Free Conversation

Again my classmates hide and in darkness come to silence me. Again attempting to sacrifice black life for all life, a theme all too common. Posters in Val, displayed anonymously, again, mourned the death of free speech as the “true victim” of black suffering. Bold statements from a void. You, in placing these posters so publicly in our dining hall, where I was supposed to see them, be surrounded by them, where are you?

Why hide? Your views are unpopular and incendiary. Maybe asking you to reveal yourselves would be too much. I know that it would be tough to stand and be counted. I know that it would be tough to walk around in the minority on this campus with your skin black powder, an abyss, only potential danger; I know that it would be tough to be a walking threat; and I know that it would be tough not to hide. But I can’t. And I won’t. Even if you proclaimed not to see my blackness, even if I didn’t show it to you, it would still be there and I am what I won’t let others see. So are you.

But where are you? You left me with this: “If you want to protest this sign feel free. Because that’s why the First Amendment exists.” Where are you? If you wanted me to use my speech to protest, then why did you not stay to listen? Should I speak to your posters? I thought my speech was for conversation, dialogue, growth, consensus, democracy, and community? No? If not, tell me, what is my speech for? Let me be clear: When you proclaimed “free speech” you meant to howl “shut up!” and I know that this is because you are in great pain. I know that you would like us to shut up so as to preserve your open forum of non-conflicting opinions. I feel the same. I know that you feel you need to hide your identity in order to preserve Amherst as your community of comfort. I feel the same. I know that you feel violently persecuted as we all strive for a safer, less vitriolic world. I feel the same. We have more in common than you may think. The situation we find ourselves in is very difficult, frightening, and far more complex than the simple, reactionary invocation of “free speech.” I know that you know this.

But let’s put our free speech to good use. I’ll admit, I’m not the most learned on the subject of safe space, but let’s pause, abstract from ourselves, and consider some seemingly rational questions to ask others and ourselves: Why do people claim they need a safe space? What is unsafe about the space currently? How might I be contributing to this? How and why does a safe space threaten me? What is a safe space? Are people obligated to speak to me? And vice-versa? Can a private majority prohibit me from speaking? Just because I can say something, should I? Is there a time and a place for certain speech? How does my speech affect my audience, my community?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. And neither do you. But hopefully they are somewhere between us. Where are you? We need to speak to one another, because that’s why the First Amendment exists.