As the school year began, I looked over Spectator’s year in review of campus headlines, hoping to re-familiarize myself with campus life and the current debates. I quickly found myself drawn back into the conflict over how to respond to Columbia University College Republicans’ controversial speakers like Mike Cernovich and Tommy Robinson—both known for peddling blatant lies and hate against minorities represented on campus. Once more, I felt the desire to stand for the principles of free speech and the desire to stand with the protesters. Yet, my pain turned to frustration over the poor quality of conversation between activist groups and supporters of free speech, who seemed to talk at each other and not with each other.
This problem came to a head last year when Columbia University Democrats wrote an op-ed criticizing student protesters who had disrupted speakers like Tommy Robinson and declaring a plan to counter-program each CUCR speaker with a liberal speaker. The op-ed’s patronizing tone, along with its criticism of student protests, triggered a deluge of condemnation ranging from the organization's ambivalent stance on issues surrounding Israel to its alleged neoliberal values. Ultimately, these tensions led left-leaning activist groups to distance themselves from CU Dems. The harshest criticisms came from UndoCU, which declared that the op-ed was a “total embarrassment,” bordering on the “propagation of violence itself” and asking students “to protect and prioritize white supremacy’s rights.” In response, CU Dems wrote a letter to the editor retreating from its original op-ed and apologizing to the groups it offended.
In reading responses from activist groups, it is hard not to feel the pain and anger emanating from their words, but it’s also painful to see how polarized the discourse has become. CU Dems and UndoCU argue with each other online about the place of free speech, but do they argue in person? Both groups have meetings that are open to the public, but it doesn’t seem like they attend each other’s events. What is truly disturbing is that this reality is acknowledged on both sides, yet nothing seems to change. UndoCU continually expresses its frustration that groups didn’t reach out to them until they were denounced publicly and CU Dems admitted that it needed to “listen to our student body and to members of the Columbia community.” It seems like everyone agrees that there is a real problem, and they seem to want to take steps to address it, so why is there no change in dialogue?
To resolve this, we have to be honest with each other, even if it is hard. Part of the reason our dialogue remains fragmented is that activist groups believe it is unreasonable to expect them to explain their experiences with racism and xenophobia. As UndoCU stated in its response to CU Dems, “We’ve received numerous invitations by faculty, student organizations, and student journalists requesting that we share our stories and ‘educate’ on what it feels like to be an undocumented immigrant… Our mere presence in your functions is painful because it is the acknowledgement and consumption of our pain and oppression.”
They are right—they shouldn’t have to explain their experiences, and by no means is speaking about painful experiences the only way to make change. Yet, telling stories is one of the most powerful means to actualize one’s experience to another. It is one of the primary ways we conceptualize, navigate, and empathize with the world around us. Without the ability to listen to and share other’s stories, we lose the capacity to understand each other in a fundamental way, let alone talk to each other.
But the issue isn’t isolated to a few student groups; it also afflicts the greater student body. Between readings, exams, and our individual activities, many of us—myself included—struggle to give conversation the time it deserves. It is much easier to dip in and out of op-eds than to carve out a couple of hours to go engage in a student-led discussion group or panel. Some of us even ask what good could come out of attending such conversations? After all, we are not—or at least don’t think we are—racist, misogynistic, or xenophobic.
These questions arise from a limited understanding of the power of conversation, an understanding that limits conversation to a means of self-declaration. But as political philosopher Hannah Arendt once put it, conversation is about refining our values, not defining them. Arendt suggests that what Socrates understood about dialogue was that “talking about justice makes a man more just. And talking about courage—even if you don’t find any nice definition of what courage is… inspire[s] men at a given moment to be courageous.” Though talking about racism, misogyny, and xenophobia may not lead us to any new insights, it can make us less racist, less misogynistic, and less xenophobic. If nothing else, it can make us take the time to care more deeply about those around us and talk together—not apart.
Noah Kulick is a sophomore in Columbia College studying English and American history. He can be reached at email@example.com with questions, comments, or concerns. Past the Present runs alternate Wednesdays.
To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.