On the night of April 8th, after a petition begun by Law student Rachel Jankowski protesting the cancellation of an American Sniper screening garnered more than 500 signatures, the Center for Campus Involvement reversed its original decision and stated that it will be showing the film in conjunction with Paddington for those who wanted an alternative option. One would expect that this would suffice both viewpoints. But the newest instalment to the story is from a viewpoint in The Michigan Daily titled A collective response on the screening of ‘American Sniper’ where students from SAFE, MSA, and a cohort of leftist groups claim the University’s decision “demonstrates a complete disregard and shocking lack of concern for marginalized students and the University’s obligation to ensure their safety on this campus.” The question needs to be asked: When is it acceptable to challenge the arguments of a minority group without being accused of marginalization?
When the University saw that a dispute was brewing on campus, it looked at both arguments and attempted to appease both sides. The showing of two movies is a direct point against claims of “disregard” and shows an understanding of how both sides of the argument felt. This was not enough for some. The article states, “It was clearly outlined in an open letter by self-identified Muslim and/or Middle Eastern and North African students and allies that the film is nowhere near entertaining and, in fact, ennobles the dehumanization and systematic racism against the aforementioned communities.” While it certainly may be true some students would not find the movie entertaining, it can be said that no movie carries unanimous approval. The fact is, there are students who wanted to see the movie and likely had made plans to watch it on Friday. Are we to ignore their wishes? The claims about “dehumanization” and “systematic racism” are none other than opinions from those who have seen the movie (or so I would hope). Surely the right course of action is to allow those who have not seen the movie to generate their own opinions. A University should be a place to form and change opinions, a sentiment stated in the counter petition to have the movie shown.
My greatest concerns about turning arguments into a matter of minority versus majority is spelled out by my detractors in their Daily viewpoint: “Instead, the University’s response has protected free speech in a manner that silences voices that do not comply with the dominant narrative surrounding these issues, by actually fostering a poisonously fearful environment for the free expression of Muslim and/or MENA students.” Arguments like these are counterproductive. They shift attention away from the content and merit of claims for and against issues to a matter of oppression and marginalization. My understanding of oppression is that the views and opinions of minority groups are discredited for their minority status. This is not what happened. Students listened to the statements made on both sides and challenged their validity based on the argument itself, not those who posed them. Ultimately the University listened to both sides. Nobody was silenced. In fact, voices were raised and an important discussion on freedom of expression and the importance of dialogue on campus is currently taking place.
So when is it acceptable to question the arguments of a minority group without being labeled an oppressor?
I do not think it has been clearly defined by student on campus, whether minority or majority. What I can say is there is a very real fear of being labeled as an oppressor, as a privileged silencer, and this culture of fear can lead to a repression of dialogue on campus. It is about time that minorities can no longer play with impunity the ‘hurt feelings’ card. Honest and unfettered dialogue must prevail.
Jason Weaver can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.