Though the anti-Islam words that appeared on the Diag earlier this week could be easily erased by a group of students with rags and buckets of water, the same cannot be said for the sentiments behind the statements, which are systemic and unfortunately long-lived.
We cannot dismiss those hostile messages with a shrug and an invocation of the importance of “free speech.” We cannot let the broader debate over “safe spaces” on college campuses obscure the fact that, whatever the motivation or intention, whoever wrote the messages gave a voice to hatred and hostility toward the religion of Islam and those who follow it. And we cannot deny that this Islamophobia dehumanizes and marginalizes millions of Muslims who are guilty of nothing more than being Muslims, laying the groundwork for persecution and violence toward them.
Unfortunately, this is precisely what the vast majority of comments on The Michigan Daily’s coverage of the anti-Islam chalk do. They attempt to dilute the maliciousness behind the statements and attribute the outrage that the words sparked to yet another round of the debate surrounding “safe spaces” on university campuses. “Look what we have here,” they seem to say, “another episode of anguish for those goddamn, cry-baby liberal students, so coddled that they simply can’t handle discomfort, let alone honest disagreement.”
Forget paraphrasing. By way of example, here’s what one commenter actually wrote: “To the darling precious snowflakes who melt into a shimmering puddle when they see chalk drawings they don’t approve of — do you EVER hope to get a job?? You understand that ALL workplaces (even university labs) are filled with a variety of people some of whom may have different perspectives and even different values than you.” Four other commenters nodded in agreement with a “like.”
Though the chalk writings were expressing a “perspective” that’s (thankfully) “different” than that of many, that’s only the beginning of the discussion we need to be having. At a university where respect, civility and equality are supposed to be at the core, we cannot tolerate a “different perspective” that’s grounded in ignorance and hatred of people because of their religion. This is a “perspective” that exposes Muslims to the risk of physical harm and hurts them in other ways that are just as real and equally as offensive.
It doesn’t matter whether the inflammatory words were written in chalk on the Diag or burned into the side of Angell Hall with a blowtorch. They must be understood as a virulent attack on our community’s obligation to be more inclusive. To dismiss the statements as harmless, let alone to defend them as protected by concepts of “free speech,” aids those who would divide the University community. These words cannot go unchallenged.
If, instead of the anti-Islam statements, there had been swastikas, I strongly doubt that so many of the comments on the Daily’s article would’ve told offended Jews to “cry me a river.” That’s because generally, we understand and reject anti-Semitic remarks as harmful hate speech that alienates an entire population. In most quarters, malicious Jewish conspiracy theories aren’t accepted as merely expressing a “different perspective,” and Jewish slurs aren’t excused as simply an exercise of “free speech.” In this regard, Islamophobia is no different than anti-Semitism.
To be sure, freedom of speech should be broadly defined, particularly in an academic setting, where open expression of different ideologies, thoughts, beliefs, analyses, viewpoints — you name it — is essential to generating meaningful discussion of important but difficult issues. But the motivation behind the speech matters, and to pretend that the words on the Diag were inspired by anything other than hatred and bigotry is absurd. That doesn’t mean that those words can’t be uttered or written, even in the way they were. It just means that the statements, and whoever wrote them, deserve nothing more than to be swiftly condemned by both the administration and our community as a whole. It’s that simple.
Anne Katz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.