Diversity and Democracy

Speech, Spectacle, and Looking Closely for What One Cannot See

For more than two decades, I taught courses in the philosophy of law encompassing both analytical and ethical jurisprudence. The section on freedom of expression was always one of the liveliest as students grappled with the nature of profound offense; the circumstances, if any, under which speech acts should be proscribed under liberty-limiting principles; and the question of whether a university’s educational mission can provide sufficient grounds for restricting “hate speech.” Those classes have been on my mind lately amidst the current proliferation of accusations that free speech is threatened at colleges and universities and burgeoning legislation that calls for censuring and, in some cases, criminalizing protests and disruptions on campuses.

While the recent legislation has focused on charges of illiberalism in higher education, the issues at the center of the bills often extend beyond the academy. The perspectives these issues have invited in other contexts can inform the work of college and university communities as they come together to safeguard an environment in which the free exchange of ideas can thrive. Consider, for instance, the debate spurred last spring by the display of artist Dana Schutz’s Open Casket at the Whitney Museum’s 2017 Biennial. Her abstract and figurative depiction of what has become an “American image” of lynching victim Emmett Till provoked outrage in many. Though Schutz maintains that her controversial work was motivated, in part, by a desire to express empathy with Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, and draw attention to persistent institutionalized violence against young black men, at the public opening, an African American artist, Parker Bright, stood for several hours in front of the painting while wearing a T-shirt bearing the words “Black Death Spectacle.” Other protestors silently joined in, while another artist, Hannah Black (2017), posted a letter calling for not only the painting’s removal, but also its destruction on grounds that “it is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun.”

Black asserted that Schutz offended on several grounds. She argued, among other things, that the subject matter was illegitimate for a white artist, and that representations of Till’s body perpetuated symbols of white supremacy and black fear rather than suggesting inspiration for blacks and defiance of whites, goals purportedly sought by Till’s mother. Josephine Livingstone and Lovia Gyarkye (2017) defended Black and her allies in a New Republic article, arguing that the artistic technique “blurred the reality of Till’s death, infusing it with subjectivity” and enjoining: “When Hannah Black and her co-signers call for the destruction of this painting, try not to interpret them as book-burners doing the work of censorship. Instead, hear their open letter as a call for silence inside a church. How will you hear the dead boy’s voice, if you keep speaking over him?”

At the same time, artist Kara Walker, whose own controversial work has often prompted equally vitriolic responses, wrote on Instagram:

The history of painting is full of graphic violence and narratives that don’t necessarily belong to the artists [sic] own life, or perhaps, when we are feeling generous we can ascribe the artist some human feeling, some empathy toward her subject. Perhaps, as with Gentileschi we hastily associate her work with trauma she experienced in her own life. I tend to think this unfair, as she is more than just her trauma. As are we all. I am more than a woman, more than the descendant of Africa, more than my fathers [sic] daughter. More than black more than the sum of my experiences thus far. I experience painting too as a site of potentiality, of query, a space to join physical and emotional energy, political and allegorical forms. Painting—and a lot of art often lasts longer than the controversies that greet it. I say this as a shout to every artist and artwork that gives rise to vocal outrage. Perhaps it too gives rise to deeper inquiries and better art. It can only do this when it is seen. (Quoted in Smith 2017)

Similarly, Cuban-American artist Coco Fusco (2017) found it “alarming and entirely wrongheaded to call for the censorship and destruction of an artwork, no matter what its content is or who made it.” Though supporting the protestors who are raising awareness of the intricacies of political representation, Fusco objected to the essentialist overtones in Black’s letter and the assumption that certain artistic content is out of bounds for some painters based solely on race—attributing this stance to what she perceives as “a deeply puritanical and anti-intellectual strain in American culture that expresses itself by putting moral judgment before aesthetic understanding.”

