By: Rachel Hershkop
Student: I couldn’t speak, I though that they were wrong but I couldn’t say a word. I’m afraid. Afraid to share my opinion.
Rachel: That was a student, who wishes to remain anonymous, on her experience on campus.
My name is Rachel and this is Silenced on From Scratch Media.
Ariella: My name is Ariella Daniels and right now I work as a campus professional. I work with Israel advocates across the country.
Rachel: This is Ariella she is a psychology major at York University and was last year’s President of Hasbara at York.
Ariella: Hasbara at York, is the Israel advocacy club at York University. They strive to educate students at York University about Israel, and bring the pro-Israel community together. Through social events, as well as political discourse, they strive to bring dialogue to campus about issues regarding Israel, not only that but to bring conversations to students where we can have a free space to have dialogue about Israel.
Rachel: what is campus climate concerning your clubs subject matter?
Ariella: I wouldn’t say that all students at York are anti-Israel, but unfortunately the students who make decisions on campus, and who have positions of authority, portray a very specific, a very negative image about Israel”
Rachel: Ariella says that this dominant view creates a problem because
Ariella: When there is a club that has an alternative viewpoint, or perspective, it can be quite a challenging thought.
Rachel: Because when a student is exposed to one type of narrative and a club challenges that narrative:
Ariella: It makes the students uncomfortable, and that goes back to political correctness
Rachel: It sounds like things have been difficult. I’ve seen the reactions you get from clubs and student government. What’s that like?
Ariella: It’s almost like you’re walking on eggshells. You have to tighten up every statement and every action, because God forbid it should offend someone. But, at the end of the day, just because someone may disagree with my viewpoint, doesn’t mean I said something wrong. I think there is a limit. It’s one thing to be offensive or discriminatory and racist, and that is wrong, but I don’t think that saying a statement that others might disagree with should be censored on campus.
Rachel: The PC, or politically correct, culture which is rampant on York’s campus, has affected Hasbara’s ability to advocate for its cause, and this is perpetrated by student officials and student government.
Ariella: Every program, every initiative any campaign that we did we had to answer a lot of questions that administration used to ask us. When we get permits for space we are asked specific questions about our campaigns, which I think is important. But at the same time, where is the line? You shouldn’t prevent a campaign if it brings discomfort to students.
Rachel: The problem is that if a topic makes students uncomfortable it’s shut down, and this prevent dialogue.
Ariella: You know, if it’s crossing a line of course we have to prevent it, but if it prevents dialogue that’s a different story
Rachel: Whenever Hasbara had an event the admin asked them an endless number of questions
Ariella: Is the subject matter controversial, is the subject matter political, will it create a fuss on campus? And I would say, if the topic makes students feel a little uncomfortable, that’s fine, that’s why we are in university, to have these conversations. As long as it’s not going against any regulations or policies from the university or Canada, then I don’t see the problem with having these kinds of campaigns. And why should there be a double standard because I don’t see the same stringency on the other side.
Rachel: So your saying that they are being selective about who they apply political correctness to?
Ariella: The anti-Israel side has brought a lot of hostility to campus and I don’t see enough being done to regulate that.
Rachel: Although the affects of PC culture may seem to concern only students on campus, it should in fact concern anyone who cares about free speech. Because, the on campus politics of today, are often the global politics of tomorrow, as Ariella says:
Ariella: Really, everyone single person is affected by this.
Rachel: Everyone is affected by PC culture, which means that everyone has the potential to be silenced
This topic matters because the culture on campuses:
Ariella: Dictates the way we function as a society, the way we interact as a society. And if these topics are not discussed then I don’t know what the future will entail.
Rachel: How is PC culture affecting students on campus?
Ariella: unfortunately because of the way people practice PC culture you can't even ask questions, because asking questions and being a critical thinker is seen as racism. Where to me, offending someone or disagreeing with someone’s opinion is not racism. The line between offending someone and being racism, or being discriminatory, really has to be drawn, because if I disagree with someone that does not make me anti-black, it does not make me a homophobe. And PC culture, the way it’s practiced, is preventing us from exploring new ideas and it’s preventing us from getting an education.
Rachel: Ariella continued to explain how students often refuse to have conversations because they don’t want to be controversial.
Ariella: We can talk about Israel advocacy, we can talk about campaigns and statements, but in general we are a club that focuses on dialogue and I came across a lot of students who want to have a dialogue but felt uncomfortable having those conversations on campus. Just in case someone beside would disagree with them or find them offensive. Not only that but, a lot of students don’t even know how to have a conversation that might be controversial, or have a conversation with someone they might disagree with. In terms of advocacy, we advocate for a pro-dialogue stance, and in general, based on the interaction I have with students, I found that students are not provided with that platform on campus.
