CUL and Colloquia want us to debate whether we need to “Dismantle ‘Big Gay.’” Events Editor Isabel Sepúlveda and Deputy Science Editor Sarah Braner didn’t quite do that, but they did talk LGBTQ+ identity, safety, and free speech on campus and where they intersect.
On Wednesday night, the Columbia Libertarians (CUL) and Colloquia invited Chadwick Moore to campus. Moore describes himself as a “former mainstream liberal media journalist” who now identifies as a conservative. The former journalist for Out Magazine and The Advocate rethought his political views after interviewing Milo Yiannopoulos, writing a New York Post article “coming out as a conservative.” After losing his job, he’s since become a conservative pundit and frequent guest on Tucker Carlson Tonight. He came to campus to speak on “Dismantling ‘Big Gay’” in hopes of “sparking discussion” on campus about the “Big Gay” – which, as far as we can tell, entails the “institutionalization of the gay rights movement” in left-wing politics.
We intended to cover this event as a regular event review, but came to realize early on that most of what was said violated Bwog’s policy on not giving a platform to hate speech. However, we spent an hour and ten minutes of our life at this event. Neither of us wanted that to go to waste, and it did spark conversation between us—though perhaps not quite the conversation the hosts were looking for.
Why did we go in the first place?
Isabel Sepúlveda: I’m a reporter whose job is to make sure we cover news about events on campus and for better or for worse, this seemed like a pretty significant one. It’s important that students know who other students are bringing to campus because that acts as an interesting proxy for the political culture that currently exists at Columbia. But more personally, as a queer student, I also wanted to see who was being brought to campus and what kind of space they were making for my community.
What about you, Sarah? Why did you decide to come?
Sarah Braner: I went for a lot of the same reasons that you did. I was also honestly kind of curious about just what would happen. I mean, I knew what would happen, and I turned out to be correct, but part of me was curious about if there would be any actual debate and sharing of ideas. Do you think that happened? I know I have my take on what happened but I want to hear yours first.
IS: In a word, no. Even though the ostensible reason that Colloquia and CUL bring these “provocative” speakers to campus is to “spark open discourse and debate,” the room we were in last night was not a space where people were open to new thoughts and ideas—an absolute must in order for those groups to achieve that goal. When students questioned Moore about his beliefs and factual inaccuracies in the things he said, he retreated further into his right-wing talking points. Those who challenged him also didn’t seem like they were going to change their minds, so really, what was the point?
SB: I agree. One of the many problems with what happened is that everyone left with the same point of view that they came in with. That’s not a discussion, that’s just people talking at each other. I think people forget that in a discussion, the speaker—Moore in this case—should also be open to changing their mind or at least considering what students have to say. But that didn’t happen—when students were asking questions, at no point did he open himself up to what they were saying, he just reiterated what he said earlier. And when students that did agree with him asked questions, they still weren’t challenging each other’s beliefs, only reaffirming them.
Why should we care that people are uncomfortable?
IS: But you know, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt here. Let’s say, regardless of the vibe we felt throughout the event, everyone in that room actually wanted to foster a rousing debate about whether gay people are recruiting children into their gay army. The fact that pretty much everyone reading this probably just cringed themselves to death reading the previous statement kind of proves my point but I’ll elaborate a little.
Being uncomfortable is okay. In fact, being uncomfortable with what people are saying is necessary for growth. That’s why echo chambers can be so problematic; when you’re inside one, you stagnate. A pedagogy of discomfort (a term one of my favorite professors introduced me to and one that I really take to heart) requires that we come into contact with things that make us uncomfortable and interrogate why the things we’re reading or hearing make us feel that way. In doing so, we can draw new conclusions about ourselves and others. But my discomfort in that event wasn’t me thinking “Oh, this man has different opinions than me, but I think I understand why he might have them.” It was, “Oh, this man hates who I am, who my friends are, and doesn’t think we deserve rights or safety.”
SB: Another problem is that there was a huge disparity in who was uncomfortable. Moore was in control and talking almost the whole time—there was barely any time for real questions. This wasn’t a situation where the pedagogy of discomfort is applicable because the people who were uncomfortable were the students with much less comparative power in the situation. A good discussion should aim to dissolve the power disparities between “teacher” and “student”, “speaker” and “audience.” This event only enforced them.
Are students safe on campus?
SB: We talked about this earlier but I think it’s fair to say that there’s a difference between the pedagogy of discomfort and endangering students. Throwing out slurs targeted at transgender people isn’t melting the snowflakes. These slurs are slurs for a reason—their history is inextricable from violence against trans people. There’s also a difference between reclaiming the slur and just perpetuating its violent history, and I truly think Moore was doing the latter. He talked about trans people like they weren’t people, and given that there are obviously trans students here, he’s parroting the rhetoric that threatens their safety and livelihoods.
IS: I totally agree. I think there’s also a difference between reclaiming a slur and denying its history, which Moore did in claiming that “it wasn’t a slur” but rather “a term of affection” used in his community—but unpacking that is the topic of a whole other thinkpiece so I’ll get back on track.
I think some people might argue that most queer students at Columbia wouldn’t put themselves into that space (probably because they’re less masochistic than us) and I think that’s probably true. But that doesn’t mean that queer students don’t know this is happening. They see signs all over campus; they see friends on Facebook marking interested or leaders of these groups posting about their event in class pages. Even if you don’t go sit in the room and listen to what this man has to say, you know that someone on campus is out there debating your humanity.
