“Are you a supporter of free speech?” Phu Duong ’21 wrote in a Jan. 21 email to the student body. He inserted a picture of an American eagle staring boldly into the distance. “Do you feel like PC culture has taken it too far?”
In the next picture, a rugged man stands in front of an American flag with the word “censored” plastered over his hands. “Are you tired of the weekly/daily Internet outrage?” In another, there is a picture of a gorilla with a halo. “Perhaps you are concerned with the possible repercussions of identity politics?”
“If you said yes to any of the above statements, join Young Americans for Liberty today!”
The email received significant pushback following its release. The subsequent email chain contained 42 replies, which were equal parts denunciation, jokes and seemingly unrelated content.
“Please don’t co-opt the word liberty to be a vague buzzword in your quest to delegitimize other people’s desires to work toward finding solutions for real problems,” Christopher Whalen ’18 wrote.
Alexander Raske ’19 attached a picture of video game character Crash Bandicoot with the caption “Tide pod memes?”
Though the email chain was widely regarded as another abuse of the Student-Info feature (the most recent being the “lost bikes” chain), it was also emblematic of a national tension: critics of “PC culture” against those who believe so-called political correctness is a strategy to remove bigotry and ignorance from everyday encounters.
“When you try to ask, ‘Why aren’t we allowed to say this thing?’, that thing is usually being used to harm minorities,” Ronan Weber ’20 wrote in a reply email.
Over the course of the email chain, Weber suggested staging a counter-protest at the same time and location as the first Young Americans for Liberty meeting. Duong wrote in a Jan. 22 email: “For the safety of YAFL club members, I will be altering the location and time of the upcoming meeting. If you are still interested in joining, please email me for more information.”
The group Duong was promoting, Young Americans for Liberty, is a national libertarian group with over 900 chapters on college campuses. It touts itself as a “pro-liberty organization … committed to winning on principle,” according to its official website. In his email, Duong described the group as a place to “discuss important issues regarding liberty, freedom and traditional values in America today.”
Kenyon’s chapter of YAFL, which is not a registered student organization, met in Tomsich 103 at 8 p.m. on Jan. 24. Ten minutes before the meeting began, Duong surveyed the blackboard, on which he had written a quote by physicist Max Born and “YAFL” in white chalk.
“It’s only white!” he said. “Oh, crap!” He grabbed several pieces of colored chalk from the other board and colored in the quote and acronym. “There. Now we’re no longer a hate group.”
Duong started the meeting with remarks about his mission. Duong admitted he was a “Bernie bro” during the 2016 presidential election, but “something changed.”
“Maybe it was how fast things were becoming polarized,” Duong said. “People only stuck with those who reaffirmed their own beliefs. It’s very important for us to have an organization like this on campus.” Then, he opened up the floor for questions.
Duong’s main criticism of campus culture is the lack of active community and resources for right-leaning students. Even the president of Kenyon Republicans Brooks Alderman ’18 replied to Duong’s email with a curt rebuttal: “I just want everyone to know that the Kenyon Republicans have absolutely no ties, formal or informal, to this organization.”
The meeting’s 13 attendees included Sam Truecki ’21, Nathan Geesing ’21, Andrew Herbelin ’21 and Theo Prentice ’21 — all first years. The majority of those who participated in conversation expressed their desire for objective political debates.
Geesing asked the group to reflect on why they felt a group like YAFL was necessary. He said he had attended meetings by groups like Kenyon Students for Justice in Palestine and the Black Student Union — groups that the attendees of YAFL might decry as safe spaces. “There have been times in those meetings when people said things not everyone agreed with,” Geesing said. “People calmly told others why they disagreed with them. I don’t think they’re as exclusive and hive-minded as you think they are.”
Duong replied his mission was to create a space dedicated to oppositional viewpoints. Prentice chimed in with an explanation of his confusion at this polarized political moment.
“I don’t really know where I am [politically] right now,” Prentice said. “The most I can say is centrist. All I know is that it feels like I went to sleep while I was in the left’s camp and all of the sudden, I woke up and I was in no man’s land. The right was firing this way and the left was firing that way and I was in the middle and I had to duck my head down. Otherwise, I’d get shredded.”
Several students have alleged that the views expressed in a “pro-free speech” group would likely amount to hate speech.
“Hate and ignorance are bedfellows,” Kyla Spencer ’18 wrote in a reply to Duong’s original email. “Just because you welcome people from all backgrounds doesn’t mean your group isn’t a hate group.”
Duong said he understood this sentiment, but hoped that people would approach him directly to talk through their differences in opinion.
“I wanted the email to be somewhat satirical,” Duong said. “Maybe I didn’t do a good job of making that clear, but I don’t want people to think that this is just a joke or that I’m not sincere with what I’m saying.”
Some students did not feel the email was satirical — rather, they felt it made a mockery of political conversation. “When someone turns free speech into a meme, or a joke, as was done in the email for Young Americans for Liberty, anyone who wants to challenge the assumptions within that discussion is seen as a buzzkill,” Weber said.
Overall, the group came to a consensus that they hoped to support students that do not identify with the left wing. Although the meeting concluded without a set date to meet again, they plan to carry out their mission through open discussions, speakers and support for one another.