Here at Olin, we intentionally and deliberately teach students how to express their ideas. Every first year takes one writing course and two courses with design reviews to showcase and justify their progress. We give students lots of venues for presentations, public whiteboards to gauge public interest, and well, there’s also this piece of paper that you’re reading.
A few weeks ago, as part of a project for Six Books That Changed The World, Logan Davis put up three presentation boards around campus, each bearing seven black and white posters. The posters carried political statements like “Neo-Nazis Have Bad Ideas,” “The Press Should Be Free,” “Government Can Be Inefficient,” and “Islam Is Not Terrorism.”
“What was the goal of this?” you might ask.
According to Logan, he wanted to push a button. More specifically, his goal was a weeklong experiment that, on its surface, was very political. But if you stopped for a second and thought about the words that you were reading, the statements could suddenly be read as rather banal.
But even though we know that government can be inefficient, and that Islam is not terrorism, and that literally everyone has bad ideas, a number of community members were made very uncomfortable by the statements..
The first morning of the project, the three poster boards vanished after the administration requested their removal to clean up for a tour group. Later that afternoon (and following a hunt for who and why and how to get them back), the boards were back up.
Phase 1 of the project, Listening, was off to a roaring start.
Despite the fact that no one uses QR codes (Logan’s chosen method for contact), he was able to receive feedback through both his coded form and the Therapy mailing list. Logan said that he, “was trying to put these things out in a very public way and see what people did… and people did interesting things.”
Complaints about the project ranged from the statements being too inflammatory to not being creative enough. Granted, some of the statements were solicited from other sources, such as “self-identifying conservative / right of center” Oliners: Logan says that “Everyone Has A Right To Life”, “Government Can Be Inefficient”, “Corruption Is Not Good”, “Reporters Have Responsibilities”, and “People Needed Coal Jobs” were inspired by conversations with such students.
None of these statements, not the right nor left nor the center-leaning ones, were meant to be attacks. “If any of them were attacks [on an Oliner’s identity], I kind of failed. I didn’t want them to be controversial.”
Regardless of whether or not they felt attacked, Oliners gave feedback, and those that chose to do it anonymously allowed Phase 2 to happen. Logan took a thick red marker and scrawled the anonymous comments about each statement over its respective poster.
Many of us saw this artist-executed graffiti. Many of us stopped to notice what had changed about the posters that had been in our peripheral vision for the past week. How many of us thought about the vitriol behind the red words? And how many of us would have spoken up for or against these statements if they had been said to our faces?
To round off his project for Six Books That Changed The World, here are Logan’s Six Mechanisms of Silence:
- Obfuscation and Administration – there is no formal process for putting up signs like this, but the activation energy required to first ask a professor and then go through facilities and StAR and then go find the means of actually displaying posters is a wild goose chase that acts as a rather powerful deterrent.
- Literal Physical Removal by the Administration – signs getting taken down from public space, presumably or explicitly by the administration.
- Literal Physical Removal by Students – signs getting taken down from student spaces, presumably by students.
- Anonymous Directed Feedback – e.g. emails and feedback forms that went to Logan. It’s not a dialogue/conversation if your target can’t respond. It’s bullying.
- Anonymous Public Feedback – e.g. the Therapy email thread, because people want to speak their minds but they don’t want to be judged by others for what they say.
- The Myth of Olin – the myth being that Olin is apolitical. We don’t show politics on tours. Our students don’t talk about politics, for fear of ostracism and for fear of being the ostracizers. “Being apolitical is just an endorsement of the way things are.”.
So why do we have such an aversion to putting our names on our opinions? And do we actually want silence, or to make it safe for our voices while drowning other opinions out?