Divisions on Campus

The expansive divide surrounding the question of what constitutes racial offense, who should be allowed to decide, and what the appropriate response should be has been playing out on a variety of college and university campuses across the country in relation to freedom of expression. Consider, for instance, the debate at Evergreen State College over protests and calls by some students for the firing of a biology professor, who eventually moved his classes off campus after being advised by campus police to do so for safety reasons. The controversy erupted when a campus tradition of a “Day of Absence,” in which students and faculty of color met off campus to discuss ways to promote equity and inclusion, followed by a “Day of Presence,” which reunites all groups, was replaced by a request from the organizers of the Day of Absence that white people stay off campus. The professor objected on an email list, maintaining:

There is a huge difference between a group or coalition deciding to voluntarily absent themselves from a shared space in order to highlight their vital and underappreciated roles (the theme of the Douglas Turner Ward play Day of Absence, as well as the recent Women’s Day walkout), and a group encouraging another group to go away. The first is a forceful call to consciousness, which is, of course, crippling to the logic of oppression. The second is a show of force, and an act of oppression in and of itself. (Quoted in Jaschik 2017)

Thus, the professor encouraged all white people to be on campus during the Day of Absence, contending that the right to speak in a college setting should not be based on the contingencies of birth, namely skin color.

The professor also expressed vocal opposition to a recommendation by the college’s Equity and Inclusion Council that an “equity justification/explanation” be required for any new faculty hires, suggesting that such an approach “subordinates all other characteristics of applicants to one thing” (quoted in Jaschik 2017). Considering this objection together with the comments on the Day of Absence, the professor’s critics labeled him a racist and issued demands to the president that he be fired. Colleges and universities, like art museums, have traditionally been white spaces. In the view of some of the protestors, disrupting this racial hierarchy by creating a tradition destabilizing these norms is a critical step forward in promoting racial and social justice.

While Evergreen’s president reaffirmed his commitment to protecting the faculty member’s right to freedom of expression, he announced the implementation of mandatory diversity and cultural sensitivity training for all faculty members; the creation of a center for equity and multiculturalism; the hiring of a vice president for equity and diversity issues; and the adoption of a new policy instituting the practice of acknowledging at every official event that Evergreen State is on land stolen from Native Americans.

Burgeoning Legislation

Both cases described above force us to consider the question of what the white gaze sees and cannot see and the harm that comes from being blind to the perspectives of people of color when addressing the relationship between diversity and the common good alongside issues of freedom of expression. They recall the opening paragraph of philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s essay “Black Orpheus”:

When you removed the gag that was keeping these black mouths shut, what were you hoping for? That they would sing your praises? Did you think that when they raised themselves up again, you would read adoration in the eyes of these heads that our fathers had forced to bend down to the very ground? Here are black men standing, looking at us, and I hope that you—like me—will feel the shock of being seen. For three thousand years, the white man has enjoyed the privilege of seeing without being seen; he was only a look—the light from his eyes drew each thing out of the shadow of its birth; the whiteness of his skin was another look, condensed light. The white man—white because he was man, white like daylight, white like truth, white like virtue—lighted up the creation like a torch and unveiled the secret white essence of beings. Today, these black men are looking at us, and our gaze comes back to our own eyes.... (1964–5, 13).

The issues are complex, nuanced, and require the capacity to talk across differences and listen critically with heightened sensitivity and sophistication. Such attempts to meaningfully engage in racial healing and reconciliation are being thwarted by legislative efforts, based on proposals emerging from the Goldwater Institute and the Ethics and Public Policy Center, to censure or criminalize student protests or disruptions of free speech. As professors at Columbia University and Barnard College (2017) maintain in their faculty statement on the Charles Murray lecture held on Columbia’s campus, which concludes with a rejection of what they refer to as “cynically mistitled ‘Campus Free Speech Bills’”:

…these bills seek to impose serious sanctions on students who engage in a range of otherwise protected speech and action in educational settings. Their effect would be to radically undermine the robust campus environment where ideas are hotly debated, contested, and argued in the name of eliminating any ‘disturbance.’ We believe strongly in the right of student groups to invite speakers of choice to campus. But by the same token, those who find those speakers’ views abhorrent have an equal right to express their disagreement in a vigorous, although non-violent, manner. Efforts to vanquish disturbance from our campus mirror similar efforts to impose civility norms on academic inquiry and debate. In our view, one of the primary aims and methods of a liberal arts education is to disturb well-settled beliefs, opinions, and notions of truth through reasoned and rigorous interrogation.

