Peter Minowitz is a professor in political science at Santa Clara University and an emerging issues fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are his own.
Six weeks ago, my friend Brian Buckley (Philosophy) posted a Markkula essay that poignantly defends and elaborates President Engh’s 1/30/18 email memo denouncing the “NO Means NO” flier that was briefly posted in Benson and the library. (To examine the flier, consult the Anti-Defamation League’s 1/30/18 critique.)
Among other things, Professor Buckley illuminates “recognition” issues by explaining how the flier might traumatize an undocumented student, and he summons us to seek respectful ways of debating contentious issues. President Engh also spoke out forcefully against the flier, emphasizing that SCU cherishes students irrespective of their immigration status—and that we unequivocally condemn sexual assault.
I am writing to suggest that, in condemning the flier, the president and others have sometimes generated more heat than light.
The President's Campus-Wide Memo
I would never display such a flier, I am relieved that it was rapidly removed, and I embrace several of President Engh’s complaints, e.g., that the flier is “deliberately” offensive. I must dispute, however, his claim that the flier is “xenophobic and sexist.”
Why do I fault the “xenophobic” label? The flier conveys nothing that demeans foreigners, it neither depicts nor references any immigrants, and it focuses on border control (to complement “NO means NO,” the flier adds “#MyBordersMyChoice”). In addition, it neither states nor implies anything about how immigrants or visitors should be treated; it does not suggest, for example, that undocumented immigrants should be arrested, deported, or mistreated in any way. Nor does it supply considerations that could be marshaled against people who think the U.S. should be admitting far greater numbers of legal immigrants, including refugees.
The flier neither depicts nor names Mexico, though it highlights our southern border (as conveyed by the ADL posting, the versions displayed in European countries likewise feature a hand reaching from below). We must recognize that over a third of our undocumented residents entered lawfully but later overstayed their visas. We must also recognize, however, that the vast majority of the people who entered illegally did not cross the Canada-U.S. border.
Condemning the flier as sexist is still more problematic than condemning it as xenophobic. Nothing in it objectifies women, nothing implies that they are in any way inferior to men, and nothing promotes policies that would worsen their collective prospects. It does convey an analogy between a nation’s control over its borders and a woman’s control over her body. Is it “sexist,” however, to suggest such a parallel? If so, we should probably refrain from speaking about “the body politic.”
I sympathize with complaints that the flier disrespectfully appropriates #MeToo slogans, but I think President Engh erred in asserting that the flier was “flippantly mocking the serious issue of sexual harassment.” The flier was intended to accentuate worries about border violations, not to belittle worries about sexual violations.
SCU itself has firm rules about things that are analogous to borders. For example, unenrolled students are prohibited from auditing a class, and even Broncos are barred from sitting in “without formally enrolling.” The provost informed us in a 1/25/18 memo (“Call for Civil Discourse”), indeed, that the Office of Student Life was conducting an investigation because the fliers, which had been “quickly removed” by Campus Safety officers, violated our Posting Policy. If it is determined that SCU students did the posting, they will presumably be disciplined for having conducted an “undocumented” posting. And if the perpetrators are outsiders, perhaps they will be prosecuted for trespassing.
SCU students have denounced the flier even more harshly than did President Engh.
I admire the substantive criticisms that key student leaders—representing the Multicultural Center, Associated Student Government, and SCCAP—made in their 1/24/18 campus-wide memo (this memo was published the next day in The Santa Clara). I too would condemn any attempt to imply that undocumented immigrants are raping the U.S., and I agree that the flier conveys “multiple levels of offense” (e.g., regarding the “indigenous peoples upon whose stolen land we continue to stand”). I am offended, however, by aspects of the memo’s framing, especially its denunciation of “the systems of oppression by which these and other acts continue to be possible, and rampant, within our society.”
How could the mere fact that someone posted two copies of an 8X11 flier demonstrate “systems of oppression”? A companion TSC op-ed adds these implausible criticisms of whoever “created and circulated” the flier: this individual “does not understand what it is to be a woman,” “clearly [has] no compassion,” and expresses a “sentiment” that “only seeks to inflict fear on our immigrants.”
If we are persuaded by these TSC pieces, wouldn’t SCU be tempted to create an intrusive “system of oppression” so that it would no longer be “possible” for anyone to display (or even create) such a flier? Perhaps our university should be more proactive in motivating all of us to respond, without excoriating and stereotyping, to political jabs that fall well short of “hate speech” or “fighting words.” Fliers, cartoons, slogans, and other types of shorthand communication about political controversies routinely cut corners—and offend multiple constituencies.
Constraining Our Students
President Engh asserted that the flier did not “allow for the expression of differences of viewpoints and beliefs.” The flier, however, did not prohibit anyone from saying anything, or remove any arguments from consideration. The flier’s “expression . . . of viewpoints,” by contrast, was rapidly terminated, and the responses I am protesting imply that a wide range of expressions should be banned.
Professor Buckley skillfully invited us to consider how the flier might traumatize a hypothetical undocumented student (“Maria”). This Maria, of course, is surrounded by professors who identify themselves as “allies” of undocumented students and employees, in a region that trumpets its “sanctuary” commitments. We should also consider, moreover, how various students—e.g., TPUSA members and anti-Trump Republicans, not to mention Trump supporters—might infer from the recent furor that they are not “welcome” here, that they lack a “place” at the SCU “table” (I am quoting from Buckley’s essay).
It is possible that the flier was posted on campus by a female Bronco. If so, she has been accused of doing something “xenophobic and sexist”—and of “flippantly mocking” worries about sexual harassment—by our president in a memo he sent to the entire campus community. As relayed above, furthermore, harshly personal denunciations were also published in the student newspaper: that she “does not understand what it is to be a woman,” that she “clearly [has] no compassion,” and that her motive was to frighten immigrants.
Several students have complained that my classroom references to President Trump are noticeably negative, and the complainers may feel that they are regularly insulted, marginalized, excluded, or even oppressed, by the manner in which SCU defines and promotes “social justice.” As a community dedicated to investigation and education, we must be wary of responding with hyperbole and repression to viewpoints that are merely offensive.