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Letter: Defining what “offensive” is

30 January 2014 By Alexandra Woodfin, Vice President of University Residence Government One Comment

Given the controversial opinions that emerged on our campus over the past few semesters, it is understandable that speech on campus has become a huge concern. Through the “Be the Change” movement, the campus rally, the SGA video, and even the ban on chalking, it is clear that hateful speech will not be tolerated at Towson University.

I love our positive and inclusive campus climate, so I’m writing today because I sense a residual fear of offending other people.

One of the reasons I chose to attend TU is because I knew that I would be presented with opinions and perspectives that were nothing like my own. I was not disappointed.

At TU, we do not just accept our diversity, we celebrate it. We have students of all ages, races, nationalities, religions, genders, and political affiliations, and we are allowed, for the most part, to express our ourselves and spread awareness about the things we care about. Bill Nye once said, “Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t,” and not a day goes by that I don’t learn something from a member of the TU community.

So, what would happen if we told someone that we were offended by what they had to say?

If “offensive” simply meant that their opinion conflicted with our values, we could agree to disagree and move on. But, “offensive” is a charged word around here.

“Offensive” suggests that the offender is unenlightened, ignorant, and inconsiderate. “Offensive” does not consider that the other person just might not see eye-to-eye with us. “Offensive” suggests that they are wrong, and that their opinion is invalid.

Most of the counteraction took place with the sincere desire to express Towson’s community values to the national media, but other reactions to the unpopular views were merely thoughtless condemnation. This brings to mind the “WSU GTFO” banner hung in the College of Liberal Arts building. It also brings to mind the fact that we still have not yet regained our chalking “privileges.” Is this how Towson University deals with opinions it doesn’t like?

If I, as a student leader, don’t feel comfortable speaking out on some issues for fear of being labeled “offensive,” I can’t imagine how many other students remain silent on issues that might be important to the campus community.

You don’t have to outright censor speech to keep people from talking. Make people afraid to speak out for fear that they’ll be witch-hunted for their “offensive” opinions, and you’ve done the same thing.

“Every time you say something that’s offensive to another person you just caused a discussion,” said Louis C.K. “You just forced them to have to think.” While I am not suggesting that we deliberately offend each other for the sake of causing discussion, I am suggesting that we rethink “offensive.”

The next time you feel the urge to label something “offensive,” ask yourself: “By whose standards is this offensive?” To thoughtlessly call someone else’s speech “offensive” and declare that it should not be heard, is to deny yourself and someone else the opportunity to have a meaningful discussion.

Universities are a place to learn. College-level classes teach you that there is a different way to think. We learn the most from people with whom we don’t immediately agree. In order to foster a healthy campus discourse, we need to ensure that all views are considered.

If we start telling people what they can and can’t say, we are not being inclusive. We are being exclusive. I hope that we can uphold our values of diversity, inclusion, and compassion while also learning how to include different and possibly unpopular opinions in our dialogue. Because as Harry Truman once said, “when even one American – who has done nothing wrong – is forced by fear to shut his mind and close his mouth, then all Americans are in peril.”



One Comment »

  • Bob said:

    1. that banner was awesome
    2. chalking is dumb
    3. we do not have to let hate speech have a venue, or let it stand without confronting it
    4. you have no thesis in this letter
    5. things that are offensive need to be called out, whether that induces the process of change in the minds of bigots or simply gets them to shut up is irrelevant.

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