Aug 31, 2014

Oppressive Freedom: To My Liberal Arts College

When Yale-NUS College was still being formed, we received a lot of flak, mostly from people from America and particularly people from Yale. They argued that a liberal arts college should support the free airing and discussion of views, and that won't happen in Singapore, where they restrict free speech. And so we, the Yale-NUS student body, are out to defend our right to this freedom here. We had Nicole Seah over for a talk, we have access to nationally banned books, we have the children's books that NLB threw out, we started our own little Pink Dot movement around the world. This student body prizes itself for being forward-thinking - we openly welcome discussions about feminism, prejudice and homosexuality; it's in our readings, our paper assignments, our lunchtime chats.

Or do we? Do we encourage discussion - a free, respectful airing of views from both sides?

With these issues, there is a "correct" opinion we hold; it's just different from most of society. We think that our forward-thinking views are not shared by others enough, and this college is giving people a chance to speak up, giving the oppressed us the right to express ourselves. The problem is that everyone is assumed to subscribe to this opinion, to the point that it becomes oppressive. There is no space to openly prefer the status quo that the rest are fighting against.

Try it. Use your supposed freedom to say something that the majority doesn't agree with, and you will be called names. You will be treated differently. The tyranny of the majority happens here too, just in reverse. If you believe that NLB did the right thing, if you are openly against Pink Dot, if you feel your manliness melting away when a girl's fixing your laptop, if you openly prefer to hang out with people of a lighter race, you will be slammed.

When I was disturbed by how all my American creative writing classmates in Iowa had chosen to write about divorce, a law student friend of mine made a loose and insensitive remark that criticised the American government and the First Amendment. Immediately the Facebook post exploded with extremely hateful, passionately angry comments by my schoolmates calling him names, denouncing him for being arrogantly ignorant, stupid, and a terrible person. (Disclaimer: I deleted the whole thing in the end, so I can't go back to it to check what exactly was said.) No one actually bothered consulting his views, or asking why he said that. None of them actually knew him, either.

Yesterday another friend told me that he preferred I not drive him around, because he'd feel really ashamed of himself. (While I passed on the first try, he has failed the test five times and has yet to succeed, and he felt inadequate, dependent, when I had to trouble myself for his sake.) He offers to carry bags for girls, he goes the extra mile to watch out for their safety. Is this being sexist? When I took the first statement out of context, within five minutes he was called a hypocrite; he was asked if he couldn't take having women in power.

And, in fact, let's suppose that he was in fact being sexist. Did that mean it was okay for the rest of the school to hurl him names, to verbally punish him for not being a part of the majority? Where is the freedom to talk about these things in a civilised manner? If we only call other people prejudiced but never accept the fact that the problem exists in our own community, aren't we simply avoiding the problem?

And so we self-censor. Of course self-censorship is vital, especially on the internet; but people feel afraid to say something unless it is entirely politically correct. People are afraid of unintentionally treading on others' toes, because they will get slammed for it. People are afraid of being called religious bigots, to the point of not daring to speak up for their own religious beliefs or even tell others about their religion. (If you do not share the same values, you deserve to be condemned.) People prefer not to speak, or remain anonymous when voicing controversial opinions. (It has become so easy to speak behind a veil. What if Alloy on Confessions had a name? What if we gave a name to every Confessions post? Why are they too afraid to give us a name?) We have become afraid to air our views. We said "we'll be nothing like the free-speech-restricting government", yet we are very much like it. The difference is that we have different kinds of censorship, and that Singapore codifies some of their regulations on speech.

Here, you tread the almost-invisible line of political correctness, not knowing if you've crossed it until you're hit; and many people choose not to try altogether. Keep your opinions to yourself. We have become oppressive, too, just like the people we said we'd never be.

We need more than people aggressively sounding alarms whenever someone unintentionally airs a controversial view - when their words sound ignorant or insensitive towards a specific community, or anti-feminist, or sexist, or homophobic. We need to be able to discuss why it's still a problem. Put this righteous anger aside and try to understand the reasons behind the matter, and accept that it isn't always us-versus-them, and that we haven't reached the ideal state of values yet, if there even is one.

(By the way, just in case you were wondering: Anyone who remotely knows me know I love Yale-NUS to bits, and that hasn't changed one bit. This is my one main gripe about the student culture. But many liberal arts colleges probably face a similar problem, and I'm writing this post not out of despair, but out of love and hope, because love is also about believing in the best for the school, and love makes you want to not give up.)

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