How are you meant to safely share your pronouns in class or otherwise make your identity known to those around you, knowing that there’s someone out there who might vocally disagree at best or at worst, make you the target of some kind of physical violence?
SB: He kept repeating talking points that the alt-right frequently uses, which many students from marginalized communities know to be intertwined with white supremacy and fascism, and are also inextricable from violence against marginalized communities. This isn’t just about queer students; this is about anyone who has something to lose with the rise of alt-right ideology. Inviting someone like that to campus shows that if it’s okay to say that women have a “sexual marketplace value” here, we don’t know what else is apparently accepted here either. That’s scary for students who, again, have something to lose. It makes us think that we might not be completely safe on campus.
IS: To get kind of personal for a minute, I grew up in a very conservative community in rural Pennsylvania, meaning that I’ve spent my entire life getting looks. Looks when my Puerto Rican father and white mother took their mixed-race children out to dinner. Looks when I would be affectionate with female-presenting friends and loved ones or go to prom with my best friend in a tux. That’s to say nothing of the slurs, rumors, and hundreds of other tiny acts of hatred lobbed at me, my siblings, and my closest friends (most of whom were also LGBTQ+) on a near-daily basis.
I had fun in high school, I was as well-adjusted as a person in that situation can be, but also I speak from experience when I say that no one should have to grow up like that. It’s growing up scared. It’s growing up hurting and hiding. I came to Columbia because it was sold as a place where I didn’t have to do that anymore. All the brochures for the “most diverse” Ivy sold Columbia as an institution where I could safely explore my identities as mixed-race, as queer, and be unabashedly myself. I’m lucky; as someone who passes for white, as a cis woman, I have much less to fear than many of my peers.
Moore claimed the fight for gay rights ended when Obergerfell v. Hodges made same-sex marriage the law of the land in all 50 states. He’s wrong. The fight for gay rights will end when my friends can come out as gay, bi, trans, non-binary, or otherwise LGBTQ+ without fear of retaliation by their families and their communities. It will end when people around the world can live their lives without fear of being fired, being ostracized, being killed for being themselves. It will end when people stop debating my abject humanity and those of the people I love before an audience of undergraduates.
SB: We talked earlier about how this event was supposed to inspire debate and free speech. But honestly, some things should not be nor do they need to be debated, like the humanity of LGBTQ+ people, women, people of color. Because that’s not a debate; that’s just legitimized hatred. Someone might claim that Moore really did mean to discuss the growing influence of corporatism on the LGBTQ+ rights movement, but I don’t believe that for a second when what was really being interrogated was the right of people I know and people I love to exist.
IS: Exactly. We talked about this in my CC class while reading Fredrick Douglass’ “What to the Negro is the Fourth of July.” In that speech, perhaps one of the best pieces of American rhetoric, he refuses to cede ground to the debate of enslaved peoples’ humanity. He knows they are human, with all the rights that entails, so there’s no need to bring it up.
But you know, our personal feelings and experiences don’t matter before the all-important, Constitutional right to free speech, as I’m sure our commenters will surely point out. Even hate speech is protected free speech under law and I don’t personally get to decide what’s okay and not okay for people to say on campus or what speakers they’re allowed to bring. Honestly, I probably shouldn’t have that power or we’d only be having talks about postcolonial theory until the end of time. But since “the free speech on campus” discussion has birthed a million think pieces, I don’t think we can or should just end this here. Sarah, how do you think the “free speech” debate ties into all of this?
What does all of this have to do with free speech?
SB: I’m going to make the assumption that when you ask someone what free speech means, they’ll say “it means you can say what you want.” “Free speech,” then, is a universal shorthand for that. But I’d like to try a different kind of approach—and excuse me for getting a bit philosophical here. Ludwig Wittgenstein posited in “Philosophical Investigations” that language is not just a bunch of universal shorthands for things, but that the meanings of words and phrases are subject to how and when they’re used. Therefore, “free speech” might mean something different in different contexts.
Tying something else in, one of the most common arguments I’ve seen against free speech always meaning you can say whatever you want is that “you can’t falsely yell fire in a crowded movie theater and cause a panic.” I’d argue that in such a scenario, the meaning of “free speech” has changed so that it doesn’t mean you can say whatever you want; the meaning has changed because of the space and context it’s in.
So what does that have to do with what happened last night? Well, the reason you can’t falsely yell fire in a crowded theater is that it endangers the people that are in the theater over a threat that isn’t really there. People push and shove, someone might get trampled on the way to the door. I’d argue the same concept holds true here: your right to free speech does not ensure your right to using it to put others in danger. When Moore throws out slurs and perpetuates ideas that stem from violent, alt-right ideology, and when CUL and Colloquia enable and encourage this, that’s what they are doing—not fostering a productive dialogue, but jeopardizing the safety of students from marginalized communities.
In this context, then, his right to free speech does not give him the right to threaten our safety, and his right to free speech does not entitle him to the megaphone that CUL and Colloquia gave him.
IS: We didn’t read Wittgenstein in CC but I think I understand what you’re saying, and I agree. Others might not, and that’s their prerogative but I think they also should think long and hard about why they feel that way. Why are they so resistant to listening and empathizing with other people’s pain and fear when they bring these people to campus? Why is this the conversation we need to have? Why do we need to debate other people’s humanity?
At the end of the day, we both agree that bringing speakers like Moore to campus isn’t a harmless act, no matter the logic student groups use to dress up their decision. This isn’t one debate confined to one Hamilton classroom; this affects the entire campus and everyone in it, and that’s something the people hosting these events at the very least need to recognize.
Pride month via Bwog Archives