine Clarey who attended the event voiced similar sentiments with regard to the value of unbridled dialogue.
She stated, “My surprise to the outcome of the election made me realize just how isolated I really am and I want to change that. I think it would be a shame if the already existing actions (seen in the Brown students shutting down speakers and censoring articles) were amplified, especially as a response to the election. We really need to discuss this as a population and as a campus.”
In defense of his conceptualization of free speech, Geraci added that “silencing opinions” is stifling intellectual development not only at Vassar, but on campuses across the country as well. He believes that monitoring hateful, offensive, or painful speech doesn’t have an impact on violence against minorities, and that language in and of itself isn’t a tool for violence.
When prompted on this, he said, “As violence? I would disagree with that. Speech is speech. I mean, words can hurt, but if you’re inciting violence, well now you’re going off of hate speech, and now it’s more than [that]…”
In general, the attitude of the discussion was receptive and open. The issues discussed, however, deserve a comprehensive debate that doesn’t involve just the VCLU and select students outside its membership.
More students need to recognize the prevalence of opinions on campus that can affect their own wellbeing and education, and for those who already do, it’s crucial that they engage in the dialogue as they’re able and comfortable.
Secretary of the VCLU Keon Karimabady ’17 summed up the tenor of the conversation well: “I think it is most important for both sides to realize that whenever we distance ourselves from the perspectives of others we don’t agree with it is easy to demonize them. Dialogue must therefore be about progress first and foremost, never victory or defeat. Our first step as a student body should be to approach dialogue as an opportunity to learn and empathize, not to alienate and shame.”