What is sensible behavior? Increasingly on college campuses across the United States, the debate over which values, creeds and behaviors are acceptable and should be encouraged rages on. And we’re sitting on the same powder kegs as our peers. I was in the Alumni Dining Hall this past week reading about the unfolding protests at Yale when one student started meandering from table to table sliding a paper infographic on acceptable Halloween attire into the plastic displays. The sheet showed a crouching woman in scantily clad american indian attire, smiling coyly.
Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonprofit organization supporting free speech on college campuses, designates Kenyon a “Red Light School.” FIRE explains that “A red light university has at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.” The policy in question refers to a particular clause in our student handbook: “Any behavior … which offends the sensibilities of others (whether students, faculty members, or visitors) … will result in disciplinary action.” In other words, if somebody on campus reports that their “sensibilities” have been offended, the offender is liable to be punished. Colleges are required to ensure that their campuses aren’t hostile environments under Title VII and IX, but history shows that free speech trumps these clauses once disputes enter the courtroom. Still, I think it could capture the ground rules of productive, meaningful debate for our purposes. To achieve this vision, Kenyon’s students must recognize that a sensibility is not something as narrow as an emotional response; sensibility is rational thought tempered with empathy.
It is at least somewhat true that students have increasingly demanded their schools to shield from hostile opinions. There is a powerful agenda of censorship and self-infantilization wrought by radical student activists on campuses across the country. (see Hampshire College’s rescinding an invitation to a band accused of having “too many” white members — the discussion of which made its students feel “unsafe” — and Smith College’s outrage at a racial epithet being uttered in a discussion about the use of racial epithets in formal education). To be sensible means to understand that emotional reactions are not always evidence of something being wrong, unjust, etc. Discomfort or upset, then, is not a ticket to tuning out or squelching an ostensibly wrong argument.
Students have also seemingly lost sight of the role of emotion in persuasive argument. Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic noted that, in the wake of the Yale protests, “one student wrote that … ‘friends are not going to class, are not doing their homework, are losing sleep, are skipping meals, and are having breakdowns.’” Emotions can and should be part of the discussion, but only to the extent that they substantiate rational claims toward improving the situation. At Yale, the reality is that the allegations of racism were based upon extremely ambitious, cynical interpretations of an explicitly well intentioned email statement by an administrator; perhaps she was being racist, but reasonable minds ubiquitously abstain from any prima facie judgement.
Most critically, these manipulative appeals to pity and emotion have no productive undercurrent. Perhaps the similar calls for resignation made at Mizzou and other institutions across the country are more rationally envisioned; still, Mizzou thought it was turning over a new leaf, only to find all the longstanding prejudiced critters scattered. The most publicized of these revelations was the terrifying Yak post that read “I’m going to stand my ground tomorrow and shoot every black person I see.” Horrifying, but the language is nonetheless telling: the president’s resignation didn’t really unsettle the “ground” that Mizzou’s racists still stand upon. But as far as I’m concerned, we ought to anticipate this disenchantment when, like Mizzou, sensible thought gives way to short-sighted emotional retribution. Students made this adminstrator–bad as he was–the target figurehead of their vindictive discontent. It was emotionally satisfying in the short term; then, they were surprised when things hadn’t actually changed that much.
At Kenyon, we need to take a lesson from these short-sighted solutions, and when we confront the crises among us, we must confront them with thoughtful reflection on the best avenues for securing long term institutional change, rather than kneeling to the demands of our immediate emotional response.
Christopher Comas ’19 is undeclared from Washington, D.C. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.