By Isabella Dominique, AU SPA ’20
As a junior at American University, I have spent a lot of time thinking about campus climate and the way we talk to each other. I learned about the differing perspectives and backgrounds that are present at AU and how that might impact students’ participation in discussion. As a black woman on this campus, I have taken the time to better understand the role of my allies in difficult conversations. I realized that challenging dialogues often place a heavy burden on minorities to not only defend our ideas, but ourselves. And as someone who worked extensively to bring the Civil Discourse program to life, I have come to understand the many ways in which all AU students can significantly benefit from an increased understanding of civility, but also in drawing the line between when engaging conversations help people understand and when they do more harm than good.
I began working with Professor Schwartz on the program in the Fall of 2017. As we piloted the program, I was responsible for coordinating with students as they created their own solutions to campus climate issues. We hosted several events that gave students the opportunities to identify the biggest issues and best solutions regarding campus climate. Then, in spring semester 2018, the program entered its research stage. I spent time reading about the difficulties other schools have faced with campus speakers and general intolerance from both sides of the political spectrum. I also hosted several focus groups with students to better understand varying opinions and perspectives regarding speech, intolerance, and civility. Now, I will continue working with Professor Schwartz’s team to facilitate more campus discussions.
When I first began working on the Civil Discourse program, I remember feeling extraordinarily passionate about freedom of speech. I felt that the First Amendment was one of the most important pieces of American law and should be protected by any means necessary. In every class I have taken about the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, I have always found myself defending our right to say almost anything we want to. Regardless of my identity as a black woman, I knew that it was important that hate speech and political speech receive the highest level of protection – I thought I had skin thick enough to endure most things someone could say to me.
I was able to ask students difficult questions that aimed to address the root issues that prompted the need for civil discourse both at AU and around the nation. While I will always continue to find free speech important and essential, I have begun to better understand how identity, privilege, and perspective alter an individual’s experience with speech and civility. This is not to say that free speech is no longer productive, but instead that it presents a complicated challenge to people who bear greater burdens.
During my time researching, discussing with the team, and hosting focus groups in the Spring semester, my opinion regarding the First Amendment evolved. However, much of this evolution stemmed from the focus groups because I was able to better understand the ways in which different people understood their role regarding speech. My partner and I posed hypothetical questions that aimed to facilitate a line-drawing exercise with the participants: Do you always respect other people’s ideas? When does it come time to shut down speech? What role do you take in conversations regarding speech? Have you ever been in a situation in which someone deeply offended your identity? How would you react if someone denied the Holocaust in a conversation with you? Most students said that they would tolerate most speech and that there is rarely a time for speech to shut down. While there were a few exceptions (i.e. students who admitted to their strong likelihood of punching Nazis), I noticed that students who did not have minority status were more willing to protect all ideas, regardless of whether they dehumanized others.
However, when I shared my own answers to the group, I realized that my willingness to listen to those ideas is far lower. This likely stems from all that I know about my African American history and my womanhood, but I had never before realized the role my identity plays in both my tolerance and the strain we feel in these conversations. After a semester’s worth of focus groups, I concluded that often times the notion of respecting all ideas places an undue burden on minorities. The focus groups gave me the power to realize how deeply my blackness impacted my patience and capacity to listen to bigotry because of the direct impact it has on me. With that, I was left to wonder how civil discourse can encourage all students to use their privilege to create a positive and healthy learning environment.
I recognize that even though I value my worth as a black woman over the need to respect bigoted ideas, I still, and always will, have more to learn about what productive discussions look like. While I learned last semester that I am more vulnerable when I am put in situations with hateful individuals, I do understand that this does not make me immune from learning more about interacting with our passionate and politically-active peers. At the beginning of my civil discourse journey, I often found myself fiercely defending the First Amendment in its entirety. I knew I had a thick skin and would be able tolerate most hate speech. However, as I interacted with more of my AU peers, I learned that there was a distinct disconnect regarding the people on which the burden of free speech falls. Moving forward, I am eager to learn more about how we can present opposing views in a productive way that respects each other’s identities and takes the unequal burdens of our free speech rights into account.
Isabella Dominique is a junior at American University double-majoring in CLEG and Political Science and minoring in SIS. She currently serves as the Vice President of AU’s NAACP chapter as well as the Co-President of the AU Pre-Law Society. She is also leading an Alternative Break to Kingston, Jamaica to study slavery and reparations in the Caribbean.