When demonstrations over racial injustices roiled college campuses last fall, I was energetically on board. As an activist in my own community, and a high-school senior headed to college in the fall, I understand that rallies and protests serve as vital and indispensable tools to establish much-needed change. I believed — and still do — that colleges should do the best they can to help marginalized students feel more welcome on campus.
The protests at Yale over Halloween costumes last fall, however, revealed serious flaws in student activism that made me question my support for campus protesters. These protests also made me notice something in my own activist circles that I could no longer overlook: There is this peculiar illiberal streak — and near totalitarian dogma — that has come to pervade these groups. Instead of combating racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudices as they claim to, my activist peers spend much of their energy policing others people’s speech and behavior.
Campus progressives advocate for inclusivity and tolerance towards individuals who hail from varying ethnic heritages, sexual orientations, religions, and gender identities. They contend that being exposed to a diversity of backgrounds helps challenge damaging stereotypes and encourages people to consider new perspectives.
I agree. Diversity is good. However, diversity of perspectives is hardly what’s being encouraged on campuses. The only form of diversity campus activists champion is identity — not ideological or philosophical.
This outlook has been very much evident in the activist circles in which I’ve participated — mainly those related to anti-racism and feminism with other high school and college students in the Minneapolis area. Whenever there is a panel to discuss contentious issues, diversity of identity is the most important element — which would be fine, except for the fact that there is almost always an echo chamber. Those who express even faintly contrarian views are scolded and have their arguments dismissed based on their identities. There is an inability on the part of activists to tackle an opposing viewpoint with reasoned arguments. Instead you are told to shut up because you do not belong to a certain group.
I care passionately about freedom of expression. I believe it furthers the social justice causes I still hold dear. My activist peers do not share that view. They’ve told me “censorship is a necessary evil” and that only right-wing bigots are concerned about free speech. They widely support restrictions on free expression as means of fighting against institutional racism, as do large portions of college students.
Equally disturbing as their call for censorship is their tendency to equate offensive words to physical injury. When words become “violence,” using violence to suppress words you find objectionable becomes justifiable. This is the precise reason Islamic extremists routinely murder secular critics.
As a minority (I was born in Kenya to Somali parents), I’m expected to champion the tactics of leftist activist and toe a certain political line. This tendency is particularly destructive for a number of reasons.
First and foremost, there’s nothing more racist than assuming that people who look the same must think and act the same way. I’m my own being and fully capable of forming my own thoughts and opinions, even if those views run contrary to many who share my ethnic background.
Second, student activist are the first to condemn the use of derogatory words and racial slurs. I find it profoundly hypocritical that when minority students publicly state opinions that challenge or question their claims, they are subjected to threats, vilification, and verbal abuse. I’ve been referred to as racist, Islamophobic and transphobic for defending unpopular speakers lecturing on campus, even when I abhor their views. I have also been called a coon, Uncle Tom, and house n—-r for my opinions on race relations.
As a college-bound student, these new trends are worrisome. Colleges and universities are supposed to be strongholds of academic exploration, robust intellectual inquiry, and freedom of expression. It’s within these establishments that your most cherished values should be challenged. These paramount values are now being subverted to uphold this unattainable — and, frankly, unworthy — goal of “safety.” And of course students today don’t mean safety in a physical sense, such as safety from physical or sexual assault. They mean safety from literature courses without trigger warnings, chalk messages supporting Donald Trump, and tequila-themed Cinco de Mayo parties.
Let me be clear: When I arrive at college, I don’t wish to live in a safe space. I want to take courses with professors who will challenge my preconceived notions. I want my most cherished beliefs to be subjected to critical scrutiny.
I back the broader aims of campus activists. I want equity for underrepresented groups on campus. I also believe colleges should do more to recruit talented minorities. However, censorship — and vilifying those who voice criticism — is not the way forward. That is not how a healthy political movement works. That is not how a healthy society works.
Let’s be unsafe. Let’s be bold. Let’s be free.
Mahad Olad is a senior at Brooklyn Center Secondary in Minneapolis. He plans to attend Ithaca College next fall.