Rachel: It should be, that if someone is offended they should take that as an opportunity to start a dialogue. They should start a discussion with the goal of education and promoting tolerance, but the reality on campus is very different.
Ariella: The idea that something might cause a fuss or cause a ruckus on campus is evidence of the situation on campus.
Rachel: So, my question is, what do you do if someone is offended? What is your response?
Ariella: Always give sympathy, if someone is offended of course I give sympathy. I’m sorry you feel that way, lets discuss this so I can better understand why you feel this way and why you are offended. That's a way of being educated, to have that conversation. If someone is offended I want to know why, and I want to know their perspective, because otherwise how will I learn? And hopefully they will see that they can learn from me. If I’m having a conversation with someone and I am offended by them, I hope they would show the sympathy and courtesy to ask me why. It’s the only way we can learn from each other and that’s what a university’s all about.
Rachel: The kinds of ideas that are maintained by university students are not necessarily helpful in terms of educating themselves and others.
Ariella: I feel like the general university mentality is that we shouldn’t question things and we shouldn’t have conversations, and we shouldn’t disagree with each other. But in my opinion I think that a university’s sole purpose, to have those conversations and to challenge yourself.
Rachel: We all go to university to get our degrees, that’s what an educational institution is for, but this isn’t its only function:
Ariella: The idea of being in an educational institution is that I’m around other students, likeminded or students with different opinions. I’m around students with different backgrounds and to me it’s an opportunity to learn from them.
Rachel: Universities should be creating at atmosphere where students feel comfortable engaging in dialogue. This atmosphere should be encouraged in the classroom, in student government, in student clubs, all in all this should be included in every platform that is available for student life on campus
Ariella: The purpose is to facilitate a type of dialogue, to facilitate a space where students can learn from each other, because unfortunately the culture on campus right now is that students run away from confrontation.
Rachel: Before we go further in this topic we must ask an important question. What is a university? What’s its purpose? In order to fully understand the affect of PC culture, we have to know whether it supports universities founding principle or not.
Judith: The modern North American, European and, in theory, all universities are founded on principles of academic freedom.
Rachel: Which translates to freedom of speech for students and professors. But, as Ariella commented, this isn’t the reality on York’s campus. Instead:
Judith: Any positive discourse about Israel is being shut down very quickly and any negative discourse is being celebrated.
Rachel: This comment hearkens back to Ariella’s statement that not everyone on campus is receiving equal treatment from the PC culture, as Judith Cohen just mentioned.
Judith: I am Judith Cohen, my title is Doctor.
Rachel: Judith teaches at York university
Judith: In the music department and one course at Glendon in sociology.
Rachel: I asked Judith if the PC culture on campus has affected her, and although she is still going strong:
Judith: I’ve noticed over the years that I find myself hesitating before I say, never mind Israel, but before I even say Jewish music. And I say it. I haven’t changed the course content. But I notice it and I don’t like to notice myself noticing it.
Rachel: When you talk about political correctness there are a few terms that have to be defined. But, it’s important to realize that the way a term is defined does not necessarily reflect the way students are practicing it on campus.
So the most obvious question is, what is political correctness?
Ariella: Political correctness in its truest form means the culture of how we speak and the appropriateness of how we speak to others.
Rachel: This is a way to prevent hate speech, which includes racism, anti-Semitism, sexism and homophobia. It prevents people from being targeted based on sex, gender, religion or sexual orientation. But the problem with political correctness is that:
Ariella: The line has been moved to a point where political correctness is used to prevent students from expressing their opinions or expressing their ideas that may counter the opinions of others. And that’s a huge problem because it prevents discourse among students. I am against racism, or any or any forms of prejudice or discrimination, but I find that political correctness has come to a point where they are not even allowed to have freedom of speech. Where they are allowed to criticize a situation or question, or defy a popular ideology or even ask questions. And that’s very tough because questions, questioning things, and being a critical thinker, is what university is all about, it’s what being a student is all about, it’s what advocacy is all about. To ask questions and to find answers and to find truth. And that’s what Hasbara at York is all about.
Rachel: Another term that needs to be discussed is “safe space”. Now this term was originally used described an institution that doesn’t tolerate racism, sexism, hate speech etc. and, as such, was a safe space for students who were targeted. But now the term is used to describe a space where students are protected from things that make them feel uncomfortable, and this is a huge problem because the way safe space is being practiced completely prevents free speech.
Judith: I think it's a term that is misused and pushed beyond the bounds. I think people need to feel safe, but it’s used to avoid controversial discussions and at that point it’s not safe. I do recognize that there are ppl who desperately need a safe space, and I hope that they have it, but shutting down discussion is pretty scary.
