“We need to be less afraid of being called racists, classists, and ableists, and more afraid of actually being those things,” lamented one student at Scripps College’s BeHeard Forum. The subject we had gathered to discuss was Silencing and Tone Policing – two phrases I had never heard until the week prior, when several Facebook comment wars exploded over supposed racialized and transphobic event titles, descriptions, and surveys. People’s actions and intentions soon became irrelevant because only language, and those who got to wield it, mattered.

Such encounters do not come as a surprise. We live in a time when extreme political correctness and campus movements – started mostly by minority students in an effort to silence any speech that they find hurtful or offensive – are raging across the country. The BeHeard Forum, intended to be a forum for resolving differences, quickly became an opportunity for people identifying as “victims” to complain about their pain and suffering while stifling constructive discourse concerning what constitutes appropriate campus debate. The forum highlighted the desire of some campus groups to ensure that those individuals with whom they disagree not be heard at all.

This particular forum was held in response to a Scripps Voice poll. The writer asked, “Are you aware of any Scripps stereotypes? Do they affect you?” The stereotypes in question essentially boil down to “promiscuous student” or “earnest feminist.” Somehow, this too became an issue of race when students began questioning if “fitting in” to a Scripps stereotype meant belonging to a certain race.

And then there was the outrage over a feminist event which served cupcakes decorated with vulvas, at which a former employee of the Queer Resource Center became incensed, stating, “How dare you associate vulvas with being a woman. I feel so violated.” Despite apologies from the event organizer, the conversation devolved into accusations of insensitivity towards trans women.

Tone policing is defined as the process in which a white or otherwise “privileged” person focuses on how something is being said, particularly when it is driven by anger or other heightened emotions. Silencing is when a member of a “victim class” does not feel safe enough to speak because another person – typically an authority figure or a white classmate – imposes a status or set of assumptions which the victim does not share. For example, if a straight person casually asks a classmate, “Are you interested in any guys?” the speaker has made an assumption about someone’s sexual identity that may or may not be accurate. This assumption, victims argue, silences the other person, even though the bisexual or lesbian classmate could just say something like “I’m interested in girls” to clear up any confusion.


Both silencing and tone policing occur mostly on social media and in classrooms. They typically happen when a person of color (POC) “calls out” a white person for saying something “racially inappropriate.” The POC then proceeds to scold the person for saying something that is deemed both incorrect and offensive to not only the person individually, but also the entire group the person represents. This accusation runs counter to the idea that a single person of a particular ethnic or racial group should not be assumed to be the voice of or the same as all other persons from that group.

So what happens when someone is actually called out? According to the group at the BeHeard Forum, an ideal response from the person who is being called out would be for that person to apologize, thank the person who has called her out for taking time out of her day to do so, which must have been hard to do because of the “wall of silence the offender has put up,” and then research how to improve her thinking. In this “conversation,” there is never any room for a defense from the accused. Should the allegedly insensitive student attempt to explain her intent, it will only be interpreted as further “verbal violence.”

Without knowing it, these aggrieved students have actually replicated the same type of forced apologies and self-abasement pioneered by hard line Maoists, in the infamous re-education camps of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. That process was invented to suppress any type of intellectual dissent.

Forcing an individual to apologize and then express gratitude to the person for calling her out is a violation of our academic and social codes of allowing students to act and speak freely. I asked if perhaps this was a tall order. I asked if some focus should be placed on the ways in which people are called out. Unsurprisingly, I was quickly shut down. A fellow student responded that she felt entirely comfortable calling out offenders on their privilege, publicly ridiculing them on social media outlets, and making them feel uncomfortable and attacked if it ultimately helps them to “become better.”

One thing that was clear was that facts were entirely irrelevant in the discussion of offensive speech. One student explained, “In this case, feelings are facts.” But, of course, feelings are not facts, nor will they ever be facts. You can debate facts. Feelings, in these cases, are just weapons. Not allowing someone to defend herself because you deem your feelings superior to that person’s ability to speak freely is selfish. Nowhere in this process is there room for conflicting opinions on any level, which is an intellectual travesty, especially at a liberal arts college.

