Intrigued by rumors about inflammatory posts about the protests in Nassau Hall, I made the mistake of downloading YikYak again last week. Frankly, the conversation on YikYak and other social media about the protests disgusted me. Behind the veil of anonymity, the id of Princeton University came out in full force. Posts on social media of all kinds seemed to fall into one of two categories. One category unequivocally supported the protestors in Nassau Hall. Another category would unequivocally denounce them. And the vitriol between the two sides effectively left no room in the middle for a conversation to be held.
The discourse that has come out of these protests has become toxic. My colleague Marni Morse ’17 wrote last week about the need for Responsible Free Speech, and I entirely agree. There is a responsibility for respect, regardless of status. There is certainly a case to be made that both sides on the debate about the Nassau protests are guilty of discounting the opinion of the other as bigoted or closed-minded outright. Those opposing the protests would outright dismiss the other side as “coddled and spoiled;” conversely, many participating in the protests would call their opponents plain “racist.” This is not a way to open a constructive dialogue. In fact, the vitriol of the debate managed to alienate a large swath of the University population, particularly the Asian American population, judging by the poll results released last week by Daniel Wilson ’18 and Joshua Tam ’18.
The bomb threat against the Black Justice League is indicative of how charged things became during the protests. Nothing, regardless of how disruptive and disrespectful in the eyes of those who oppose it, should ever be grounds for the threat of violence. The far end of the protestors’ ideological spectrum might have been too radical from my philosophical standpoint, but the extreme of those opposing the protestors truly terrified me.
Am I arguing that extreme speech about the protests needs to be banned? Absolutely not. My personal belief is that freedom of speech should be absolute. Speech that would be considered hate speech should be protected; the same right that gives people the right to make hateful comments also allows others to criticize them. Hypothetically, the same ideological framework that could be used to censor an offensive comment could be used to censor the inoffensive comment. Rather than create a campus censorship standard that would be impossible to enforce, it is better to allow criticism to flow freely, bringing more people into the debate.
What I think needs to be recognized by both sides of this debate, however, is thatthere needs to be a significant de-escalation in tensions. I participated in a type of debate in high school called policy debate, and one of the ways to win in that form of debate was to link your opponent’s policy proposal to the worst consequence imaginable —some kind of planetary extinction event, often some kind of nuclear war. Many debates thus became an exhausting race to the bottom. Extremism on any side in a debate makes it impossible to reach a reasoned solution. We need not raise the barricades over every single inequity on campus. While the rhetoric about some of those inequities is hyperbolic, they are often proxies for larger grievances and need to be addressed in that context.
A larger coalition is required to achieve any lasting change on campus; therefore, the change that the BJL protests truly sought is impossible unless some of their extremism can be moderated and the support base expanded. I stand with the BJL against the vitriolic hatred they have received, but I still believe that their goals are too extreme. I make a plea for moderation and inclusivity moving forward from the Occupy Nassau protests, lest our campus split into ugly factions.
Nicholas Wu is a sophomore from Grosse Pointe Shores, Mich. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.