Discussing Race, Sex, Religion, and Trigger Warnings: Year 2s Attend the Hannah Arendt Conference

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Bard’s president, Leon Botstein, welcoming students. Photo credit: Bard.

Lily Gordon, ‘17

You may or may not believe in trigger warnings, but here’s one right now: this article will discuss sexual violence and racial oppression. I say this, not to dissuade anyone from reading or discussing these issues, but as a basic courtesy so that you know the weight of this article’s subject matter and do not walk headlong into surprise, so that you are ready, so that if this writing could bring you back to a moment of trauma or pain, if these topics can hurt you, you will know and will be prepared.

On Thursday, October 20th, the Year 2s attended the Hannah Arendt Conference at Bard College. The topic of the conference was “Real Talk: Difficult Questions about Race, Sex, and Religion,” and— over the course of President Botstein’s welcome, Roger Berkowitz’s introduction, and three panels on sexual assault, trigger warnings, and race—we engaged these difficult questions.

President Botstein began the conference by arguing for “uncomfortable learning.” He said that talking for him, “as an Eastern European Jew,” is a form of “thinking aloud,” yet he acknowledged that—due to different backgrounds and linguistic habits—it is worth addressing what rules, if any, exist for creating common ground in discussions. He criticized journalists, groupthink, appropriated speech, censorship, and propaganda. He said he believed in “long-winded music, long-winded talk, and thick books.” Students should learn, in his opinion, “with the widest tolerance of speaking and hearing as possible.” He argued that one should not confuse criticism with being offended, and said anti-semitism did not offend him because “prejudice is easily unraveled.” He said he has to work on not condescending to women of color, for instance, and to speak to figures who are not white well-educated endowed men like himself. As he stood at the podium facing hundreds of Bard College and BHSEC students, faculty, and academics in the audience—silent or murmuring— Botstein declared, “I don’t believe in lecture. I believe in conversation.”

After Professor Berkowitz’ introduction, a panel of four white women discussed Title IX, assault on campus, “date rape,” cultural and legal attitudes towards gender discrimination, drugs and consent, violence in sex, and generational differences in the feminist movement. Despite panelist Alexandra Brodsky’s attempts to broaden the discussion of sexual violence and discrimination away from just the experiences of white cis women, an overwhelming majority of the conversation tended towards a rather old-fashioned white, cis, hetero woman-centered understanding of gender relations, as reflective of the panelists themselves. Toward the end, moderator Jennifer Doyle, who is white herself, mentioned contributions of women of color in the feminist movement.

Several students noticed the lack of racial diversity in the panel, and tension began to build in the audience.

In the second panel, two white men discussed trigger warnings and freedom of speech. Panelist Greg Lukianoff had humor on his voice as he showed cases where students and staff’s freedom of speech had been impaired by trigger warnings. He argued trigger warnings were a form of “coddling the American mind” and were ridiculous, censoring, overly-sensitive, and unproductive as methods of protecting people from trauma (he believes people shouldn’t avoid their fears and compares triggering speech to a phobia of elevators). Discussant Angus Johnston, although a proponent of free speech like Lukianoff, argued for a greater incorporation of respect in conversation.

When the panel broke for questions, I asked, after clarifying how much I appreciated conversations about freedom of speech, how we could have these kinds of conversations when not a single person of color had been on that stage. I asked how we could talk about freedom of speech beyond just freedom to offend people and to allow freedom of speech to include a true variety of people, not just the “white sphere.”  Lukianoff acknowledged the lack of diversity, yet ultimately described how human beings are incredibly adept at finding ways to dismiss each other, and that he shouldn’t be dismissed simply for being a white man. The panel quickly changed the topic of conversation. Yet a bit later, Miranda Leong ‘17 pressed on and asked how their experiences as white men might influence how they understood microaggressions and trigger warnings.

It took about four hours from the beginning of the conference until a single person of color stepped on the stage to speak. The third panel (whose subject matter was race) featured a white female moderator and three Black speakers—poet and essayist Erica Hunt, Yale Professor and writer of “Race, Truth, and Our Two Realities” in the NY Times Christopher Lebron, and conservative political commentator Deroy Murdock. Hunt spoke about “meshing”—a method of acting like a screen door to violent language. Murdock offered his perspective as a conservative Black man and suggested people needed a better sense of humor and to give people the benefit of the doubt that they weren’t racist.

Professor Lebron applauded the students who raised questions about the conference itself and and spoke about the problems with the idea of conversations. He said that we were not really having a conversation, that this was unilateral communication where he was talking at us. He harkened back to the notion of whites attempting to reach “common ground,” and how it is insincere—a way to “shield oneself from admitting nothing like that has happened to you.

“We talk a lot about talking,” said Lebron, “but we don’t talk enough about silence… we don’t talk enough about reflection.” He said we need to learn how to be consumers of testimony and that “what we need is an act of silence.”

He argued that not all offensive speech acts are created equal. “There is,” he explained, “a presumption that we’re on a level playing field. We are not.” there was a flaw in assuming all offfensive speech acts are created equal, which is false because the “positions from which we speak are not created equal. It is not a level playing field of social power.” He spoke about how phrases like “America is a land of equal opportunity” are “full of it” and even threatening because of how he struggles to be taken seriously, and how sharply he feels the racial inequality of our country.

He spoke about how he gave a talk in 2014 on how white Americans must imagine what it is like to be a black person in America, how that the white cop who choked Eric Garner on tape was excalpated: “You saw it; I saw it; there’s nothing to debate about.” He remembered texting his friend, “take care of your son. It’s not a safe country.” At the conference dinner, the dean of the University of Pennsylvannia sked him “You think what i need to do is imagine what it’s like to be a black person in America?” Lebron answered yes. The dean asked, “Well you think you know what it’s like to be a white man?”

“Yet I’m sitting here with you, aren’t I?”

Lebron said to the Brown students in the audience, “you are the upteenth generation told to be patient…to be asked why you are so angry…to watch black people left on the street with no consequences. So I ask you: why shouldn’t you be angry?” He quoted James Baldwin on how white people always in a hurry to forget history, while Black people with 300 years of abuse and oppression remember their history, and words can trigger their historical awareness. He argued the language of telling minorities to be patient and cool their anger is “almost always a sociopolitical tool used to disrupt the motivation to agitate for what is rightfully yours,” that minorities cant sit on the sidelines.

Lebron clarified that, although it is important to have conversations, the one thing we don’t need to talk about “is your own self-respect,” which, if threatened, we shouldn’t compromise about. “That’s the end of that difficult conversation.”

Yet conversation persists. The conference continues to spark heated discussions in Year 2 seminar classes as well as in the hallways and libraries. Some students felt the speaker selection itself was created to communicate a particular message about how to conduct conversations, as if the conference were not a pure survey but rather a push for a particular viewpoint. Students still discuss the subject matter of the conference itself, but much of the reflection is on the hidden motivations and its own faults in diversity of speakers and opinion.

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