This forum was a discouraging experience. I watched other students pat one another on the back for finding and taking down bits and pieces of racism that simply did not exist, while being outwardly hostile and rude to their classmates. On college campuses today, tone policing and silencing are one-way streets. Only “privileged” students can commit speech crimes. All of the victims are people of color, LGTBQ*, or those who feel oppressed in some manner.
The moral absolutism that so many of the offended students believed in was dismaying. As was the contempt for the value of free speech, without which there is no possibility of reaching a genuine understanding or meaningful co-existence in our community. Unfortunately, this self-indulgent distortion of basic academic and social freedoms seems all too common on American college campuses.


Image: Flickr

Categories: Opinion
  • kora

    Just food for thought– ever think that those POCS and the LGBTQ people are calling people out because they have tried talking to them and have gotten no results? or because what is being said is actually offensive? This piece of writing comes from someone who doesn’t know what oppression is– why compare these students to maoists and not to MLK who did a similar thing in order to fight repressive conservatives like yourself? This article is written without empathy, and from a place of privilege. The fact that some people are so blind sided is quite frightening.

    • J

      You suggestion that “what is still being said is actually offensive” still assumes that one should curb their exchange of opinions based on an entirely arbitrary measure- that is, what someone determines is offensive. What has been proven is that the threshold of “offensive” is one that has continually been adjusted to ensure that only one point of view dominates campus discussion.

      I find it amusing that the ones who are encouraging more open dialogue (the authors of this article) are also those who you call “repressive.”

      Finally, you also make an assumption about power dynamics that was once true, but has changed. Which point of view now exclusively dominates discussion and has caused painful resignations of respected student and administrative figures? That sounds like fairly substantive power to me.

      Your opponents are not ignorant, they just have a different opinion. Until you accept this, meaningful discourse cannot take place.

    • Really?

      kora, you have just proved the author’s point. Rather than critiquing the arguments themselves, you complain about the author’s “privilege.” Seems an awful lot like the sort of “intentional or unintentional excluding/erasing of identities or experiences” the safe-spacers were whining about. Stop pretending your goal is equality for all people. You’re not fooling anybody.

    • P

      The author is Jewish, and if you believe that Jews aren’t a persecuted group , then there is something wrong with your general analysis. Jews have been oppressed since the start of time. Pretty much everyone on the 5C campuses is in a place of privilege; whether you are wealthy or not, African-American, white, Native American, Hispanic/Latino, Asian, etc., being a student at CMC, Harvey Mudd, Pitzer, Pomona, or Scripps puts you in a position of power.

    • Robert

      First, there is nothing “frightening” about this article. You might disagree with it, but the perspective and main points are very moderate. Probably the majority of people would be much less diplomatic.

      The main issue though is that language can be offensive for various reasons. Some have to do with the speaker, and others the listener. Many people really can be paranoid, overly sensitive, looking for problems that don’t exist, selfish, naturally annoying, and hypocritical. It is fair to ask, when someone takes offense at something you say, whether the source is you or them. There is nothing scary or necessarily insensitive about this, and people won’t always agree. It’s just part of life. It is always a fair question to ask.

    • Klig Carson

      A very good idea for White and religious students is to ignore LGBTQ people and minorities. Let them rave. Let them rant. Let them riot. Do your best to stay out of their way. Someday, you’ll have a degree and can move on. Progressives can only hurt you, if you engage them. Hurt you they will, if given a chance.

      Academia has become an asylum and adult daycare in some instances. These young self centered lunatics whine continuously, rather than prosper and show what they are made of. They blame imaginary enemies like White men. F them, everyone of the them is not worth you time. Let them wallow in self pity and imaginary slights. They are not your problem.

  • J

    The author of this opinion piece presents the sort of reasoned argument that the administrations of the 5Cs urgently need to take into account. It’s so easy to move when pushed, but it’s important tome in a beneficial direction rather than simply be reactive. My friend watched a recent rally where person after person spoke up about “oppression”, but when one woman strayed from the mob mentality the mob railed against her. White males aren’t the only possible holders of prejudice: it’s an attitude anybody is free to adopt. The concerns addressed here are central to a system of open inquiry. Otherwise, as the writer noted, the thought police will continue to prevail here. Being wrong at the top of your voice doesn’t make you right. Think, reflect, then speak. And let others speak as well.

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