Insight: Bite your tongue!?!

““Some freedoms of speech make me nervous.”- Saul Williams
It’s invoked all the time, debated regularly, and thought to be fundamental to this nation: freedom of speech. If you watch the headlines swoop by on CNN or listen to talk radio, you know that freedom of speech is a pretty dangerous topic these days. A couple of recent stories have made me wonder how free we are to say things, especially considering the Right’s well crafted attempt to limit vocal descent.

The other night I found myself watching a CSPAN broadcast of David Horowitz at Duke University. Now I knew what to expect, disparaging comments to the audience, indictment of the Left, conspiracy theories about higher education shutting out conservatives, largely the same fair he’s been serving since he introduced his Academic Rights campaign a few years ago. But while watching, it dawned on me, that this man, who had never spent any time teaching, even less time researching, and most of his time making noise was going to affect my ability to speak in the classroom.

Since I’ve been blogging I’ve made clear that I’m not a journalist. I make no faux-appeal to objectivity but since I’ve been teaching I’ve attempted to fill the criterion of semi-objective instructor. Now I say semi-objective because I’d be lying to you if I said I do not have ideological leaning and that I didn’t attempt to present multiple perspectives to both challenge students and throw them off the scent of my leanings. I’ve always taken this as part of good critical pedagogy. But with the arrival of the Campus Watch and even more evidence that freedom of speech is not protected during instruction, I wonder how much longer I’ll be able to express myself.

A small example, several times a year I give a guest lecture on Race and Ethnicity. One of the first things I do is have students point to their neighbor and say, “You’re a racist.” I then have them repeat the process so that everyone has pointed at someone and been pointed at. Then I tell them, “Now that we’ve all been called a racist and called someone a racist, we can put away our racist fingers and stop keep a tally of who is racist.” The idea behind the exercise is to begin to de-stigmatize the concept of racism. I often find most people think of racism as simply riding on horseback and burning crosses, while avoiding the subtle ways we contribute to systems of oppression. But at the end of my lecture last week, I kept getting a question that hadn’t really bothered me much in the past, but this time around it did. “Why are you calling me a racist?” which is usually coupled with “Why use the term racist?” In the past, I’ve simply gone into a discussion of racism as sickness that we all have to deal with and that labeling it properly is the first step to healing it. But as I talked, I found it necessary to insert, “it’s my belief that…” Now one could say that I naturally imply that all things are my belief, but saying it out loud was troubling. I was not concerned that students knew I had an “agenda”. Instead I was concerned that they wouldn’t understand that what I presented for 50 minutes was scientific and grounded.

I believe the education I provide about social inequality should make you uncomfortable, should make you challenge your prior thinking, and should make you realize that at the age of 18, 21, or 35 that you don’t have the world figured out. I realize we’re now in the middle of a well crafted movement to once again have our voices limited, but this time through more savvy, okay semi-savvy means. David Horowitz and his cronies are hell-bent on getting rid of ideologues and the disciplines that support them (humanities and some social sciences). I’ve heard him repeatedly make claims that instructors in these disciplines simply advance their perspective uncritically. In my own teaching this couldn’t be further from the truth, but I wonder in a couple of years will my name make it into his next book, or will I be subject to a witch-hunt for my blog, or have my job called for because I asked students to take responsibility for the systems of oppression that they participate in?

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About Garlin Gilchrist II

I am the City of Detroit's first ever Deputy Technology Director for Civic Community Engagement. My job is to open up the city's public data and information for the consumption and benefit of all Detroiters. I currently live in Detroit, my hometown, with my beautiful wife Ellen and our twins Garlin III and Emily Grace. I'm from Detroit. I created Detroit Diaspora, and was formerly the National Campaign Director at MoveOn.org. I also co-hosted The #WinReport on "The Good Fight," a an award winning, nationally syndicated radio show that was one of Apple's Best of 2013. After graduating with degrees in Computer Engineering and Computer Science from the University of Michigan, I became a Software Engineer at Microsoft. By day, I helped build SharePoint into the fastest growth product in the company's history. On my personal time, I sought out opportunities to connect my technical skills with community building efforts across the country. This led to my co-founding The SuperSpade: Black Thought at the Highest Level, a leading Black political blog. I served as Social Media Manager for the 2008 Obama campaign in Washington, and then became Director of New Media at the Center for Community Change. I spent two years creating and implementing a strategy for the Center to take it's 40 years of community organizing experience into the digital age. I speak before diverse audiences on effective & responsive government, empowerment in revolutionary new organizing spaces, increasing civic engagement & participation through emerging technologies and protecting civil rights in the age of the Internet. Full bio here.

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