Their concern is well-founded. A new Tennessee law, for example, requires public colleges and universities to adopt statements supporting freedom of expression consistent with the University of Chicago’s Free Speech Policy while barring “free speech zones” that are set aside in public spaces for the purpose of political protests; bans institutions from rescinding invitations to speakers invited by students or faculty; defines student-on-student harassment in a particular way; prohibits viewpoint discrimination in the allocation of student fees to student organizations; and protects faculty from being punished for speech in the classroom, except when that speech is “not reasonably germane to the subject matter of the class as broadly construed, and comprises a substantial portion of classroom instruction” (Senate Education Committee 2017, 5). When it goes into effect, this law would allow faculty to engage in speech that students might regard as creating a hostile learning environment, as when a faculty member uses racist language directly related to the subject matter. There may, indeed, be pedagogical reasons for a faculty member to use such language, but certainly not all repeated racialist language related to the subject matter is justified, especially when it is intentionally intended to stigmatize.

Proposed laws in Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin mandate the suspension or expulsion of students who “infringe on the ‘expressive rights’ of others,” whereas other state laws prohibit the disinvitation of speakers (California) or any other measure that would abridge constitutional freedoms (North Carolina, Utah, Virginia) (Quintana and Thomason 2017). The Association of American Colleges and Universities stands with the American Association of University Professors in opposing any legislation “that interferes with the institutional autonomy of colleges and universities by undermining the role of faculty, administration, and governing board[s] in institutional decision-making and the role of students in the formulation and application of institutional policies affecting student affairs” (quoted in Quintana and Thomason 2017). In addition, we condemn the use of intimidation and harassment as a means of attempting to silence any member of a campus exercising academic freedom or any collective entity exerting institutional autonomy. 

The Core of a Liberal Education

As a college president, I expected to receive public criticism, and praise, related to a wide range of issues. Yet, I confess that I was taken aback when bands of roving strangers contacted me demanding that certain faculty members be fired or sanctioned because of political stances they had taken. These messages contained personal information about the faculty members and their families, making me fear for their safety.

College administrators, faculty, staff, students, and governing boards must stand together in guaranteeing the free exchange of ideas, regardless of the political perspectives informing those ideas, by creating infrastructures to support such exchange on an ongoing basis. As I wrote recently in a statement on “Free Expression, Liberal Education, and Inclusive Excellence,” republished in these pages:

To prepare the next generation of informed citizens who will shape our democracy, colleges and universities must remain free from entrenched and intellectually rigid forms of political partisanship and engage students from across the political spectrum. In fact, the honest and genuine pursuit of truth, at the core of a liberal education, mandates tolerance for ambiguity and respect for those bearing radically different perspectives.


Black, Hannah. 2017. “Open Letter to the Curators and Staff of the Whitney Biennial.” Posted on the Black Contemporary Art tumblr, March 21. http://blackcontemporaryart.tumblr.com/post/158661755087/submission-please-read-share-hannah-blacks.

Columbia University and Barnard College Faculty. 2017. “Faculty Statement on Charles Murray Lecture,” March 20. http://www.law.columbia.edu/open-university-project/academic-freedom/faculty-murray-statement.

Fusco, Coco. 2017. “Censorship, Not the Painting, Must Go: On Dana Schutz’s Image of Emmett Till.” Hyperallergic, March 27.

Jaschik, Scott. “Who Defines What Is Racist?” Inside Higher Ed, May 30. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/05/30/escalating-debate-race-evergreen-state-students-demand-firing-professor.

Livingstone, Josephine, and Lovia Gyarkye. 2017. “The Case Against Dana Schutz.” New Republic, March 22. https://newrepublic.com/article/141506/case-dana-schutz.

Quintana, Chris, and Andy Thomason. 2017. “The States Where Campus Free-Speech Bills Are Being Born: A Rundown.” Chronicle of Higher Education, May 15. http://www.chronicle.com/article/The-States-Where-Campus/240073.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1964–5. “Black Orpheus.” Massachusetts Review 6 (1): 13–52. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25087216.

Senate Education Committee, Tennessee. 2017. “Amendment No. 1 to SB0723.” http://www.capitol.tn.gov/Bills/110/Amend/SA0333.pdf.

Smith, Roberta. 2017. “Should Art That Infuriates Be Removed?” New York Times, March 27. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/27/arts/design/emmett-till-whitney-biennial-schutz.html?_r=0.

Lynn Pasquerella is President of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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