Saturday, March 22, 2014

Protests and free speech on campus.

I've been thinking today about the Silent No More protest that happened on campus. For those unfamiliar with it, it is a pro-life event where people who regret their abortions share their stories. I am and will always be pro-choice, but I am not opposed to these people sharing their feelings. What bothers me is the way in which it was done - they held their event in a major outdoor space on campus, through which students must pass to travel between regularly used buildings, and they told their stories using megaphones, so that those in the vicinity had no choice but to listen. This is just a step down from last year's Genocide Awareness Project, which displayed photos of aborted fetuses alongside photos of genocide victims, trying to build a parallel between the two. On the days they were on campus, I walked with trepidation through Convocation Mall where the display was held, and removed my glasses so as not to see it, because images of violence upset me on a good day, and trigger me on a bad day. This year, I was able to avoid the area entirely.

It is unsurprising that students have called for banning this event, only to be met by other students, some of whom are pro-choice as well, insisting that free speech means it should be allowed to take place on campus. I vehemently disagree. As they are currently conceived, Silent No More and the Genocide Awareness Project overstep a boundary; there are ways to talk about controversial issues without this extent of pain. Indeed, Silent No More likely alienates some of the very students it aims to reach.

For a parallel, in November Out on Campus hosted an event for Trans Day of Remembrance, to recognize violence and recognize trans people who have been murdered. In consideration for fellow students who might not be in an emotional space to hear about violence, we placed signs at each end of the memorial display to let students know that it would be something difficult. There were absolutely no graphic images - we shared pictures of people when they were living, as much as we could - and no loud speakers, nothing that would prevent a student from walking by without engaging with the display. And a safe space was provided with resources for people who found it troubling. 

Of course, transphobic violence and abortion are not equivalents, but this is the closest example I could think of for something that was well-executed on campus and pertained to a troubling issue. Any event has some potential to be triggering; if someone were triggered by or afraid of dogs, for instance, the "Puppy Therapy" events preceding exams could be difficult. However, they are meant to calm students, not to stress them out. The dogs are contained in a circle of responsible humans, carefully trained, and well controlled, and one can easily look the other direction. By using sound, these anti-abortion events create a barrier that students cannot get around, and that is not fair.

What if rape survivors shared our stories through megaphones, detail after detail, in protest? Shared photos of the aftermath, puffy eyes with a haunting stillness, shredded body parts, caked blood under fingernails, pink spit from so many tears? Free speech says this is our right, too, like that of the women who regret their abortions. It is their right to speak, but it is mine not to be forced to listen, to hear stories that share experience of such violence, pain, fear, and sorrow when I have my own to shoulder. We have students who have survived many forms of trauma, and it is cruel to protest violence--and I don't doubt that many of the the Silent No More speakers experienced their abortions as violent--with further violence. 

Another student likened this amplification of their protest to finding loud music triggering - should we ban that as well? Perhaps it was meant to be a straw man argument, but indeed I feel that blasting music on campus is inappropriate. Yes, we should restrict events from playing music that distracts students who are hard at work, and also brings about more visceral responses from those in our community who have experienced violence. When the beat shakes you as you sit in the library, the soundtrack of an event outside echoing that of a painful day, or the jarring bass in syncopation with your heartbeat as it races, this is not conducive to education. There is a threshold where decibels feel violent to those already in pain. We need not be wrapped in quilts in padded rooms, but for students who have survived trauma, coming to campus can be difficult enough. Congenial and educational initiatives, rather than alienating protests, would spare us so much grief.

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