Wellesley’s Tolerant Fascism

The comedian George Carlin once famously remarked, “When fascism comes to America, it will not be in brown and black shirts.

It will not be with jack-boots. It will be Nike sneakers and Smiley shirts.” What he didn’t realize was that it would also come in the form of an editorial appearing in the newspaper of an elite college. In a piece sporting the rather turgid title “Free Speech is not Violated at Wellesley,” the staff of the Wellesley News–who should have at least a passing familiarity with the principles of the First Amendment, considering that they work for a newspaper–actually make the argument that while free speech is all cool and stuff, it’s like totes okay to stop people from saying things that make certain people feel bad.

Or, as the editorial puts it:

Many members of our community, including students, alumnae and faculty, have criticized the Wellesley community for becoming an environment where free speech is not allowed or is a violated right. Many outside sources have painted us as a bunch of hot house flowers who cannot exist in the real world. However, we fundamentally disagree with that characterization, and we disagree with the idea that free speech is infringed upon at Wellesley. Rather, our Wellesley community will not stand for hate speech, and will call it out when possible.

I saw the Hot House Flowers when they opened up for Prefab Sprout back in 1989–but that’s not important right now. What is important, however, is that Wellesley wants you to know that it will defend to the death your right to say what you want, so long as it doesn’t fall into the category of what they call hate speech (or #h8speech, for those who only speak Twitter). But when does free speech cross the line into hate speech? Not to worry, Wellesley is on that too:

Wellesley students are generally correct in their attempts to differentiate what is viable discourse from what is just hate speech. Wellesley is certainly not a place for racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, transphobia or any other type of discriminatory speech. Shutting down rhetoric that undermines the existence and rights of others is not a violation of free speech; it is hate speech.

Ah, so it’s up to the wizened students of Wellesley, with the breadth of experience gained from their grueling months attending a liberal university, to determine what is “viable discourse” and what is not. And once they determine what’s allowed to be said, they also reserve the right to themselves to “shut down” the “rhetoric” that they determine is offensive. Exactly how they’re supposed to accomplish this remains unsaid, but the implied threat that appears later makes it pretty clear:

If people are given the resources to learn and either continue to speak hate speech or refuse to adapt their beliefs, then hostility may be warranted.

Like the hostility shown at recent campus riots–I mean, protests–where agitators used violence as a form of viable discourse? I ain’t lyin’ girls, the brown in those shirts really sets off your eyes.

Then, to prove their Consitutional bona fides, they provide us a lesson as to what the First Amendment really means:

The founding fathers put free speech in the Constitution as a way to protect the disenfranchised and to protect individual citizens from the power of the government. The spirit of free speech is to protect the suppressed, not to protect a free-for-all where anything is acceptable, no matter how hateful and damaging.

If that’s the case, it’s a relief that the founders didn’t mention anything about protecting citizens from the students of Wellesley–otherwise we wouldn’t have them to save us from hearing anything that makes us feel unsafe or damaged.

Still, this got me thinking about what the First Amendment actually says–and wouldn’t you know, it’s just a teensey bit different from how the Wellesley News describes it:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Hmm, I don’t see anything in there about how speech is only free so long as it protects the suppressed or the disenfranchised. In fact, it looks a lot like the founders really did want a free-for-all where anything is acceptable. That’s why you don’t see the word except anywhere in the First Amendment.

You see, the founding fathers understood a very simple concept that seems beyond the grasp of the numb nuts who run the Wellesley paper, and whose parents spend $47 grand a year in tuition to make their kids even stupider than they already are: popular speech doesn’t need protection, because everybody already likes it. The reason the First Amendment exists is to make sure that unpopular speech is protected from those who would seek to shut it down. Sometimes this means that Martin Luther King, Jr. gets his say on civil rights, even at a time when large parts of the country didn’t want to hear it. And sometimes, this means that the assholes at the Westboro “Baptist” “Church” get to spew their venom about gays and fallen soldiers. The First Amendment makes no distinction as to whether speech is noble, hateful or anywhere in between. It merely guarantees the right to speak–which includes, by the way, the asinine ramblings on the editorial page of the Wellesley News.

That the staff there doesn’t get this doesn’t speak well of their knowledge of American history or the Constitution–but it does a lot to explain the sorry state of journalism these days.

NOTE: It appears as if the site hosting the original Wellesley editorial is down. So that you can view the article in its entirety, I’ve pasted the complete text below:

Many members of our community, including students, alumnae and faculty, have criticized the Wellesley community for becoming an environment where free speech is not allowed or is a violated right. Many outside sources have painted us as a bunch of hot house flowers who cannot exist in the real world. However, we fundamentally disagree with that characterization, and we disagree with the idea that free speech is infringed upon at Wellesley. Rather, our Wellesley community will not stand for hate speech, and will call it out when possible.

Wellesley students are generally correct in their attempts to differentiate what is viable discourse from what is just hate speech. Wellesley is certainly not a place for racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, transphobia or any other type of discriminatory speech. Shutting down rhetoric that undermines the existence and rights of others is not a violation of free speech; it is hate speech. The founding fathers put free speech in the Constitution as a way to protect the disenfranchised and to protect individual citizens from the power of the government. The spirit of free speech is to protect the suppressed, not to protect a free-for-all where anything is acceptable, no matter how hateful and damaging.

This being said, the tone surrounding the current discourse is becoming increasingly hostile. Wellesley College is an institution whose aim is to educate. Students who come to Wellesley hail from a variety of diverse backgrounds. With this diversity comes previously-held biases that are in part the products of home environments. Wellesley forces us to both recognize and grow from these beliefs, as is the mark of a good college education. However, as students, it is important to recognize that this process does not occur without bumps along the way. It is inevitable that there will be moments in this growth process where mistakes will happen and controversial statements will be said. However, we argue that these questionable claims should be mitigated by education as opposed to personal attacks.

We have all said problematic claims, the origins of which were ingrained in us by our discriminatory and biased society. Luckily, most of us have been taught by our peers and mentors at Wellesley in a productive way. It is vital that we encourage people to correct and learn from their mistakes rather than berate them for a lack of education they could not control. While it is expected that these lessons will be difficult and often personal, holding difficult conversations for the sake of educating is very different from shaming on the basis of ignorance.

This being said, if people are given the resources to learn and either continue to speak hate speech or refuse to adapt their beliefs, then hostility may be warranted. If people continue to support racist politicians or pay for speakers that prop up speech that will lead to the harm of others, then it is critical to take the appropriate measures to hold them accountable for their actions. It is important to note that our preference for education over beration regards students who may have not been given the chance to learn. Rather, we are not referring to those who have already had the incentive to learn and should have taken the opportunities to do so. Paid professional lecturers and politicians are among those who should know better.

We at The Wellesley News, are not interested in any type of tone policing. The emotional labor required to educate people is immense and is additional weight that is put on those who are already forced to defend their human rights. There is no denying that problematic opinions need to be addressed in order to stop Wellesley from becoming a place where hate speech and casual discrimination is okay. However, as a community we need to make an effort to have this dialogue in a constructive and educational way in order to build our community up. Talk-back, protest videos and personal correspondences are also ways to have a constructive dialogue. Let us first bridge the gap between students in our community before we resort to personal attacks. Our student body is not only smart, it is also kind. Let us demonstrate that through productive dialogue.

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