Rachel: The issue of the PC culture silencing free speech is a very real problem on campus. When I began researching this topic I sent out a survey, aimed at students on campuses across the GTA, including York, Ryerson, U of T and Seneca College. And the responses were astoundingly disturbing. 73% of those who responded said that, at one point or another, they have actually experienced fear when it came to sharing an opinion on campus. Some said that they were afraid of being attacked for their opinions; some even said they were afraid that they would suffer bodily harm.
Judith: I hear more about students who feel intimidated by other students. I’ve heard about students being intimidated by contract faculty. It’s difficult because you think that the university would be there as a kind of beacon of rational and open thought, and it is in theory, but I don’t know how far that has been going in practice. But academic freedom is a very tricky concept.
Rachel: I discussed the idea of academic freedom and free speech with Judith and Ariella. We all shared the same conclusion, that the idea of political correctness may have been onto something.
Judith: When I was very little I was playing with my cousin in the sandbox, and my aunt was there with us, and I threw sand in my cousin’s face and she got very mad and she yelled at me and pulled me out of the sandbox. And I remember saying “it’s a free country” and she gave me a slap and said, “you have to learn the difference between freedom and liberty’. She actually said that! And she said ‘you have to learn that freedom doesn’t mean throwing sand in peoples faces’. I never forgot that.
And that’s the problem with the concept is that people seem to feel free to say insulting, hurtful and even defamatory things and call that academic freedom and freedom of expression and at the same time shut down things they don’t like, and seem to think that isn’t about academic freedom of expression.
They might say it’s about free spaces. But what’s the line between safe spaces and censorship? When does academic freedom encroach into throwing metaphoric sand in someone’s eyes?
We all, students, faculty, everybody, we have to learn how to draw these very tricky borders between free speech and defamation. It’s not easy but we have to keep on working on that.
Rachel: So now the question is what can be done? We need political correctness in order to prevent hate speech. But, as we have discussed. political correctness limits free speech. So what’s the solution, because it seems like we can’t have one without the other. In my survey one student suggested that the only solution is to expel or suspend students. Not only is this solution unrealistic, but it only deals with the symptoms of the issue. Another suggestion, although idealistic, seems to be on the right track.
Student: We can teach kids that we should meet ignorance with compassion and education and not alienation. We can also teach each other to react calmly to differing opinions. So people would be more willing to share opinions without fear of being persecuted.
Rachel: But on the other hand, Ariella takes a different stance. She says that the solution lies in the way students are educated.
Ariella: A lot can be done in order to create a space where students can have respectful dialogue. As well as policy making, maybe there is a way we can make statements where they reaffirm their commitment against racism, against all forms of discrimination and prejudice, but being for a free academic society and being for freedom of speech and academic integrity. We have to find a balance. Where people are being appropriate, but academic freedom is being protected.
Rachel: Ariella affirms that this wont be a quick fix. We must come up with short-term goals in order to ensure the success of long-term goals.
Ariella: And I think it will take years to work on this.
Rachel: But ultimately this is not an impossible feat.
So, all things said and done, where does this leave the idea of political correctness?
Ariella: Can we take back a definition? The original intention of political correctness is very important and it should be taken seriously: to prevent racism, to prevent targeting of specific groups. But, I don’t think we can take back a definition. I think we have to create a whole new term to combat the way that PC culture is being practiced.”
Rachel: Because, as things stand, the modern definition and application of political correctness is unacceptable.
This is an incredibly important issue and everyone needs to be a part of the solution. Because if we don’t protect the voices and rights of students when we are still on campus, who will protect free speech when we are the leaders of the generation?
My name is Rachel and this is Silenced on From Scratch Media.
Thank you to bensound.com for providing all of the music for this podcast.
Thank you to Judith Cohen for your time and insights.
Thank you to Ariella Daniels for your honesty and integrity in this interview. And thank you for making time for me in your busy schedule.
Friedman, M., & Narveson, J. (1995). Political correctness: For and against.
-This text documents two prominent philosophers opinions as they debate many topics that raise controversy on campuses including: “feminism, campus speech codes, the western canon, and the nature of truth.”
Sarah Dunant (1994) The War of The Words: The Political Correctness Debate
-This book is more reader friendly and has contributions from many different authors who are trying to understand the PC culture of today.
FIRE - Defending individual rights in higher education. This is a website which advocates for on-campus rights, if you would like a quick rundown of the situation on campus and the importance of the topic read this article: “Why is Free Speech Important on Campus”.
Constitution Acts, 1867 to 1982: Government of Canada: Document that lists the rights of freedom that belong to all citizens, including the rights to: “freedom of conscience and religion; freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication; freedom of peaceful assembly; and freedom of association.” As well as democratic rights, legal rights and equality rights.