Last Friday, the News’ View sounded the alarm regarding a “speech crisis” on Yale’s campus. Regardless of the nature of the “crisis,” a hotly contested issue in and of itself, I fear the News’ response — a 20 percent increase in opinion and editorial content due to an added page on Fridays, intended to “make room for our readers’ many voices” — will only exacerbate the deeper problems of speech and expression on campus, not move to alleviate them.
As anyone who’s ever B.S.ed a paper knows, just because someone is expressing his thoughts in written and methodical form doesn’t necessarily make him more thoughtful. Nor is articulate speech necessarily less offensive, as the News itself has demonstrated by publishing a piece last month accusing immigrants of “cannibalizing” the United States or a suspicious letter to the editor yesterday that sang the praises of Inquisition-era Spain.
The decision the News has made is symptomatic of a wider problem regarding the kinds of expression students consider to be appropriate. Much of the discussion surrounding events such as this year’s graffiti incidents or last year’s proliferation of offensive posters has surrounded their content, but very little has been said about the genre or medium of a speech act — with the result being that some genres are considered to be inherently more “valid” than others. The assumption we make is twofold: that speech is only important insofar as it contributes to “rational debate;” and that rational debate is only possible if everyone is willing to speak in paragraphs, preferably under the auspices of a well-respected institution. Both of these assumptions are explicable, but both are damaging.
First of all, while it’s a truism that many Yalies consider themselves future politicians (or at least future speechwriters), it’s also a truism that most conversations on campus are more lighthearted than high-minded: more like episodes of “The O.C.” than “The West Wing.” The fact of the matter is that while intellectual debate is important among members of a community, individuals should also feel free to express themselves in ways other than those intended to contribute to debate.
Unfortunately, while we don’t seem to have a problem in private conversation with expressing our thoughts and feelings rather than debating them, we disparage public actions that are expressive in nature. This is often prevented only when the actors themselves claim that they want to provide a “springboard” for further, rational debate. This is certainly admirable, but to be frank it is not always necessary: public self-expression is not necessarily less legitimate if it is intended merely to express. It is for this reason that I do not share the News’ wariness about the appropriateness of last night’s vigil; students felt they needed a quiet public space to express dismay about the present and hope for the future, and I am glad it was provided to them.
I am much more troubled, however, by the fact that this vigil — as well as yesterday’s other University-sponsored activities — were the first public responses to this “crisis” outside the pages of the News. Students should feel empowered to take public action without official support, and have done so in the past individually or through campus organizations. The fact that students felt the need to operate under official auspices indicates a need for their concerns to be “taken seriously” — but to take something seriously is not necessarily to take it to heart. For example, this year’s Yale College Council (as well as the Yale Police Department) has endured far more incisive criticism from the Rumpus than from the News, as the tabloid has taken advantage of its “unserious” style to express some very serious content.
Furthermore, to create a single approved space for “serious debate” is to sequester debate by restricting it to that space. As anyone who’s ever tabled on Beinecke Plaza knows, students usually resent the incursion of the political into their daily lives. Official “forum” events to discuss issues or the News’ self-anointment as the standard-bearer of campus debate, make it much easier to allow students not to be bothered by politics unless they are at the event or reading the paper.
If we continue to insist that all speech be rational rather than expressive, and that all debate be handled in a perfectly serious manner, this is the logical consequence. We should recognize the dangers of such an approach, and stop automatically assuming that any thought that can be expressed in paragraphs, no matter how potentially offensive, is more valuable than a thought that can be expressed in posters.
Dara Lind is a junior in Berkeley College. Her column runs on alternate Thursdays.